Thursday, September 8, 2011

Franz Kafka Meets Ray Bradbury: My Students' Metamorphosis

The MetamorphosisA few semesters ago, I was teaching a course in modern fiction.  It was a fun class to teach, since the term "modern fiction" was broad enough that I could include a lot of my own personal favorites on the syllabus.  And so we did some David Mitchell, some detective stories, and of course, some science fiction and fantasy.

We started our "playing with reality" unit with a text many of them had already read--Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

They hated it.

It was too long, they said.  Nothing happened, others complained.  But mostly, they were frustrated with the story because they didn't understand it.  What, ultimately, is it all about?  What does it mean that Gregor Samsa turns into a giant "Ungeziefer"?

We talked about possible interpretations, we looked at the imagery that was carried throughout the text, we talked about Kafka's own biography and the possible connections between it and Gregor's story.

While they intellectually understood all of these ideas, nothing really seemed to sink in.  Nothing made the story resonate for them.

Ray Bradbury StoriesAnd then, after a short interlude during which we watched Bladerunner, we read Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket," a story that tells of a working-class man who builds a rocket ship for his family and creates an incredibly detailed illusion for them of a space journey, since they didn't have the money for a real trip into space.  It's a beautiful story of love, and dreams, and faith.

Not unexpectedly, my students really enjoyed this story.  They understood the portrayal of family, they were moved by the father's sacrifice for his children, and they were intrigued by the theme of illusion versus reality.  Even though the story is relatively short, our discussion was very rich.

And then came the moment that every teacher dreams of.  One of my students said, "You know, the father in 'The Rocket,' he's a lot like Gregor Samsa."

And then all of a sudden, they got it.  They understood The Metamorphosis in a way that they hadn't before.  They were able to see Gregor's relationship with his family as one motivated by a need to provide for them and care for them, and they were able to understand the frustrations that he faced as a result of his socio-economic position in life.  And even though some things still weren't totally clear, my students were willing to engage with Kafka's novel in a way they weren't before.

I wish I could say that I intentionally put these two stories together.  I wish that this magical moment of clarity came as the result of something that I actually did on purpose.

But it wasn't.  It was the result of my students, and it was the result of the stories themselves.

There is where the magic truly lies.