Franz Kafka 1915
“The Metamorphosis” is probably the best-known story written by the Czech-born German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka, ranking with his two novel-length masterpieces, The Trial and The Castle.
First published in 1915 in German (under the title “Die Verwandlung”), “The Metamorphosis” was written over the course of three weeks in November and December 1912. Kafka at one point contemplated publishing it along with two other stories about father-son relations in a collection to be called Sons, but later decided to issue it on its own. It was first translated into English in 1936, and has been translated several times since.
The haunting story of a man transformed into an insect has attracted numerous commentators, who while agreeing on the high quality and importance of the story disagree strongly about what it means. Freudian, Marxist, existentialist, and religious interpretations have all been proposed, and there has been debate over whether Gregor Samsa, the man-turned-insect, symbolizes the human condition.
It is generally agreed, however, that the story portrays a world that is hostile and perhaps absurd and that major themes in the story include father-son antagonism (perhaps reflecting Kafka’s difficult relationship with his own father), alienation at work, isolation, and self-sacrifice.
The story is sometimes praised for its symmetrical, three-part structure and its use of black humor, and its symbols (such as the lady in furs and the music played by Gregor’s sister) are sometimes puzzled over, but what makes the story memorable is the central situation of the transformation of a man into an insect and the image of the man-insect lying on his back helplessly waving his little insect legs in the air.
Born in Prague in 1883 into a Jewish family, Kafka lived the life of an isolated loner. He never married, though he was engaged several times, and he lived most of his life in his parents’ house. He had a difficult relationship with his businessman father, which he described at length in “Letter to His Father,” and had difficulty writing at home amidst the noise and distractions of a household that included three younger sisters and servants.
After graduating from university, Kafka took a job in an insurance company, which he hated; he later found a more congenial position in the Workmen’ s Accident Insurance Institute, but still felt that his full-time job interfered with his writing. He eventually had to give up his full-time job because of illness: throughout his life he was prone to a variety of real and imaginary illnesses, and became a vegetarian in an attempt to improve his constitution. He died of tuberculosis a month before his forty-first birthday, June 3, 1924.
Although Prague was a Czech city, it had a sizable German minority, and the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the Germans. The Kafka family was no exception, and Kafka’s first language, and the language he wrote in, was German. He began writing at an early age, but destroyed most of his childhood works and remained very critical of his writings all his life. He had to be encouraged, most notably by his friend and fellow writer Max Brod, to keep on writing and publishing. “The Metamorphosis” was one work that he did think worth publishing, though he was critical even of it when he first completed it.
At the end of his life, Kafka felt so negative about his works that he instructed Brod to burn his unpublished manuscripts and make sure that his published works were never republished. Brod, however, ignored these instructions and brought out posthumous editions of two of Kafka’s previously unknown masterpieces: The Trial and The Castle.
As the story opens, Gregor Samsa has already turned into a gigantic insect. He notices this, but does not seem to find it horrifying or even that unusual, merely an inconvenience or perhaps a delusion. He worries mainly that he has overslept and will be late for work. He also thinks to himself about how unpleasant his job is and how he would have quit long before now if not for having to earn money to pay off his parents’ debts.
Gregor’s parents and his sister knock at his locked bedroom door and ask if something is the matter. Gregor tries to answer, but his voice sounds strange, like a “horrible twittering squeak.” He is also unable at first to control his new insect body well enough to get out of bed; his little insect legs wave helplessly as he lies on his back.
The chief clerk from Gregor’s job arrives, demanding to know why Gregor has not shown up for work. This irritates Gregor, who thinks it is excessive of his firm to send such a high-level person to inquire into such a minor deviation from duty. When the chief clerk, speaking through the door to the still unseen Gregor, criticizes him and hints that he may lose his job, Gregor becomes even more upset and makes a long speech in his defense which none of the listeners can understand. “That was no human voice,” says the chief clerk. Gregor’s mother thinks he must be ill and sends his sister, Grete, for a doctor. Gregor’s father sends the servant girl for a locksmith.
Gregor meanwhile has decided that the best thing will be to show himself. With great difficulty, using his toothless insect jaws, he turns the key in the lock and then pulls the door open. At the sight of him, the chief clerk backs away, Gregor’s mother falls to the floor, and his father first shakes his fist and then begins to cry.
Gregor is anxious to keep the chief clerk from leaving and spreading bad reports about him— Gregor’s main concern is still the possible loss of
his job—but the clerk rushes out, yelling “Ugh!” and his father shoos Gregor back into his room.
Gregor in this section of the story becomes more and more insect-like. He discovers that he is most comfortable under the sofa and comes to enjoy crawling up the walls and hanging from the ceiling. He also learns that he no longer likes fresh food, but prefers the half-decayed scraps that his sister leaves for him. His sister is now the only one who takes care of him, but even she seems disgusted by him. Realizing this, Gregor arranges a sheet in front of the sofa to hide himself from her.
Thinking that it might be best for Gregor if he had more room in which to crawl, Gregor’s sister decides to remove his furniture and gets her mother to help. Gregor thinks this is a good idea too until he hears his mother say that perhaps after all it is wrong: it is signaling to Gregor that the family has given up all hope that he will return to human form. Suddenly feeling very attached to the symbols of his human past, Gregor rushes out from his hiding place under the sofa and decides to defend his belongings, especially the picture on his wall of a lady in furs, which he climbs on top of. When his mother sees him, she faints, and the ensuing confusion ends with Gregor’s father attacking Gregor by bombarding him with apples, one of which seriously wounds him. It is Gregor who now faints, but before he loses consciousness he sees his half-undressed mother rush into his father’s arms.
Without Gregor’s income to support them, the other family members, who formerly did not work, now all take jobs and as a result complain of being overworked and tired as well as of being uniquely afflicted—presumably referring to their having to take care of Gregor. Gregor meanwhile is still suffering from being struck by the apple; in fact, the apple has lodged in his back, no one has bothered to remove it, and the area around it has become inflamed. Gregor also feels neglected and loses his appetite, and has to put up with having his room turned into a dumping area after the family takes in three lodgers. As well, he is tormented by the new charwoman the family hires to replace the live-in servant they could no longer afford.
One evening Gregor’s sister plays the violin for her parents and the lodgers. Gregor is greatly affected by the music and thinks it is opening a path for him to some unknown sort of nourishment. He ventures out of his room, intending to reach his sister, all the while fantasizing about getting her to move into his room with her violin, where he would protect her from all intruders and kiss her on the neck.
When the lodgers see Gregor and for the first time realize that they are sharing a house with such a creature, they instantly give notice and say they will sue for damages. Gregor’s sister says it is time they got rid of Gregor; he is driving away their lodgers and generally persecuting his family, and he is not really Gregor anymore, just a creature.
Gregor retreats to his room, feeling weak and thinking that he must disappear as his sister wanted. He dies that night and is disposed of the next day by the charwoman. His death seems to energize the family, especially Mr. Samsa, who stops being deferential to the three lodgers and instead orders them out of the house.
The story ends with the three surviving Samsas on an excursion into the countryside thinking about their prospects. They decide that things are not so bad: their jobs are actually promising, and Grete has blossomed into an attractive young woman for whom her parents will soon find a husband.
Hired by the Samsas to replace their live-in servant, the charwoman is a tough old woman who, unlike the other characters, is neither horrified nor frightened by Gregor’s insect form. She even refers to Gregor affectionately as “the old dung beetle” and less affectionately threatens him with a chair. She is the one who discovers that Gregor has died and who cheerfully disposes of his body.
The chief clerk from Gregor’s firm comes to the Samsa house to find out why Gregor has not shown up for work. When Gregor delays coming out of his room, the clerk criticizes him for poor work performance and reports that the head of the firm suspects Gregor of embezzling funds. When Gregor finally emerges, the clerk flees in horror.
See Mr. Samsa
See Mrs. Samsa
See Grete Samsa
Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of the story, is a self-sacrificing, dutiful young man who is mysteriously transformed into a giant insect as the story begins. He lives with his parents and his sister, whom he has been supporting by working as a travelling salesman, a job he very much dislikes, but which he devotes his life to: he seems to have no close friends and no social life. There are hints of repressed resentment in Gregor’s attitude toward his family; he seems to feel that his sacrifices for them have not been properly appreciated. And despite his dutiful nature, he does not seem very close to his family, except for his sister, whose musical studies he has been planning to finance.
After his transformation, Gregor’s character changes somewhat: on two occasions, he puts his own desires ahead of what others want, first when he tries to defend his belongings in opposition to his sister’s plan to remove them, and second when he seeks to obtain the mysterious nourishment associated with his sister’s violin playing. In the end, however, he reverts to his self-sacrificing ways by willingly going to his death because his family wants to be rid of him.
Grete Samsa, usually referred to in the story as Gregor’s sister, is the family member Gregor seems closest to and is the one who takes care of him after his transformation. Even she seems disgusted by his new form, however, and she is the one who at the end demands that he be got rid of.
Before the transformation, the seventeen-year-old Grete leads an idle life and is regarded by her parents as “a somewhat useless daughter.” After the transformation, she becomes a sales clerk as well as taking on the responsibility of caring for Gregor. Tired out by all these new duties, she begins to neglect Gregor, but is furious when her mother cleans Gregor’s room, seeing this action as an invasion of her domain.
Twice Grete does things that lead Gregor to leave his room, for which he suffers serious consequences. First, her decision to remove Gregor’s furniture leads to a confrontation in the living room that ends with Gregor being seriously injured. Later her violin playing lures Gregor into the living room again, provoking the conflict that leads to his death. She is also the one who argues the most strongly for getting rid of Gregor. After Gregor’s death, Grete blooms, and her parents think she is ready for a husband.
Mr. Samsa, referred to only as Gregor’s father until Gregor’s death, is a failed businessman who has been idle for five years, living off what Gregor earns. He seems quite antagonistic to his son, fierce toward him, though at the same time weak: when he first sees the transformed Gregor, he shakes a fist at him, but then breaks down and cries.
