Illness and Isolation
A comparison of Lu Xun and Kafka
Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman" both follow the plight of illness and disability as the main character suffers from a sort of illness, alienating themselves from their families both directly and indirectly. These short stories delve into isolation caused by mental illness and disability, how that affects the main characters, and how their friends and family see them.
Gregor, Kafka's main character, turns into a giant bug in the middle of the night, becoming isolated and a burden to his family. Readers can relate this to having a disability because suddenly, Gregor cannot function in the body that he had before. His life changes, and he has to adapt to a new body while dealing with his family's unique view of him. Lu Xun's Diary of a Madman is from the perspective of the unnamed mad man, who believes his family and the people around him are cannibals who are trying to make a meal out of him. This text serves as an allegory for Chinese politics and society, not knowing whom to trust.
In the article "Of Canons and Cannibalism: A Psycho-Immunological Reading of ‘Diary of a Madman,'" Carlos Rojas discusses how to interpret cannibalism as an epidemic of mental illness. Rojas explains, "For instance, one could follow the madman's lead and treat the diary as a depiction of an infectious disease that transforms its victims into cannibals and that transmits through the act of consumption; or one might instead follow the narrator's lead and approach the work as a symptom of a delusional mental illness (which the narrator calls "paranoiac schizophrenia" [pohaikuang]) that causes the madman to believe he is surrounded by cannibals" (Rojas 47). That term of paranoiac schizophrenic does not come up in the translation used here, meaning Rojas had a different translation that set up the story from a more concrete psychoanalytical translation of the story. Rojas's consensus is that audiences should read the text as China suffering from an extended illness of cannibalism.
Rojas is correct about the allegory of cannibalistic illness that takes the story away from the narrator. If this cannibalistic illness was an allegory for politics, the paranoia described is beyond that level. A shared cannibalistic illness would exist more as an apocolypes rather than the secretive meetings and plotting that Lu Xun describes. The narrator's mental illness, paranoiac schizophrenia, causes him to see politics as cannibalism, tearing apart families and consuming the people around him. The narrator's paranoia is all in his head, proven by how people interact with him.
The unnamed narrator of Diary of a Madman believes his family and everyone around him are cannibals that are trying to eat him. He sees and hears cannibals everywhere. When a woman says she "could take a good bite right out of" (Lu Xun 245) her child, he believes her to want to eat a part of her child. The narrator writes in his diary, "—it's perfectly clear to me now that all that talk and all that laughter were really a set of secret signals. Those words were poison! That laughter, a knife! Their teeth are bared and waiting—white and razor sharp! Those people are cannibals" (Lu Xun 246)! The woman's statement is a regular occurrence to the reader or any other person in the short story. The narrator is fabricating the cannibalistic interactions and signals in his mind.
As a result of his paranoia, he can no longer trust the people around him, including his friends and family. When Old Fifth Chen, his possible caregiver due to the narrator's inability to take care of himself, gives the narrator fish, the narrator sees it as flesh. "After I'd taken a few bites, the meat felt so smooth and slippery in my mouth that I couldn't tell whether it was fish or human flesh. I vomited" (Lu Xun 246). Lu Xun's narrator starts fine before devolving into a state of mental fabrication.
When the narrator finally gathers up enough courage or fear to confront his brother about his perceived cannibalism, it is easy to eavesdrop. Lu Xun describes that people looked on and gave the narrator small smiles as he faced his brother. To the narrator, it was because they were cannibals plotting to kill him. In reality, the onlookers were probably trying to stay calm, decide how to handle the situation in a friendly manner, or laugh at the narrator's outburst. His brother yelled angrily at the strangers, "Get out of here! All of you! What's so funny about a madman" (Lu Xun 251)? This quote gives us an outsider's perspective to the narrator instead of telling us what he thinks, which is unreliable.
Lu Xun's narrator has intentionally pushed away all his family and friends because of his mental illness, believing them to be cannibals out to get him. While his mental illness is not something that he is in control ate he isolated himself from his family in his mental state. Gregor from The Metamorphosis has a physical disability instead of a mental illness that causes him to transform from an able-bodied salesperson into a giant bug of some kind. His family pushes him away instead, being disgusted by him. Lu Xun's story comes from a first-person narrator, but The Metamorphosis tells the story from an omniscient point of view.
James A Metzger writes in his article, "Re-visioning Kafka's Metamorphosis Through Illness and Disability," about the disability and illness lens of the short story. Gregor's life is changed, and he can no longer live as he usually would in the body is previously had. Metzger explains,
It is not uncommon, for example, for the able-bodies to: blame the individual struggling to make sense of and adapt to a distressing new condition; feel a sense of revulsion or disgust; lose energy for their initial and well-intentioned commitment to compassionate, attentive care (otherwise known as compassion fatigue); and acknowledge a sense of relief when the burden of care is finally lifted, enabling a return to the familiar rhythms and pleasures of life" (Metzger 57).
