Literature Symbolism and the Use of Creatures: “The Metamorphosis,” “The Raven” and, “I heard a Fly buzz – before I died”
I as gaze through my window, the skies grow murky, sporadic gusts whistle through the frond heavy Washington palms while undercurrents of breeze ripple across the lake, light rain teasing the roof tiles, a precursor to the looming torrent of rain welling up in the ever-darkening cloud cover. The setting before the author (though his literary acumen belies the fullness of extent) presents the appropriate backdrop for the subject at hand, a departure from traditional literary critical analysis and trek into seeming contradictions, exploring artfully crafted prose and poetry juxtaposed with creatures eerie – perhaps even abhorrent, to define literary masterpieces.
Symbolism in literature takes many forms, some sublime and aesthetically pleasing, some almost universal (and common) in nature. This paper will examine the use of the creature (collectively speaking) as symbolic anchor in three works, “The Metamorphosis”, “The Raven”, and “I heard a Fly buzz – before I died”. The writers use these creatures, thoughtfully selected, to implant the essence of the theme and set the tone for their ethereal works.
Before delving into the works themselves, let us briefly examine the creature employed by the authors. The Ungeziefer, the Raven, and the Fly (wanting for classification, we will assume the common housefly).
DiYanni (2007) provides a translator's note regarding the German word, ungezifer, somewhat inadequately translated as “insect” (p. 612). Translating literature is a tricky process, diction being of paramount importance. As the note states, the word connotes “uncleanness” though the translator selected “insect” for literary aesthetics (ibid). Essentially then, we have a filthy, unidentified, vermin; a repugnant image of a repulsive (redundancy intended) creature.
In a raven we have a rather large (22 to 27 inches, 36 inch wingspan) member of the crow family with a deep, croaking voice. So the raven is a crow, no. However, the raven's somber black form and menacing quality provide the desired connotation whereas; the crow in general is rather that of a pest, not a symbol of things macabre. In some mythologies, the raven is a symbol of a messenger of providence. Probably finding its origin from the Bible, “And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.”
The fly, with its incessant, irritating “buzzing” sound and its aerial assaults on all things breathing, though unclean as its class associate, is typically associated with annoyance and insignificance. It also, to lesser degree, owning to it attraction to waste and carrion, obliquely connotes death and morbidity.
Anchoring the Symbol
“When Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed one morning from unquiet dreams, he found himself transformed into an enormous insect [ungezifer].” “Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;” “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – [.]” Lines from “The Metamorphosis” (opening sentence, p. 612), “The Raven” (lines 37, 38; p. 1174), and “I heard a Fly buzz – before I died” (line 1; p. 926), respectively. Kafka (“The Metamorphosis”) and Dickinson (“I heard a fly buzz – before I died”) place their symbolic “beacon” in the opening of their work, heralding its presence if not its significance. It takes Poe (“the Raven”) six stanzas of fearsome speculation to introduce his harbinger of despair, but its presence “stately Raven” clearly front and center.
Dickinson and Poe both emphasize their creatures in title case, bestowing emphasis, though Poe's Raven is a punctuating presence “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'” (lines 48, 84, 90, 96, and 102; pgs. 1174, 1175), counter to Dickenson's undercurrent, “With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz – between the light and me [the symbolic Fly]” (lines 13, 14; p. 927).
In all three, the creature finds itself in the title of the work itself (though in Kafka, the reference is inferential), an integral piece of the literary code key. Given the nature, and employment within the work, of the symbols (more on that later), it is appropriate that this is so. The prominence of the Raven and the soon obvious connotation of the title (setting aside the deeper subtleties for a discussion of theme and irony) in Kafka's work establish the importance of the creature's prominence (symbolically speaking) within the work itself.
