The Problem of Evil in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” Essay
Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” both reflect the problem of evil in Europe during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The profound effects of the Industrial Revolution on the identity and fate of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis lend themselves to similarities and differences with the effects of Nihilism and Pessimism on the views and transformation of the narrator in “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.” These are the two evils that make up the theme of both literary works. This paper will deal not only with the similarities and differences of both The Metamorphosis and “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” in terms of the problem of evil but also with how the destructive, annihilating and transforming force present in these works parallels the human situation.
The Presence of a Destructive Transforming Force in Both Works
In both literary works, there is a seemingly destructive and life-changing yet invisible force that somehow transforms the main characters into something which they are not. Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis “[finds] himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka 3), which is a negative transformation resulting from a destructive life heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, the Narrator in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” changed into a ridiculous person or rather began thinking of himself as such since “everyone always laughed at [him]” (Dostoevsky), which is an equally negative transformation that gradually developed into Nihilism and Pessimism. These two negative transformations, however, are similar and different in their own respects. Their immediate causes – the destructive forces within the society they live in – will most likely shed light on why these transformations happened.
Gregor’s Transformation as a Result of the Destructive Influences of the Industrial Revolution. The transformation of Gregor is rather a result of the destructive force of Industrial Revolution in mechanizing and dehumanizing man.
In fact this transformation symbolizes psychoanalytical changes in the typical human being, or in short, one becomes what one always unconsciously thinks he is. Just like Gregor prior to his transformation, a huge number of members of the working class of the modern society are likely to experience continually unresolved conflicts between work and ego (Emrich, 1972) and this is usually resolved, according to Freud, through “unsettling” dreams that gradually change the person himself, such as those Samsa may have had before he woke up as a bug.
The transformation may also be an inner change brought about by a lack of sexual outlet. Gregor, as we all know, has been a bachelor and we can see his sexual longings in the line “…constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate!” (Kafka 4).
A third possible cause of psychological transformation that resulted in such a horrendous physical change in Gregor would be the conflict between one’s desire to satisfy himself and a similar equally strong desire to satisfy one’s family. Family pressure is echoed by the first words of Gregor’s mother herself: “Gregor,…it’s a quarter to seven. Didn’t you want to catch the train?” (Kafka 5). Isn’t a mother supposed to ask a son who just woke up if he had had a good sleep or if he wanted to have breakfast? This very line of the mother in fact reflects family pressure but since it was spoken “in a soft voice” (Kafka 5), Gregor may have hardly recognize it as a sign of pressure and thus he gives in by politely and obediently saying “Yes, yes, thanks, Mother, I’m just getting up” (Kafka 6). This answer of Gregor has profound implications: first, it is a sign of submission as shown by the “Yes, yes”; second, it is a sign of self-sacrifice as indicated by “thanks” which may mean something like “thanks [so much for the pressure]”; and lastly, it is a lie for when Gregor mentions “I’m just getting up,” he cannot even get up in his almost immobile vermin state. This is how the evil of family pressure is perpetuated in the society – through submission, self-sacrifice and lies, and these lies may be an indication of insincerity. This pressure of the family must have been deeply ingrained in Gregor himself for even at the moment of his death, “he thought back on his family with deep emotion and love” (Kafka 54) while in fact in the other room, his sister Grete tells both of their parents that they “have to get rid of [Gregor]” (Kafka 51) and to which the father agrees by thinking to himself that “she’s absolutely right.” (Kafka 51)
Pressure towards work, which is another possible cause of the transformation, is evident in the words of the manager in The Metamorphosis who tells the vermin Gregor “Mr. Samsa…you neglect…your duties to the firm in a really shocking manner” (Kafka 11) and surprisingly Gregor, in his vermin form, “realized that he must on no account let the manager go away in this [bad] mood if his position in the firm is not to be jeopardized in the extreme” (Kafka 17). From the story, one can see the rather unbelievable ridiculousness of a manager who comes up to a mere employee’s house just to remind him about work. Yet Kafka may be portraying this part of the story as a hyperbole of the suffering of the “human being whose role is dissolved into that of a mere worker.” (Freedman 65)
Fourthly, such a transformation of the self from human to animal may also find itself in people who are so much into their work that their identities become obliterated and their sense of selves lowered to the ranks of submissive animals, such as worker ants. Furthermore, it is possible that work always remains external to Gregor and the typical worker and is not an essential part of his being thus a workaholic individual like him may himself feel unaware of his desires much like a vermin, which is a fitting symbol of self-alienation.
One last cause of what could be a disgusting transformation of the self is perhaps the desire to escape the pressure from the family. Such pressure may trigger acts of escape or revenge through inactivity, symbolized by a vermin.
