When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.1
So begins Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915), a masterful mix of horror and absurdity telling the story of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa's bizarre transformation from man to man-sized insect. The story is a powerful exploration of alienation and is regarded as a landmark work of existential literature2. However, its power lies in more than its obvious symbolism. Is there a way to read The Metamorphosis that makes it even more thought-provoking?
Note: this summary includes the ending. To read the story first, you may find it on the Gutenberg website.
Gregor Samsa's life is so regimented that when he first realises his transformation, his only thoughts are of professional embarrassment: he may be late for his train and lag behind in his work. Gregor attempts to explain the situation, but his insect speech is unintelligible to human ears. His family is shocked at his transformation, and that night Gregor's younger sister Grete brings him milk and pieces of bread. He finds he cannot stomach fresh food and only has a taste for scraps. Over this time, his physical transformation leads to an emotional one as well, in which he stops thinking as a human with trains to catch and starts contemplating life as a beetle.
Grete and her mother decide to remove the furniture from Gregor's room to give him more space to crawl in and explore. Gregor's mother becomes exhausted and suggests the furniture should stay and serve as a sign to him that they have not given up hope of his being able to return to human form, an idea with which he agrees. Grete is determined to continue until Gregor leaps into plain view, causing his mother to faint. His father arrives home and is enraged by this; he chases Gregor back, throwing apple pieces at him. One lodges in Gregor's back.
Time passes and the family becomes increasingly indifferent to him. A cleaning woman is hired and they take on three boarders so as to bring in more money. One night, the boarders hear Grete practise her violin and ask her to play for them. Gregor is drawn from his room by the beauty of his sister's playing and is disgusted by the boarders, who are bored by the recital. The boarders see him and are repulsed and vow to leave. The family decides the 'creature' must go. Gregor struggles back to his room and realises he is unable to move; the apple piece caught in his back has become infected and he is close to starvation. As dawn breaks, his head slips to the floor with 'the last faint flicker of his breath'.
The cleaning woman discovers Gregor's death. The family gathers in his room and only now notice how thin he'd become. Mr Samsa demands the boarders leave. He, Mrs Samsa and Grete decide they will not go to work that day and will fire the cleaning woman. They step out together into the bright sunshine of the day.
Between the Lines
The Metamorphosis is obviously a story about alienation. Gregor's life is dictated by his dead-end job and family responsibilities to the extent that even when he travels to different towns, he prefers to stay in his hotel room studying train timetables rather than experience what the new location has to offer. That isolation is mirrored in his relationship with his family, for whom he is the bread-winner but from whom he locks himself away at night. This alienation becomes so pronounced that, one day, he discovers himself to be literally no longer human. Gregor's earlier sentiment is reciprocated when his family begins locking and bolting the door shut behind him in his room. Late in the story, he briefly considers what it means to be 'human'; if he can be so moved by his sister's music then surely he cannot be an animal. And ultimately, his acceptance that he must go shows an act of genuine humanity.
Gregor's experience is not the only transformation in the story; rather, it is only the first. The Samsa family undergoes metamorphoses of their own, most notably in the character of the father. At the start of the story, Mr Samsa is a retired businessman whose career was not overly successful. As his role as family provider is supplanted by his salesman son, he becomes more and more accustomed to inactivity and lack of purpose. His demeanour begins to change when he is forced back to work, although he still sees himself as inferior to the men around him due to the menial nature of his job. He ultimately reasserts his self-belief when he stands up to the boarders and demands they leave.
Grete also changes as the narrative progresses, emerging at the end as a confident young woman, not the girl in need of guidance that Gregor had seen her to be. It is telling that it is Grete who is the first to say Gregor must leave the house, a marked difference from her role early in the story as the sole caregiver to her brother. It is also significant that the story ends with Grete having 'bloomed' into a pretty girl, stretching her body as though emerging from a cocoon or perhaps from hibernation. In either case, a change of state is implied by her actions.
The transformation of Mrs Samsa is more muted. While Gregor's mother pleads with her husband to 'spare her son's life' midway through the story, by the end she is united - albeit without expressly saying so - in the belief that he is no longer her son but merely a hideous burden. This is also shown in the change in the family dynamic as a whole. In the last paragraph of the story, they have evolved into a cohesive, supportive unit.
The characters are also interesting due to their direct inspiration from Kafka's own family. The author had a famously troubled relationship with his own father. It is a recurring theme of his work for the father-son dynamic to be represented as domineering and abusive. It is no coincidence, then, that it is Mr Samsa who throws the missile that lodges in Gregor's back, causing him constant pain in life and sowing the seeds of his death.
Kafka saw his mother as timidly hiding behind his father's actions, something that is repeated in the conduct of Mrs Samsa. While Mr Samsa and Grete at least have the courage to state plainly their conviction that Gregor no longer has a place with them, Mrs Samsa can only cough her acquiescence. It is said Kafka felt a bond with his sister, but this was broken when she sided with her parents' insistence that he spend afternoons at his office job. Kafka saw this as a betrayal and accordingly has Grete 'betray' Gregor at the story's end.
But there is another way to read this story that makes it even more thought-provoking (or at least adds another possible thread to its symbolic complexity). Picture Gregor as having not changed at all.
In this interpretation, the other characters in the story would not see a man-sized beetle. Instead, they see a man so alienated from reality that he chooses to reject it totally. He is still a man, the same man they saw the previous day, but now he is crawling awkwardly on the floor and squeaking rather than speaking. He would prefer the shame of living as an insect to the hopelessness of living as a man. He would rather live in squalor and eat scraps from the rubbish than deal with the mind-numbing sameness of his life and accept responsibility for changing it.
The abhorrence the family displays upon seeing him would still be the same - perhaps it would be even greater if they still just saw a man. They would be forced to accept the situation in the same way; still hoping Gregor will put himself right before finally admitting the man they knew will never return. As nightmarish as the scenario presented in the book is, maybe the only thing worse than inexplicably transforming into a giant bug overnight is wishing you had.
This would also impact upon the way other characters are interpreted. When the cleaning woman attempts to communicate with Gregor, calling him a dung beetle, is she really being friendly? If she sees a man, those words could hold sarcasm masking discomfort at best, a sadistic taunt at worst. The belligerence of the boarders in demanding to leave without paying could merely hide their horror at seeing a fully grown, filthy man in clothes reduced to rags crawling about the floor like an insect. The final decision of the family would also be seen in a more poignant light, given they would have to accept that the 'creature' is not Gregor and 'must go', even though they still recognise him as their son or brother.
This reading may also shed light on Kafka's state of mind in composing the story, given the autobiographical details outlined above. It is also said his living arrangements were very similar to Gregor's at the time he wrote The Metamorphosis. To what extent is Kafka himself a man wanting to reject the dreariness or hopelessness of his reality by writing? The fact that he kept his job with an insurance company and frequented cafes with intellectual friends rather than devote all his time to his books suggests a desire to maintain contact with the world around him. Some see that as reflected in Gregor's wish that the furniture remain in his room; such human objects are of no real use to him except as a reminder of his grotesque transformation.
On the other hand, some say the insect is representative of Kafka's view of himself as a writer. Certainly, he found no intrinsic joy in producing his work. In fact, upon re-reading his stories, he would often declare them to be unprintable rubbish. These intensely high standards would tend to support the theory that he may have likened himself as an author to a repugnant bug, cowering under the imposing figure of his father.
These are two of the possible readings of the text, but of course more are possible. Other interpretations range from the theological to the Marxist. To paraphrase Albert Camus3, Kafka's genius lies in his works' ability to offer the reader everything and confirm nothing.