Humanising the Character: A Study of “The Metamorphosis”

Book Reviews, Short Story Reviews


For purposes of this review, page numbers refer to the placement of text according to this copy of The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka.

With the previous review, I looked at how P.G Wodehouse delivered social critique through his novel Something New. A short short by Franz Kafka is my focus for this review on how literature can influence and be incorporated into writing—making better writers through reading.

I will look at Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis—heralded as his masterpiece. The story does not disappoint. In the short story, there are many valuable take-aways for writers: building suspense, keeping the reader’s fascination, and characterisation to name a few. But for this review, I will look at the most prominent aspect of The Metamorphosis—how to humanise the character.

Kafka employs various characterisations—what makes a character real—for his main character, Gregor Samsa. Among others, the characterisation includes the development of his relationship with his family, his changing attitude toward life and lifestyle, and Gregor’s submission to the situation he’s in. The most alluring and important characterisation employed is that of humanising Gregor, who is no longer human.

The Character

Gregor Samsa is an ex-military traveling salesman who has taken it upon himself to support his family—himself, his sister, and their mother and father. He worked long hours, often abroad and away from home for months at a time, to increase his income and thus the status of his family and their lifestyle.

This was, of course, before the story begins with him awakening to discover that during the night he has been transformed into a creature likened to a beetle.

Not only is humanising the character an important aspect of the story for the sake of the reader, but an important aspect for the character Gregor himself. Throughout the story, we’re reminded of how dearly Gregor holds onto his past human-self and the slow slipping of it as he tries to come to terms with what has happened to him—his metamorphosis.

More notably, the reminders of how important the humanity is to Gregor are shown in pages 134-135, and again prominently on page 141.

He had indeed been so near the brink of forgetfulness that only the voice of his mother, which he had not heard for so long, had drawn him back from it. Nothing should be taken out of his room; everything must stay as it was; he could not dispense with the good influence of the furniture on his state of mind… ~Page 141

The Family

In contrast with the humanity Gregor holds onto, his family no longer acknowledges nor contemplates the existence of the humanity still within Gregor. This perception is evident in many parts of the story, including within the following quote:

His sister no longer took thought to bring him what might especially please him, but in the morning and at noon before she went to business hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot any food that was available, and in the evening cleared it out again with one sweep of the broom, heedless of whether it had been merely tasted… ~Page 150

Though this perception is blatantly crude, it is one acquired through the months of hardship Gregor’s family endure emotionally and financially as a result of his metamorphosis. Prior to this event, his sister, Grete, was hospitable and hopeful of some retained humanity within Gregor or a chance that he may revert to his human-self.

… she had in fact perceived that Gregor needed a lot of space to crawl about in, while on the other hand he never used the furniture at all, so far as could be seen… ~Page 142

While this quote of the narrative does show Grete’s consideration for Gregor’s humanity, it also alludes to her thinking of him as the creature instead—much in the way a person would show consideration for a pet. The humanising of character falls onto Gregor’s reception of Grete’s perceived kindness, where he remarks on the importance of the furniture in keeping his human-self grounded and alive, as quoted from Page 141 above.

Humanising

Kafka shows the humanising of Gregor’s character all through the short story, placing emphasis in certain parts—such as that on page 141. Using the Deep Point-Of-View device of third-person limited perspective, Kafka constantly reminds the reader of Gregor’s humanity through internal thoughts and perceptions.

Along with the thoughts, emotions ground the reader into believing that Gregor is a human being, with only the slightest of reminders that Gregor is actually now a creature when Kafka mentions Gregor’s legs and later placing more focus on the apple his father threw at him and has thus burrowed into Gregor’s soft-shelled back.

Conclusions

In Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, the author shows how to place characterisation onto non-human characters and the importance for the reader in doing so. Humanising the character provides grounds for the reader to relate to the character. This characterisation serves to suspend belief, which is particularly important within works of fiction.


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Deciphering the Message: A Look at P.G Wodehouse’s Something New

Book Reviews, Literature Studies


For purposes of this article, the page numbers referenced correspond with those of the ePub (without images) obtained from Project Gutenberg’s library.

