The great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that "if Kafka's The Metamorphosis strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers" (source). Far be it for us to quibble with Nabokov. But you could say that Franz Kafka's story deserves its status as one of the greatest literary works of all time precisely because it's an awesome work of fantasy. It's a story about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a gigantic, gross bug. Gregor's abrupt and unexplained transformation, along with the story's juxtaposition of everyday and fantastic elements, gives the story a dream-like quality that is enigmatically compelling.
Perhaps it's because of the story's dream-like elusiveness that a veritable critical industry has been devoted to figuring out exactly what the story is all about. Some look to Kafka's biographical and historical context to argue that the story, published in 1912, expresses Kafka's own sense of self-alienation. Not only was he a German speaker living in Czech Prague, and a Jew living in virulently anti-Semitic times, but Kafka also felt enormous pressure to become a successful businessman like his father. Gregor's transformation into a disgusting parasite is often viewed as an expression of Kafka's feelings of isolation and inferiority. The story is also read as a prescient allegory for genocide, in particular the Holocaust. The word used to describe Gregor – Ungeziefer – is a term that the Nazis used to refer to the Jews (Bruce 113). While Kafka died in 1924, many surviving members of his family perished in the Holocaust.
Others point to Kafka's readings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as a way into the complex philosophical themes of this apparently simple tale. Gregor's conflict with his father and the dream-like quality of the story is seen as a nod to 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. The beauty of Kafka's tale is that it can elicit all of these readings while still wiggling an antennae or two for some earthy entomological hilarity.
Are you a fan of X-Men? Love Twilight? Enjoy Batman or Spiderman? Mythical creatures and animal avatars, superhuman gifts that are viewed as subhuman deviations or worse – you could say that all of these are expressions of protest against social convention, against ordinary notions of what human beings should and ought to be.
And it's no wonder that these incredibly popular books and films tap into adolescence as prime terrain for such fantastic transformations. Adolescence is not only a time when you establish your independence from your parents and their expectations, but also a time that comes with a host of psychological and physical changes that can be downright confusing. You could be the most well-adjusted, over-achieving person on the planet, but you've probably still had moments in your life where your changing body just seems like it belongs to someone else and has a mind of its own.
Welcome to the world of Kafka's Metamorphosis, 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 funny little chemicals called hormones? Gregor's hyperactive crawling on the walls? Ever have difficulty sitting still? Those twitching antennae are an extreme version of a really bad hair day, and Gregor's picture of a woman in furs is just your early twentieth century version of a Victoria's Secret catalogue.
But what makes Kafka's story such a classic is that it's able to move from that universally recognizable experience of adolescent awkwardness to get at the big questions that haunt civilization as we know it. Why should people be "disposed of," as Grete adamantly insists at the end of the story, as though they were so much "vermin" because they are different from what's considered "normal"? And how can ordinary people be as cruel as the Samsas, who don't seem particularly diabolical, but are able to turn their backs on their own family member, to the point of entertaining the idea of extermination – it's murder, isn't it? What capacity for cruelty resides in every human being? If Kafka's story moves so seamlessly between the fantastic and the ordinary, it's to remind us all to embrace our inner vermin – the very survival of human civilization may depend on it.