The similarities between Kafka and Cervantes; the use of transmutation.

Transmutation is used by both Kafka and Cervantes respectively, in order to explore and expose the ugly nature of human society in relation to a lack of individuality and humanity as well as classism and social order. Through the exploration of Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ and Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, one can see the similarities in their critique of societal constructs. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ Kafka dissociates the lead protagonist from humanity, describing him as “ugeheueres Ungeziefer” (a monstrous sort of vermin) in order to explore the dehumanizing aspects of society which alienate him from humanity. It is likely such alienation resonated with Kafka. Much like Gregor Samsa after his transmutation, as a Jewish man living in Czechoslovakia in the late 18th and early 19th century, Kafka too was trapped between being both an insider and an outsider. Gregor’s societally restricted life as a traveling salesman manifests in his transmutation to a bug; a powerful indictment of the isolation which he faces due to societal expectations. Furthermore, Kafka’s use of metamorphosis lends itself to magical realism; combining fantasy whilst simultaneously exposing societal truths, thus forcing the reader to question the purpose of human life in a modern society that ignores and rejects individuality. Perhaps more importantly, it acts as a moral warning to the reader of the dangers of both rejection from, and entrapment in, modern society. Like Gregor, the lead protagonist of ‘Don Quixote’ also experiences transmutation, but this time through an imaginary transformation into a knight. Whilst ‘The Metamorphosis’ appears to comment more on the implications of social order on individual lives, the transmutation in ‘Don Quixote' challenges class and human power as the foundations of society. The transformation of the plebeian in ‘Don Quixote’ highlights the temporary nature of human power, demonstrated through the warped social order constructed in Don Quixote’s imaginary world. By exploding the limiting boundaries of social class, Don Quixote identifies the inner worth of the people he meets, imagining innkeepers as lords and country girls as princesses on merit of their character and not their social class. Writing in a time in which the social and political climate of Spain was under transition, it has been suggested that Cervantes draws on the experience of his Jewish ancestors. In 1492 Spain was turned into a Catholic nation and the Jewish community were forced to leave or convert to Catholicism, perhaps something Cervantes has explored in relation to the instability of the powerful and ruling class in the novel. It is interesting to note how both authors who have experienced a direct or indirect forced separation from society exercise the choice to create distance between their characters and societal constructs. As two of the most commended writers of world literature one doesn’t have to search far to find striking similarities in their work, particularly in ‘The Metamorphosis’ and ‘Don Quixote’. Their similar use of transmutation allows us to identify a common ground not only in their critique of society but also through their unique experiences within it.

by Alexandra Shepherd

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