The Significance of Setting in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Midaq Alley” and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
Naguib Mahfouz and Franz Kafka both use setting as an important literary feature in their respective works, Midaq Alley and The Metamorphosis. Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley takes place in the back streets of Cairo, Egypt during the Second World War, specifically in Midaq Alley. The alley is home to various inhabitants, including the heroine, Hamida, who desperately seeks to escape the monotony of life in the alley. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, depicts a middle-class family, the Samsas, living in an apartment in Germany near the start of the First World War. The protagonist, Gregor, transforms into an insect at the start of the novella and is left confined to his bedroom. Gregor’s bedroom serves as a reflection of his dehumanizing transformation, and it becomes his coffin when he perishes at the end of the novella. In their works, both Mahfouz and Kafka present protagonists imprisoned by their settings, who, in their attempts to escape, exhibit the true cost of captivity.
Gregor’s bedroom, the major setting of The Metamorphosis, physically imprisons Gregor from the start of the novella. His transformation into an insect creates obstacles for him; for example, Kafka spends much of the exposition of the novella describing Gregor’s attempts to get off of the bed. Gregor’s lack of freedom in his apartment is used as a reflection of his debilitating transformation. Gregor leaves the bedroom to try to explain to the Deputy Director why he was not at work that morning, and, in doing so, feels immediately free: “This had hardly happened, when for the first time that morning he felt a sense of physical well-being. […] Suddenly, he believed that the ultimate relief of all his suffering was at hand” (Kafka, 620). However, Gregor’s father quickly forces him back into his bedroom, where he stays for most of the novella. Within the apartment, the bedroom becomes Gregor’s place of exile. He is never allowed out, and he spends most of his time staring out of the window, if “only in some kind of nostalgia for the feeling of freedom he had previously found in looking out the window” (626). Furthermore, the bedroom not only confines Gregor, but also taints his view of the world around him: “If he had not known very well that he lived in the quiet, but distinctly urban Charlotte Street, he could have believed that he looked out of his window into a desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth merged indistinguishably” (626).
While the bedroom physically imprisons Gregor in The Metamorphosis, Midaq Alley culturally imprisons Hamida in Midaq Alley. Midaq Alley is rich in Eastern culture but at odds with the more progressive aspects of an Egypt emerging into Western society. Hamida has a desire to leave the alley, and her strong ambition lies in her dreams of wealth and success. While she grew up and resides in Midaq Alley, she takes daily walks down Mousky Street both to test the limits of her confinement and to admire those who are freer than she. Hamida dreams of life outside the alley, and yet her vague ambitions are “limited to her familiar world, which [ends] at Queen Farida Square. She [knows] nothing of life beyond it” (40). She envies the Egyptian girls that she meets on her daily walks, who, “taking advantage of wartime employment opportunities, [ignore] custom and tradition and now [work] in public places just like the Jewish women” (40). Hamida’s imprisonment is also presented in her reluctant engagement to Abbas, the young barber who prefers Midaq Alley “to any place in the whole world” (87). As an emblem of the alley’s culture and morals, Abbas envisions a future in which he and Hamida live together in the alley as man and wife, a vision not shared by Hamida. Abbas discusses his dreams with her, saying, “‘We will be the happiest two in the alley,’” to which Hamida replies with a scowl, “‘Midaq Alley!’” (87). Hamida believes in a future outside of the alley and is “aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions” (82). Despite her apathy towards Abbas, she agrees to marry him, thinking that she cannot ask for anyone better in the alley. Hamida puts her dreams on hold for her marriage to Abbas, and thus she incarcerates herself even further in the prison of Midaq Alley.
Gregor and Hamida both make attempts to escape in The Metamorphosis and Midaq Alley, although to varying degrees of success. Gregor leaves his bedroom twice after his initial foray into the living room at the start of the novella, and both departures contribute to his death. Gregor first emerges when trying to prevent the removal of the furniture from his room, seeing it as a blow to his humanity: “Did he really want to let them transform the warm room… into a cave?” (628). His beleaguered sister locks him out of the room, and his father comes home and embeds an apple deep in Gregor’s back, forcing him back into his bedroom. Gregor’s final attempt at escape comes near the end of the novella. When Gregor’s family rents a room to three lodgers, Gregor’s bedroom becomes a receptacle for useless trash, a reflection of the Samsa family’s gradual abandonment of Gregor and his lowered status in the apartment. After long periods of starvation, Gregor is drawn out of the room by his sister’s violin playing, which guides him “to the sustenance he had unknowingly desired” — a signal that he can no longer endure the starvation in his bedroom (636). While listening to the music of the violin, he begins to dream of a time when his sister “would not be forced, but would rather stay with him willingly” in his bedroom, expressing his hope that his bedroom can once again become a place of tranquility (636). However, these dreams are crushed when the lodgers discover him on the dining room floor and exit in fury. In the face of his family’s anguish, Gregor returns to his bedroom, and, after overhearing a conversation in which his sister doubts his status as a human being, he perishes.
In Midaq Alley, Hamida escapes the alley through the allure of the pimp, Ibrahim Faraj. Faraj represents, to Hamida, everything which the alley is not able to provide; he is “her life, her hope, her strength, and her happiness” (200). Through him, she is able to fully realize how Midaq Alley has imprisoned her: “Was there any other way of slipping the noose of the past except with this man who had lighted such a fire within her?” (200-201). In the realization of her dreams, she not only escapes the physical setting of Midaq Alley (by beginning her life in Faraj’s apartment), but she sheds her cultural shackles as well. Faraj bestows Hamida with everything she could want, and she becomes extravagantly beautiful and wealthy. This dramatic transformation, however, causes her spiritual self to die, as symbolized by her name change to “Titi” upon her arrival at Faraj’s apartment. Faraj explains, “‘That’s your new name. Keep it and forget Hamida, for she has ceased to exist!’” (216). While Faraj’s apartment provides Hamida with everything she previously wished for, Faraj’s mistreatment of her maims her soul. Hamida never returns to the alley, both physically and spiritually; she becomes a completely changed person, with little hope of returning to the values and ideals set upon her by the alley that she had so despised for most of her life.
The settings of both The Metamorphosis and Midaq Alley are the sources of imprisonment for the protagonists, Gregor and Hamida. Gregor’s bedroom physically sets him apart from his cherished family and taints his view of the rest of the world, while Midaq Alley imposes traditional Eastern values on a young, ambitious Hamida. Gregor’s bedroom starts as his sanctuary but becomes his prison; and although he attempts to leave, he realizes in the end that, just as he used to fit a proper place in society, so does he fit a proper place in the apartment. His final return to the bedroom represents an ultimate understanding of his imprisonment and of the futility of his attempts to escape. In a similar fashion, Hamida leaves the restrictions of Midaq Alley and, in doing so, becomes a completely different person — unrecognizable to herself afterwards. However, unlike Gregor, she does not return to her prison in a moment of final comprehension. In the final chapter of Midaq Alley, Mahfouz reveals that Hamida has moved far away from the alley in an effort to rebuild her life. She is successful in leaving Midaq Alley, but Mahfouz clearly presents the cost of leaving, suggesting that the old Hamida is metaphorically dead. Through the authors’ use of setting, Gregor’s bedroom and Midaq Alley impose restraints upon the dreams of Gregor and Hamida. Those restraints, by their very nature, express the dominance of the setting over the characters’ lives and enforce the fatal penalty of attempts at escape.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Alexis Walker. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Midaq Alley. Trans. Trevor Le Gassick. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
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