Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and the Academy as Change Agent

Posted October 5th, 2011 by Albert DeCiccio Ph.D., Provost, Southern Vermont College

Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and the Academy as Change Agent    

As I return to this space, I would like to do so by talking a little about Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Metamorphosis.” If nothing else, the story’s title fits my belief about those who work at colleges and universities being agents of change.  I often speak about changing the way people in the academy relate to one another, about changing the way they then are able to think about the communities they join and depart, and, ultimately, about the way in which they bring about positive change for those communities as well as for themselves. In “The Metamorphosis,” we find out that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams [to find] himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Gregor certainly undergoes an enormous change here, but what if we were to examine that change this way: What if we were to consider Gregor’s metamorphosis as his taking a vulnerable risk to bring about change to his family’s situation, coaxing them into becoming a community able to withstand the forces that are driving them apart and, as in his own case, mad.

In the story, Gregor changes from being a beaten down person to caterpillar-like insect to nonexistent (he dies); Gregor’s family members—figuratively, in a cocoon for a long time—change from being isolated individuals (the asthmatic mother, the overweight and aging father, the frail and frivolous seventeen-year-old sister with few prospects) to a community that is able to stand up to the society of bloodsuckers, thereby getting their sustenance from one another, not from someone else.

“The Metamorphosis” ends this way: “Then they all three [Gregor’s father, mother, and sister] left the apartment, which was more than they had done for months, and went by tram into the open country outside the town. The tram, in which they were the only passengers, was filled with warm sunshine. Leaning comfortably back in their seats they canvassed their prospects for the future, and it appeared on closer inspection that these were not bad at all, for the jobs they had got, which so far they had never really discussed with each other, were all three admirable and likely to lead to better things later on.  . . . it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure.  . . . And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet and stretched her young body.”  The change here is unmistakable. We have witnessed the metamorphosis: from caterpillar-like Gregor—suffocating, alone, unloved in the city—to butterfly-like Grete—breathing in the air and the sunshine, adored, and loved in the country. Gregor’s family has become a community, now with opportunities for sharing in the abundance of their environs. Of course, Gergor’s old ways of doing things are now gone, as is Gregor. Yet, all the change may be viewed as a result of Gregor’s risky leadership.  In fact, the metamorphosis here is reminiscent of Plato’s Phaedrus. In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates lead Phaedrus away from the city to the country to change the location of the mature conversation in which they will engage. Like Gregor’s mother, father, and sister, Socrates and Phaedrus, professors and teachers, need to learn how to love one another so as to effect a dialogue, a mature conversation, which will lead to positive change. 

The bottom line is that, in all higher education institutions, we educators want to bring our students inside our circles, our sacred spaces for teaching and learning, nudging them to complete projects we have started and may not be around to see through to fruition. To drive home this final point, I will cite Thomas M. Landy, founder and director of Collegium atFairfieldUniversityand a member of the faculty at the College of the Holy Cross. Landy himself borrowed from Walter Ong’s exegesis of the parable about kneading dough into bread—when he talked about the value of a liberal arts education. Landy writes, “the function of [rooted] intellectual life [is] to be leaven in the world, both to help transform creation and to be transformed by it.” A rooted academy can certainly ensure what the great social thinker and teacher Jonathan Kozol wishes for all of us, as teachers and learners, what I think SVC does better than any other college inAmerica:  “Resist the deadwood of predictability. Embrace the unexpected.  . . . Celebrate silliness.  Dig deep into the world of whim.  Sprinkle your . . . lives, no matter how difficult many of those lives may be, [at times,] with hundreds of brightly colored seeds of jubilation.  Enjoy the wild flowers!”


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