Metamorphosis and Death in Venice


In both Metamorphosis and Death in Venice the authors develop the particular theme of illness by creating two characters whose mental and physical traits continuously change. These “metamorphoses” allow the protagonists to reveal their true nature and personalities, break through all forms of repression, and reach a self-maturity. Apart from indicating the emotional and mental states of the characters, their illnesses have the purpose of freeing them from what could be defined as a “mental prison”.


The illnesses depicted by Kafka and Mann are very similar for they are both consequences of a long period of constraint for the two protagonists, Gregor and Aschenbach. Gregor’s repression is determined by two main factors: society’s continuous taking advantage of him and his excessive need to satisfy everyone (including his family) except for himself. This can be seen especially when he is described by the author as “a mere tool of the chief, spineless and stupid (pg78)”. Aschenbach, on the contrary, represses his true character and is a slave of conventions and traditions. This aspect is very noticeable in his actions:


“a sudden pang of delicacy or scandalization, something between respect and shame, caused Aschenbach to turn away as though he had seen nothing, for it goes against the grain of any mature person to exploit, even for private consumption, an accidentally observed moment of passion (pg 170).”


In this quote one can see how Aschenbach, as Gregor, actually represents the North European bourgeois culture of the early 1900s: repressed. As a consequence, both characters accumulate tension, which they release later on in the plot during their “changes”.


The Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines “illness” as an unhealthy condition of body or mind. The two protagonists created in these novellas are both at extremes, therefore, they are in no way balanced and can be seen as mentally unhealthy. Mental illness is often referred to as when there is no proper equilibrium between logic and emotion. Due to the fact that these characters have always lived at extremes, at the end of the novels they are not able to change moderately; on the contrary, they change drastically and therefore become slightly mad. Thomas Mann describes living at extremes as very dangerous for one can become slave of either part.


Although the protagonists repress different aspects of their personality, there seems to be one that is salient in both: rebellion against society and its conventions. In Metamorphosis and Death in Venice, the strength and power of society is continuously emphasized, for it is the main fear of both Aschenbach and Gregor who no longer want to fight it. In Kafka’s novella each character represents a different trait of society.


In both Mann’s and Kafka’s works, there are various “realms” of illness that can be linked to each other. The characters, in fact, both start with an emotional or mental disturbance and then pass onto a negative physical “mutation”. During the early 1900s and late 1800s scientists and psychoanalysts such as Freud elaborated theories explaining that the physical appearance acted as a mirror on our “inner state” and therefore was affected by our emotional and mental state. Kafka, born during this period of time, chooses to use this theory and transform his character into a bug: Gregor had always seen himself as one and therefore mentally and physically becomes one. This is why when the character wakes up, he doesn’t realize that he is no longer a man and continues to use the logic of a human being: “the first thing he meant to do was to get up in peace and quiet, get dressed, and most important of all have breakfast; only then would he think about the next steps, for it was clear to him that he would come to no sensible conclusions by meditating in bed (pg 79).”


It seems, according to the details given in the text, that Gregor’s mental problems all derive from a clear lack of attention and love, consequence of the presence of an obstinate military father and weak mother who never disagrees with her husband. Aschenbach, on the other hand, begins repressing part of his personality and results in an outburst of transgression. The protagonist passes from a very strict Germanic mentality to