Within many works of literature, social critique is prominently on display under the medium of storytelling. P.G Wodehouse’s Something New is one such work and the focus of this review. Through analysing the book, I take a look at how the critique is implemented into the narrative and delivered in a manner that did not detract from the story itself—lending an added emphasis to the events of the plot that occurred.

For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.
~Marshall McLuhan “The Medium is the Message”, 1967

In the case of Something New, the medium is literature, as conveyed through comedy—in the form of satire. This medium focuses on the message of critique of the socio-economic status of the early 20th Century across two countries: the United States of America and the United Kingdom. It delivers the critique through perspectives of the upper, middle, and lower classes.

For this review, I focus on the views each class had in regard to the others. This focus also looks at their perspective toward the current state of socio-economic status, life, and the world. I consider this perspective and the critique Wodehouse delivered in the book by showing the views of each class toward the others as well as the views on women at that time (in the 1910s when the book was written).

Regard to Life

Throughout the book, the reader is exposed to various perspectives concerning the Other, and these views show a clear distinction of socio-economic classes—the distinction being prominent in the USA and UK during the 1910s and continuing through both World Wars as a strong remnant of the Industrial Revolution.

Upper Class–Earl of Emsworth

He was as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be… He was possibly as nearly contented as a human being could be in this century of alarms and excursions. ~Page 26

Despite the average man he seems to see himself as—ignoring any privilege that afforded him this view—Lord Emsworth thinks himself as humbled by his content life. He struggles to fathom the need for the worry he acknowledges the rest of the world has. From his perspective, life is an unnecessarily worrying world and he considers himself spared from trivial matters and disappointment—spared from the rat race of the rest of the population.

It is possible that, lacking the initiative to make his way down the long aisle and find a table for himself, he [Lord Emsworth] might have stood there indefinitely, but for the restless activity of Adams, the head steward. It was Adams’ mission in life to flit to and fro, hauling would-be lunchers to their destinations. ~Page 21

Wodehouse spares no subtlety in critique on the upper class throughout Something New, showing their disregard for the life of the Other. The perspectives of the Honourable Freddie (Lord Emsworth’s younger son) and Mr. Peters (prospective father-in-law to the Earl’s younger son, Freddie) are of a similar nature.

Middle Class–Ashe Marson

The Wanted column of the morning paper is a sort of dredger, which churns up strange creatures from the mud of London’s underworld. Only in response to the dredger’s operations do they come to the surface in such numbers as to be noticeable, for as a rule they are of a solitary habit and shun company; but when they do come they bring with them something of the horror of the depths. ~Page 56

Ashe Marson views the lower class as creatures that reside in the shadows and metaphoric sewers of London. He sees himself as above them. Marson shows some form of sympathy toward the lower classes, but only to distinguish himself from them. Through his apparent sympathy he sees them not as people, but as entities unlike himself and those of his status.

In English trains the tipping classes travel first; valets, lady’s maids, footmen, nurses, and head stillroom maids, second; and housemaids, grooms, and minor and inferior stillroom maids, third. But for these social distinctions, the whole fabric of society would collapse and anarchy stalk naked through the land. ~Page 65

Later in the story, Ashe Marson ignores the existence of the lowest of the lower class and the plights of those in poverty. He also regards himself as among the members of the lower class, while maintaining a distinction between himself and those of lower socio-economic status. This distinction is a separation of the Self from the Other.

This disdained and disassociated view of the lower class is continued through the perspective of Joan Valentine, while also displaying her view of the upper class activities as trivial and materialistic.

Lower Class–Mr. Adams

Unlike the other characters mentioned, Mr. Adams only features in one scene in the book. This scene, while establishing Lord Emsworth’s character and setting up his present frame of mind, focuses on the character of Adams. His appearance in the story is restricted, not developing further like the other characters. Adams’s inclusion in the story is a means through which Wodehouse displays the order of society to further critique the classes and their perspectives.

