Deirdre Moore | April 2013

Samsa and Seuss: Analyzing Literature through Character Correspondence

Lately I have been quite inspired by things I have heard on the radio.  The latest was a reading of a set of letters supposedly exchanged between Dr. Seuss and Franz Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa from “Metamorphosis” written and performed by David Rakoff and Jonathan Goldstein respectively.  The letters were ingeniously written capturing and juxtaposing the surreal world of Kafka with the humorous yet poignant world of Dr. Seuss.  It got me to thinking how much analysis this required of the writers not only of content and character but of writing style and what a fantastic tool this would be to use in the classroom to inspire analysis of literature, writing and performing.

The letters written in the voice of Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa are formal and grave sounding while Dr. Seuss’s are written in rhyme and sound playful and whimsical.

Jonathan Goldstein (writing and speaking as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa):

Herr doctor, I find myself, for reasons inexplicable to me or my loving family, to have woken up this morning transformed into a cockroach. I am reasonably certain this is not a dream…. I write to you because I have heard of your brilliance and your keen appreciation for the absurdity of this world. Please help. Yours, Gregor Samsa, Prague.

David Rakoff (writing and speaking as Dr. Seuss):

Samsa, I’ve only just opened your letter. Fear not, worry neither. We’ll soon have you better…. Rest assured, I’ll endeavor to glean and deduce. You’ll be better than ever or my name isn’t Seuss.

Throughout the correspondence Samsa becomes increasingly clear on what he feels he must do to protect his family and in the end it is Samsa’s sister who replies for the last time to Dr. Seuss.  In keeping with the wisdom that is always embedded in Dr. Seuss’s playful rhyme, David Rakoff writes,

….Samsa, I need you to martial your will. There isn’t a purgative, poultice or pill or anything else on the pharmacy shelf that will make you so healthy as much as yourself.  You think your new body has made you a bother. You hold yourself guilty while blameless your father. Gregor, we’d all die if physical beauty was needed for others to render their duty….

Jonathan Goldstein writing as Gregor’s sister Grete replies,

….I think Gregor may well have starved himself to death…. Before our charwoman disposed of him, I took one last look and saw that Gregor’s shell had cracked open. And just underneath were little wings. He was a beetle, not a cockroach as we had feared. A beetle, nothing more. Even the word is lovely.  I know that ever since his childhood, Gregor had always had very vivid dreams of flight that left him happy in the morning. If only he himself had known, I kept thinking….

The transcript and performance of this correspondence could be studied and used as a model for students or it could simply inspire you to create a similar assignment.  Students could compose the letters independently or in pairs.  The letters could then be presented as a series of monologues by one actor playing both parts or two actors each performing the letters s/he wrote.  Such an assignment would nicely align with the CCSS for Narratives under “Text Types and Purposes” and “Production and Distribution of Writing” and integrate with theater standards in your state.

May this inspire you to find new ways to explore literature in your classroom!  To view the full transcript and hear the performance, visit the archives of “This American Life”.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.