Direct Use of the Symbol
Both poets use the creatures by name (Raven, Fly) consistently subsequent to their introduction, whereas Kafka, refers obliquely in the work's title, to the creature, other than descriptive passages from the first person. He does, however, reinforce its significance, in an obvious yet subtle manner, in the voice of the old widow house servant, “'Come on over here you old dung beetle!' or ‘Look at the old dung beetle!” (p. 634) In the poems, the creatures are central to the theme of the work, represented as an aural (Fly), and spectral (Raven) image, both significant to the central theme and to the tone of the work. From Dickinson, “. . . and then it was There interposed a Fly – With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz” (lines 11-13; p. 927), note that Blue and Buzz are emphasized, though “uncertain stumbling” is indicative of the failing mentioned in line 15 (her imminent passing). The buzz, more pronounced as the symbolic fades to climax (a fading cacophony of the earthly commonplace, to sleep). Poe, conversely, torments his narrator with the (metaphoric) voice of the creature incarnate. Dashing his hope of serenity from anguish, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore [give me the elixir to dull my pain of loss]!” (line 83; p. 1175), when he implores will he see his love in heaven lines 93-94; ibid), and “Take thy beak out from my heart, and take thy form from off my door [stop tormenting my woeful heart and leave me to peace]!” (line101; ibid), the Raven taunts “Nevermore.”
In Kafka's work, of course, we find the creature symbol personified in the form of the narrator concurrent with the broader, symbolic overtone of the work. The creature is literally intrinsic to the story as opposed to the auditory and nightmarish hallucinations spun in “Fly” and “Raven,” respectively. His ‘metamorph‘ is both literal and grotesque, but at the same time, cryptically subtle. Gregor becomes the stark image of what he felt inside, insignificant, repelled by the ugliness of his self-imposed servitude, making him feel like the “thing” he has now become. Though present, materially, throughout, the creature is not as significant to the dialog as to the entirety of the work.
As with most renowned literature, the selected works employ more than one level of symbolism. In “The Metamorphosis,” the picture of the woman in the “gilt frame,” found in the second paragraph (p. 612), and more dramatically highlighted in part II as Gregor protects it, “He would sit on the picture and not give it up. He would rather spring in Grete's face.” (p. 629). When viewed in the context of the story, we see the woman represents beauty and tangible, material things long denied the protagonist. It enhances, and may even be necessary to the story, but it does not stand without support, even though, at its surface, it might be easier to interpret than the more complex central symbol.
The core and essence of the two poems focus more than Kafka's work, Dickinson on the death of the subject and Poe on the despair and anguish of the subject's loss. Accordingly, the sub-symbols are more fleeting, though perhaps more integral to the work. In Dickinson, “And breaths were gathering firm for the last Onset [death] – when the King [Diety] Be witnessed – in the room” (lines 6-8; p. 926) represents the gathering, possibly praying, solemnly awaiting the subject's demise. Clearly important to the work and (reasonably) self-evident, nonetheless, subordinate to the central symbol. In Poe's work, “then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer [used in religious rites to burn incense] Swung by seraphim [the highest order of angels]. . .” (lines 78-80; p. 1175). Symbolic possibly of divine intervention hoped for by the narrator. Important to the flow and totality of the poem (establishing his mindset and longing for release of his suffering), one amongst many throughout, but, again, subordinate to the purveyor of the main symbolic meaning (the Raven).
In Kafka's work, the totality of the story encompassed by lesser symbols, and change in narrative perspective (from the limited omniscience of the protagonist, to omniscient perspectives in developing lesser characters) to name two, flows through and around the presence of the creature. The effect of which is to persuade the reader to consider the significance of the impact on the events unfolding on the secondary protagonists. However, the central theme remains underscored by the main symbol (the creature).
Symbols in Tone
In the introduction, the author asserts that the creatures employed in the subject works help to set the tone and highlights our co-stars, giving them character and some substance, in their own right. So why leave this discussion until the near the end of the essay. DiYanni (2007) asserts that the speaker's voice expresses the tone of a work. When coupled with other (written) elements the tone becomes clear (p. 779). While there is no quarrel to be made with that line of thought, a symbol, especially a prominent and pervasive symbol, as in the case of the three works under review, may contribute significantly to establishing that tone or at the very least validate it. Let us take a glance at how they lend themselves to the mood, or tone of each work.
