12 Unsettling Facts About The Metamorphosis

It is one of the most enigmatic stories of all time, with an opening sentence that’s unparalleled in all of literature. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman living in Prague, wakes one morning from troubled dreams to find himself transformed into—what, exactly, isn’t clear, just as any clear interpretation of The Metamorphosis has eluded readers for decades. In celebration of Franz Kafka's birthday (the author was born in Prague on July 3, 1883), let's take a look at a few things we do know about his mysterious novella.

1. A TORTURED, LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP PROVIDED INSPIRATION.

In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, an acquaintance of his friend Max Brod, at a dinner party in Prague. He began writing to Bauer, who lived in Berlin, shortly after, eventually penning two and three letters per day. The correspondence was desperate—and pretty much one-sided. Kafka demanded detailed accounts of Bauer’s days, expressed his love for her and visions of their future together, and demanded that Bauer, who would eventually become his fiancé, respond to him in kind. Lying in bed one morning, Kafka told himself he wouldn’t get up until he’d received Bauer’s next letter. A story, he later wrote her, began to take shape.

2. HE WROTE IT WHILE WORKING ON ANOTHER NOVEL.

Kafka was having a hard time turning out his first novel (which he never finished, and which was published after his death under the title Amerika). Once the inspiration for The Metamorphosis came, he seized on it and resolved to write it quickly, in two or three sittings. There were delays—Kafka was, after all, working full time at an insurance company—but he still was able to finish the first draft in three weeks, from mid November to early December, 1912.

3. IT TOOK THREE YEARS TO GET PUBLISHED.

Kafka read a section from his "bug piece," as he called it, aloud to friends on November 24, 1912. They began talking about the work, and soon publishers were expressing interest. Due to his preoccupations with writing Bauer and with Amerika, though, it took Kafka months to write a new manuscript. Then World War I broke out, causing further delays. Finally, in October 1915, the story appeared in the literary journal Die weissen Blätter, with a book printing two months later by publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig.

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS TRANSLATIONS OF THE FAMOUS OPENING LINE.

Over the years, translators have had Gregor Samsa transform into "a monstrous cockroach," "an enormous bedbug," and "a large verminous insect," among other things. While scholars agree Gregor changes into a bug of some sort, the exact entomology remains a mystery. And that seems to be Kafka's intention, as the German word he uses for Gregor’s new form, "Ungeziefer," suggests a bug, a vermin and, in Old High German, an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice.

5. KAFKA FORBID HIS PUBLISHER FROM PORTRAYING "THE INSECT" ON THE COVER.

Given the ambiguity over Gregor’s new form, Kafka argued that its picture should not appear on the cover, as his publisher suggested. Kafka wrote to Verlag, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." He got his wish, with the first edition featuring a drawing of a tormented man wearing a robe. Subsequent editions, however, have interpreted Gregor in all sorts of creepy, crawly forms.

6. IT'S A PRETTY FUNNY STORY, IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT.

Viewed one way, a story about a man who wakes up to find he’s a bug is horrifying. Viewed another way, it’s hilarious. Indeed, scholars and readers alike have delighted in Kafka’s gallows humor and matter-of-fact handling of the absurd and the terrifying. The first pages of The Metamorphosis where Gregor tries to communicate through the bedroom door with his family, who think he’s merely being lazy, is vintage screwball comedy. As translator Susan Bernofsky wrote: "I imagine Kafka laughing uproariously when reading the story to his friends."

7. THE LANGUAGE IS FULL OF DOUBLE MEANINGS AND CONTRADICTIONS.

Dream logic and contradictions abound in Kafka’s work. A man is summoned to a trial for an unnamed offense; a country doctor is instantly transported to the home of a sick patient, who tells him he only wants to be left to die. These contortions happen even at the language level, leaving translators to puzzle over the double meanings in Kafka’s German. In The Metamorphosis, he describes Gregor crawling along the walls of his room using the verb "kriechen," which means "to creep" as well as "to cower." Thus Gregor’s meekness as a man is reinforced even as he tries to assert his new insect identity.

8. ITS MANY INTERPRETATIONS INCLUDE A FREUDIAN ONE.

It’s an interpretation of the human condition, an allegory for aging, and a cry of desperation in a rapidly industrializing society. There are many different interpretations of The Metamorphosis, from the oddly specific (it’s all about the dangers of insomnia) to something resembling Lost (it was all just a dream!). There’s also a Freudian theory that states, in essence, the book was Kafka’s way of getting back at his overbearing father.

9. VLADIMIR NABOKOV WAS A BIG FAN—AND CRITIC.

The Lolita author, in a famous lecture he gave about The Metamorphosis, called Kafka "the greatest German writer of our time." Nabokov was also a first-rate scientist and lepidopterist, and he concluded that Gregor Samsa had been transformed into a winged beetle. Despite his reverence, Nabokov the wordsmith couldn’t resist line editing Kafka’s story—or the English version of it, anyway.

10. STAGE PRODUCTIONS HAVE GOTTEN PRETTY CREATIVE.

How do you portray a man who turns into a giant insect on stage? Plays, operas and even ballet productions have done it using everything from distorted sets to animation to buckets and buckets of brown slime. A Japanese theater company did away with the bug motif altogether and made Gregor a robot.

11. IT WAS ON DAVID CRONENBERG'S MIND WHEN HE FILMED THE FLY.

When writing his script for the 1986 sci-fi/horror classic, Cronenberg couldn’t help but see the parallels between his story, in which a brilliant scientist accidentally transforms himself into a grotesque human/fly hybrid, and Kafka’s. In an introduction to a recent translation of The Metamorphosis, Cronenberg wrote that he thought of Kafka specifically when he wrote this line for the unlucky Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum): "I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake."

12. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH READ IT ON BBC RADIO

Can you imagine a more ideal voice for such a surreal story? The Sherlock actor read the novella in its entirety to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Sadly, the broadcast is no longer available for free on the BBC's site, but you can find it here.

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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