A Comparison of Kafka and Tolstoy
Son # 1 has to read books for Zoom school. I’m terrible at math, so Tracy helps him with that, and I have to get involved with the reading and history classes because I know a bunch of trivia and because I am a famous writer myself.
I thought as long as I have to read these books, I could help a few of you parents out there, too, by providing a sort of expert literary analysis.
“The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka
A young guy, Gregor, provides for his family. His father is a drunk bum, mother is like on anti-depressants, and his younger sister is kind of a selfish brat. Gregor pays money for her to go to a fancy dance school or something like that (I read this a few weeks ago).
Gregor brings home all his money and gives it to the family, never even buying himself anything cool.
One day he wakes up, and he’s a giant cockroach. The book chronicles what happens next. His sister treats him nice for awhile, bringing him food in his room and then realizing it’s better to mash it up in a paste for him to eat.
The mother is too afraid of Gregor to even go in the room and see him. The father is pissed that he has to go get a job now because Gregor can’t work. Dad treats him like shit and throws a piece of fruit at Gregor that gets caught in his back. The apple (fruit?) stays stuck in Gregor’s scales, gets infected, and leads to Gregor’s untimely death.
They move all the furniture out of his room so Gregor can climb around on the walls and at least stretch out a bit.
The family takes in some boarders because they need the dough. Those three boarders can’t even believe what’s going on in this little apartment.
The sister gets engaged and starts really coming to life. Now she can’t be bothered, and she just chucks the food in the room to Gregor and doesn’t even set it up nicely anymore. Mom and Dad are excited that she’s going to get married, and they all start to think that if Gregor would just croak, they could move on.
Gregor gets the hint, stops eating, and dies.
The book ends with the parents and the sister getting all optimistic and looking forward to buying another apartment and moving on with their lives.
When Son # 1 and I worked on an essay about the story, we discussed how turning into a bug is a metaphor for getting sick. People who you helped the most resent you the most. They sometimes do better when you cut off the help, and they have to pick themselves up and get on with their own lives.
I found some other deeper meanings too. Son # 1 asked me
“Why didn’t Gregor just call the police or get some help?”
“Son, you never want to get the police or government involved in your life at all. Remember, the government is twice as dumb as we are,” I explained.
Son #1 got a B+.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” by Leo Tolstoy
I found it really hard to make a connection with this book.
Ivan I. is a young man who just likes to party a lot, then he becomes a lawyer, then a judge, and he never feels like he’s making enough money, then he gets married, has kids, and buys a big house that he and his wife just endlessly renovate and redecorate. One day, while he’s hanging some curtains in his man cave, he falls down and hurts his rib, goes to the doctor, thinks he has a terminal disease, and spirals into an existential crisis and dies.
I know, I know, seems like a stretch to me too.
Ivan gets all bent out of shape when the fancy doctors he sees treat him like a number and barely listen to what he’s telling them. It reminds him of how he treats the people who testify in court before him. The defendants tried to explain themselves to him, but he always just finds them guilty anyway, on some legal technicality.
As Ivan gets sicker, he broods on how superficial his wife and kids’ concerns are, when they should be worrying about him dying. His daughter is only concerned about her upcoming wedding, and his wife gets into a fight with him about some cakes or wallpaper. There’s a son who comes in the room and cries when he sees Ivan cuz Ivan looks like such sh**. One time the wife goes out on the town, cuz they already bought the tickets, and she pretends like she wishes he could come with her, but he can tell she’s happy he can’t. The only person Ivan likes towards the end is a peasant boy that works in the house, who holds Ivan’s feet up on his shoulders, which supposedly “relieves the pain.”
Because I found it so hard to relate to this book, I watched some YouTube videos of Ivy League professors analyzing what it all meant.
Right when Ivan is about to die, I guess, he has a revelation that he is really the one who was superficial his whole life, and he forgives his wife and kids. He realizes he “threw himself into his work” to avoid his family, and he got off on the power he had to condemn and punish people without really listening to their stories. In the end, he realizes the only thing that’s important is empathy, and Christians interpret that to mean he became Christian, probably Russian Orthodox.
Anyway, so there you have it. Both these books were great, and only took about a day each to read.
Originally published at https://blog.jackclunesmancave.com.