The Limited Third-Person Narrator in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Essay
The Metamorphosis is one of the most famous short stories by Franz Kafka. It revolves around transformation of protagonist Gregor Samsa from human into the vermin.
The short story is a typical example of magic realism that focuses on social problems and life of individual who is underestimated and alienated from society.
The subject of transformation plays an important role in the short story, it is the main means used by the author to express his ideas and describe the main character.
However, there is one more strong technique applied by Franz Kafka to touch the reader on different level (emotional and logical). The author uses omniscient or third-person narrator as a detached observer who tells the story to achieve another purpose, apart from entertaining one.
Kafka uses a limited third-person narrator in order to attract the reader’s attention to protagonist’s thought and feelings, to the importance of his inner reality, rather than other characters that play minor roles.
Thus, if Kafka chooses Gregor to narrate the story, it would have a different effect on the reader and would not allow the author achieve his main purpose – to entertain the reader and understand in full the protagonist’s inner reality.
In order to understand the role of the third person narrator in The Metamorphosis and explain why author used this technique, we should, first of all, analyze theme, main idea and background of the story.
It is no wonder that the work by Franz Kafka is one of the most analyzed works of the 20th century. It provides not only a unique content and extraordinary story, but a broad field of topics for discussion.
One of the major themes is the individual’s isolation and confrontation with the society. Before his transformation, Gregor was considered to be an independent member of the society, he had a job and supported his family.
However, after “one morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin” (Kafka 1), and after all events that happened to him, the reader comes to understanding that protagonist has never been “a full member of society”, he was just “a supply” used by society and his family to fulfill their needs.
He has never been appreciated and he never liked his life, as well as his job, but nevertheless, when he discovered that he can lose it he was very concerned, “as in fifteen years of service Gregor hadn’t been sick even ones” (Kafka 9) and had never missed a day.
The theme of alienation of the individual in the society is expressed metaphorically, Gregor’s transformation illustrates how society (which is embodied in the family) treats the one who can no longer be valuable for it and bring the benefit.
Why did the author choose a vermin for Gregor’s transformation? With this metaphor, Kafka wanted to show how an individual in the context of the society in which author lived and how insignificant and disadvantaged an individual could be as a part of social machine.
The society described in the short story provides the insight in the reality of the author’s own life. The story is autobiographical in some extend and presents the exploration of influences of the times in which the author, as well as the protagonist, lived.
As well as Gregor, Kafka lived with his parents and worked at the insurance office. He observed people’s lives and attitudes to other people and life as a whole.
He saw, as well as experienced by himself, the routine of every day duties and responsibilities that social structure and family laid upon people.
Kafka felt family tension that made him responsible for incomes, and his doubts about the justice of the system in which he lived made him turn to literature and explore these subjects in-depth.
The technique of the limited or omniscient third-person narrator became a great help in this task. Kafka’s narrative point of view focuses on protagonist Gregor Samsa, however, the narrator of the story is not a character that described in it, but a distance witness of events. According to Marina MacKay:
“Omniscient narration refers to a third-person narration in which the narrator can present not only the sort of external detail and information that might be accessible to characters in the story but also the feelings and thoughts of characters (which might well be unknown even to the character being discussed).
An omniscient narrator may refrain from explicit judgment or may, alternatively, provide a running commentary on the events being recounted” (202).
This technique is perfectly exemplified in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It permits the author not only focus on the subject matter and revolve around the themes of the story, but implement the entertainment function of the writing and provide the reader with an in-depth understanding of the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts.
In addition, this technique removes the focus from other characters and the reader can judge about them solely from their words and actions and puts the protagonist’s inner reality in the spotlight, “complicitously selective, the narrator withholds the full account of Gregor’s motivations, providing only the rationale as Gregor perceives it” (Bloom 68).
The limited narrator provides the reader with only one-side understanding of the events described. Samsa family is presented from a perspective of the protagonist, in other words, the reader sees each member of the family in the way Gregor does.
The narrator is limited with the knowledge that Gregor possess about his sister, father and mother, and does not allow a full access to their thoughts and feelings:
“Analysis of The Metamorphosis reveals that beneath the surface structure of the text, beneath its manifest appearance, we find on Gregor’s part – next to his need for self-expression – a desperate strategy of avoidance or circumvention of verbal confrontation, a fitting metaphor for this strategy is, of course, the form he has taken through his transformation, his shell of “Panzer” (Bloom 110).
The omniscient narrator’s point of view defines not only the plot of the story, but its context, setting and development of the problem.
The reader is not provided with the explanation of other characters’ actions, thus, he/she has a ground for imagination and free choice whether judge Samsa family for their behavior, or justify them as they are also placed in a difficult situation and deal with it in their own way.
Gregor’s mother loves him dearly, but she cannot stand the things that happened to her son, and Gregor’s sister does everything possible to provide her brother with comfort.
However, the technique of the omniscient narrator allows the author influences reader understands of the problem. Thus, this style of writing was chosen by author to create a particular atmosphere in which the reader is “forced” to feel a sort of sympathy towards protagonist of the story.
The author deals only with protagonist’s vision of the situation, the injustice and the way in which his family treats him are presented from Gregor’s perspective.
The readers get to know how hard his position is and how he struggles not to bother his family too much. Lack of understanding and compassion towards Gregor from his family is the result of the usage of the third-person narrator, “fusing the author’s objective omniscience (third person, past tense, etc.) with the character’s innermost mental view, this device offers “empathy” in its older sense: a process of total mental and spiritual identification” (Kafka and Neugroschel 13).
Thus, Kafka manipulates readers’ thoughts and feelings. However, at the end of the story the author changes his viewpoint, as Gregor dies and there is no longer the need to focus attention on his feelings and thoughts.
Kafka skips to the family’s life without Gregor, “Leant back comfortably on their seats, they discussed their prospects and found that on closer examination they were not at all bad” (Kafka 28), and it seemed to be better. It seems cynical of them to behave in that way, but it is the only time when the reader is allowed to see the world outside Gregor’s perspective.
What if the author used another technique and tells the story through the eyes of Gregor Samsa? It would influence greatly the narrative elements. First of all, it would change the plot and the story would end up with his death. In such case, the reader would never find out about events that happened with Samsa family afterwards.
Furthermore, the reader would not be aware of actions that family members performed outside Gregor’s room and it would not be possible to judge about feelings that they shared towards Gregor.
Omniscient narrator always provides deeper explanation of events regardless the fact that he focuses on one character. As opposed to this, first person narrator provides solely personal perspective on the problem.
Thus, the overall understanding of the themes and main idea of the story is quite different from the one described by the third person narrator.
The Metamorphosis is a deeply philosophical story that explores the theme of alienation of an individual from the society. Kafka managed to express his vision of the contemporary society using metaphoric description of a person treated as a vermin by the social machine.
He made use of the omniscient narrator to express his ideas and make the reader understand his writing in a particular way. Thus, the limited third-person narrator was used to explore the inner world of protagonist who faced injustice and misunderstanding of people who were his relatives represented modern society.
Bloom, Harold. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008.
Kafka, Franz, and Joachim Neugroschel. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories: With Two New Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. New York: Tribeca Books, 2003.
MacKay, Marina. The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
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