The Transformation of the Narrator as a Result of the Destructive Influences of Nihilism and Pessimism. Compared to a rather bleak picture of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution as seen in its dehumanizing man in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” rests upon a rather more positive theme of “the Golden Age” (Trahan 349). However, the fact that the story was written by Dostoevsky during the time of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Turgenev somehow makes its plot reflect the destructive ideas of nihilism and pessimism which pervaded Europe in the late 19th century. The destructive, annihilating force of nihilism dominates the Narrator at the beginning of the story when he realizes that “nothing in the world mattered” (Dostoevsky) and that there does not seem to be any difference to him “whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all” (Dostoevsky). These words reflect pessimism at the same time. The Narrator seems to be in search of meaning in the world and in his very existence but he does not seem to find it and thereby somehow resigns himself that he would not.
This force of nihilism is perhaps triggered by ridicule as “everyone always laughed at [him]” (Dostoevsky). This laughter itself may be highly destructive and insulting and may even have a transforming influence on someone’s beliefs, such as in the case of the Narrator. Cox points out that Dostoevsky employs two kinds of laughter in his works: laughter, according to Schopenhauer, which follows the perception of “the incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge” or, laughter according to Hobbes, which may be caused by “‘sudden glory’ when we encounter examples of other people’s failures…” (Cox 105). Ridicule from others makes otherwise intelligent people like the Narrator feel that they are indeed ridiculous. Clearly his declaration at the beginning of the story, “I am a ridiculous person” (Dostoevsky), is supported by lines such as “Everyone always laughed at me” (Doestoevsky), making him humbly accept the fact that “[he has] always been ridiculous…from the hour [he] was born” (Dostoevsky). Indeed the ridicule of people around him is one of the destructive forces that transformed the Narrator into a nihilist.
The problem with having ideas that centered upon nihilism is that it gradually develops in someone the ideas of pessimism and self-destruction. The Narrator, sometime after he has internalized nihilism or the nothingness of existence, begins by taking out a revolver and entertaining suicidal thoughts like, “But if I am going to kill myself, in two hours,…I shall turn into nothing, absolutely nothing” (Dostoevsky). The preceding line clearly explains the strong link between nihilism and suicide, and the line, “I shall turn into nothing, absolutely nothing,” clearly shows the meaninglessness of suicide, hence the justification of its act. Truly, for the nihilist, “a dead man had nothing to expect.” (Dostoevsky)
The process of transformation that the man undergoes during the dream of a rather Utopian society is in fact the second spiritual transformation he goes through. In fact, this transformation of the Narrator “from a maniac to an idealized person, [after] witnessing the paradisiacal idealized world” (Cheng) is one of the biggest differences between Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Some Differences between the Two Works
Despite the similarities of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” in terms of the presence of a destructive, annihilating force that transforms the main characters, both literary works share a number of parallel differences when it comes to the portrayal of the problem of evil.
First, on the subject of transformation, Gregor Samsa dies in his vermin-like state, although “without his consent” (Kafka 54). On the other hand, the Narrator is saved from suicide as he starts asking questions like “Should I care or should I not? Should I feel shame for that action or not” (Dostoevsky) and it is said that “[he] put off [his] pistol shot for the sake of these questions” (Dostoevsky), and afterwards he dreams a dream that transforms him and eventually save his life. It is also noteworthy to mention that the one action that the Narrator begins thinking about is the little girl in the rain whose request for help he has harshly refused. It can be seen here that there clearly was a sort of Divine intervention on the part of the Narrator while this concept is missing in Gregor’s life. This perhaps explains why Kafka’s Gregor succumbs to his wounds and dies, while Dostoevsky’s Narrator lives.
The second noteworthy difference between Gregor and the Narrator is the fact that while Gregor is unconscious of his vermin-like state, the Narrator is mentally conscious of all the changes happening in him. From the time Gregor’s transformation into a vermin until he draws his last breath, he seems to be almost entirely unconscious of his state for despite his present immovable state, he still wants to “get up quietly,…get dressed; and the main thing, have breakfast…” (Kafka 6). This and many other instances where Gregor still thinks he is human clearly show that he is in fact unaware of his current state both physically and psychologically. Perhaps this explains a deeply seated change from which only death could liberate Gregor. On the other hand, the Narrator is aware of the fact that he has somehow become ridiculous and he even admits, “I realized my awful characteristic more fully every year” (Dostoevsky). This shows that, unlike Gregor, he is conscious of his plight and thus he is able to save himself from it through a transforming dream.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” are two literary masterpieces that portray the destructive forces of the Industrial Revolution, Nihilism and Pessimism prevalent in Europe during the late 19th century and the early 20th century and bring forth lessons that parallel human existence. The annihilating force of the Industrial Revolution, coupled with family pressure, is seen to have the capacity to reduce workaholic, pressured individuals like Gregor into the level of vermin while somehow quelling in them whatever concern they have for themselves even until their last breath. On the other hand, the suicidal force of Nihilism and Pessimism is seen to overpower intelligent and thoughtful but otherwise ridiculed individuals like the Narrator and lead them to their own rational self-destruction and annihilation. One interesting point, however, is that there seems to be only one way to get out of these destructive forces, and that could be, as what Dostoevsky’s Narrator did, to consciously know, and continually challenge and question one’s beliefs.
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