You would never have thought it, to look at him when engaged in his professional duties, but Adams had built up a substantial reputation as a humorist in his circle by his imitations of certain members of the club… The Earl of Emsworth ambled benevolently to the door, leaving Adams with the feeling that his day had been well-spent. He gazed almost with reverence after the slow-moving figure.

“What a nut!” said Adams to his immortal soul. ~Pages 23-26

Mr. Adams takes to mockery of the members of the upper class—his position as steward at a club for the senior members of the class affording him the material with which to indulge in the mockery. His mockery is a means of entertaining himself and those around him. In regard to the upper class life, Adams displays contempt and disassociation from himself—and those who share his status—for the members of a higher status.

Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervor. Mr. Simmonds eating, was one of his best imitations… To be privileged to witness Lord Emsworth watching and criticizing Mr. Simmonds was to collect material for a double-barreled character study that would assuredly make the hit of the evening. ~Page 23

All through Something New, this mockery of the upper and middle classes is presented through the perspectives of the characters situated in the lower class, particularly among the servants of the upper class.

Observations

Wodehouse alludes to several forms of critique of social issues, ranging from sensitive topics to the more commonplace daily life troubles. Through these comments, he shows the differences and similarities of views and habits across socio-economic status.

After looking at the critique of the classes, I explore two other observations in the book and consider the medium of this delivery and the effect the manner of the deliver has on the message of the book.

Sexism

Sexism and the oppression of women in the socio-economic classes remain a prominent issue, though less obvious with class distinction today than in the early 20th Century. Throughout Something New, Wodehouse presents the reader with blatant sexism through dialogue of his characters, representing views of people in that time to deliver his critique on oppression. This is especially noteworthy as the book was written in a time when women’s rights were being fought for on a large scale.

Without quoting a significant portion of the book, I narrow the argument to two quotes that best display the sexism Wodehouse perceived and criticised.

“You are much too real a person. What a wife you will make for a hard-working man… I shall be fagged, disheartened. And then you will come with your cool, white hands and, placing them gently on my forehead…” ~Page 37-38

This is a narrative by George Emerson, a middle class lawyer, to Aline Peters during his attempts to court her. The dialogue highlights the views of men concerning women and their idea of a woman’s role and purpose in life as that of servitude to the male portion of society. Wodehouse further remarks on this through Aline’s thoughts on George’s attitude and again on a general critique of the “superman” mentality of young men, which can be seen in the following quote.

… he tells me it is perfectly infernal the way these women carry on. He said sometimes it got to such a pitch, with them waving banners and presenting petitions, and throwing flour and things at a fellow… ~Page 151

The quote above is a recollection of a conversation from Lord Emsworth with another of the upper class about the movement toward establishing voting rights for women. The disdain of the thought that women would be able to vote was shared by Lord Emsworth. In using this narrative, Wodehouse comments on the inconsideration of the Other—in this case being women—through the lack of acknowledgement toward the struggles women endure within society.

The Medium

Something New, as the book is named in its first publishing, delivers critique through the text using the medium of humour to mask it. This medium allows the reader to absorb the critique—the message—without triggering a defence mechanism that may lay dormant and waiting to protect a person’s worldview. Wodehouse executes this mission with intentional precision in his writing.

Expanding on the critique through humour, Wodehouse’s title bears a greater impact within the body of the work. The plot in Something New circles along the trivial pursuits of the characters, which brings them together for the climax of the story. In the pursuit of wanting something new, something fresh, the characters engage in unspoken rivalries, social form, and competition to achieve their desires. When the story comes to a resolution, the characters settle into the stagnation and repetition of life, but with less contempt for the ordinary that seemed to plague them before.

This contradiction with the title is further emphasised through the recurrence of the title within the narrative, providing a subtle reminder to the reader of the goal of the characters and the pursuit of it as the plot progresses.

