Class Notes (AP English)

Today, in Kafka. Worked on the first chapter in The Trial and the entirety of The Metamorphosis.

We spent some time addressing similarities between the two narratives. Students are usually quick to pick out the “one morning” aspect, but this is a good brainstorming and close reading exercise. Encourages the readers to see structure they’d likely otherwise leave unexamined, especially in light of Kafka’s apparent simplicity.

We examined the third paragraph of the story to discuss narrative tension a little bit. After all, teachers often use the word without really offering ways for students to see it and work with it, never mind explain what it is.

Gregor’s gaze then turned towards the window, and the murky weather — one could hear the raindrops striking the windowsill— made him quite melancholy. ‘What if I went on sleeping for a while and forgot all these idiocies,’ he thought, but that was quite impossible, as he was used to sleeping on his right side and in his present state he was unable to get himself into this position. However energetically he flung himself onto his right side, whenever he did so he would rock onto his back again. He must have tried a hundred times, shutting his eyes so that he didn’t have to see his jittery legs, and he only gave over when he began to feel a slight ache in his side, something he had never felt before.

There’s tension between the opening lines and what follows.

I like this paragraph a lot. I also like the transition from it to the next paragraph which begins with Samsa complaining about his “strenuous calling”, complaining about life as a traveling salesperson. The first part of the story is full of strenuous struggling that quickly turns to acquiescence to state of being and affairs.

The paragraph above begins with something I know my students will dig–a meditation on common melancholy. We know Samsa will end up spending many hours with his insect head against the bedroom window peering outside. Here we are introduced to his inclination and an aspect of his personality that many readers might find in common with him when in similar mood. The opening sentence and a half might first appear incantantion, words recited in spite of content. But the lines are not obfuscatory at all. 

Samsa looking out the window produces a confinement and a restriction within the prose. His response to the rain on the window sets a gloom, of course, and his thought about “all these idiocies” is a nice meta-commentary about that which is to come. It’s not about the situation, then. The story is about something else. And we enjoy the melancholy. There’s a pleasantness to lying in bed rainy mornings that work destroys. One would like to sleep in on murky weather mornings.

The second part of the paragraph gives us so much of the kind of inner-monologue description that we expect from Kafka. Whereas Samsa begins the day invoking melancholy, he very quickly turns to pragmatism and rationality, in spite of his grotesque situation. 

Josef K. and Gregor Samsa are different characters, to be sure. However, the omniscient narrator seems the same. This isn’t always the case with authors who prefer the third person. I told the students I enjoy thinking of Samsa struggling to move, disgusted with himself, and closing his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at his stupid bug legs wiggling out of control. Samsa is not a “jittery” person. However, he will come to embrace his change without protest. He’ll acquiesce to isolated alienation, and we’re going to watch a person slowly learn to give up. The murky weather is the perfect beginning to the tale in which a character’s pointless pragmatism and remnants of his proud social achievements whither away in mere months.

If I had time, I’d have students re-read Miller’s Death of Salesman, even though it’s over thirty years older, and Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Bartleby just stops eating, too. We’d compare and contrast two vermin, the dead letter and the insect. And we’d compare two salespeople, both of whom author’s are asking us to pay special attention to for reasons that might not be instantly comprehensible.

With The Trial we opened our discussion with Kafka’s excellent illustration of power, class, bureacracy, and the Law, in the first ten pages of the novel. Kafka’s innovation comes with problematizing the way readers will no doubt think about “the Law”:

There’s been no mistake. After all, our department, as far as I know, and I know only the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That’s the Law. What mistake could there be?

In response, K. admits “I don’t know that law”. And his guard responds, “All the worse for you.”

All students will get the common notion that ignorance of the law does not make one innocent of breaking the law, but Kafka presents ignorance in a complex way. K. is ignorant (in his mind, innocent,) of the Law, even mistaking It as merely one law of many. And K. is ignorant about himself. K. is the kind of character who wants to get into other people’s heads and doesn’t really bother spending time in his own. K. wants “to slip into his guards’ thoughts somehow and turn them to his own advantage”. K. is manipulative and he’s used to being able to wield the power to manipulate because of his social status. He’s only capable of seeing status. His guards are lowly, so why would he not be able to manipulate them.

I really like the mean bit of foreshadowing to K.’s execution when the guard, in response to K. saying that the law “probably exists only in your heads” merely responds, “You’ll feel it eventually.” Harsh.