Death and the Maiden and the Metamorphosis : a Comparative Essay

August 24, 2017 General Studies

When examining The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, their titles and storylines bear no apparent connection. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a quiet, travelling salesman is inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. The rest of the novella explores Gregor’s relationships with his parasitic family, reflections on life, and his perception of himself. Kafka powerfully depicts the extent humans go to, to provide for those they love, as well as what can happen when one does not pay attention to their own mental and physical needs.

In Death and the Maiden, Paulina Salas’ life is turned upside down when her husband inadvertently invites the doctor, who brutally tortured and raped her during a time of political unrest, to their home. She spends the rest of the evening psychosexually torturing him, in order to discover the ‘real, real truth’. Paulina had not been able to express her emotions in regards to her rape, and when confronted with the doctor, the dam explodes and her emotion floods her. However, there are certain parallels that can be seen in both works.

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One such parallel is pathos, or pity for the main characters, Gregor and Paulina, which is presented through imagery, diction, mood, and atmosphere. Imagery is used by both authors in various ways to evoke pity in the reader. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka uses meticulous descriptions to depict Gregor’s physical state. For example, “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes. ” (3) Though this is a horrible image, however the descriptions continue, and feelings of pity emerge from prior feelings of abhorrence.

Similarly, in Death and the Maiden, the descriptions of Paulina’s own torture, as well as descriptions of her torturing Dr. Roberto Miranda are revolting at first, however her actions seem justifiable considering her situation. “I want him to confess. I want him to sit in front of that cassette recorder and tell me what he did…” (41) She was kidnapped, tortured, and raped, and her pent up anger, frustration and loathing were rehashed on Roberto. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor says at the beginning, “What’s happened to me? (3) This questioning of his new physical state is entirely understandable, and it becomes easy to relate to Gregor’s confused emotional state, as someone who does not feel comfortable in their own skin. As well, the picture of the lady with the fur boa represents beauty and elegance, while Gregor has transformed into a grotesque insect. The contrast between the two clearly defined images also evoke pity, as the audience yet again sympathizes with Gregor for not being ‘perfect’ enough. This characteristic is similar in Paulina, in that her husband, Gerardo represents what she could have been; successful and generally happy with life.

Seeing someone who does not have to constantly battle their inner demons is a reminder of the pain and misfortune Paulina has had to cope with, evoking pity from the reader. It is interesting to see the use of language in order to evoke pathos in the audience. Gregor, due to his metamorphosis cannot speak to his family, an ability he lost in his transformation. It is mostly the narrator of the story informing the reader of the events that took place, Gregor’s feelings, as well as the reactions of his family and other characters.

When Gregor speaks, which is not often, he seems to have a one-track mind, with rambling thoughts and general incoherency. He has an inner voice, but because of his inability to verbally communicate, he was unable to impart his needs to his family, while still being able to understand them. Gregor is forced to suffer and sacrifice his personal life and relationships for the sake of his demanding family and occupation, which causes the reader to pity him. “I’ve got the torture of… seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate. To the devil with it all! (4) His incapacity to work alters and sours his familial relationship to an extent where they are now forced to work, to make ends meet. An example is when Grete, Gregor’s sister and primary caregiver says, “We must try to get rid of it,” (49) referring to Gregor as a thing, and something that could be disposed of easily. One may question the actions of the Samsa household; why would they not try to seek treatment or help Gregor in any way they could? It was heartbreaking to see Gregor discovering that he was completely alone, with no love or support, and he dies soon after.

Diction in Death and the Maiden served another purpose. Paulina expressed her opinions freely, starkly contrasting Gregor’s verbal suppression. She expresses her thoughts freely, however does not carry them out. For example, “I thought the only thing I want is to have him raped…” (40) Paulina uses harsh and vulgar diction, displaying her desperation, when reliving moments of her torture, to emphasize the dreadfulness of what she endured. She uses words as weapons to express her feelings, which may offend some readers.

Even Gerardo is shocked at what she is saying: “Doctor Miranda, she has never spoken like this in her life. ” Her use of vulgar language displays how deeply the rape has affected her, which in turn elicits pity in the reader. Mood and atmosphere are used by both authors to evoke feelings of pity. In The Metamorphosis mood reflects Gregor’s overwhelming emotions, expressed through his state of mind. His metamorphosis disgusts the family, thus the dominant mood of the novella is one of despair, gloom and isolation, eliciting pathos in the reader.

However, at one point there was a feeling of hopefulness on Gregor’s part. He is hopeful of returning to work, even though reversing his metamorphosis seems highly unlikely. He later is rejected by his own family, which makes for a depressing atmosphere. For example, his father had enough struggles dealing with Gregor, and shows this by hurling apples at him. “Gregor stopped dead with fear, further running was useless, for his father was determined to bombard him. ” (37) The prominent mood of The Metamorphosis is one of misery and wretchedness, which evokes pity in the reader.

In Death and the Maiden, the mood is disturbing and dark with a generally tense, ambiguous atmosphere. Initially, the reader can see Paulina’s fear materialize, when she prepares to defend herself by getting a pistol ready. The mood shifts to one of revenge and anger when she encounters Roberto in her own home. Many horrible things happened to Paulina when she was tortured, so her vengeful and angry tirade seems acceptable. The transition from victim to victimizer is apparent.

The tension throughout the play is obvious, as Paulina has reached a point where toying with her former victimizer gives her the power she has never been afforded. Her suffering must have been worse than what she was doing to Roberto. As well, the atmosphere is very ambiguous. The lack of clarity allows the reader to make many assumptions about the events, and the decision of who is guilty. “If only to do justice in one case, just one. What do we lose? What do we lose by killing one of them? What do we lose? What do we lose? ” (66) After these powerful lines, it is unclear whether Paulina actually kills Roberto.

The reader feels pity for Paulina because she has been pushed to the point where she is willing to take the life of a man. Because of the way the play is presented, the ambiguity, anger, fear and vulgarity evokes pity in the reader for Paulina. In conclusion, the lives of Gregor Samsa and Paulina Salas were turned upside down by an event that altered the courses of their lives. Detailed imagery is used by both Kafka and Dorfman to present a revolting image, of Gregor’s transformation and Paulina’s torture and rape to evoke pity from the audience.

Gregor was robbed of love and respect, while Paulina was robbed of her dignity and mental stability. The descriptions are horrible, and the characters themselves seem pathetic, thus pathos is established. Contrasting imagery is used to further emphasize faults within the characters. Diction is also used by both authors to evoke pity. Kafka uses Gregor’s lack of speech to call attention to his role as a pathetic character. As well, that which was spoken by other characters like his sister was rude and spiteful.

In contrast to Gregor, Paulina spoke her mind using offensive language, displaying her desperation. Her sad story and emotional journey evoked pity. Finally, mood and atmosphere elicit pity in both works where the mood reflected the characters’ emotions. Pathos for these characters shows the reader about their characters, as well as how they are affected by their mental and physical image. Kafka and Dorfman effectively use imagery, diction, mood and atmosphere to evoke pity in the reader, through the struggles of Gregor Samsa and Paulina Salas.


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