The title Something New appears on pages 10 and 11 with the discussion between Ashe Marson and Joan Valentine about the mundanes of life. The conversation is mentioned again on page 62 at the climax of the story when the former desire for something new has come to realisation. On page 42, where the title appears again, Lord Emsworth discovers in his pocket the object that is the main drive of the plot and the events within. This appearance serves further to highlight both the character’s present condition and the otherwise dull happenings of his daily life.

In the course of the plot, and through the events that occur to the characters, something new is presented that changes their situation at that moment. And yet, what appears to be change isn’t anything new after all.

Conclusion

P.G Wodehouse utilises the medium of humour as a means to deliver the message to introduce awareness of issues within society. While the topics within Something New are still an issue today, the division between upper and lower classes was far more distinctive in the book, and the burden of both classes rested upon the middle class. By ignoring the upper class and placing more strain on the lower, the class gap is driven further apart.

As shown through Wodehouse’s delivery, social critique is best delivered subtly in the medium. The subtle delivery puts less focus on the message and, instead, uses the medium to carry the message through the work. This method allows the reader to think about the issues without forcing them to have an immediate opinion that would cause them to become defensive and potentially block out the message.


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South Africa: Science Fiction in Conquest

Articles

As mentioned in Strange Horizons magazine: 100 African Writers of SFF: Part Six


This beautiful country of South Africa has seen much in the way of disaster1, 2 and atrocities3, 4. It is a nation of colour, vivid and diverse, but tainted with the blotches of our history5. Healing is a slow process, hindered by the fear of change and acceptance, and we as South Africans constantly seek mediums through which we can express our discontent in the crippling social matters of the past that yet bleeds through to our present after decades of democracy.

One medium speaks out, its voice growing louder the longer society stifles. Still, in its infancy, science fiction (and speculative fiction in general) struggles to make its voice heard. That is changing. We have seen the reemergence of the genre over the last decade and a burst of interest hitting the public in the recent five years. And why shouldn’t it be a major genre? Science fiction, the genre of inspiration and of warning, allows for the critique of social issues and current events within possibilities and solutions. Through it we can escape, not to a utopian fantasy realm, but to hope, understanding, and reason.

It starts, again, in 2009 with the release of District 9. Neill Blomkamp’s alien film hit the world with a fury which glimpses at the rage from South Africa’s Apartheid era. Packed with not only action but blunt, loud social critique on racism and discrimination, it was a pioneer in New South African science fiction. The success and sentiment are followed shortly by Lauren Beukes in 2011 when she won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction with her novel Zoo City. From then we started to see a rise of science fiction literature in South Africa.

Over the following five years, several sci-fi authors emerged from the dark, screaming their message through their works. From racism, sexism, and transgender rights, South African science fiction fights for equality and liberty. It pleads and threatens for a society free from persecution, injustice, and discrimination. A voice in the crowd deaf to any genre outside of the dictated . We cannot change the world with our words, but we can change their hearts.

The Authors of Our Future

We South Africans have so much to say, so much to warn about. We see the future of society. We remark on current events, directly and indirectly influencing social discourse. We look to the past and speculate on its future outlook. We are South Africans; rich in story, rich in wisdom, rich in change. At least that is what we wish to accomplish. Through literature, we step closer to reform.

AfroSF is a science fiction anthology of authors across the African continent, catering to speculative fiction as well. It was established in 2012 with the release of the first volume featuring Nnedi Okorafor, S.A. Partridge, Chinelo Onwualu, Nick Wood, Tade Thompson, Cristy Zinn, Ashley Jacobs, Sarah Lotz, and Tendai Huchu. Edited by Ivor W. Hartmann, AfroSF helped break in South African science fiction to the world, followed by the second volume, AfroSF v2 in 2015.

Another major player is the Science-Fiction and Fantasy South Africa club. Established in 1969, it has been a contribution of great influence and to sci-fi authors in SA. SFFSA holds an annual short story competition for SA writers, called the Nova Short Story Competition. Winners of which have their stories published in their long-standing magazine, Probe; a great source of SA sci-fi.

South African science fiction is not quite like any other, involving elements of African technology and medicine, fears and superstitions different from the more widely known Western elements. As such, science fiction in SA often veers into other genres of the speculative fiction range. Our plausible covers a wider spectrum.

