In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, animal symbolism is used to describe the protagonists and their relationships within their families. However, both authors use animal symbolism in different methods to exemplify these relationships; while Ibsen uses nicknames to describe Torvald’s condescending view of Nora, Kafka uses a transformation to show how Gregor has turned into the person he is inside. Both authors use these methods to clearly demonstrate the characters’ personalities and characteristics, they way they are viewed by their loved ones, and how they interact with other people.
In A Doll’s House, we get a clear picture of Nora’s daughter-father relationship with her husband, Torvald, through the use of belittling animal nicknames, which he seems to think suit her. Throughout the play, we find Nora acting like a child; she secretly takes macaroons, she constantly begs Torvald for money, and she shows off to her friend, Kristine Linde. These are characteristics typically seen in children, and Torvald exemplifies these characteristics in her by calling her nicknames such as “my little skylark,” (Ibsen 1), and “my little squirrel,” (Ibsen 2). In The Metamorphosis, Kafka uses a transformation to reveal Gregor’s personality.
In the beginning of the story, we find Gregor waking up in bed as a cockroach. Gregor locked himself in his room the previous night, indicating that he has a cowardly nature, as do insects. When the chief clerk from Gregor’s work comes to talk to him, we find out that his work ethics are poor, indicating that he is lazy. “For some time past your work has been most unsatisfactory.” (Kafka 77). Since he still lives with his parents, we can assume that he is not able to look after himself, although he is the breadwinner of the family; though he is supplying his family with an income, he is not able to stand on his own two feet and live in a house of his own while supporting his family. Gregor expresses his discontent with his job and his lifestyle when he says “If I didn’t have to hold my hand because of my parents I’d have given notice long ago,” (Kafka 68-69). In these ways, the characteristics of Nora and Gregor are revealed through the use of animal symbolism.
Animal symbolism is also used to illustrate the relationships between the protagonists and their families. By calling Nora by affectionately belittling names, Torvald evokes her helplessness and her dependence on him. The only time that Torvald calls Nora by her actual name is when he is scolding her after he finds out that she illegally borrowed money from Krogstad. When he is greeting or adoring her, however, he calls her by childish animal nicknames, such as “skylark” and “my little song-bird,” (Ibsen 31). By using such diminutive names, Torvald not only asserts his power over Nora but also dehumanizes her to a great degree.
When he implies that Nora is comparable to the “little birds that like to fritter money,” Torvald suggests that Nora lacks the ability to deal properly with financial matters. This indicates a sexist attitude towards Nora, which furthers the father-daughter relationship they obtain. However, Gregor faces a different torment. After his family sees that he has turned into a cockroach, his mother shuns him, and his father beats him. Gregor’s sister seems to try to help him at first; however, we later find that she considers him a burden on the family and wants him to leave.
When Torvald receives the letter stating that he and Nora will be safe, his change in attitude marks the antithesis of their parent-child relationship. Before he receives the letter, Torvald is furious with Nora for illegally borrowing money from Krogstad, even though it was used to save his life. Similarly, before Gregor undergoes the metamorphosis, he is praised as the breadwinner of the family and is treated like a human being. However, after his transformation, he is shunned by his family, and his father abuses him, for he is now useless to the family as he is unable to work. Torvald says “Now you have ruined my entire happiness, jeopardized my whole future,” (Ibsen 76) expressing his anger towards Nora, as she is no longer his “little skylark,” but the person who has ruined his life. However, once he reads through the letter, he shouts with joy, exclaiming “Nora! Nora! I must read it again. Yes, yes, it’s true! I am saved! Nora, I am saved!” (Ibsen 77).
By only referring to himself, he is portraying her insignificance as a woman, and is only concerned about himself. He then proceeds to call her “a hunted dove I have rescued unscathed from the cruel talons of the hawk, and calm your poor beating heart.” (Ibsen 78) to express that he has saved her, when in fact it is just the opposite. This does not portray how a husband should feel towards his wife, and thus exemplifies the condescending sexist attitude he has towards her. This causes an inner transformation in Nora, as she decides she must leave Torvald in order to come to terms with herself.
In The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s transformation changes how he interacts with his family and how he is treated by his father. However, although he is being shunned by his family, he tries to make them feel comfortable. “During the daytime he did not want to show himself at the window, out of consideration for his parents,” (Kafka 100). This does not pose a healthy relationship between Gregor and his family, as he is being shunned in spite of his efforts to keep sanity in the house. He is avoiding trouble at all costs; yet, his family will not cease to make him feel like an outsider.
The most recurrent relationship we see is one between Gregor and his sister, which turns out to quite different from what it started as. In the beginning of the story, Grete is the only person in the family who makes sure he has food to eat; even his mother doesn’t realize that she has left him with no nourishment, and Gregor begins to think that he can only depend on his sister. Later on in the play, however, we find that she truly despises her brother, saying “We must try to get rid of it… When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can’t stand this continual torment at home on top of it. At least I can’t stand it any longer.” (Kafka 124).
This contrasts her former care for her brother, as she cannot bear to look after a bug. “He must go. That’s the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor… If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature, and he’d have gone away on his own accord.” (Kafka 125). Grete has thus turned on her brother, ending their relationship for good.
Animal symbolism is used in A Doll’s House and The Metamorphosis to portray the characteristics of Nora and Gregor, and to show how they interact with their families, using different methods. While Ibsen uses nicknames to create a father-daughter relationship between Torvald and Nora, Kafka takes a more direct approach by having Gregor physically turn into a cockroach, exemplifying his inner self, and thus affecting his status in his family. However, although both authors use different methods, both are displaying the emotion felt by the protagonists and the journey they take throughout the novels. In this way, they have both used animal symbolism to describe the changes that take place in the protagonists, whether internally or physically, and how they have affected their relationships.