It is the fierceness that dominates, however. The first two times Gregor ventures out of his room, his father forces him back in, the first time brandishing a walking stick and a newspaper at him, the second time bombarding him with apples. He does injury to Gregor both times.
After Gregor’s transformation, Mr. Samsa is also transformed; before, he was a sluggish man who hardly ever got dressed and who could barely walk; now he is a bank messenger in a smart uniform who is reluctant ever to take it off. He
- In 1987, there was a British television adaptation of “The Metamorphosis.” Called Metamorphosis and starring Tim Roth as Gregor Samsa, it was written by Steven Berkoff and directed by Jim Goddard.
- Steven Berkoff also wrote a stage adaptation of the story, which was first performed at the Round House in London in 1969 with him in the role of Gregor Samsa. Between 1969 and 1992, there were nine productions of Berkoff s adaptation, including ones in 1986 at the Mermaid in London with Tim Roth, in 1988 in Paris with Roman Polanski, in 1989 in New York with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and in 1992 in Tokyo. The text of the adaptation can be found in ”The Trial”; “Metamorphosis”; “In the Penal Colony”: Three Theatre Adaptations from Franz Kafka by Berkoff (Oxford, 1988). Berkoff discusses the various theatre productions in his book, Meditations on “Metamorphosis”(Faber, 1995).
- In 1976, a Swedish film directed by Ivo Dvorak was made of “The Metamorphosis” under the title Forvandlingen.There have also been two short animated versions of the story, one a 1977 Canadian film directed by Caroline Leaf and called The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, and the other an eight-minute-long 1999 Spanish production directed by Charlie Ramos.
- There is a 1993 British short film called Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.This odd production is not an adaptation of “The Metamorphosis,” but it does provide a fanciful, fictional account of how Kafka supposedly wrote the story, showing him as being constantly interrupted while he tries to decide what sort of creature Gregor Samsa will be transformed into. Written and directed by Peter Capaldi, it stars Richard E. Grant as Kafka and Crispin Letts as Gregor Samsa.
- Another odd production is the 1989 film called Nabokov On Kafka: “The Metamorphosis,’’ directed by Peter Medak, in which Christopher Plummer plays the author Vladimir Nabokov giving a lecture on “The Metamorphosis.”
- ”The Metamorphosis” was recorded on audiocassette in 1994. Read by Alan Hewitt, the cassette version, on two tapes, is three hours long and is unabridged.
is still weak in some ways, though, waiting cap in hand on the lodgers, for instance, until Gregor’s death, at which point he becomes invigorated and is able to stand up to both the lodgers and the charwoman.
Mrs. Samsa, who is referred to as Gregor’s mother throughout except after Gregor dies, is perhaps the character most sympathetic to Gregor, and the most willing to come to his defense. When something first seems wrong with Gregor, she assumes he is ill and wants to send for the doctor. When the chief clerk is being critical of Gregor, she assures him that Gregor is a very hard worker. When Mr. Samsa throws apples at Gregor, Mrs. Samsa rushes to intervene.
On the other hand, Mrs. Samsa cannot really stand to look at her son in his transformed state: the first two times she does so she screams and faints. She is also not strong enough to defend Gregor successfully: she allows Grete to overrule her on whether to remove Gregor’s furniture; and when Grete and Mr. Samsa begin to discuss getting rid of Gregor, Mrs. Samsa has an asthmatic fit and is unable to intervene.
The Three Lodgers
Arriving in the Samsa household near the end of the story, the three lodgers are serious gentlemen who acquire power over the household. They always act together, as if they were a single character, though they do have a leader (“the middle lodger”). It is their request that leads to Grete’ s violin concert in the living room. When they discover Gregor, they give notice and threaten to sue, but when Mr. Samsa orders them out they leave quietly.
Alienation at Work
One of the themes of the story is the unpleasantness of work. Gregor Samsa hates his job as a travelling salesman, but must continue doing it to pay off his parents’ debts. There is no suggestion that he gets any job satisfaction; all he talks about is how exhausting the job is, how irritating it is to be always travelling: making train connections, sleeping in strange beds, always dealing with new people and thus never getting the chance to make good friends, and so forth. Moreover, it turns out that Gregor works for a firm that does not trust its employees at all: because he is late this one day, the chief clerk shows up to check on him and begins hinting that he is suspected of embezzling funds and may very well be fired. It also seems that Gregor’s co-workers dislike him because he is on the road so often; they gossip about him and the other travelling salesmen, making unfounded complaints such as that they make lots of money and just enjoy themselves. Work is hell, the story seems to suggest.
Life at home, according to the story, is no paradise either. In particular, Gregor seems to have a difficult relationship with his father. The very first time Gregor’s father is seen he is making a fist, albeit just to knock on Gregor’s door. Soon after, however, he makes a fist more in earnest: when he first sees Gregor in his insect form, he shakes his fist at him and glares at him fiercely. Later he attacks him with a newspaper and a walking stick, and, later still, bombards him with apples, causing him serious injury. He is also not above making sarcastic comments, suggesting for instance that Gregor’s room is untidy. And it turns out that he has deceived Gregor about the family finances, thus needlessly extending the length of Gregor’s employment at the hateful travelling salesman’s job. Finally, he does not seem particularly appreciative of the money Gregor has been bringing in; he is content to live off
Topics for Further Study
- Depending on the translation and the commentator, Gregor is described variously as an insect, a bug, a beetle, a cockroach, a louse, and a piece of vermin. Is it possible to say precisely what sort of creature he turns into?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of turning into a bug the way Gregor does?
- Music is sometimes identified with the spiritual realm. On the other hand, it is sometimes linked to the animal kingdom as something that appeals even to nonhuman species. How does music, especially Grete’s violin playing, function in this story?
- To what extent is“The Metamorphosis” part of the existentialist tradition in literature exemplified by the works of such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Eugene Ionesco?
- What does Gregor die of? His wound? Starvation? Self-starvation? A broken heart? A desire to die? Who is responsible for his death? Is Kakfa being deliberately ambiguous on this issue? If so, why?
his son’s labor, but Gregor feels there was “no special uprush of warm feeling” about it.
Gregor’s disappointment over the lack of appreciation is one of the few critical thoughts he thinks about his father. He also thinks briefly that the money his father hid from him could have been used to free him from his job sooner, but he quickly dismisses the thought by saying that no doubt his father knew best. In short, the antagonism as portrayed in the story is mostly one-way: the father abuses the son, but the son suppresses his angry responses and accepts his downtrodden state.
The one person Gregor feels close to is his sister, and she at first seems like the one most attentive to his needs. She brings him his food and cleans his room, and even her plan to remove Gregor’s furniture, which he objects to, seems well-meant: she thinks he needs more room in his insect state to crawl around. After a while, she begins neglecting Gregor. When he tries to approach her one last time, she turns on him viciously, falsely accusing him of wanting to kick the rest of the family out of the house, saying that he is not really Gregor but a creature that must be got rid of. The story seems to be suggesting that no one is to be trusted.
Isolation and Self-Sacrifice
Gregor seems to have no close friends at work or elsewhere, and no romantic attachments; he is not very close with his family, except for his sister who it turns out cannot be trusted; he seems to lead a lonely, isolated life even before his transformation, and the transformation reinforces his situation. As an insect, he cannot communicate at all, and he is forced to stay in his room; he is cut off almost entirely from the rest of humanity.
As an insect, he can still hear, however, so he knows what others want, but they cannot know what he wants. This seems an apt situation for Gregor to end up in, because his life even before his transformation seems to have been one of catering to others’ needs while suppressing his own.
Although in some ways the transformation reinforces Gregor’s situation, in other ways becoming an insect is a way for him to escape his unhappy life. No longer will he have to work at his burdensome job; instead, he can spend his days scurrying around his room, something he seems to enjoy. One of the themes is the joy of escaping from one’s responsibilities.
Although this is not a route Gregor is able to pursue successfully, the story does indicate that some people are able to reverse the power relations in their lives. Gregor seems able only to remain downtrodden or to escape to insectdom; but his father is able to overthrow the domination of the three lodgers and recapture the authority in his house.
Interestingly, he can only do this after Gregor himself, the self-sacrificing, downtrodden one, is dead, perhaps suggesting that the presence of a self-sacrificing person drains those around him.
Point of View
The story is told in the third person but is for the most part limited to Gregor’s point of view. Only his thoughts and feelings are presented, and most of the events are seen through his eyes. The point seems to be to present a picture of Gregor and the world as he understands it, both before and after his metamorphosis. This does not necessarily mean that all of Gregor’s judgements are to be accepted; on the contrary, Kafka uses irony and black comedy to indicate that Gregor is at times misled, for instance in thinking he can still go to the office even after becoming an insect and, more sadly, in thinking his family is putting his interests first.
Of course, after Gregor’s death, the point of view has to shift; it becomes simply impersonal third-person narration, remaining on the outside of the surviving characters, not revealing their thoughts and feelings the way Gregor’s were revealed earlier. Interestingly, Gregor’s parents are now referred to impersonally as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa; earlier, when the story was being told from Gregor’s point of view, they were invariably referred to as Gregor’s father and Gregor’s mother. The point of this shift seems to be to emphasize that Gregor is not just gone but forgotten.
The story has a very constricted setting; almost all the events take place within the Samsa house, mostly in Gregor’s room, reflecting the fact that Gregor is essentially a prisoner. The room itself is small and, by the end, unclean. Gregor can see outside, but mostly what he sees is an overcast sky, rain, fog, and a gray hospital building; when his eyesight fades, he cannot even see the hospital, and the world beyond his room appears to him to be a gray desert.
The gloominess of this setting begins to change near the end. There is heavy rain, but the narrator suggests it might be a sign of spring. This is when Gregor is still alive. However, the truly decisive change in the setting occurs only after Gregor’s death. For the first time, the story leaves the house, following the surviving Samsas into the countryside, where the sun shines on them as they cheerfully plan their future.
