The Higher Parody: Ivan Ilych's Metamorphosis and the Death of Gregor Samsa
Wexelblatt (Robert)
Source: The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall, 1980), pp. 601-628
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. In Mathematics the term congruence is used to describe the relationship between two numbers which when divided by a third, called the modulus, leave the same remainder. In geometry, congruent figures are of the same shape but of different magnitudes, "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1886) and Kafka’s Metamorphosis1 (1915) are short novels which are congruent to a quite remarkable extent, and in both senses: their modulus is a series of corresponding characters and images, and their forms too are of a kind.
  2. These two works, so frequently found as near neighbors in our anthologies of the finest modern novellas, were both born of profound personal crises in the lives of their authors and both have now attained the at once elevated and secure status of books of the tribe. To say that they are congruent, however, is not to define the relationship between them, let alone to suggest that they have the same meaning; rather it is to ask for a definition of their relationship and an assessment of their meanings in its light. The correspondences between the two works are certainly suggestive, but by themselves what they suggest is only something less than identity and more than coincidence.
  3. The major congruences between Tolstoy's and Kafka's stories may be listed simply as follows:
    • Ivan's fatal illness ←→ Gregor's metamorphosis2
    • Ivan's colleagues ←→ the three lodgers
    • Ivan's doctors ←→ the physician and locksmith
    • Ivan's redemption ←→ the "unknown nourishment" to which music opens a way
    • Gerasim ←→ the charwoman
    • Ivan's communion ←→ the Samsas' inadvertent parody of the end of the Christian Mass
    • Ivan's daughter ←→ Gregory’s sister
    • Tolstoy's Prologue/Epilogue ←→ Kafka's Coda
  4. In addition, it can be observed that:-
    • Both men wonder if their fates might occur to others.
    • Both believe, at one point, that their mysterious conditions will simply go away.
    • Both are condemned by young female relatives.
    • Both men are compelled to neglect the work which had previously screened them from certain essential questions of life and modern philosophy.
    • Both are removed from the human and family circles, gradually forced in on themselves to the point of a spiritualizing immurement.
    • Both stories are organized around the trinity of job, family, self.
    • Both move relentlessly from horizontal (public) to vertical (private) relationships: time dissolves, space closes in.
    • Both men are humiliated by a loss of control over their physical beings and experience profoundly decisive changes in their bodies.
    • Both lose weight, suggesting that "earthly food" stands for materialism for both authors. Disgust with a worldly life is reinforced by telling references to excrement in each work.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: See "Kafka (Franz), Muir (Edwin), Muir (Willa) - Metamorphosis and Other Stories".


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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