We know. We know. If we were to wake up and find ourselves transformed into The World's Largest Beetle (or if we found out that a family member got bug-ified), we wouldn't be dispassionate. We'd be passionate. We'd be freaked out. We'd be sobbing and vomiting and calling 911 and possibly Instagramming that (if we could hold our phone with our ineffectual little bug-feet).
But we're not Franz Kafka.
James Joyce once said that a novelist shouldn't make his opinions known in fiction: he should remain disinterested, as if he were standing outside his creation "paring his fingernails."
Reading The Metamorphosis, you get the sense that Kafka has some pret-ty well-manicured nails. Check it out:
[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)
Inconvenience?! Present condition?! This passage is about Gregor being a freaking insect, not about him having his leg in a cast or being temporarily out of a job!
The story itself is sensational, absurd, grotesque—but the actual tone of the story is about as dispassionate as an article in The International Journal of Electrical Engineering.
Unfortunately "stories that make you totally afraid of being suddenly transformed into an cockroach" is not actually a real genre. We checked.
Written in 1912 and published in 1915, Kafka's Metamorphosis falls squarely in the genre of Modernist fiction. The fate of Gregor, lonely traveling salesman, expresses the common Modernist concern with the alienating effects of modern society. Like other Modernist works, the story uses the stream-of-consciousness technique to reflect the psychological complexity of its main character.
Kafka's novella is also notable as a modern work of magical realism with its juxtaposition of fantastic occurrences—the guy turns into a bug—with a realistic setting.
When you hear the word "metamorphosis" your first thought is probably "Aww, a lil' caterpillar turning into a majestic butterfly!"
Not quite what Kafka had in mind.
The conventional translation of Kafka's Die Verwandlung is The Metamorphosis, but the German original actually has a more run-of-the-mill sense of "transformation."
The English word "metamorphosis" is more formal and fancies up the German original by linking Kafka's tale to one of the great works of classical antiquity, Ovid's Metamorphoses, a series of stories describing mythical characters who are punished for sexual misbehavior by being turned into plants and animals.
Interestingly, Kafka's title doesn't specify who or what is being transformed. While Gregor's transformation into a bug is certainly front and center, the generic title invites the reader to consider all of the other ways that Gregor and the other characters are transformed in the course of the story.
Spoiler: the bug bites it.
For a story with such a sensational beginning, Kafka's Metamorphosis ends with a relative whimper (just like the world, according to T.S. Eliot). After all the hijinks, you'd expect Gregor to die in a more theatrical way. A death match between himself and his father? Or a knife attack by Grete, who goes berserk after so many weeks and months of care-taking? Or a struggle to the death with the cleaning woman, who is armed with a really, really big dustpan?
Nope. Instead, Gregor, weakened by a long period of self-starvation, collapses on the floor. The narrator notes that Gregor dies a little after 3 a.m., as if that were significant somehow.
While Kafka himself expressed disappointment with the story's ending, it actually works because of its dramatic understatement. Fittingly, Gregor slides away from the stage without attracting attention, just as the other Samsas come into their own as working, thriving human beings.
It's not even clear how his bug-corpse is finally disposed of. Reduced to a paper-thin wafer of a thing, Gregor literally disappears on the page. This finishes the reversal that began the story, where, before his transformation, Gregor was the primary breadwinner of the family and the other family members were relatively powerless—his father an invalid, his mother asthmatic, and his sister a young, frivolous girl. Now all the Samsas have jobs, the father's physically vigorous again, and Grete has matured into a marriageable young woman. The story even continues after Gregor's death, with his family taking a nice little jaunt into the countryside.
With Gregor gone, the ordinary course of things has been restored in all of its banality, which might actually be more terrifying in its absolute boringness than the Gregor's vermin form.
You may have experienced cabin fever of sorts during the last Snowpocalypse or hideous heatwave. But at least you've never been stuck in an apartment for months on end imprisoned in the body of a giant bug. You'd be literally climbing up the walls. (Thanks, Kafka! You always put things in perspective.)
The story doesn't give us a specific geographical location or historical date. With the exception of the very last paragraph (where the Samsas take a trip out to the country) all of the action takes place in the Samsas' apartment. We're going stir-crazy just thinking about this novella.