The story is divided into three parts, each one culminating in a foray by Gregor outside his room. The first two parts end when Gregor is forced back into his room. In part three, Gregor is again forced to return to his room; however, this part differs from the other two in that it does not end with Gregor’s return, but contains a coda describing events of the next day.
Flashbacks and other Narrative Devices
Most of the story consists of extended scenes. All of part one is the scene that unfolds when Gregor awakes to find himself an insect; the last section of part two is the extended scene that begins when Gregor’s sister and mother enter Gregor’s room to remove his furniture; and the bulk of part three consists of two linked scenes: the violin concert that leads to Gregor’s death and the scene that begins the next day with the discovery of his body, and that ends with the excursion to the countryside.
Only a small part of the story consists of summaries: most notably the passages near the beginning of each of the last two parts, which recount Gregor’s typical activities, explain how he gets fed and informed, and report on how the family copes with the loss of Gregor’s income.
Kafka also uses brief flashbacks to explain how Gregor came to be supporting his family and to contrast the current behavior of Gregor’s father with how he behaved in the past.
Kafka uses some obvious and not-so-obvious symbols in the story. Some symbols even the characters recognize as such: for instance, the furniture in Gregor’s room, which his mother is reluctant to remove because of its association with Gregor’s human past; to remove the furniture is to declare symbolically that Gregor is no longer human and will never be human again.
Other symbols are less easy to understand. The recurrent use of the number three, for instance (three parts to the story, three doors to Gregor’s room, three lodgers, three other family members), seems significant, but of what it is not clear. The fact that Gregor’s father insists on wearing his uniform so long that it becomes greasy also seems significant but unclear; to wear a smart uniform instead of a bathrobe seems at first an indication of the father’s increasing strength, but to wear it so long that it becomes greasy seems to indicate weakness again. It is also not entirely clear what the significance is of the picture of a carefree Gregor in a lieutenant’s uniform: does it suggest that he once had a more satisfying existence, before becoming stuck in his boring job?
The picture of the lady in furs, which Gregor presses against when his belongings are taken away, seems to be some sort of romantic or sexual symbol, representing the limited nature of Gregor’s romantic life. The music that draws Gregor seems to have a spiritual significance—or does it, on the contrary, suggest (as Gregor himself says) something animallike? The appearance of the butcher’s boy at the end could be a symbol of returning life—or is it death? And the sunshine at the end also speaks of life, though it is a life dependent on Gregor’s death, a life open to the Samsas only because they have got rid of Gregor.
Of course, the central symbol of the story is Gregor’s insect form itself. What does it signify for a man to be turned into a giant bug? Is Kafka suggesting that this is the human condition? Is it the condition of only some humans? And what is that condition? Disgusting and ineffectual, or somehow positive?
For most of Kafka’s lifetime, his home town of Prague was a Czech city within a German-speaking empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only at the end of World War I did that Empire disappear, leading to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. But in 1912, when Kafka was writing “The Metamorphosis,” the Czechs had not yet won their independence, and despite its Czech majority, Prague was dominated by a German-speaking elite. Recognizing where the power lay in the city, the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the German minority rather than with the Czech majority; the Czechs therefore considered the Jews to be part of the German community, but the Germans themselves did not. As a result, it was easy for the Jews to feel that they did not fit in anywhere.
In general, Prague was a city of ethnic tensions, primarily between Czechs and Germans and between
Compare & Contrast
- 1840-1920s: Kafka writes at a time when the drudgery of work is becoming a serious issue. Long hours at boring jobs create alienation. And tyrannical employers like Gregor’s are the norm.
Twentieth Century: Computers and other advances have allowed for more flexibility for employees, including flex time and telecommuting. Since computers can handle some of the more tedious and repetitious aspects of work, work for some may also be more intellectually stimulating. Also, the trend now is to promote friendlier employer-employee interactions. However, there are new employment problems today, and it is doubtful that the sort of work alienation depicted in Kafka’s story has been eliminated altogether.
- 1840-1920s: In Kafka’s day, it is common for reasonably well-off families to employ full-time live-in servants to cook and clean and do other menial chores.
Twentieth Century: Full-time servants are almost unheard of now, replaced primarily by labor-saving devices.
- 1840-1920s: Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” depicts a troubled father-son relationship that seems to reflect Kafka’s own relationship with his father. Such troubled relationships may be widespread, inasmuch as during this time Sigmund Freud develops his theory of the Oedipus complex, which takes as its starting point the existence of a fundamental antagonism between fathers and sons.
Twentieth Century: The theory of the Oedipus complex has come under criticism, and the relationship of fathers and sons is often celebrated today. However, it would be hard to argue that the antagonisms described by Freud and Kafka do not exist.
- 1840-1920s: Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” assumes that the insect is repulsive, suggesting that in Kafka’s day it would be hard to have any positive feelings towards a bug.
Twentieth Century: Perhaps in an era that produces movies that glamorize insects, like A Bug’s Life, and which prides itself on ecological awareness and understanding of the importance of all orders of creatures, there is a more positive attitude towards bugs. However, it is hard to imagine that there would be much less horror today than a century ago at the idea of a man being changed into a cockroach.
Czechs and Jews. In 1897, when Kafka was fourteen, the tensions erupted into anti-Semitic riots started by the Czechs. Thus Kafka would have grown up knowing hatred and hostility as well as the difficulty of fitting in.
Economically, the late nineteenth century marked the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Industrial development was not as advanced in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as elsewhere in Europe, but within the Empire, Prague was one of the most advanced and prosperous cities. However, along with the prosperity created by the new industrialism came dislocation and disruption of the old ways, largely as a result of the shift of large numbers of people from the countryside to the city. Industrialization also meant the appearance of large numbers of jobs, for both factory and office workers, which were pure drudgery. And as if recognizing the need to train people for such jobs, the school system enforced a system of rote learning that seemed relentlessly joyless—at least it seemed joyless to young Kafka, who hated school, just as he hated his first full-time job.
Prague was a cultured city, full of newspapers, theatres, and coffeehouses where avant-garde literary types could discuss the latest intellectual
fashions. Kafka was a regular at two of these coffeehouses, the Arco and the Louvre, and through the discussions there may have been introduced to new philosophical ideas. He was certainly familiar with the newly published works of Sigmund Freud, referring to Freud in his diary not long before writing “The Metamorphosis.” However, he was no Freudian disciple and wrote negatively of psychoanalytic theory. He was perhaps more in tune with the major nineteenth-century writers (such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard) who wrote pessimistically of life in a meaningless or hostile universe, anticipating twentieth-century existentialism, a movement with which Kafka is sometimes associated.
In the year before writing “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka became familiar with a Jewish theatre troupe that visited Prague and put on performances in Yiddish. He even became friendly with one of the troupe’s members and tried to promote the troupe by securing introductions for it and writing favorable reviews of its work. It has been suggested that both the tragicomic tone of the Yiddish plays Kafka saw at this time and also the story in one play of an outcast son may have influenced him in writing “The Metamorphosis.”
Kafka today is a household word around the world, one of the few writers to have an adjective named after him (”Kafkaesque”), describing the dreamlike yet oppressive atmosphere characteristic of his works. When his writings first appeared, however, some reviewers found them baffling, tedious, or exasperating; and the two extreme ideological movements of the twentieth century both found his message unacceptable. The Nazis banned him, and Communist critics denounced him as decadent and despairing.
But fairly quickly Kafka began to be praised by a host of influential writers and intellectuals. The English poet W. H. Auden compared him to Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. The German writer Thomas Mann, quoted by Ronald Gray in his book Franz Kafka, said that Kafka’s works are “among the worthiest things to be read in German literature.” And the philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing during World War II, said (also as quoted by Gray) that“Kafka’s nightmare of a world... has actually come to pass.”
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Kafka’s friend Max Brod, one of the earliest commentators on Kafka, saw his works as essentially religious and Jewish, but later commentators have situated Kafka more in the existential, modernist tradition of the first half of the twentieth century, associating him with writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose works suggest the absurdity and futility of existence.
Among Kafka’s works,“The Metamorphosis” is generally considered one of his most representative and also one of his best, along with the novels The Trial and The Castle.Kafka himself was not always happy with his work, however. In his diary (as quoted in Nahum Glatzer’s edition of his stories), he wrote on one occasion that he had “great antipathy” to “The Metamorphosis,” calling its ending unreadable. However, “The Metamorphosis” was one of the few works that Kafka made a concerted effort to get published, so he could not have been entirely dissatisfied with it.
In any case, commentators since Kafka have been drawn to the story. By 1973, Stanley Corngold was able to publish a book of summaries of essays on “The Metamorphosis” containing accounts of well over a hundred articles, beginning as early as 1916, when one Robert Miiller described the story as ingenious but implausible. In subsequent years, commentators have generally taken for granted the quality and importance of the story, and have focused on trying to interpret it.
There have been many different and contradictory interpretations. Freudian critics have seen in it a working out of the Oedipal struggle between a father and a son who are rivals for Gregor’s mother. Marxist critics, those not simply denouncing Kafka as reactionary, have seen the story as depicting the exploitation of the proletariat. Gregor Samsa has also been seen as a Christ figure who dies so that his family can live.
Critics interested in language and form have seen the story as the working out of a metaphor, an elaboration on the common comparison of a man to an insect. Some critics have emphasized the autobiographical elements in the story, pointing out the similarities between the Samsa household and the Kafkas’ while also noting the similarity of the names “Samsa” and “Kafka,” a similarity that Kafka himself was aware of, though he said—in a conversation cited in Nahum Glatzer’ s edition of his stories—that Samsa was not merely Kafka and nothing else.
Other critics have traced the story’s sources back to Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, the Jewish plays that Kafka saw in Prague, and Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s novel about sado-masochism, Venus in Furs.Some have become caught up in taking sides for or against Gregor Samsa. And some have argued that the story is impossible to interpret, which is perhaps why Corngold called his book on the story The Commentators’ Despair.
But however it is interpreted, the fact that the story has drawn so much attention indicates that it is, as Corngold puts it, “the most haunting and universal of all his stories.”
Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, he discusses the significance of the insect symbol in “The Metamorphosis.”
Probably the two most memorable images in “The Metamorphosis” occur in its first section: first the picture of Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect, lying on his back in bed and unable to get up, with all his little legs fluttering helplessly in the air; and second the picture of Gregor the giant insect stuck on his side in his bedroom doorway, injured and bleeding and again helplessly unable to move until his father shoves him into the bedroom.
If this were all there were to the story, it would be easy to conclude, as some have done, that“The Metamorphosis” is a depiction of the helplessness and disgusting nature of the human race; here is what people really are, these two images seem to say: revolting pieces of vermin unable to do anything.
But there are two problems with this interpretation: first, not everyone in the story becomes a piece of revolting vermin, only Gregor Samsa does; and second, there is more to Gregor Samsa’s life as a bug than being disgusting and helpless. That may be the dominant impression left by Part I of the story, when Gregor is first transformed, but in Part II the situation is different.
In fact, even near the end of Part I, when Gregor begins to adjust to life as a multi-legged insect, he has a sudden “sense of physical comfort”; once he is right side up, his legs become “completely obedient,” as he noted with joy:
they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand.
In Part II, there is more of this sense of joy and escape from suffering. For “mere recreation,” Gregor begins crawling across the walls and ceiling, as only an insect could. Moreover:
He especially enjoyed hanging suspended from the ceiling; it was much better than lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; one’s body swung and rocked lightly; and in the almost blissful absorption induced by this suspension it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and fell plump on the floor. Yet he now had his body much better under control than formerly, and even such a big fall did him no harm.
Gregor the insect is having fun. Is it good after all to be a bug?
Certainly, Gregor’s life as a bug seems in some ways better than his life as a human being. As a human being, he is stuck in a job he immensely dislikes and has the burden of supporting a family to whom he does not even feel close. He has no friends or lovers or social life; in the evenings he stays
What Do I Read Next?
- The Trial(1925) is Kafka’s novel about a man arrested and put through nightmarish court proceedings for a crime that is never explained to him.
- The Castle(1926) is a Kafka novel about a man who seeks in vain to be allowed into a nearby but frustratingly inaccessible castle.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson is an early transformation story about a physician who uses a potion to change himself into an evil, repulsive man.
- Frankenstein(1818) by Mary Shelley is a classic novel about a monster who is frustrated in his attempts to connect with human beings.
- ”The Fly” (1957) by George Langelaan is a story that focuses on a scientist who transforms himself into a fly. The story was reprinted in Wolf’s Complete Book of Terror, edited by Leonard Wolf (Potter, 1979) and was made into movies under the same name in 1958 and 1986.
- Rhinoceros(1959) by Eugene Ionesco is a play about people turning into rhinoceroses. The play is a study of conformity and the dangers of totalitarianism.
- The Stranger(1942) by Albert Camus, also translated as The Outsider, is a novel concerning an alienated outsider who inexplicably commits a murder.
- ”The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886) by Leo Tolstoy follows a man without close personal ties whose family does little for him when he contracts a fatal illness.
- Notes from Underground(1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel-length monologue by an alienated anti-hero who stays indoors and denounces the world outside.
home, and during the day he is off to his alienating job.
As an insect, Gregor is free of his job and his family responsibilities. Instead of rushing off to work, he can stay home and play. Instead of taking care of his family, they take care of him. In some ways, his life as a bug is the life of the carefree child. He even heals faster than he used to, as a child would.
Still, there is something repulsive about being a bug. Even Gregor realizes this, and tries to hide his repulsiveness from his mother and his sister when they enter his room. He spends hours arranging a sheet to cover himself so they will not have to see him. And Gregor also realizes at one point, even after he has discovered the joys of climbing the walls, that he does not want to stay a bug forever. When his mother and sister start removing his furniture, his mother’s second thoughts provoke him to resist: he does not want to give up his human past and the possibility of returning to it.
Now, perhaps Gregor is simply mistaken to fight for his human past; perhaps Kafka means for the reader to see his life as a bug as something so superior to his human past that he should want to stay a bug forever. But if Kafka were creating an ideal escape from adult responsibilities, surely he would have created a more appealing one than becoming a giant insect; he could have transformed Gregor into a cute little puppy or a young child instead of a repulsive vermin.
And there are distinct disadvantages to being a bug. For one thing, Gregor’s repulsive appearance means he has to remain in his room, a prisoner, completely isolated. His existence was always a fairly lonely one, but this is worse: as far as friendship and intimacy are concerned, Gregor’s transformation is not an escape from his past loneliness but an intensification of it.
Moreover, for all Gregor’s ability to climb walls, as an insect he is fairly helpless: he depends
“Gregor the insect is having fun. Is it good afterall to be a bug?”
on others now for food and for keeping his room clean; and his inability to talk means he cannot express his needs clearly.
Not that Gregor seems to have expressed his needs clearly even before his transformation. He seems to have been a classic self-sacrificer and martyr, devoting his entire life to paying off his family’s debts, worrying about wasting even an hour of his employer’s time, spending very little time developing his own life.
It is true that there are hints in the story that he feels resentment over this situation: for instance, he allows himself to think for a moment that his father might have used some of the money he saved to help Gregor escape sooner from his oppressive job; he also seems to think there could have been more appreciation for his efforts to bring in the money his family needed. Then, when he is first transformed and is struggling to open the door, he thinks the family might be more encouraging. And when he hears his sister sobbing that first morning, he seems irritated with her.
But these are fleeting moments. It is more typical of him to think, concerning the money his father has held back, that his father must know best. It is also typical of him that the thing he worries about, if he crashes out of bed, is that the noise may alarm the others. And his laborious effort to hide himself with a sheet is done completely to serve others’ needs. Finally, when his mother makes a rare entrance into his room, to avoid upsetting her “he renounced the pleasure of seeing [her].” Gregor seems to have led a life of renouncing pleasures.
Now, it is true that as a bug he is finally able to have some pleasure; he also, as a bug, makes two attempts to fight for what he wants: first, when he resists the removal of his furniture, and second when he seeks to obtain the mysterious nourishment associated with his sister’s violin playing. He fails in both attempts, however, and thus to a certain extent being a bug is just like being a human being for Gregor: he cannot get his needs met in either form.
In short, Gregor’s transformation has a double meaning: it is both an escape from his oppressive life and a representation or even an intensification of it. But even as an escape, it is not very successful, for to maintain his life as a carefree, wall-climbing insect, he needs others to care for him: to bring him his food and to clean his room. Eventually, his sister, who has been doing this, loses interest; his room becomes dirty; and he becomes despondent and angry over being neglected.
And of course he is more than neglected; he is attacked. Attacked twice by his father, the second time seriously enough to cause a perhaps life-threatening wound. Gregor is unable to prevent this injury and also unable to obtain treatment for it; the family does not seem to care, and he is at their mercy.
There thus seems to be a problem with escaping as a response to an oppressive life: the escapist idyll cannot be maintained; it is too dependent on others. And perhaps, just like childhood, it cannot be expected to last forever.
Now, if Gregor Samsa were the only character in the story, one might still say that Kafka is painting a gloomy picture of the whole human condition. The only options open to Gregor Samsa seem to be life as a downtrodden martyr at work and at home or the purely temporary escape he finds as a bug.
It is true that there are two other options he seeks to pursue. One is associated with the music played by his sister. The music makes him think he can obtain some “unknown nourishment”—perhaps something spiritual, though that is unclear. It also makes him fantasize about his sister moving into his room with him and about kissing her on the neck, indicating perhaps a closer sort of relationship as a way out of his troubles.
However, he is repulsed when he tries to follow this option involving his sister and her music, just as he is repulsed when he pursues the option of resistance, of fighting back when his belongings are taken from him.
Not everyone in the story is similarly repulsed, however. Gregor’s father, in contrast to Gregor, is able to succeed by pursuing the path of resistance.
Much like Gregor, Gregor’s father finds himself in a downtrodden, self-sacrificing state in Part III of the story, with the arrival of the three lodgers, who somehow seize control in the household. Even before the arrival of the lodgers, the elder Samsa has seemed like a curiously weak figure, except when attacking Gregor. With Gregor as the breadwinner, Gregor’s father becomes the dependent one and spends his days lying almost comatose in a chair, wearing his bathrobe, almost unable to walk. After Gregor’s transformation, he goes back to work and regains some of his strength, but he and the rest of the family at first feel tired and overworked as a result of taking on jobs, and Gregor sees in them a sense of “complete hopelessness.”
When the lodgers arrive, things become even worse. Mr. Samsa and the others dote on them, Mr. Samsa with cap in hand; they yield the best seats at the dinner table to the lodgers, and in general are overly anxious to please, having “an exaggerated idea of the courtesy due to lodgers.”
But when Gregor dies, suddenly Mr. Samsa finds new strength and orders the lodgers out. He is also suddenly able to stand up to the intimidating charwoman, stopping her from talking “with a decisive hand.” The result of this newfound strength is that Mr. Samsa and his family are suddenly able to contemplate a happy and fulfilling life: their jobs will lead to better things, and their daughter will get married.
For some people, then, there is a way out. People may be living in a hostile universe, the story suggests, and some people are like Gregor: they cannot stand up to it; at best they can run away for some temporary respite. But others can rise up against the universe and seize control of their destiny.
This is perhaps a more optimistic message to take from the story than seeing it as portraying a universally gloomy existence—or perhaps not. Throughout the story the reader has been drawn to identify with Gregor; the story is told from his point of view, and he seems appealing in his self-sacrificing way. But he is defeated. And who is it that triumphs? His bullying father and the sister who betrayed him. Not everyone is doomed to be crushed like a bug, the story is saying; not everyone, just you and I, while other people somehow get ahead at our expense. It is a despairing conclusion.
Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on “The Metamorphosis,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
The following essay explores Kafka’s presentation of various characters and their traits as “vermin “in “The Metamorphosis”.
