by Franz Kafka
Peter Parker's Less Fortunate Cousin
Let's take a look at two ordinary young men. Both of them are hardly chick magnets. Neither of them is particularly witty, rich, or hunky—in fact, they're kind of wimpy. However, both of them wake up one day with insect powers.
One of them becomes a superhero. Beats up bad guys. Gets the girl. Has his own theme song. Looks great swinging across skyscrapers in a unitard.
The other? Well, he gets stuck in his room, where he's fed scraps of garbage. His family ignores him when they're not being openly hostile to him. Covered in trash, he dies a lonely death.
It's a fine line that separates dejected existential hero from Spider-Man kick-buttitude... and Gregor Samsa gets stuck squarely on the wrong side of the line. Being the subject of one of the best opening lines in literature of all time is little consolation to a character who has to spend the rest of his short life as a "vermin." It sounds worse in German—Ungeziefer. Yikes. Wouldn't want one of those crawling around in your lederhosen.
Meh. Guess I Have Feelers Now.
Gregor's transformation is so random, so arbitrary, so grotesque that you might find yourself digging around in the story to find out how such an ordinary guy ended up with such a despicable fate. Dissatisfied with his job, fed up with supporting his family, sexually frustrated —not exactly your happiest guy, but none of these things seem particularly horrible. Just the ordinary troubles of an ordinary man, right?
Even Gregor's attitude toward his transformation seems hopelessly mundane. Instead of freaking out over the fact that he's a bug, he's busy fretting about missing his train to work and how to cope with being a nuisance to his fam:
[H]e would have to lie low and, by being patient and showing his family every possible consideration, help them bear the inconvenience which he simply had to cause them in his present condition. (2.6)
But ironically, Gregor's "ordinary" attitude toward his extraordinary transformation actually enables him to remain open to some of the cooler features of his new body. The fantastic situation he's been thrust into forces him to consider and reflect upon his existence in a way that he wouldn't be able to if he were caught up in the hurly-burly of everyday life.
And sure, he's a little disgusted in the beginning, but as he warms up to some of his new skills, he experiences pleasure, happiness, even a Zen-like state of empty contemplation. Even when he's tormented by anxiety, the natural impulses of his insect body afford him some relief:
He especially liked hanging from the ceiling; it was completely different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; a faint swinging sensation went through the body; and in the almost happy absent-mindedness which Gregor felt up there, it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and plopped onto the floor. (2.20)
Right before his death, he feels all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings about his family. He's traveled—or scuttled—far from the disgruntled salesman we get at the start of the story. Despite his pathetic condition, he seems more human and humane than the other characters in the story.
Let's not sugarcoat his fate here. Gregor dies a vermin, with an apple rotting in his back, covered in trash, having wasted away to a shriveled little shell of a thing. He doesn't even get the dignity of a proper burial (what did happen to his body?). Gregor's dismal fate illustrates both the rewards and the sacrifices of defying social convention and living the extraordinary life.Gregor Samsa Timeline