Analyzing the Psyche of the Novella: Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka
Stories of the absurd are often overlooked for their ability to tell the truth about human nature. We find them comical and strange, but they are so much more than that. Short stories with an edge can carry a lot of meaning, but also a lot of the author's philosophies as well. Both Leo Tolstoy in his work Death of Ivan Ilyich and Franz Kafka in his Metamorphosis reveal a wealth about their own personal philosophies and psyches through the medium of the novella. Each unique story seems quite absurd, but is in many ways analogies to the real lives and experiences of the authors themselves. Examining the psychological issues in the characters does show a quite strikingly similar subtext in each; both Tolstoy and Kafka felt unsatisfied in their lives and a burden to those around them because of these feelings.
In many ways, Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich does parallel some of the tragic events and experiences he saw in his own life. The novella was published originally in 1886, after Tolstoy had begun to be more and more radical, distancing himself from his family and loved ones. Tolstoy was truly quite a complicated personality filled with contradictions. For years, Tolstoy had seemed to loose his sense of faith, moving towards more of an atheist perspective during his young adulthood. However, he eventually had a moral awakening in the 1870s, which completely reawakened his faith and sense of moral piety. From this point on, Tolstoy evolved into much more of a moral thinker, who often say his life of aristocracy and privilege a burden than had lured him away from the true things in life. This was coupled with a very political side that resented the aristocracy and the serfdom that he experienced in Nineteenth Century Russia. He even went to the point of being an anarchist and his later works spoke out against corruption of the state. As he grew older, Tolstoy grew apart from his wife, Sofia. In fact, days before his death, he left her. She was critical of his more radical beliefs later in life and spoke out against him renouncing his wealth and aristocracy. The isolation he felt in these later years does parallel some of the isolation seen in his primary character Ivan. Just like Tolstoy, Ivan finds himself unsatisfied with his life as he gets older. To many, Ivan could have been the path Tolstoy feared he was going to repeat, if he did not take actions to stop it. Tolstoy did eventually leave his wife and started making those changes that he deemed necessary so that he did not suffer the same fate as his character Ivan.
Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis also parallels the authors own life and experiences. Kafka was known for creating experimental works of literature, pieces that threw out traditional literary conventions in order to generate shock and awe in his stories and novels. Thus, literary critics have often praised "Kafka's ability to elicit a sense of the absurd" (Proulx et al. 1125). Yet, this absurd writing style and nonconformist syntax is not simply a surface level strategy. Kafka embeds enormous underlying meaning in this sense of absurdity, which allows him to free himself of his own inhibitions to truly express himself in the literary context. One research study found that "the absurd story constituted a meaning threat for many participants, and these participants responded by perceiving the presence of patters in their environment and by abstracting patterns of association from their environment" (Proulx et al. 1129). By placing his messages embedded within the absurd, both Kafka and his readers can best release their inner feelings without the fear of judgment. Thus, many literary critics believe that Gregor Samsa is a representation of Kafka himself. Kafka reportedly suffered from insomnia and needed the attention and care of his family, especially his sister. Kafka felt that he had burdened those who loved him and may have suffered from depression and despair that his strangest character does. Ultimately, this demonstrates that Kafka's hideous creature Gregor Samsa is based off of his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy for having to burden his own family. Clearly, the absurd short novel was a method for Kafka to express himself and his own insecurities in a way that he felt was not as condemning as a more realistic literary tradition.
Both novellas share some major elements in common, which demonstrates a similar psychological state of the two authors. Tolstoy and Kafka both highlight decaying relationships between their protagonists and their families around them. These poor lost souls have horrible relationships with other intimate characters. Ivan and Gregor start out being the primary breadwinners in their families. Ivan is a court official who believes he has a good life until his sickness takes away his ability to work and provide for his family. He slowly sees himself deteriorating and believes himself to be a huge burden on those who love him. Tolstoy dramatizes the process of Ivan's death by dragging it out far longer than any of Ivan's family members would ever expect dying to take. Ivan is melodramatic, screaming, and utterly helpless for what seems like forever for his family who are growing weary of his needs.
Moreover, Kafka displays a similar character in Gregor, who is a traveling salesman and working hard to give his parents and sister a better life. Gregor is not particularly happy with his job, but he enjoys taking care of his family and thus endures whatever hassles he has. That is, until he wakes up one morning a monster. He is transformed into a vermin, who obviously cannot work and thus can no longer provide for his family. This puts stress on his parents and sister, who all have to seek employment to make ends meet. Neither character can provide for their families as they had in the past. Here, Kafka writes, "at that time Gregor's sole desire was to do his utmost to help the family to forget as soon as possible the catastrophe that had overwhelmed the business and thrown them all into a state of complete despair" (Kafka 76). Gregor watches his elderly father have to go back to work, his sister work, and his mother have to take in borders in the family home in order to pay all the bills and keep taking care of him. Gregor understands that they are growing tiresome of taking care of him and having to stay in a larger apartment in fear of something happening to his massive, distorted frame. His position as a man is taken away from him as he becomes more and more of a burden on his family. Ultimately, the fact that both Tolstoy and Kafka bring up these themes highlight their similar insecurities. For both authors, there was a sense that they lives they were living were not benefiting their families, and instead they were burdening those they were supposed to be taking care of. It is an incredibly emasculating experience, one which can cause depression and humiliation, as seen in the lives of their two protagonists, Ivan and Gregor.
As each character becomes more and more helpless, they see how unhappy life was for them. For Ivan Ilyich, he always thought he was living a good life until he had the long duration to face death. In his sickness, he sees that he was actually not as happy as he thought he had been. Rather, he realizes he had lived his life all the wrong way. Overall, Ivan is a conformist who fails to think for himself and lives constantly the way others tell him to. In the end, this is partly results in him realizing how unhappy he lived his whole life. In fact, Tolstoy opens the novella with the words, "Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (Tolstoy 15). He has no real freedom, which makes his life worthless at the hour of his death. When he is dying, he understands how he squandered away his life by living by other people's demands and not his own desires. Ivan says, "it is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death" (Tolstoy 58). In many ways, this mirrors what Tolstoy began to feel as he grew older as well. As previously discussed, Tolstoy grew disillusioned with his life and wanted to make serious changes. He found a renewed sense of faith that helped him avoid the same fate as his protagonist Ivan. In his Confession. My Confession, My Religion, The Gospel in Brief, Tolstoy writes "I never had a serious belief; I merely trusted…