Good Endings: Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

March 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

I speculate that writing endings is so hard because prose has no structure — like, say, the key in music — whose abstract or mathematical dictates provide a “home” to go to. In a way, endings in writing are the opposite of those in music because while in music, you return to where you started — to the root note or chord — in writing, it’s a given that at the end of a story you’ll be somewhere different from where you started. But where? The difficulty of figuring out how to end something unconventional is the flipside of the difficulty in music — “What on earth am I doing?” (writing) versus “How on earth am I supposed to do this well?” (music).

I’ve written before about a great ending in Chekhov, and because examples of good endings to strange stories are so rare, I think it’s worth highlighting another gem, the ending of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Gregor is turned into a beetle and his family is baffled, irritated, and burdened by him for the length of the story. He dies, and they go out:

Then they all three left the apartment together, which was more than they had done for months, and went by trolley into the open country outside the town…The greatest immediate improvement in their condition would of course arise from moving to another house; they wanted to take a smaller and cheaper but also better situated and more easily run apartment than the one they had, which Gregor had selected. While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a buxom girl. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

Here is, all in one paragraph, a clear turn from the pages and pages of dour strangeness and busy-ness preceding. Life goes on with rising hope but, as is so essential in Kafka, note the mundane groundings of the mood — finding a cheaper house, finding a suitable husband for their daughter, steering their lives into the warmth of material comfort. Against the real horror of Gregor’s troubles, these are their “dreams”. (The wonderful physical touch, fleshing out the transition so to speak, is the setting of Grete’s young lithe body against the memory of Gregor’s monstrous one.)

It’s important to recognize and appreciate that this is not an ending to the story. Gregor died pages ago, and in this ending there’s neither a closure to his death nor a concrete future for the lives succeeding it. I mean, really, what’s the last event in the story? A girl gets up and stretches. It is a purely thematic resolution — a left turn contrasting in rhythm and subject matter and imagery all that’s come before.

Kafka, like Chekhov in his great ending that I linked above, didn’t “end” his story so much as round out the world he’d created. After all, beginning-middle-end is a linear structure, but all great writing builds a multi-dimensional world. How do you “end” a world? You can’t really, because the memories of it have already been formed, and its matter is already preserved in the reader’s mind. You can only, in the end, reveal one more fount in the richness of the creation.

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