Jean-Francois Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as “Incredulity towards metanarratives” (Barry 86). In Franz Kafka’s tale “The Metamorphosis”, the reader becomes not only skeptical of metanarratives, but ultimately unsure of their existence, as identities shift and the real seems to disappear. “The Metamorphosis” acts as a postmodern text in its use of allusion, its lack of explanatory fictions, and its missing connection to the real.
Peter Barry states that postmodernists “foreground ‘intertextual elements’ in literature, such as parody, pastiche and allusion, in all of which there is a major degree of reference between one text and another, rather than between the text and a safely external reality” (Beginning Theory 91). Kafka’s allusions to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs emphasize intertextual realities rather than the reality of the world around the Samsa family. The constant parallels between “The Metamorphosis” and Venus in Furs and the absence of any reference to the reality of the text illustrate the postmodern shift to what Baudrillard deemed “the loss of the real” (Barry 87).
In Sacher-Masoch’s tale the main character, Severin, willingly becomes the slave of Wanda von Dunajew, who rebaptizes her servant with the name “Gregor”. Severin is repeatedly compared to Samson at the hands of his mistress, alluding to his ultimate identity as Gregor/Samson- nearly identical to the name of the protagonist of Kafka’s story, Gregor Samsa. Kafka describes only one decoration on the wall of Gregor’s “regular human bedroom”; a magazine illustration that “showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished!” (Metamorphosis 19). This picture corresponds directly to the painting in which the narrator of Sacher-Masoch’s story first sees Severin and Wanda, the “Venus in Furs”; “A beautiful woman …was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog” (Sacher-Masoch 9).
As seen above, Severin and Wanda are both repeatedly characterized as animals; she a “cat”, “bear”, and “tigress” while he becomes a “donkey”, “dog”, and “worm”. Kafka’s introduction of the picture in the second paragraph of the story, immediately after Gregor’s transformation into a vermin, reflects the masochistic relationship between Severin and Wanda which transfigured them into “animals”. Gregor’s realization of his radical change also echoes Severin’s metamorphosis. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (Kafka 19). His uneasy dreams bear obvious resemblance to certain dreams in Venus in Furs. After Severin is whipped by Wanda for the first time, and therefore has been transformed into an animal for a first time, he writes that “After having spent a feverish night filled with confused dreams, I awoke…My dream had become truth” (Sacher-Masoch 41).
The importance of this intertextual link is perhaps most evident when Gregor must choose what to save as his sister and mother clear his bedroom, “taking away everything he loved” (Kafka 59). He crawls onto the glass of the picture, thinking “This picture at least… was going to be removed by nobody” (Kafka 60). Of all of the ties to his former life, and his human nature, he chooses to cling to the woman in furs. However, while Venus in Furs appears to be the key to understanding “The Metamorphosis”, soon after this incident all mentions of the picture disappear, and the reader is left with an untied thread of signification. The lack of resolution, and more importantly the total absence of any search for the cause of Gregor’s situation, display the attitudes of the postmodernist who finds “fragmentation an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief” (Barry 84). Kafka’s story is inherently postmodern in his lack of any real accessible truth or explanation; there will be no lifting of the veil for Gregor Samsa’s husk of a corpse.
Postmodern works represent not a new style of writing, but rather a mixing of literary genres, and a shift from what Baudrillard referred to as a “past era of ‘fullness’, when a sign was a surface indication of an underlying reality” to a stage in which the sign “bears no resemblance to any reality at all” (Barry 87-88). “The Metamorphosis” is an excellent example of the mixing of not the invention of a new literary form, but the compilation of preexisting texts and forms. Venus in Furs exists within “The Metamorphosis” as a cipher which is clearly saturated with significance but, because its origin is obscured, problematic to interpret.
Frederic Jameson writes of historicity in his book Postmodernism, defining it as “a perception of the present as history; that is, as a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance from immediacy which is at length characterized as a historical perspective” (284). For Gregor Samsa, his present situation necessitates an engagement of historicity. His complete alienation causes his mind to detach itself from its immediate circumstances; “Gregor realized that the lack of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing.
Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background?” (Kafka 57). Gregor longs for the warmth of his old bedroom/life, conveniently repressing thoughts of how miserable his life in that room had been.
Jameson’s theory of nostalgia for the present, excepting its emphasis on film and television which were not mass cultural signifiers during the Samsas lives, applies unequivocally to Gregor’s condition. In his vermin form, Gregor would often climb the armchair and lean against the windowpanes, “obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out a window used to give him” (Kafka 51).
He neglects to recognize the fact that in his new body, he actually possesses more freedom than he did as a human. As man, Gregor was so interpellated into his job and the financial burden of caring for his family that it would have been unthinkable for him to have quit and lived his life the way he wanted. As beast, Gregor is freed from all responsibilities, financial and otherwise; yet he fails to recognize these benefits when caught up in altered nostalgia. He rejects reality in favor for its representation.
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, while written in modernity, can clearly serves as a postmodern text. Gregor Samsa operates distinctly within Jameson’s theory of nostalgia for the present, despite the horror of his life both before and after his transformation. Kafka’s writing exhibits a high degree of intertextual allusions, emphasizing the loss of the real and the shift towards rejection of metanarratives. However, the references to Venus in Furs in “The Metamorphosis” operate only as signs which potentially fail to explain any reality. In accepting Gregor’s metamorphosis, the reader ultimately accepts the postmodern conclusion; that the real has been lost, never to be found.