While the young businessman Georg Bendemann is condemned to death in Kafka’s metaphorical world, the young commercial traveler Gregor Samsa in “Die Verwandlung” ( “The Metamorphosis”) must live out the last months of his life in the same world changed as a giant bug, which resembles a cockroach.
Compared with “Die Verwandlung,” the little prose piece “Grosser Larm” appears like a first sketch for the larger story. The characterization of father and son is the same: the father is the mighty master of the family, and the son, living helplessly in their midst, frightens them in his monstrous shape. “Grosser Larm” appeared in October, 1912, in a Prague magazine; and on November 11 Kafka sent a copy to Felice. The little prose piece was fresh in his mind when, six days later, waiting in bed for a letter from her, the idea for “Die Verwandlung” came to him in his “wretchedness.” As in “Das Urteil,” which preceded it, the inspiration for “Die Verwandlung” was his unhappy family life, which was only eased somewhat by his sister Ottla, who also defied the father and tried to help her unfortunate brother.
“Die Verwandlung” opens with the sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The dependent clause tells us of the real world, and—such is Kafka’s subtle style—something important about the hero’s previous life. The main clause shifts immediately to Gregor’s metaphorical state. During the last night, in which he had fallen asleep in bed as a man, Gregor had “uneasy dreams,” the result of an inner unrest; and his thoughts upon awakening reveal what caused them. He complains about the physical discomfort of the commercial traveler, but also about something much more important, about the dehumanizing effect of his job due to the always changing human contacts, which never lead to close personal relations. Worst of all, he feels humiliated by the head of the firm, who has the disgusting habit of sitting on a high desk, so he can talk down to his employees. Although by ordinary literary and human standards a miserable creature, this man shares with many another authoritative character the divine honors bestowed upon him by an allegorizer: “The description of Gregor’s boss has breadth enough to apply not just to a petty office tyrant, but
“The assertion that ’one really had to admit that possibility’ that the manager would some day awaken as a bug is typical of Kafka’s wry humor; at the same time, it hints at the possibility that a human being may awaken to the insight that he is a “bug,’ a person without character and, consequently,without human dignity.”
even to an [ sic] Old Testament God. Indeed, the reference to the high desk echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the God ’most high’ who yet can ’hear’ us.” This “petty office tyrant” would fulminate against Gregor should he be late for work. Since, as Gregor firmly believes, his parents owe his employer money he has to stay with the despised job for five or six more years.
Such reflections have occupied Gregor’s mind for some while before the catastrophe and have made him lose faith in himself and in the Tightness of his life, as had also happened to Georg Bendemann. In the author’s fictitious world, Gregor has become what he had metaphorically been for a long time: an insect.
As if to ward off subsequent critical misinterpretation of the events described in this story as nightmares of a neurotic, the narrator explains in the second sentence: “It was no dream: his room, a regular bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls.” Gregor had his breakthrough to self-recognition, and the implied metaphor—something like “I am really a spineless bug”—is at once fused with the realistically described life he leads between the four walls of his room.
On one of these hangs Gregor’s “pinup,” a testimony to his sense of inferiority. It is a cutout from some illustrated magazine, representing a lady of wealth, high above his rank, wearing a fur stole and “holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff, in which the whole of her forearm had vanished.” Fur stoles, it should be noted, were considered by some in prewar Europe to be ostentatious status symbols, and Kafka detested them. He once informed Grete Bloch:“One has some convictions that are so deep-seated and true that one doesn’t have to worry about a detailed justification. ... I don’t have many convictions of this kind,” and then he mentions two of them: “the abomination of contemporary medicine, and ... the ugliness of the fur stole.”
Gregor’s fur-clad idol is enclosed in a gilded frame which the young commercial traveler has cut out with a fretsaw, fretwork, a hobby usually associated with boys rather than grown-up men, being the only luxury he allows himself. Otherwise his arid life consists of sitting at home every evening, reading the paper, or studying timetables, so that he may beat the competition by taking earlier trains.
His metamorphosis, of course, makes him miss all the trains on this fateful morning, and the manager, informed by the firm’s porter, who spies on the salesmen, arrives at the home of the Samsas. In vain Mrs. Samsa attempts to pacify him. Suspecting that Gregor might be a malingerer, or, still worse, that he was about to make off with some company funds, he displays his art of humiliating his inferiors before the embarrassed family of his employee.
Gregor, still struggling to get out of bed and open the door, is incapable of making himself understood with his beetle mouth, but has kept his human understanding and feeling. At last he succeeds in dropping down on the floor. Lying there for a while helplessly on his back, he has a humorous thought:
Gregor tried to suppose to himself that something like what had happened to him today might someday happen to the chief clerk; one really could not deny that it was possible. But as if in brusque reply to his supposition the chief clerk took a couple of firm steps in the next-door room and made his patent leather boots creak.
The “crude answer” is clear. A man who walks on patent-leather shoes during a work day walks on status symbols and is in no danger of ever losing confidence in himself.
The assertion that“one really had to admit that possibility” that the manager would some day awaken as a bug is typical of Kafka’s wry humor; at the same time, it hints at the possibility that a human being may awaken to the insight that he is a “bug,” a person without character and, consequently, without human dignity. The manager is a malicious, conceited man who, without any knowledge of himself, derives the firmness of his steps solely from the awareness of his patent-leather shoes and all they stand for in his world of spurious values. But Kafka knew that there were people who walked through life with firm steps, and justifiably so. Less than a year after he wrote “Die Verwandlung,” the metaphor of such “authentic” firm steps appears in his diary, where, as in his letters, he used metaphors occurring in his literary works. The entry reads: “The unimaginable sadness in the morning. In the evening read Jacobsohn’s Der Fall Jacobsohn.[Siegfried Jacobsohn was a publicist of about Kafka’s age.] This strength to live, to make decisions, joyfully to set one’s foot in the right place. He sits in himself the way a practiced rower sits in his boat and would sit in any boat.... “On the same day he reread “Die Verwandlung.”
Kafka admired men like the author Jacobsohn of the firm steps who is, of course, in firmness and decision the opposite of Gregor and his author. There was, however, a time when Gregor took firm steps like the manager, and though he never wore patent-leather shoes and fine clothes, he wore then something incomparably nobler, a lieutenant’s uniform. The beetleman’s first excursion out of his room ends in the living room, and there on the wall just opposite him “hung a photograph of himself in military service, as a lieutenant, hand on sword, a carefree smile on his face, inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing.”
After the “fur uniform” of the proud lady, and lieutenant Gregor Samsa’s uniform, a third one appears in this story. As long as Gregor was working, the father had enjoyed a premature dotage, but since Gregor’s misfortune he has shaken off his senility and has become the porter of a bank, clad in a uniform with golden buttons, which soon looks soiled since he never takes it off before bedtime. This “servant-uniform” strengthens the old man to such a degree that he would have killed the metamorphosed son in a fit of rage by trampling upon him or bombarding him with apples if the mother had not intervened.
“Die Verwandlung” offers the worst example of the disagreement among Kafka’s critics as to the moral qualities of his characters. Strangely enough, nobody mentions the patent fact that the people surrounding the metamorphosed Gregor are the real vermin while he begins to rise even before his misfortune. His “uneasy dreams” are the beginning of his development from a timid nothing of a man believing in spurious values to a true human being. There is a gathering of vermin in Gregor’s firm: the boss’s way of humiliating the employees has been mentioned. The porter, the lowliest creature in the firm, watches at the railroad station, so that he can report to him whether the commercial travelers took the earliest possible train or not. Samsa thinks about him as of an insect: “He was a creature of the chiefs, spineless and stupid.” The manager well represents the firm, driving Gregor and his family to despair with his false concern and vicious innuendoes. The Italian insurance company had provided Kafka with models for that kind of bug.
The worst insect among the vermin in the story is, however, the parasitical father. Although he knew how his son loathed his employment with the firm to whose principal old Samsa owed money, he never told him that he had saved enough from his bankruptcy and from Gregor’s earnings, so that Gregor might have ended his debtor’s slave work years earlier than would have been possible under the present conditions.
Among the “real” vermin, Gregor’s sister is the only exception, at least during the first weeks after his metamorphosis, when she lovingly experiments with food until she knows what her unfortunate brother likes to eat; but then she begins to neglect him more and more. At the same time, Gregor loses his appetite and hardly touches his food any longer. To make his suffering worse, a maid has been hired, an uncouth, rawboned big female who embitters him by addressing him as “old crap beetle.” Finally the parents have taken three lodgers into the house, Chaplinesque characters whom he watches while they are eating. ‘“I’ m hungry enough, ’said Gregor sadly to himself, ’but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!’”
This is no longer the Gregor who admired status symbols, who clung to the cheap picture in his room, fearing it might be removed. The vulgarity of his former life has disappeared, and the food the three roomers are eating with such audible gusto is no longer just food but a symbol of all that pleases and nourishes them as human beings. Gregor can no longer be satisfied with the “grub” of their lives and the lives of those like them, as he had been before. The unbridgeable gap between him and people like these becomes clear when his sister plays the violin before them. Since the dullards cannot understand the serious music she has chosen, they boorishly show their contempt for this kind of entertainment, although the young girl reveals all her devotion to music in the way she plays.
This small example of the barbarian’s contempt for the language of the arts has provoked, through the ages, many protests like the following one by Goethe, which will help to explain what Gregor is hungering for: “The people do not appreciate us [the artists] if we increase their inner need [Kafka calls it hunger], give them a great ideal for their own selves, if we want to make them feel how glorious a true, noble existence is.”
Gregor’s inner needs are increased by her playing. His humiliation is approaching its end, his suffering has raised him to a truly human level, and, for the first time since his metamorphosis, he has good reason to doubt the justice of his frightful degradation. The question in which he expresses his doubt is essential to the understanding of the story: “War er ein Tier, da ihn Musik so ergriff?” (”Could he really be an animal since music touched him so?”) The use of the conjunction da with adversative force is very rare, and most German, and almost all English, critics understood it in its usual causal function, many of them having to rely on the two English translations in which da is also rendered as a causal particle. Nevertheless the commentators succeeded to wrest a meaning from the sibylline rhetorical question: “Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?”
