Although the three works discussed in the following analysis (The Metamorphosis, Gulliver’s Travels,and The Death of Ivan Ilych) arise from vastly different historical, cultural, and literary contexts, they share two common elements that make them quite alike in terms of theme and meaning. Each of these works seeks to produce a transformation or metamorphosis in both the reader and the central characters through the skill of the three narrators. Furthermore, each story is dependent on an intense or odd situation which forces the characters to come to terms with the their world in a new and more meaningful way and the reader comes along on this journey and thus is, in part, transformed alongside the character.
It seems only natural that Kafka’s story with the title, The Metamorphosis, should entail such an event, but it is not clear until the end of the tale just how much both the main character as well as the reader have been transformed or undergone the process of metamorphosis. The story begins with the simple concept that the character of Gregor has been somehow transformed into a giant insect, but as the story progresses, we see that the title is not just referring to this simple act, but to Gergor’s understanding of his life. Through the narrator, who tells us of the strange events of the protagonist’s life, we able to begin picking up on the more revealing details of Gregor’s life and learn that perhaps it is not insignificant or random that he was turned into an insect.
Nearly everything about Gregor’s existence prior to his physical transformation was already insect-like as he scurried about, almost undetectable, and performed various useless functions for the larger “hive" of society. Through illustrating a real transformation that is tangible and physical, the narrator allows us to understand the fuller implications of Gregor’s status as a true insect (both physically and because of the way he lives.) As a result, the reader, by understanding these aspects of the central character’s life undergoes his or her own metamorphosis as the importance of not living like Gregor did becomes clear.Gregor’s feelings of insignificance becomes clear to him by the end of the story and threat of living in such a way imparts deep meaning about life to both reader and character alike. This is also the case in bothGulliver’s Travels and The Death of Ivan Ilych as the central characters in both are put in odd or intense situations that demand interpretation, internalization, and finally, transformation on the part of the reader.
The experience of transformation in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is similar to that of Gregor in Kafka’sMetamorphosis in that the story itself involves an ordinary man who has been plunged into extraordinary and absurd circumstance and later realizes something vital or important about himself or the world he inhabits. Unlike Kafka’s tale, Gulliver’s Travels uses satire combined with the central characters strange position to tell us something about life and the ideal (or not so ideal) society in “Gulliver’s Travels”. During Swift’s time the monarchy had a direct influence, even in the realm of law although there was a growing bureaucracy developing.
This is satirized in Gulliver’s Travels by the Lilliputians who take extensive inventory of all of Gulliver’s possessions and are prone to making “official" edicts governing the lives of Gulliver and the rest of the citizens. At one point, amazed with the gall of the little people, Gulliver remarks in one of theimportant quotes from “Gulliver’s Travels” “I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals, who durst venture to mount and walk on my body, while one of my hands was at liberty, without trembling at the sight of prodigious creature as I must appear to them" (2338).
This overwhelming self-importance is key to Swift’s satire as even the most minute issue is made to be of vast political and bureaucratic importance. For example, a war broke out between Lilliput and Blefuscu because of the proper way to break eggs after an Emperor many years before cut his finger on an eggshell. “Whereupon the Emperor published an edict, commanding all his subjects, under great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on this account" (194). This makes the squabbles that resulted in great strife in England seem equally as silly, especially since so much of the debate was based on the “proper" way to interpret which end of the egg was the smallest. Although for the reader, the introduction to Lilliput sounds much like a miniature and more absurd England, as the description of the land and government continues it becomes clear that although the Lilliputians suffer from the same flaws inherent in English society(pompous government, rebellions over relatively minor issues, and a tendency to over-regulate the more mundane aspects of life, to name a few) they posses many beliefs that allow them to be more utopian—especially when compared to England. In the end, both the reader and Gulliver have come away from the situation (or story) transformed and able to clearly see a political and social situation differently. For Gulliver, it is what happens to him that creates a change in his understanding of the country he comes from and for the reader, it is the narrator’s use of satire that causes our transformation and how we view Swift’s England and societies in general.
A method similar to satire is also used to bring about a transformation in both the reader and the central character in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, although the satire is far less apparent. Many might argue whether it is satire at all that the life of the main character, Ivan Ilych, is made to be so boring and full of superficiality, but when put in the context of Swift’s work, this is not much of a stretch. The many details of Ivan’s personal life are meticulously detailed in the text and the reader is able to see just how boring and self-absorbed his life was. While Tolstoy could have easily made his central character exciting, the purpose would be lost—letting the reader understand how a life has been wasted and a death is now meaningless without the character’s realization of its emptiness.
By using many superficial details about Ivan’s life the reader is able to comprehend the full extent to which it was meaningless and the extent to which it was is so severe that it borders on satire. For instance, Ivan’s wife’s thoughts are realistically represented by the narrator who tells us, “She began to wish he would die; yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease" (73). This is almost absurdly cruel but it allows the reader to undergo the transformation of learning how one view’s the life and death of a shallow person and later, it allows the central character of Ivan to see this as well. As in the case ofGulliver’s Travels, an intense situation (the process of dying) is put into narrative to reveal something of lasting importance to the reader and both the central character. The Death of Ivan Ilych is also somewhat like Kafka’s Metamorphosis as well because the central character is forced into understanding because of an intense situation. In sum, the narrators of all of these stories have the same function—to reveal the underlying meaning about life and to push us (and their characters) toward a greater understanding of self.