All of this appears in Gregor's life after his metamorphosis. Gregor's father reacts to Gregor's new body with repulsiveness. His manager made excuses for the behavior until he saw him.
Gregor's manager comes to find Gregor when he does not go into work due to his metamorphosis. His mother and father try covering for Gregor, saying he is unwell. The manager yells through the door, "I thought I knew you to be a quiet, reasonable person, and now you suddenly seem to want to start strutting about, flaunting strange whims" (Kafka 9). While the manager does not know that Gregor has a new body and issues that come with that, he does know that his family believes Gregor to be sick. The manager still guilts Gregor into coming to open the door and reveal himself even though he has been an otherwise ordinary worker who only was absent for one day.
Kafka's Gregor was the one making the most money in the household. He would go off to work as a salesman, and even though he hated it, he did it to support his family and lifestyle. Gregor thinks to himself, "If I didn't hold back for my parents' sake, I would have quit long ago, I would have marched up to the boss and spoken my piece from the bottom of my heart" (Kafka 4). Gregor is a real family man and would put himself through misery for them. His family, however, does not do the same when he is in need.
After Gregor's metamorphosis, he hides from his family for as long as he can. It is not until Gregor's manager comes and threatens his job does Gregor comes out of his room. The reactions from his manager and family are that of disgust and terror that Gregor knew would happen but still revealed himself to save his family from debt. Kafka writes, "With a hostile expression, his father clenched his fist, as if to drive Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly around the living room, shielded his eyes with his hands, and sobbed with have of his powerful chest" (Kafka 12). In the initial shock, his family has betrayed him and cast him aside in their revulsion of him, changing their lives forever. Nothing would be the same as Gregor knew; the family he has been supporting would never look at Gregor the same again.
Gregor's parents abandoned him in his time of need, so his sister took over the role of caregiver, bringing Gregor food and visiting him when he could cover himself. Although she had taken this role, the sister was still repulsed at the sight of Gregor, so he had to surround himself with a sheet. In "Metamorphosis: Defending the Human," Michael Rowe writes, "Physical, intellectual, and social characteristics of patients may make them more or less attractive to their caregivers and either boost or drain their endurance in the worst of times" (Rowe 274). Grete already did not like the sight of her brother, so as she began to wear down, it was easier to give up. Slowly, as Grete had to take on work and school combined to keep the family afloat, the young woman would no longer be able to take care of Gregor. Kafka writes, "No longer considering what she could to give Gregor a special treat, his sister, before running to business every morning and afternoon, hurriedly shoved any old food into Gregor's room with her foot; and in the evening, regardless of whether the food had only been toyed with or- the most usual case- had been untouched, she swept it out with the swish of a broom" (Kafka 32). As Metzger points out, she lost her original energy as a caregiver, which caused Gregor's neglect.
When Gregor dies, the family is relieved. The father calls out, "now we can thank God" (Kafka 40). There is a relief because there is a burden no more. One less mouth to feed, to hide, or take care of. When Gregor dies, they become a family again. Mr. Samsa takes them out of the apartment for the first time in months, and they head out to the countryside to process everything. That is when they notice how much the daughter has grown while they were preoccupied with Gregor.
Both Gregor and the Madman narrator suffered from an illness that affected their outlooks on life. Gregor's disability was physical and caused a change in how he was treated and looked upon by his family. Lu Xun's narrator had a mental illness that changed how he saw everybody else around him, at the same time causing his peers to view him differently than they would someone else. Both their illnesses push them into isolation. Gregor dies, but the narrator's diary ends, leaving the audience to wonder what would become of him. Kafka gives the reader a solid ending to Gregor's tale of woe, while Lu Xun provides us with an end that is not a hard one, leaving the reader to ponder all the chaos that ensued.
Metzger, James A. “Re-Visioning Kafka's Metamorphosis through Illness and Disability.”
Journal of the Kafka Society of America, 33/34, no. 4/5, 2009, pp. 56–61. MLA International Bibliography, web-b-ebscohost-com.libproxy.fullerton.edu/ehost/detail /detail?vid=3&sid=fe17bf5a-0a6f-493d-8df1-35599abd014d%40pdcvsessmgr01&bdata =JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT 1zaXRl#AN=2012790165&db=mzh.
Metzger explores how Kafka’s Metamorphosis reflects disability and how it affects the family. I agree with Metzger that people with disabilities are often dehumanized.
Rowe, Michael. “Metamorphosis: Defending the Human.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 21, no.
2, 2002, pp. 264–280. MLA International Bibliography, doi:10.1353/lm.2002.0024.
Rowe discusses how caregivers have to remember the humanity of the person in need. I agree with his position on this matter.
Rojas, Carlos. “Of Canons and Cannibalism: A Psycho-Immunological Reading of ‘Diary of a
Madman.’” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, pp. 4776. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.lib-proxy.fullerton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN= 2011342025&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
About the author
Hello! I am one semester away from graduating with my English BA. I work as an informal STEM Educator and Writing Tutor. I like to write and get my thoughts out in my essays and short stories. Stay tuned :)