One of the four German scholars previously referred to calls Gregor’s question fittingly “the decisive sentence,” but, tricked by the da explains: “As an animal he is at the same time more than an animal.” Another German commentator, sensitive to the adversative meaning of da, wants nevertheless to save the causal meaning, explaining: “Gregor, about whom we learned earlier that he did not have so intimate a relation to music as his sister, now obtains it on the primitive-emotional basis of his animal organization and in so doing becomes more clearly conscious of being an animal as well.” That would make of Gregor, because of his all-encompassing inner life, a superman as well as a superbeetle. One lone commentator gives the correct translation, but then rules out the doubt in Gregor’s question and asserts, correcting him: “On the contrary, it is just when he is an animal that music moves him: The totem is the deeper and better self.” After these strange metamorphoses of metamorphosed Gregor, the resigned statement of one critic who interprets da in the common, in this case the wrong, way may conclude this strange list: “In Kafka’s unfathomable sentence: ’Was he an animal that music could move him so?’ paradox echoes jarringly without end.” Strangely enough, this paradox, created by interpreters, does not exist in the French, Spanish, and Italian standard translations, where the decisive sentence is rendered correctly.
Gregor, listening, deeply moved, to his sister’s violin playing, is now an animal only in his outer form; his inner being reveals a sensitive man, something he was not before, when, as a lieutenant, “he could demand respect for his bearing and uniform,” and when later, as a commercial traveler, he stolidly accepted his soul-deadening job. He has reached the highest point in his life which, in its previous form, together with many other human qualities, lacked also interest in music. The violin playing of his sister gives him hope: “He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.”
No longer is the violin-playing sister the middle-class girl discussing with her mother the price of the nextdoor grocer’s eggs and the mores of his daughter. While playing the violin, she has left the banality and ugliness of her own and her family’s life; she is transfigured. Gregor feels how she is lifted out of this netherworld to which his firm, his parents, the three roomers, and the maid belong, and to which he, too, belonged until he awoke one morning from “uneasy dreams” as a beetle feeding on rotten food. Beginning with this moment of greatest humiliation, he began to rise until the “grub” with which those around him sustained their lives no longer sustained his own, since “his inner needs were increased,” as Goethe said.
Having reached this elevated point, his life ends. Dying he thinks“with love and compassion” of his family, just as Georg Bendemann thought of his parents. The maid announces to the older Samsas that the terrible nuisance has “croaked.” They all go to Gregor’s room, and Grete, as the speaker of this strange chorus surrounding the dead “hero,” laments: “Just see how thin he was. It’s such a long time since he’s eaten anything. The food came out [was taken out] again just as it went in.” The parents are too indifferent or too relieved to protect their son from a last ignominy. His body has been left to the maid, who sweeps “the stuff in the next room” away and drops it into the dust bin.
Just as for “Das Urteil,” Kafka has provided a Fortinbras end for “Die Verwandlung.” Such an end, following the death of the complex, suffering hero is an affirmation of simple life in its brutality, but also in its beauty, which continues unabated by all the tragedies among its “problem children.” In “Das Urteil,” a mighty stream of traffic across the bridge represents life, drowning out the plop with which unhappy Mr. Bendemann leaves it. In “Die Verwandlung,” the parents try to recuperate after Gregor’s death from the strains and horrors of the last weeks. Leaving the town by streetcar, they realize that Grete, in spite of the misfortune that had affected them all, has grown up to be a beautiful, nubile girl: “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”
Whereas Grete has words of compassion for the dead hero, most commentators who denigrate him dead and alive do not. Obviously misled by the ambiguous translation “The food came out again just as it went in” and without paying attention to Grete’s compassion, the best-known Kafka critic of the early sixties writing in English misquotes: “The food came out of him again just as it went in” and then reflects: “Grete likens him here to a pipe, a lifeless object. He has not really lived; existence, physical and metaphysical, has moved through him and left no trace. The metamorphosis has failed to change him.” Others call Gregor a parasite “that saps the father’s and the family’s life,” although as long as he could work he was the opposite. Gregor’s rather obvious rise to a level high above his previous state is interpreted by some as a regression to beastliness. His uninteresting pinup lady with the fur accessories is, according to psychoanalyzing critics, dressed in sex symbols and an object of the evil beetle’s lust, just as his imagined attempts to show his sister the tenderness he feels for her are considered an incestuous reverie.
We will have further occasion to note that Kafka critics cannot agree on the evaluation of his characters. It seems the misunderstood “decisive sentence” has caused many to overlook Gregor’s continuous rise toward the level of a truly “human” being even though his monstrous shape remains the same. That rise began before the metamorphosis took place, his uneasy dreams were caused by his inner unhappiness, which preceded his misfortune and gradually led him to crave the true food for his inner man. It is hard to see how the villains of the piece, the firm’s porter, its president, its manager,and, most of all, the egotistic father, could have been missed as the true vermin in the story; one critic even praises the vicious manager, for commenting on Gregor’s attempt to speak: “That was an animal’s voice.” The statement is, in that critic’s opinion, a word of profoundest wisdom: “The junior manager, who is in some respects the realist of the story, here utters in four words Kafka’s whole criticism both of himself and of mankind.” In defense of Gregor’s rise to human heights it should also be mentioned that Kafka’s stories, closely interrelated, usually have a redeeming end. If their heroes die, they do so on a level of being or insight higher than the one on which they lived.
When discussing critics writing before 1967 one should keep in mind that they could not benefit from studying Kafka’s letters to Felice, which appeared in that year. Directly and indirectly Kafka speaks repeatedly in these letters about his first publications, before they were written, while they were being written, and after they appeared in print. In his letter and his diaries, Kafka, more than other writers, anticipates the as yet unwritten work in metaphors dealing with its subject matter, mood, and sometimes even the small but revealing details destined to be used, although the author did not know it yet.
Much of “Die Verwandlung” is anticipated in a letter to Felice, written on November 1, 1912, sixteen days before the story was begun. In answer to her question about his “way of life,” Kafka warns her that he would have to say some “scabrous things” about himself. Beginning with the confession that his life consists basically of attempts to write, he uses a strong metaphor which, in the story, was to describe Gregor’s burial: “But when I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin.” His general weakness, he continues, made it necessary for him to deprive himself severely to save his strength on all sides, so that he would keep enough strength for this main purpose—writing. “When I didn’t do so, ... but tried to reach beyond my strength, I was automatically forced back, wounded, humbled, forever weakened.” He does not mention his father here, but every one of these verbs fits the treatment Kafka received from his father and, in a literary sense, Gregor from old Samsa, who had “forced back, wounded, and forever weakened” his monstrous son.
The next paragraph of the letter is an example of “Kafkaesque” style, of the smooth shift from reality to a metaphorical plane, applied, in this case, to the metaphors of hunger and becoming thin: “Just as I am thin, and I am the thinnest person I know (and that’s saying something, for I am no stranger to sanatoria), there is also otherwise nothing to me which, in relation to writing, one could call superfluous, superfluous in the sense of overflowing.” He speaks, first, of his physical thinness and then immediately shifts the concept“thinness” to a metaphorical plane, the word “otherwise” indicating the shift. On the metaphorical plane, his thinness now means that there is no “superfluous” talent or energy or any other positive quality left in him. The double sense of“thinness” forms a parallel to the real and metaphorical sense of food in “Die Verwandlung.” First it meant the food Gregor could eat after he was changed, whereas later on it is the life food toward which the violin-playing sister has shown him the way.
And what does this story mean? Of course, like any true work of literary art, it means more than its abstract scheme, that is, the development of a human being from a subhuman level, which is acceptable to the people of his world, to a superior level in a form unacceptable to them and to him, and from which only death can free him. Its meaning is expressed in the words which the author, not the critic, has chosen. The commentator can only help the reader to a closer understanding of motives and images and can clear up philological difficulties. He may do the close reading the works of an author like Kafka require if intellectual obstacles threaten to hinder the understanding of mood and feeling which an older writer like Kafka offers.
The reader himself must feel the humor in the scene where the chief clerk fills the well of the staircase with his shout of fear, while the bug man, rushing toward him on his many thin legs, only wants to excuse his unavoidable tardiness before his superior. The skilled reader, and the one who wants moral edification, will enjoy, each in his own way, the paradox that the “normal” people around Gregor are the vermin while he increasingly becomes a true human being in spite of his monstrous shape. The senile and yet tyrannical father, the Chaplinesque lodgers, the tough maid, the slimy manager as well as the “invisible” characters—the employer at his high desk, the vicious porter, spying at the railroad station—all delight the reader who does not mind enjoying realistically but masterfully presented characters. Gregor’s dissatisfaction is indirectly, but for that reason very powerfully, expressed by Kafka. It is not a social or political accusation, but the realization that it is very difficult to find in life the “food”which lifts the inner man above the banality of existence. The temptation is great to blame our modern times for being particularly hostile to the inner man and his hunger, but such cultural criticism is not Kafka’s intention, as he had said himself. Besides, laments about the increasing dehumanization of life, its degeneration due to the utilitarian spirit of the age, were heard as long ago as the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Germany, such protests were particularly passionate. There was a writer to whom not music but the Greeks had shown the way to the longed-for, unknown food which this poor Tantalus could never reach: Friedrich Holderlin, the author of a novel with the significant title: Hyperion, or The Solitary in Greece, expressed Samsa’s yearning, although in a totally different tone, in his poem Der Archipelagic:
. .and much do these barbarians work
with powerful arms, restlessly, but again and again
Barren like the Furies are the endeavors of
Until awakened, the soul returns to men from their
Youthfully joyful. . .
Source: Meno Spann, “Our Sons,” in Franz Kafka, Twayne, 1958; reprinted in Twayne’s World Authors Series Online,1999.
In the following essay, Hollan identifies a balance between unreal and realist elements in “The Metamorphosis,” finding that in many cases Kafka has “charged a specific realistic element of the story with a specific non-realistic or spiritual value.