The apartment overlooks a busy city street, and a hospital is across the way within viewing distance from Gregor's window. (The story doesn't mention whether anyone can look in. Pity the poor convalescent who looks out his or her hospital window to see Gregor twitching.) It's ironic that the Samsas can be so centrally located without attracting more attention to the fact that there is an extraordinarily large bug living in their apartment.
The apartment itself is modest. Sandwiched between his parents' room and Grete's, Gregor's room opens out onto the living room. By confining all the action to the apartment, the story highlights Gregor's isolation from human society.
Kafka's story is a relatively easy read (and darkly hilarious to boot). There aren't any hard to understand philosophical passages or confusing plot twists.
But we're giving the story a "5" because, underneath its relative readability, the story explores a number of uber-complex philosophical and moral questions. But you can still get a good chuckle—and a few really good cringes—out of the story even if you're not zeroing in on the broader theoretical context.
Yes, we're aware that calling Kafka "sophisticated" and "ironic" at the same time makes him sound like he's somehow wearing a monocle, a dinner jacket, an 80's wolf-howling-at-moon t-shirt and some cowboy boots all at the same time.
And while Kafka was a weirdo, he wasn't an affected weirdo. He was just full of surprises.
Here's a fun word to dazzle your English teacher with: anacoluthon. An anacoluthon is a sentence that ends in a surprising or unexpected way. Take the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed"—okay, ordinary enough—"into a monstrous vermin."
A monstrous vermin?!? Who expects anything worse than bed hair and morning breath when they wake up, let alone being changed into a bug? Kafka's style isn't loaded with complicated vocabulary, but you'll notice that his sentences seem to go on and on until they end with some surprising or counter-intuitive twist.
You could say the entire story is an allegory. After all, the setting seems so ordinary that it's tempting to see Gregor's transformation as a symbolic one, rather than an actual one. Maybe he's only a vermin in some moral or psychological sense. Perhaps he did something particularly cretinous – how about that chambermaid he had such "happy, fleeting" memories of? And what about all that cash his supervisor mentioned? Or perhaps his verminous-ness is an indirect expression of his selfish desire to be free of his family obligations. For more discussion on the vermin as it relates to the main themes of the story, check out "Man and the Natural World."
While religion doesn't play a huge part in the story, there are some religious elements sprinkled here and there. Some critics argue that Kafka chose the German word for vermin – Ungeziefer – with an eye toward its medieval meaning as an animal too debased to sacrifice (Corngold 87). The German word has a creepy echo after World War II, long after the story was written, because the Nazis used the word to describe Jews. While the Samsas are Christian (note the scene where they cross themselves over Gregor's corpse), some critics believe that Jewish mysticism plays a role in the story. Although there are no specific references to Jewish texts, critics note that Kafka, a Czech Jew, was reading about Jewish folklore at the time (Bruce 111). Gregor's "exile" in his own room is read by these critics as an allegory for the Jewish diaspora.
For a discussion of the photograph of the lady in furs, check out the theme "Morality and Ethics." But let's talk about the frame around the photograph. That's right – the frame. When we see characters doing something artistic in a story, it's usually a signal that the author is making some commentary on what he or she is trying to do as an artist, as a writer. Now the frame is something that Gregor artfully crafted in his free time, when he could have been wooing marriageable women or working on selling more fabric, neither of which he accomplishes successfully. An allegory, perhaps, of Kafka's own little novella, which, one could argue, is just a story and doesn't really contribute anything tangible to society? That's certainly a question the story raises about itself. And if Gregor represents the writer-figure here, what does it mean for him to be turned into a vermin? Nothing – and no one – is safe from Kafka's irony, not even himself.
The only thing more alienating than being stuck in Kafka's head is being stuck in the head of one of his characters. But he's such a brilliant weirdo that we just keep on reading.
This story is mainly told through the perspective of Gregor Samsa, as if the narrator were planted with Gregor's human consciousness inside Gregor's insect body. We discover aspects of Gregor's body as he himself discovers them. If he itches, we don't know why until he looks to see what's making him itch. If he's hungry, we don't know what he likes to eat until he discovers his preference for rotten foods.
The narrator does break out of Gregor's perspective on occasion and weaves into the minds of other characters, most notably in the last few paragraphs of the story after Gregor bites the bullet.
