The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) by Franz Kafka, 1915

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by Franz Kafka, 1915

One night in September 1912, in a single eight-hour sitting, Franz Kafka wrote "The Judgment" ("Das Urteil"). It was his first successfully completed longer work. " This is the only way to write," Kafka noted in his diary, "with such cohesion, with such total opening of body and soul." At this point he felt encouraged to approach the novel form once more. On September 25 Kafka began the second version of Amerika. Between November 17 and December 6 he interrupted his work on the novel to write "The Metamorphosis" ("Die Verwandlung"), which was published in October 1915. Because of its proximity to "The Judgment" and "The Stoker" (the first chapter of the incomplete Amerika novel)—stories in which the father-son conflict is prominent—"The Metamorphosis" has often been read as yet another psychological conte à clef in which Kafka works out his complicated relationship with his own father.

"The Metamorphosis" centers on a son who takes over the role of the father as caretaker of the family, finds himself transformed into an enormous insect, and is left to die in his room by his visibly revived family. In much of the critical literature Gregor Samsa's transformation into a giant bug is taken one of three ways: to signify his sense of guilt and desire for punishment for having usurped the role of the father, to symbolize both a libidinous rebellion and the condemnation of such a rebellion, or to represent a rebellious assertion of unconscious desires and energies that are identical with the primitive and infantile demands of the id. Yet despite their profusion and persistence psychological readings of "The Metamorphosis" remain unsatisfactory because they leave too much unexplained.

Theodor W. Adorno, by contrast, recommended "the principle of literalness," an approach to Kafka that seems to go to the heart of "The Metamorphosis." "The first rule," wrote Adorno, "is take everything literally; cover up nothing with concepts invoked from above…. Only fidelity to the letter … can help." Thus we are inescapably confronted with the story's famous first sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Despite the strange nonchalance with which Gregor accepts his transformation, the course of the story makes clear that "it was no dream."

The story's first part is desperate slapstick. It shows Gregor struggling with comic and terrifying questions: What do you do when you are a bug? How do you get out of bed? How do you present yourself to your family and your boss? When Gregor finally manages to open the door of his room and reveals himself to his assembled family and his boss, their horrified reaction confirms that he is indeed a giant cockroach.

In part two the family settles into living with a bug. The narrative focus, however, is still inside Gregor's room. We follow his movements and share his gratitude when his mother and sister gradually transform the outfit of his cell from a human bedroom into the habitat of an animal. Part two ends, like part one, with Gregor breaking forth from his room and his father driving him back. But instead of shooing Gregor back as before with the help of a stick and a newspaper, the father now pelts him with apples. One of them gets stuck in Gregor's back and becomes a festering wound.

With part three the narrative focus shifts to the living quarters of the family. They no longer relate to Gregor individually (as sister, mother, and father) but react to him only as a group. They no longer see in Gregor a transformed family member but primarily an animal. The separation of the animal from the human beings is complete. This development is emphasized as much by the contrast between the family's newly developed commercial energies and Gregor's idleness as by the introduction of new characters. The family is renting a room to three bearded boarders and employs a strong-willed charwoman, who shows a certain disgusted fondness for the roach. She greets Gregor every morning with a colloquial abuse German speakers apply to human beings: "Du alter Mistkäfer." ("You old dung beetle.") Kafka, who was impressed by the unsubtle energies of the working class, took servants seriously. It is no surprise then to find the basis for the story's conceit comes from the mouth of an immensely vulgar woman. Kafka's story takes the servant's abusive metaphor literally. Each sentence in the story is literal and each signifies; "nowhere in Kafka," said Adorno, "does there glimmer the aura of the infinite idea."

And yet Kafka modifies his literalness when he allows Gregor to react to music. The sister, who had brought Gregor all his food, now plays the violin for the boarders: "Was he an animal," Gregor reflects, "that music had such an effect on him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved." Here Kafka points to the realm of infinite idea, which is not accessible to those confined to earthliness. Confusingly, it is the violin-playing sister who condemns Gregor to death when he upsets the boarders with his third and final emergence from his room. "We must try to get rid of it," she says. As if to indulge and oblige his family one more time, Gregor dies during the following night and is thrown out into the garbage by the charwoman the next morning. The remaining family members celebrate their liberation by taking a day off from their jobs and embarking on a train ride into the countryside.

"The Metamorphosis" abounds in enigmatic details such as the father's Edenic missiles or the bearded trinity that refuse to fit squarely into a psychological interpretation. Yet they call for interpretation while the story itself insists on their literalness. Those who succumb to the temptation to read the story symbolically, perhaps as a metaphysical allegory, soon find themselves in a maze of contradictions. What remains real about Kafka's story, however, is the moment of pain when Gregor understands that he is no longer himself—a person—but a thing. At that point, concentrating into a single moment Kafka's acute insight into the human condition, which for the Jews of Prague would soon become an inescapable fate, the story stops being a joke—metaphysical, psychoanalytical, or otherwise.

—Susanne Klingenstein

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The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) by Franz Kafka, 1915

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