In allegory, symbolism, and surrealism—the three genres are in this respect, at least, indistinguishable—the writer mixes unrealistic elements into a realistic situation. Thus, Kafka, in “Metamorphosis,” puts into the realistic, prosaic environment of the Samsa household a situation that is, to put it mildly, unrealistic: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.” Kafka’s strategy does not in essence differ from the techniques of Spenser and Bunyan: though they used for the unreal elements allegorical names, they, too, set them in realistic or conventional situations. Kafka’s method, while rather more overpowering, works the same way: the unreal elements, be they allegorical names or human cockroaches, set up a kind of electric field; the most trite and prosaic detail brought into that field glows with extra meaning. To read allegory is simply to “probe” this field of meaning. We can probe it only if we momentarily put aside the unreality which creates the field and measure the extra values given the realistic elements. By reading them imaginatively, we can understand the nature of the field; only then can we turn back to and understand the unreal element that created the field.
If we look first at the unrealistic elements, there is a danger that we will be dazzled and see no more, as in the usual crude reading of “Metamorphosis:” Samsa is a cockroach, Samsa equals Kafka, Kafka thinks of himself as a cockroach, and so on. Reading Kafka that way is like seeing The Faerie Queene as a moralistic tract about Temperance or Justice without realizing the rich, plastic meanings Spenser’s realism develops for his allegorical names. Looking first at the realistic elements and their extra values avoids a second danger in reading allegory: substituting abstractions for the realism of the story. Kafka’s meaning, as Mr. Eliseo Vivas points out, “is something not to be better stated abstractly in terms of ideas and concepts, to be found beyond the fable, but within it, at the dramatic level, in the interrelationships . . . among the characters and between them and the universe.”
If, momentarily, we put aside the unreality of Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, we can see that the story builds on a commonplace, even a trite, situation: a man feels sick and decides to stay home from work. For fully the first sixth of the story Gregor goes through exactly the kind of internal monologue any of us might if we had caught a discomforting, but not disabling cold. “Nothing is more degrading than always to have to rise so early.” “How would it be if I go to sleep again for a while?” “I’d like to see what my boss would say if I tried it; I should be sacked immediately.” “What a job I’ve chosen . . . To hell with it all!” Job, employer, and employee are the core of the realism of “Metamorphosis;” not unnaturally, they form the heart of the allegory as well.
“Metamorphosis” has three parts, each marked by Gregor’s emerging from his bedroom into the Samsa’s dining-room and then retreating. The first part of the story tells of Gregors’ metamorphosis and of his job. In the second part, Gregors’ father goes back to work for the first time since the failure of his own business five years before. In the third part, Gregor’s mother and sister go to work, although
“Once understood, Kafka’s method is quite straightforward. In every case, he has charged a specific realistic element of the story with a specific non-realistic or spiritual value.”
Gregor had hoped to send his sister to the conservatory, and the family takes in three lodgers, employers, as it were, in the home. After Gregor’s death, in the third part, the lodgers are thrown out, and the Samsas write three letters of excuse to their three employers, and take the day off. Only by reading imaginatively the passages that deal with employers, employees, and jobs, can we see the extra meaning Gregor’s metamorphosis gives to these elements.
Gregor, a traveling salesman who sells cloth, says of his boss: “That’s a funny thing; to sit on a desk so as to speak to one’s employees from such a height, especially when one is hard of hearing and people must come close! Still, all hope is not lost; once I have got together the money my parents owe him—that will be in about five or six years—I shall certainly do it. Then I’ll take the big step!” Gregor muses about the firm:
Why was Gregor, particularly, condemned to work for a firm where the worst was suspected at the slightest inadvertence of the employees? Were the employees, without exception, all scoundrels? Was there among their number not one devoted faithful servant, who, if it did so happen that by chance he missed a few hours work one morning might have found himself so numbed with remorse that he just could not leave his bed?
After Gregor’s metamorphosis, his father goes to work for a bank. “By some capricious obstinacy, [he] always refused to take off his uniform even at home ... as if to keep himself always ready to carry out some order; even in his own home, he seemed to await his superior’s voice.” Gregor’s mother “was killing herself mending the linen of strangers, the sister ran here and there behind her counter at the customers’ bidding.”
The three lodgers whom the family takes in “were very earnest and serious men; all three had thick beards ... and they were fanatically tidy; they insisted on order, not only in their own room, but also, now that they were living here, throughout the whole household, and especially in the kitchen.” Gregor’s mother brings them a plate of meat in the dining room. “The lodgers leaned over it to examine it, and the one who was seated in the middle and who appeared to have some authority over the others, cut a piece of meat as it lay on the dish to ascertain whether it was tender or whether he should send it back to the kitchen. He seemed satisfied, however, and the two women, who had been anxiously watching, gave each other a smile of relief.”
These descriptions are ambiguous, even cryptic—but not in themselves unrealistic; the pallor of unreality is cast by the impossible metamorphosis always present, to our minds. The description of Gregor’s boss has breadth enough to apply not just to a petty office tyrant, but even to an Old Testament God. Indeed, the reference to the high desk echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the God “most high” who yet can “hear” us:“Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly”; “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.” Read this way, the debt that Gregor assumed for his parents and must pay resembles original sin. Only after he has expiated the sin-debt can he “take the big step” toward freedom.
The description of the “firm,” with its atmosphere of universal guilt and punishment, also hints at original sin: “A faithful man who can find?” Gregor and his fellow workers are treated like the evil servant whose lord “shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Gregor is indeed cut off from men; he gets his“portion” of garbage from his hypocritical family, and one evening when he eavesdrops on the three lodgers eating: “It seemed curious to Gregor that he could hear the gnashing of their teeth above all the clatter of cutlery.” The lodgers themselves, “very earnest and serious,” “fanatically tidy,” resemble gods. Frau Samsa’s submitting a plate of meat to them is almost like making a burnt offering to some very choosy deities: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me.”
The fact that employers come in threes after the metamorphosis hints at a shift from Old Testament to New like that of “In the Penal Colony”; more immediately, however, it suggests that each member of the family has to take up a share of the burden of subservience that Gregor had borne alone before. Thus, Gregor had proudly brought home cash as a traveling salesman for a cloth concern. His job is now broken into its separate components. His father goes to work for a bank: he now wears the special clothes and acquires Gregor’s pride in supporting the family. His mother deals with the cloth, “the linen of strangers.” His sister “ran here and there.” The fact that there are three lodgers suggests that there is a“god” for each member of the family. The one in the middle, the most important one, corresponds to Gregor’s father.
Space does not permit a full development of all the realistic elements in “Metamorphosis” that Gregor’s predicament has charged with extra, non-realistic meaning. In every case, however, the same procedure would apply: an imaginative reading of the passages dealing with a particular “realistic” detail. In the few passages I have already quoted, some of these elements emerge. Employers are like gods. Money suggests psychic resources; debts suggest psychic deficits or guilt. Traveling—not only Gregor’s normal occupation, but even after his metamorphosis, he learns “to distract himself by walking”—suggests the need to serve an employer, an escape from freedom (sitting still) for homo viator. Cloth and clothing are the badges of subservience; it is only in states of nightdress or undress that the inner self can emerge.
Other passages would show many more realistic elements with significance beyond mere physical reality. Food, for example, suggests devotion— reverent offerings demanded by lodgers or communion with one’s equals. All the family intercourse of the Samsas seems to take place in the dining room. “Breakfast was the most important meal of the day,” because it was the transition from bed, one’s private life, to employment. The outdoors, the place where one goes to work, where one travels and wears formal clothing, belongs to the employers. Gregor himself sees his problem as that of getting out of bed: “He would dress, and above all, he would have breakfast; then would come the time to reflect, for he felt that it was not in bed that a reasonable solution could be found. He recalled how often an unusual position adopted in bed had resulted in slight pains which proved imaginary as soon as he arose.”
The trifid division of the locale into bedroom (private self), dining room (personal relationships), and outdoors (obligations) hints at that other division into id, ego, and superego. The rooms correspond to areas of experience, the whole apartment upstairs to life on earth and the outdoors downstairs to heaven, with “some unearthly deliverance ... at the foot of the stairs.” Locks and doors, then, symbolize the barriers between these areas of experience. Normally, we break down such barriers by speech, but Gregor can no longer speak intelligibly: he can, however, twist open the lock to his bedroom with his mouth. Locks also symbolize Gregor’s imprisonment in the body of an insect. Thus, at first, “without differentiating between them, he hoped for great and surprising things from the locksmith and the doctor.”
Once understood, Kafka’s method is quite straightforward. In every case, he has charged a specific realistic element of the story with a specific non-realistic or spiritual value. Having understood the method and some of the values created in this field of meaning, one can go on to understand the non-realistic element that creates the field. If, in every case, Kafka converts a spiritual concept down to a physical fact, then the transformation of Gregor to dung-beetle, of man to animal, must stand for the transformation of god to man, and, indeed, Kafka has given Gregor a number of Christ-like attributes. At the opening of the story, Gregor had taken on the responsibility of working for the whole family—in particular, he had taken on his parents’ debts (guilt or original sin). His metamorphosis takes place around Christmas; he remains a bug for three months and dies at the end of March. What finally kills Gregor is an apple thrown by his father, the apple, presumably, of Eden and mortality. “One lightly-thrown apple struck Gregor’s back and fell off without doing any harm, but the next one literally pierced his flesh [sic]. He tried to drag himself a little further away, as if a change of position could relieve the shattering agony he suddenly felt, but he seemed to be nailed fast to the spot.”
Gregor becomes weaker and weaker until he dies. The account of his death parallels the Biblical accounts of Christ’s death:
He lay in this state of peaceful and empty meditation till the clock struck the third morning hour. He saw the landscape grow lighter through the window.
He realized that he must go. . . . Against his will, his head fell forward and his last feeble breath streamed from his nostrils [sic].
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were accomplished that the scripture might be fulfilled ... said, It is finished: and He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost.