In Kafka's work, it is one of futility, subjugation of will for the benefit of others, discuss and distain for the masters – and minions – of fated failure and cynicism and resentment. Recall the discussion of the ungerziefer, vermin; representative of repulsiveness and repugnance. How does one view those punctuating one's meaningless, empty existence with their self-importance and their selfishness. How does one view one's own sycophantic acquiescence because we lack the will or courage to change our lot. One might look upon those others (and self) like a sub-human form of life, scum, obsequious, VERMIN. Kafka painted the backdrop of his canvas with a thick brush. One needs only to see through the strokes to find the base that gathers them up.
In “The Raven” we see morbid despair and obsession at the loss of a love. Nightmares borne of grieving (and mental unbalance) lead the narrator into an ethereal journey where he begs for release and relief. His own mind has long denied this abatement of his suffering. It is dark and foreboding. The raven, a dark, carrion eating so called messenger (see Genesis 8:7) of the flood. Poe writes, “In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;” (line 38; p. 1174). Does he refer to the Biblical (or some mythological version thereof)? Is the narrator expecting deliverance only to find damnation? Either way, the raven lends itself handily to the mood of the work; its black silhouette (heart), its deep and eerie cry, and its foreboding image eerily iconic and emblematic of the narrator's despair.
Dickinson's poem, an elegy delivered by the dying herself. Neither overtaking the theme nor diminishing its solemn purpose, has the creature's presence provided a balance essential to bring the tale in focus, the earthly diminutive cast against the omniscience of heavenly presence? The world is fading, awaiting the “Onset,” the voices of her earthly existence barely audible, like the buzzing of a fly, loud in one's proximity, faint in retreat. Whether the fly represents that, the insignificance of the corporeal at the moment of ascension, or both, it encircles the work, opening it and bringing it to rest.
In each instance, for reasons varied but similar, the creatures, no doubt carefully selected, reinforce (and even set) the mood of the works. Each to serving unique purpose, at center stage, as foil, and as abstract, the living creature transforms itself into literary symbol, resplendently woven into the form and fabric of the respective works. Remove the creatures and the works descend from ranks of canonical mainstays to that of ordinary prose, uninspired poetry.
The tone, underscoring each passage, every nuance of verse, reverberating within the four walls of the theme like literary sonar, transforming words into image within the mind of the reader, becomes faint without the timbre of the creature. The airy lilt of the alto, as Dickinson's “Fly” the resonant, echoing tenor of Poe's “Raven,” and the anchoring bass of Kafka's “ungerziefer,” provide the melody, like a perfectly written score, harmonious and relevant.
Though many of literature's symbols are inanimate and time-honored, turns of phrases and twists of speech, some bold writers create loftier symbolic purpose from creatures unusual to such purpose, solidifying the canvas of their literary art. The choice of such a symbol, with its denotations and, more appropriately, connotations, add meaning and depth to the brilliance of words to paper, thoughts to mind, without which the work falls short of its message, leaving the reader wanting of meaning and lacking closure.
In each instance, the choice of creature defined the work. Used obliquely and metaphorically in Kafka's masterpiece, the hideous personification, both centerpiece to the story and evidence of the sad lives of the characters. As harbinger of passing in Dickinson's work, heralding in the separation from the living, then leading to closure to what lies next. Finally, as embodiment of obsession-driven madness, the Raven emerges from the shadows of despair and torment to haunt and possess the lost soul in his grief in Poe's eerie poem.
Bold choices, punctuating works worthy of anyone's literary canon, thoughtfully, daringly infused to catapult each to the acme of its genre. The writers use these creatures, thoughtfully selected, to implant the essence of the theme and set the tone for their ethereal works providing depth and meaning even beyond their already profound art.
DiYanni, R. (Ed). (2008) Literature: Approaches to fiction, poetry, and drama (2nd Ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill
 Technical references retrieved January 25, 2009 from http://www.worldbookonline.com/wbdiscover/article?id=ar834161&st=raven
 Genesis 8:7
 In-text page citations refer to DiYanni (2007) unless otherwise noted.