You're probably glancing at the rest of the plot analysis thinking that maybe Kafka's skipped ahead a couple of stages. Being a disgusting insect could very well qualify for the "Frustration," "Nightmare," or even "Destruction or Death Wish Stage," depending on how much you hate bugs. But no, Kafka's story begins with the main character suffering a horrendously tragic fate. Let the hijinks begin.
Despite Gregor's intolerable situation, he actually seems to enjoy exploring his new body's capabilities sometimes. Who wouldn't enjoy defying gravity and clambering all around the room? He even feels a light euphoria as he hangs upside down from the ceiling.
Even though Gregor can find some positive aspects to his transformation, his family can't accept any of it—they barely tolerate him. Grete, for example, no longer takes care of his room with the same considerate attention that she did in the beginning. Gregor grows increasingly shabby and famished, and his room more cluttered with refuse, as the story goes on.
Gregor's situation is v aggravated by the fact that his family refuses to believe that he can understand them or that he's attempting to communicate with them through non-verbal ways. His attempt to reach out to his sister during her violin recital only confirms the family's worst fears about what he's become—a despicable vermin.
For Gregor, his family's rejection of him is so absolute that it arguably takes away his will to live. Grete's assertion that Gregor is no longer Gregor, but just a nameless bug that must be eliminated just like any other bug, is a denial of Gregor's existence that Gregor finds so compelling that he agrees with her and literally ceases to exist.
It seems odd to begin a story with what should be the ending. After all, all kinds of questions are probably swimming in your head. Like, how did he become a bug? What is this story? Is it a fantasy? A myth? How could it possibly be "realistic"?
But that's what makes the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis such a head trip. Because these are the questions that Gregor—and, arguably, the story—ignores. Both Gregor and the story treat Gregor's metamorphosis as though it were just an ordinary day—an ordinary bad day, sure, but nothing extraordinarily bad.
Not surprisingly, Gregor's transformation causes some friction with his family and his employer. It's hard to be an effective salesman if you're a bug. Since Gregor can no longer support the family, the family can no longer remain as they are—an invalid father, an asthmatic mother, a flighty teenage sister. They must all seek work and find ways to cut household costs.
Gregor's family has no idea how to treat this thing that he's become. Swat him with a rolled-up newspaper as if he were a common household pest? His father seems to feel that way when he chases Gregor back into his room. Or care for him as if he had some unfortunate and incurable disease, as Grete does? Torn between her revulsion at Gregor the pest and her sentimental attachment to Gregor the son, Gregor's mother spends most of the time waxing sentimental about Gregor or wheezing through another panic-induced asthmatic attack.
Up to this point, the family has grown accustomed to life after Gregor's transformation. In addition to his twice-a-day feedings, the family leaves the door ajar every evening so that Gregor can witness the family's nightly routine. But on the night that Grete plays the violin, Gregor is so overwhelmed by emotion that he breaks free from his room in an attempt to contact her. Instead of being moved by Gregor's gesture, the family is appalled. It doesn't help that Gregor frightens away the boarders (an important source of income).
While Gregor has escaped his room twice before, his third escape is the last straw for his family. They read his escape as his unwillingness to remain in his room, out of sight and out of mind. They believe he wants to take over the entire apartment and ruin their lives.
His behavior is seen as inconsiderate and decidedly inhuman—certain evidence that he is no longer Gregor, the loving human son who used to support them, but a disgusting bug through and through. Gregor, who happens to be lying in the middle of the floor as the family discussion swirls around him, silently agrees and lurches back into his room.
Poor Gregor. On top of being a loathsome insect, he has to witness his family's horror, poverty, and humiliation. Gregor's pathetic death ends the trials and tribulations that were set off by his metamorphosis.
The story's ending confirms Gregor's bleak realization that his family is better off without him. No longer do they shuffle under the weight of all their troubles. Grete's stretch at the end of their train ride out to the country represents the entire family's feeling that a huge burden has been lifted off their shoulders.
Gregor wakes up one morning and discovers that he's been turned into a bug. His family and acquaintances are shocked and repulsed.
The family adjusts to life with Gregor, who remains confined to his room. However, Gregor periodically escapes from his room and has to be chased back by his father.
After his last escape, Gregor dies in his room. The Samsas take the day off and celebrate with an outing in the country. Woo!