In both Metamorphosis and Death in Venice the auth

ors develop theparticular 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”.

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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

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 a very relaxed one such as that found in Venice. This can be seen by his
need to use make-up and dye his hair, for it makes him feel younger and
more attractive. His desire to change can be considered a response to the
losses that come with old age and physical illness experienced by the body
of an artist who has learned to appreciate beauty in all its forms.

The changes that the characters go through allow them to become more
introspective and realize what their real needs truly are. Gregor, through
his metamorphosis, is brought to the knowledge that he has been giving too
much attention to the needs of others and has given no satisfaction to his
personal needs. His physical illness acts as a handicap and therefore
brings him to appreciate certain aspects of his human life that he had
never noticed before. Unluckily, or maybe not, there is no way back and
Gregor is trapped in the body of a bug until his death and won’t have other
chances as a human being.

Illness, as described in Death in Venice, takes on a different meaning
for it has various subdivisions. Since Aschenbach, as Gregor, passes from
one extreme to another, he also assumes a more introspective attitude and
discovers his more feminine side. As a result of this, he changes
drastically and literally stalks a young boy around Venice. This can be
considered an illness because it is an explosion of emotions Aschenbach
never knew he had, and because he becomes a slave of his own emotions and
desires. “His head and his heart were drunk, and his steps were directed by
that demon who takes pleasure at trampling man’s reason and dignity
underfoot. (pg 196)” The word “drunk” here emphasizes the idea of not
having control. What seemed to initially be a platonic love mutates into
something more physical and the imagery slowly changes with it: the use of
darker images with negative connotations increases.

Certain traits of the novellas’ protagonists prove to be symptoms of a
light form of madness, which later on in the texts can clearly be described
as true mental illnesses. Both Gregor and Aschenbach seem to each have dual
personalities, which are contrasting. Conventions of society and the way in
which their family brought them up seem to be the main reasons why they
repress one of these sides by them considered negative. In Gregor, this
side can be considered relaxation or enjoying the positive aspects of life,
while in Aschenbach it is the southern European calm and more relaxed way
of facing life. This repression can only lead to an outburst seen through
Gregor’s transformation into a bug and Aschenbach’s degradation.

Throughout the novellas there are various references to social
structures that have the aim of curing illnesses. In part one, after seeing
the picture of his father, Gregor looks out the window towards the
hospital. Not only is this window an actual physical object, but it is also
an opening onto his thoughts, for he realizes he is ill. Gregor does not
understand what his illness is for it is an illness that no doctor can cure
nor alleviate. Only he can help himself by finding what his true needs are.

Gregor’s illness is due to a hunger for cultural stimulation, human contact
and love, which he never receives from his family who acts as if they “were
visiting someone who was gravely ill (pg 94)”.

In both Death in Venice and Metamorphosis the protagonists are brought
to a more reflective state of mind and liberated with their deaths. The
deaths of Gregor and Aschenbach can be considered one of the many climaxes
of the book for the characters are finally freed from the chains that have
been mentally imprisoning them. The deaths of both characters are very
significant for they both die as a consequence of physical illnesses:
Gregor dies because he is a starved bug and Aschenbach because of cholera.

The concept of illness truly is one of the many threads that tie these two
novellas and their protagonists together.

Word Count: 1,394


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