Posted: June 15th, 2021
In situations of desperation, desolation or depression humans may become capable of acting inexplicably. When a person is faced with a grim situation he may try to deny the reality of the situation, and as such remain optimistic that all will be set right. The protagonists of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich must cope with these elements of self-delusions, their bitter wisdom and the fragility of their own hope.
People who believe they have nothing to look forward to, begin to change their perceptions of happiness to cope with their dismal situation. The human Gregor Samsa enjoyed happiness from making others happy, as seen through his intentions of sending his sister to the musical Conservatory or his ability to provide for his family. When he is no longer able to find happiness in human interaction, he begins to find happiness for himself in the simplest occurrences.
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“He especially liked hanging from the ceiling it was completely different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; a faint swinging sensation went through the body; and in the almost happy absent-mindedness which Gregor felt up there, it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and plopped onto the floor.”
During the initial stages of his metamorphosis, Gregor is proud and happy about his ability to provide such a comfortable life for his family. After his transformation he is not able to make others happy consequently being forced to seek pleasure for himself in the smallest things, despite how simple they may seem. Ivan Denisovich, also referred to as Shukhov, finds himself in a similar situation. He is forced to abandon the common goals shared by other men and to adopt a mentality where survival provides him with satisfaction. Ivan is happy about his day because he avoids additional punishment, has more than usual to eat, works at building a wall which he takes pride in and acquires some new tools. His enjoyment of these simple accomplishments demonstrates the changes which have occurred within him.
“Shukhov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler. The gang hadn’t been chased out to work in the Socialist Community Development. He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss has gotten them good rates for their work. He’d felt good making that wall. They hadn’t found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He’d bought some tobacco. And he’d gotten over that sickness.
Nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy.”
The happiness felt by Ivan results from incidents that others would take for granted. His additional labour in the prison is not for any reason other than for his survival and satisfaction. Rather than thinking of how he could be made happier by what he does not have, he appears happy with what he is given. The protagonists of both novels force themselves into believing they are happy, to be better able to cope with the grim reality of their circumstances.
Although there is no rationale given for their respective situations, the protagonists both have the knowledge that their life has changed for the worse. When Gregor reflects upon the life he once gave to his family, he begins to feel guilty about Grete having to care for him. His life has been based upon his role as the provider, but fulfilling his duties after the transformation is no longer plausible.
“Often during Gregor’s short stays in the city the Conservatory would come up in his conversations with his sister, but always merely as a beautiful dream which was not supposed to come true, and his parents were not happy to hear even these innocent allusions; but Gregor had very concrete ideas on the subject and he intended solemnly to announce his plan on Christmas Eve.
Thoughts like these, completely useless in his present state, went through his head as he stood glued to the door.”
His motivation has been fulfilling the financial and emotional needs of his family put forth on him, but he is no longer needed by his family. The Samsa family is now capable of surviving without his contributions, and seemingly are better people as they become independent. As the bug he is a burden to his family because his purpose in life has been made impossible to fulfill. Unlike Gregor, Ivan believes that he has a purpose (to work with his hands) but he is unable to because of an unfair conviction.
“Easy money doesn’t weigh anything and it doesn’t give you that good feeling you get when you really earn it. The old saying was true-what you don’t pay for honestly, you don’t get good value for. Shukhov’s hands were still good for something. Back home he’d surely find himself work making stoves, or something in the carpentry line, or mending pots and pans.
The only catch was- if you’d been convicted with loss of civil rights, you couldn’t get work anywhere and you weren’t allowed back home.”
Ivan is proud of the work he does with his hands but he is not permitted to choose his living because of the sentence. He is not able to return home and has lost his civil rights. His future will never exceed his past life. For Ivan true freedom means home but he will never have that freedom again. The male prisoners create a society in which they have the security of knowing what they will be doing and eating from one day to the next yet remain powerless over their futures. The changes caused by the peculiar situations give both protagonists a more pessimistic view of their lives.
The promise of hope causes people to be optimistic even in the grimmest of situations, but a lack of it may be detrimental. In the case of Gregor the fragility of his hope is a disadvantage. He retains a human sense of frustration, memory and optimism despite his increasing animal instincts. During the incident when Grete attempts to remove his furniture he at first seems passive to the notion but once his mother voices doubts, saying the removal of the furniture would be symbolic of the family giving up hope of his return, he too becomes more hopeful, even wanting to give up crawling to retain his humanity.
“Nothing should be removed; everything had to stay; he could not do without the beneficial influence of the furniture on his state of mind; and if the furniture prevented him from carrying on this senseless crawling around, then that was no loss but rather a great advantage.”
The hope of others around him greatly influences his own, as instanced when he opens his door to measure the reaction of his family to his initial transformation. Later Grete declares the bug would have already left if it really were Gregor. She is essentially giving up the hope that the bug is her brother; expectedly Gregor dies that night. The will to live for Ivan, however, is strong enough to overpower his hopelessness and the endless difficulties of a life he cannot control. He has enough hope of getting out of prison to maintain his own sanity, but not so much that he becomes dejected about his situation.
“Shukhov sort of liked the way they pointed at him- the lucky guy nearly through with his sentence. But he didn’t really believe it. Take the fellows who should’ve been let out in the war. They were all kept in till forty-six- “till further notice.” And then those with three years who’d gotten five more slapped on. They twisted the law any way they wanted. You finished a ten-year stretch and they gave you another one. Or if not, they still wouldn’t let you go home.
But sometimes you got a kind of funny feeling inside. Maybe your number really would come up one day. God, just to think you might walk out and go home!”
Ivan realizes that he will never have freedom yet wants nothing more than being released from prison. Restraining his hopes with a touch of reality enables him to find a balance between escape and contentment during his sentence. It is difficult to be truly happy when keeping the dismal reality in mind.
The protagonists find their lives are worse because they know it is not possible to find the happiness they once had. Despite this knowledge, they maintain the hope of returning to normal for as long as they can. This hope serves to protect the potentially false happiness they experience. Both characters are described as being almost happy because, despite their self-delusions, they can only obtain true happiness if their lives were to return to the way they once were; but that is unfeasible.
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