The charwoman arrived early in the morning—and though she had often been forbidden to do so, she always slammed the door so loudly in her vigor and haste that once she was in the house it was impossible to get any sleep.
Behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.
The Samsas arise from their beds and learn of Gregor’s death; they cross themselves. “Well,” says Herr Samsa, “we can thank God for that!” The charwoman, “gigantic . . . with bony features and white hair, which stoop up all around her head,” wearing a ’ Tittle ostrich feather which stood upright on her hat,” which “now waved lightly in all directions,” describes Gregor as “absolutely dead as a doornail,” “stone dead.” “The angel of the Lord,” says Matthew, “descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.’” ’He is not here: for he is risen,” becomes another kind of divine comedy: ’”Well, . . .’ she replied, and she laughed so much she could hardly speak for some while. ’Well, you needn’t worry about getting rid of that thing in there, I have fixed it already.’”
One question, however, remains: why a cockroach? Several critics have pointed out’ ’Metamorphosis ’s” descent from the “loathly lady” genre of medieval tales, in which, as in “Beauty and the Beast,” someone is transformed into a loathsome animal and can be transformed back only by love. Love, in other words, is tested by disgust, and in Metamorphosis, love is found lacking. In at least one such tale which Kafka probably knew, Flaubert’s “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller,” the loathsome creature turns out to be Christ. Kafka, however, could have used any loathsome animal, a toad, a snake, a spider: why a cockroach? The German word is Mistkaefer, applied to Gregor only once—by the charwoman. Technically, the word means a dung-beetle, not a cockroach, and the distinction is important. For one thing, biologically, a cockroach undergoes only a partial metamorphosis, while the beetles go through a total metamorphosis. More important, dung beetles are scarabs. “The Egyptian scarab,” says the redoubtable Britannica,“is an image of the sacred dung-beetle . . . which was venerated as a type of the sun-god. Probably the ball of dung, which is rolled along by the beetle in order to place its eggs in it, was regarded as an image of the sun in its course across the heavens, which may have been conceived as a mighty ball rolled by a gigantic beetle.” Gregor, we should remember was a travelling salesman; a collection of samples was “entrusted” to him. Samson (Samsa) means in Hebrew “the sun’s man.” In German, the title of the story, “Die Verwandlung,” like the hieroglyphic beetle-sign, means either an insect’s metamorphosis or transformation in a general sense. “Die Verwandlung,” moreover, is the normal word, for transubstantiation. The dung-beetle, then, was the one animal that gave Kafka everything he needed: total metamorphosis from a wingless grub to a hard-working, traveling-salesman-like adult plus the combination of loathsomeness and divinity.
Samson’s sacrifice is a traditional analogue to Christ’s; in German he is called a Judenchrist.Gregor’s first name means “vigilant,” and so he was when he supported his family. When he is a dim-sighted scarab, though, his first name makes an ironic contrast to his last: Samson was blinded. Samsa, like Samson, rid the chosen people (his family) of the domineering Philistines (the lodgers who didn’t like the sister’s music) by his own self-destruction, his wished-for death. Gregor, at one point, longs to climb up on his sister’s shoulder and kiss her neck; in general, Gregor has a great many incestuous impulses. In this context, his name echoes the medieval legend of Pope Gregory, who in expiating his incestuous birth and marriage became the holiest man in Christendom: chained to a barren rock for seventeen years, the legend says he became an ugly little hedgehog-like creature.
Gregory-Gregor’s situation strongly resembles that prophesied by Isaiah: “His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men... he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” In fact, a good deal of the incidental imagery of ”Metamorphosis” was derived from Isaiah. For example, the statement that Gregor’s sister had worn on her neck “neither collar nor ribbon ever since she had been working in the shop,” corresponds to, “Loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.” The details of Gregor’s death are taken from the Passion, and the whole allegorical scheme of employers as gods and money as spiritual resources probably came from the various New Testament parables of lords, stewards, and “talents.”
In a crude sense, then, ”Metamorphosis” satirizes Christians, who are only distressed, angry, and, ultimately, cruel when a second Christ appears. They take gods in times of trouble, even into their own homes, then throw them out when the trouble ends. After Gregor’s death, a butcher’s boy comes up the stairs, meeting and passing the evicted lodger-gods going down the stairs. Priest-like, he brings the meat that the Samsas will eat themselves, suggesting communion, as opposed to the burnt offerings they had formerly made to the lodgers. At one level, Kafka is parodying Christ’s sacrifice, but a merely theological account of the story is far from complete. It neglects the rich sexual symbolism, the double doors, for example, through which Gregor must pass (a birth image) or the phallic symbols associated with his father: indeed, at one point Herr Samsa is described in terms rather more appropriate to a phallus. Kafka is reaching for more than theological allegory.
At the risk of being trite, I would like to suggest that Gregor’s transformation dramatizes the human predicament. That is, we are all blind, like Samson, trapped between a set of dark instinctual urges on one hand and an obscure drive to serve “gods” on the other. Like dung-beetles, our lives are defined by the urge to mate and the urge to labor that comes from it. Our only freedom is not to know we are imprisoned. ”Metamorphosis” represents abstractions physically and charges physical realities with spiritual significance. Gregor’s physical transformation, then, stands for a spiritual transformation. Gregor is a dung-beetle means he is spiritually like one. His back, “hard as armor plate,” dramatizes and substitutes for his awareness of this human predicament. Similarly, his metamorphosis forces his family to a reluctant awareness of this imprisonment: again, the physical events of the story, taking jobs, for example, dramatize and substitute for the awareness itself. Finally, Gregor’s metamorphosis forces the reader to an awareness of the cage of id and superego. The reader, so long as he believes in the metamorphosis, by its very unreality is driven to see the realities, Biblical and Freudian, hiding behind the ordinary reality of the story.
The first part of ’ ’Metamorphosis” forces this understanding on us, but the ending whimsically urges on us the virtues of ignorance. As Gregor’s sister says,“You must get the idea out of your head that this is Gregor. We have believed that for too long, and that is the cause of all our unhappiness. How could it be Gregor?” That is, so long as we believe in Gregor’s metamorphosis, the realistic details of the story are fraught with significance. If we can forget Gregor’s predicament and ours, we can relapse into blissful ignorance. To read ’ ’Metamorphosis,” one must put aside the “unreal” metamorphosis momentarily; the trouble with the Samsas is that they put it aside forever.
Source: Norman Hollan, “Realism and Unrealism Kafka’s ’Metamorphosis,”’ in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer 1958, pp. 143-50.
In the following brief review of the first English translation of“The Metamorphosis,” Spender calls it a “strange and terrifying nightmare.’’
Franz Kafka’s great allegorical novels have often been compared to “Pilgrim’s Progress.” But, in fact, they differ from any allegories written before because they do not set up a system of symbols which can easily be recognized as corresponding to some system existing in the real world, nor do they offer any solution, any “moral,” as Bunyan does. I believe the fact is that Kafka saw the world much as he describes it in his novels, just as a man who feels himself to be persecuted sees reality fitting into a system, which is really of a spiritual order, to persecute him. Although we might not agree that the victim of persecution mania was persecuted, we might easily find that his systematization of reality gave us an exceedingly convincing view of reality, a view which at moments penetrated beyond reality itself to another final reality, the persecutors themselves.
We do, indeed, find that Kafka gives us just such a view of reality as would the victim of persecution. However roundabout it may seem, his approach to reality is direct: he is not building up an allegory in order to illustrate a metaphysic, he is penetrating reality in order to discover a system of truth. How often when reading his fantastic accounts of human behavior we find ourselves exclaiming not “how remotely that corresponds to
“The Metamorphosis’ is a strange and terrifying nightmare, the whole plot of which is contained in the first paragraph,”
something in life which we dimly see beyond it,” but “how extraordinary, yet how true.” For example, the disorderliness, the lack of dignity, the inappropriateness of the officials who are prosecuting K— in “The Trial” have the significance of monumental truth, because it is through these obstructions which are life itself that K— sees the good life, which these very irrelevancies, in being irrelevant, yet imperfectly represent.
What distinguishes K— from the persecution maniac is that he is the least important figure in his own universe, whereas the neurotic is, of course, the center of his universe, and persecution is the means which the world adopts to flatter his ego. In a sublime sense, K—is humble. This traveler whose case in “The Trial,” or whose task in “The Castle,” is of trifling importance, is a supreme outsider. He is not only ignorant of the way of life which everyone else accepts, he is ignorant of life itself. His love-making is not sexual, it is an innocent attempt to conform, to reach the center of life, a parallel to his spiritual journey. Just because he is an outsider he has the stranger’s fresh view of life and the reality beyond life. That truth Kafka never attained: he only knew there was a truth. If he had lived, he might have written novels which started off from a goal, instead of these novels which never attain their goal.
“The Metamorphosis” is a strange and terrifying nightmare, the whole plot of which is contained in the first paragraph. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.” The story describes, simply and straightforwardly, Gregor’s attempts to adapt himself to this change, the attitude to him of his family and his employer, until finally, neglected by them all, he dies. It contains no metaphysical purpose, it is an account, in Kafka’s terms, of a given situation in contemporary life: the situation, say, of a bank clerk, on whom his whole family has depended, who wakes up one morning to discover that he is suffering from an incurable disease.
Source: Stephen Spender, “Franz Kafka,” in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXXII, No. 1195, October 27, 1937, pp. 347^8.
Corngold, Stanley, The Commentators’ Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Kennikat, 1973.
Gray, Ronald, Franz Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories and Parables, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1983.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Chelsea House, 1988.
This text is a collection of essays analyzing the story.
Brod, Max, Franz Kafka: A Biography, translated by G. Humphreys Roberts, Schocken, 1947.
This book of Kafka’s life is told by his friend and literary executor.
Hayman, Ronald, Kafka: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Hayman’s work is a biographical study that relates Kafka’s life to his works.
Pawel, Ernst, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.
This text is a biography of Kafka providing psychological analysis and social background.
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