South African science fiction veers into other speculative genres; our plausible covers a wider spectrum.

What is African Science Fiction?

Science fiction as a genre is commonly defined as:

  • “…fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.”6
  • “…an imagined future, especially about space travel or other planets.”7
  • “…a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.”8

While most of the aspects are relevant to and feature in African science fiction, the standards are lacking and exclusive of the various cultures in Africa and how they influence African technology and society. In sum, science fiction is plausibility within a speculative format.

African sci-fi, however, has a broader sense of what is plausible, often blurring the line between science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that the plausible rests within reality (I.e chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc) but reality comprises psychology, sociology, politics, and philosophy as well, all of which are equally fundamental elements in sci-fi. For many South Africans, the tokoloshe is as much a part of reality as gravity is. Whether or not the creature exists according to physical science is up for debate, but within the social sciences, its existence can be seen much in the same way as we observe dark matter: through its interaction with the observable.

For the instances as above, African science fiction has been broadly classified as speculative fiction; the encompassing genre that includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The world is yet to recognize African sci-fi within its ranks of hard or soft (social) science fiction, without the inclusion of sub-genres such as cyberpunk or biopunk as quasi-scientific explanations of the elements considered as fantasy within African fiction.

Because sci-fi, in general, is already difficult to define, African sci-fi struggles to have its voice heard or regarded as “real” science fiction. Among other countries throughout the continent, South African science fiction helps to illuminate the importance of African sci-fi as an aspect of the genre, through fiction markets both local and abroad.

Publications

There is more, another side of the literary tale: the worlds of literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. AfroSF and Probe were mentioned as contributors to SA sci-fi but they are not the only gateways for local emerging and established authors.

AfroSF is an anthology by StoryTime: African Publisher, formed in 2007 to combat the lack of African literary magazines. Another anthology they produced was African Roar, from 2010 to 2014. StoryTime continued in a weekly fiction magazine of the same name.

Probe, the magazine by the Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa club, being the more established and prolific, has been able to adapt the change of times and technology, releasing their magazine in digital format since 2006.

Something Wicked Magazine, established in 2006 (ending in 2012), curated pieces of science fiction and horror short stories from authors across the globe. It was one of the markets for South African speculative fiction and the entry gate for several local authors.

FIYAH Literary Magazine is a new initiative aimed at promoting African speculative fiction, giving a voice to people of colour in and from Africa. Founded in 2016 and based on FIRE!! Magazine, FIYAH has released a few issues and are working on many more.

Omenana, launched in 2014 with their first issue, is a thriving literary magazine for African authors of speculative fiction in a paying market. With nine issues already published, Omenana opens doors for more sci-fi from South Africa and the entire continent.

Chimurenga is a Pan-African journal of the creative arts platform, promoting the arts in various themed issues since the journal’s first publication in 2002. From comics to non-fiction, to literary and genre fiction pieces and poetry, the magazine has published several South Africans and their science fiction along with many large African authors.

JungleJim Fiction was a colourful literary magazine for African speculative fiction. From the release of their first issue in 2013, they have published another twenty-five by 2016, opening the door to local sci-fi authors.

Short Story Day Africa features an anthology of short stories from across the continent, allowing the voices of Africa to tell their tales and opening the door for science fiction and other speculative genres. The non-profit organisation launched its first prize competition in 2013. They have released several anthologies since, featuring South African sci-fi.

PEN South Africa, the local branch of Pen International, while not dedicated to speculative fiction, has published South African science fiction pieces in anthologies comprised from submitted pieces to their literary prizes. The organisation also encourages local talent and authors.

And The Authors?

For a (near) complete list of published South African authors with literature in science fiction, see here. By near, I mean that I may have missed someone. A list of local authors of short and stories published in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies across the world from the last decade with the reemergence of sci-fi in South Africa, can also be found in the above link.


With much appreciation and thanks to the African Speculative Fiction Society for their list of African authors.


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