The Metamorphosis Introduction
In A Nutshell
You don't get your last name turned into a synonym for deeply disturbed alienation unless you write some pretty messed-up stuff. And The Metamorphosis is considered to be about as Kafkaesque as Kafka gets.
... that's a compliment. A really huge one.
The Metamorphosis is a story about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a gigantic, incredibly disgusting bug. Gregor's totally abrupt and unexplained transformation is juxtaposed with a lot of really mundane day-to-day details (waking up late, cleaning house) and the result is, well, textbook Kafkaesque.
Perhaps it's because of the story's nightmare-meets-contents-of-a-Google Calendar quality that a veritable critical industry has been devoted to figuring out exactly what the story is all about (besides a warning against throwing apples at your son).
To use a nasty phrase that we think Kafka would have liked: there is more than one way to skin a cat (gross). And there is way more than one way to analyze a novella that has crawled, cockroach-like, inside the collective brainpan of the international reading public.
Like biographical analysis? You're in luck. A lot of critics look to Kafka's biographical and historical context to argue that this story, published in 1912, expresses Kafka's personal sense of alienation. Dude had every reason to feel alone: not only was he a German speaker living in Czech Prague, and a Jew living in hyper anti-Semitic times, but Kafka also felt enormous pressure to become a successful businessman like his father. Gregor's transformation into a puke-inducing parasite is often viewed as an expression of Kafka's feelings of isolation and inferiority.
Or is philosophical/political analysis more your style? You're covered. Other critics point to Kafka's readings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as a way into the complex philosophical themes of this warped little fairy tale. Gregor's conflict with his father and the dream-like quality of the story is seen as a nod to both Freud's analysis of dreams and the Oedipal complex. A Marxist would read Gregor's inability to work as a protest against the dehumanizing and self-alienating effects of working in a capitalistic society. And others view Gregor's monstrous insect form as representing Gregor's radical refusal to submit to society's values and conventions, much in the same way as the Nietzschean Übermensch.
Heavy stuff indeed for a story about a cockroach who likes to slurp putrid waste and hang upside down from the ceiling.
No matter how you analyze this creeptastic carnival of a book, you'll set it down with a feeling that is equal parts horror and deep amazement. Think of what would happen if the deadpan insanity of Clickhole was fused with one of Cronenberg's more twisted movies... and you're about halfway towards understanding the sheer visceral and cerebral punch that The Metamorphosis packs.
Why Should I Care?
It's not often that we a) get our sincerity on or b) let another writer in the driver's seat when we're talking about why you should care about a work of literature. (We're the world's biggest lit nerds—you should see our tats.)
But, real talk: The Metamorphosis is probably the best example of alienation made symbolic in literature. A dude wakes up as a bug. He's insignificant. He's disgusting. But he still has a human brain—right? He's still himself—right? Wait... what does it mean to "be himself"?
For there is a sense in which Kafka's Jewish Question ("What have I in common with Jews?") has become everybody's question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts [...] What is Muslimness? What is Femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We're all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.
Yup, Smith gets straight to the heart of it.
But even if you've never grappled with what it means to be a certain nationality or religion or gender, we know that you've had at least one crisis of identity—everything started being horribly peculiar and filled with doubts as soon as you hit middle school... at the latest.
You can think of The Metamorphosis as a Ferris Bueller's Day Off gone horribly, horribly wrong. That little chirp in Gregor's voice when he tries to talk? Ever had your voice crack due to those sadistic little chemicals called hormones? Gregor's hyperactive crawling on the walls? Ever have difficulty sitting still?
But what makes Kafka's story such a classic is that it's able to move from the Big Questions that haunt civilization as we know it to that universally recognizable (and, let's be honest—often pretty hilarious) experience of adolescent awkwardness. It's an all-encompassing allegory. And it raises some huge questions.
If Kafka's story moves so seamlessly between the fantastic and the ordinary, the funny and the horrifying, the global and the personal, it's to remind us all to embrace our inner vermin—both our own sanity and the very survival of human civilization may depend on it.