Swift and Kafka

By Meyers, Jeffrey | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Swift and Kafka


Meyers, Jeffrey, Papers on Language & Literature


Kafka recognized many of his own perverse ideas in Gulliver's Travels, which he first read in 1921 (three years before his death), before writing his late animal tales. (1) He identified with Gulliver and found in Swift not an influence but a literary soul mate who seemed to see the world as he did. In Swift's Gulliver's Travels man discovers his animal nature; in Kafka's stories the animals--gigantic beetle in "The Metamorphosis," ape in "A Report to an Academy," dog in "Investigations of a Dog," mole in "The Burrow," and mouse in "Josephine the Singer"--think, speak, and act like men, and provide a satiric commentary on human society. Metamorphosis is a dominant theme in Gulliver's Travels as in Kafka's most famous story. Though Gulliver stays the same size, he's incongruous and disproportionate--too gigantic or too minuscule--in relation to the people he visits on his weird voyages. He's a Brobdingnagian in Lilliput and a Lilliputian in Brobdingnag. Kafka's Gregor Samsa, though small for a human being, is big for a bug. In their grotesquely surrealistic Yahoos and beetles, Swift and Kafka reveal their pathological obsessions. Swift's Gulliver and Kafka's anti-heroes are perpetually despised and frequently humiliated outsiders, constantly terrified and profoundly alienated. Frequently enclosed in small cages, they find ingenious ways to escape. Gulliver--like Kafka's hunger artist, ape, and mouse-singer--is forced into degrading public performances. Though Swift is tougher and angrier, Kafka more self-pitying, both convey their tragic sense of life in a chaste prose style, leavened with ironic wit and black humor.

Both Swift and Kafka were disgusted by the human body. The giants in Brobdingnag, their physical defects magnified, force Gulliver to recognize the horrific aspect of human skin. Close up, the women are monstrous: the color of the nurse's nipple and breast "was so varified with Spots, Pimples and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous" (66). When the maids of honor lay him in their bosoms, he "was much disgusted; because to say the Truth, a very offensive Smell came from their Skins" (88). The Yahoo prostitutes--hairy, disgusting and abominable--are infected with syphilis. They have "acquired a certain Malady, which bred Rottenness in the Bones of those, who fall into their Embraces" (206). Writing to his friend Max Brod in 1922 in a rather contorted memento mori passage, Kafka cited Swift's emphasis on the horrors of human flesh to stress the brevity of human existence: "How short human life must be if flesh one hardly dares to touch because of its perishability, because its shapely contours last only a moment (which contours, as Gulliver discovered--but most of the time I cannot believe it--are disfigured by sweat, fat, pores, and hairs)--how short human life must be, if such flesh will last out a good portion of that life" (351). While witnessing a dispute at a country inn between his sister Ottla and an imperious landlady, Kafka again invoked Swift, reduced himself to Lilliputian insignificance and told Brod, "I stood there like Gulliver listening to the giant women conversing" (358).

When the shipwrecked Gulliver awakes in Lilliput, he finds himself helplessly tied down and shot with a shower of arrows that leave him "groaning with Grief and Pain" (6). Gregor Samsa, also attempting to regain his mobility and freedom, "had only the numerous little legs which he never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least" (24). He also feels a stinging pain in the lower part of his body. In Brobdingnag, the tiny Gulliver is in constant danger of physical injury and fears, for example, that a huge reaper "would dash me against the Ground as we usually do any little hateful Animal which we have a Mind to destroy" (63). When Gregor's father lifts his foot uncommonly high, Gregor, staring up from the ground, is frightened and "dumbfounded at the enormous size of his shoe soles" (63).

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