Study Guide

The Metamorphosis Themes

By Franz Kafka

  • Man and the Natural World

    If human beings are different from animals because they have the capacity for thought, language, and social feeling, how do we categorize Gregor, who seems to exhibit all of these human capacities... but is trapped in the body of a nasty bug?

    The Metamorphosis shows Gregor questioning his own humanity as he grows more accustomed to the life of a bug. But it also casts doubt on the humanity of the other characters by showing how they too mimic animal behavior. (Note: we're sticking to a traditional way of looking at animals as not having consciousnesses or minds because we're looking at a work of literature from the early twentieth century. Whether animals have consciousness is a question that biologists and philosophers are still hammering out today.)

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which aspects of Gregor can be attributed to his human side? To his animal side?
    2. Take a look at how Gregor and the other characters behave. How does the story distinguish between human and animal actions? Or is there really no difference between the two?
    3. Do you think Gregor becomes more animal-like – or more precisely, bug-like – as the story progresses? How do you see Gregor dealing with the human and insect sides of his personality?

    Chew on This

    As the story progresses, Gregor maintains his human intelligence and feeling, despite the pressing needs of his animal body.

    Gregor's behavior as an insect brings out how the other characters behave in an animalistic way: their similarities demonstrate that human beings have an animal side that they cannot ignore.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Much of The Metamorphosis is spent in Gregor's head as he struggles to come to terms with his new form. (We would make a "bugging out" pun here, but we're going to stay classy.)

    At times he seems to be able to think abstractly about his condition (as an insect) in ways that sound rational, even if his condition is totally absurd. At other times, it seems that the instincts, drives, and pains of his new body encroach upon his consciousness, influencing his mental life in ways that he can't even begin to understand. Many of the comic moments in Kafka's story result from the inevitable clash between Gregor's pesky body and his consciousness.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Take a look at the scenes where Gregor thinks about his situation. Does Gregor think rationally? Or does he think like a bug? Do you think he's more rational or irrational than the other characters?
    2. Do you think Gregor maintains a human consciousness despite his insect body? If so, where do you see evidence of this? If not, what scenes show the absence of human consciousness?
    3. Consider moments when Gregor and the other characters literally seem to lose their minds. How do these moments make the characters act and feel?

    Chew on This

    Gregor's obliviousness to the experience of physical pain is evidence that he continues to have a human consciousness that is distinct from his insect body.

    By staging scenes where Gregor momentarily loses his self-consciousness and enjoys being a bug, the story shows how human intelligence may actually create unhappiness and suffering.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Forgive the short dip into Philosophy 101 here, but we promise—it'll pay off in the end.

    A major German Enlightenment philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant came up with the ethical principle that you should act toward others as if your actions served as a universal law applicable to everybody, including yourself. It's another way of saying that you should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

    Kafka puts a twist on this whole ethical tradition by making the subject of ethical debate in The Metamorphosis a bug. And not just any bug—a vermin, a pest. So what happens to ethics when the subject is a bug? Should we do unto vermin as we would have vermin do unto us? What if we can't determine what Gregor is exactly? Which laws apply to Gregor?

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Take a look at how the characters, both major and minor, treat Gregor. How would you describe their treatment of him—fair and kind, or cruel and inhumane?
    2. Did Gregor deserve to be turned into a bug, or does the story leave that up in the air?
    3. Do you think that Gregor should be treated differently because he has the body of a bug? How does his being both bug and human complicate the moral issues here?
    4. Take a look at the different instances when the characters use the term "considerate" or "consideration." What does this term mean for different characters?
    5. Let's step outside the story for a minute. Do you think that the characters do right by Gregor? How do different characters justify their behavior toward him? Do you find their reasoning convincing or just plain wrong?

    Chew on This

    Gregor's literal transformation into a bug is actually a metaphor for the immoral person that he is: a dishonest, lazy employee, an irresponsible son, and a lewd man.

    Kafka's Metamorphosis satirizes the characters' constant appeal to consideration by showing how inconsiderate they are.

  • Transformation

    Presto-change-o: by starting out with Gregor's metamorphosis into a bug, The Metamorphosis plays around with some interesting questions as to the significance of transformation.

    Also, Gregor seems to change in other ways during the course of the novella. His metamorphoses have a rippling effect on the other characters as they modify their own behavior in response to his new form. These transformations draw attention to the ways that people change under pressure, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally as well.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Do you think Gregor's transformation is a completely random event, or do you think Gregor is somehow responsible for being turned into a vermin? What evidence can you find in the story to support either view?
    2. Sure, Gregor's metamorphosis into a vermin is the central transformation of the book. But what are some other ways that you find Gregor changing—physically, psychologically, emotionally—in the course of the story?
    3. How would you describe Gregor's attitude toward his transformation through the course of the story? Do you think he thinks it's a total catastrophe, or are there any positives to being a bug? How would you describe the attitude of the other characters?
    4. Do you think the other characters change in the course of the story? If so, in what ways?

    Chew on This

    While Gregor's initial transformation into a vermin may be an arbitrary event, his devolution into a refuse-covered carcass shows how the other characters have an equally transformative impact on Gregor through their mistreatment of him.

    Gregor continues to change after his transformation into a vermin, as his new body influences his mental life through new needs and behaviors.

  • Identity

    It's hard to think of a more upsetting identity crisis.

    Gregor's transformation into a giant bug touches on larger issues of identity for himself and his family. One way of approaching the identity issue is to consider whether Gregor is still Gregor if he looks like a bug. Sure, we as readers of The Metamorphosis have access to his thoughts, but his family doesn't.

    So let's put another twist on the identity issue: is Gregor still Gregor if he has no way of communicating his thoughts to others? And why is it that the cleaning woman, and not the family, is so willing to ascribe to Gregor human qualities such as intelligence and intention? Who has the right to say whether Gregor is Gregor or not?

    Questions About Identity

    1. Do you think Gregor is still human, just a bug, some kind of bug/human hybrid, or something else entirely? What evidence can you draw from the story to support your point of view?
    2. What is the role of appearances in the way the characters perceive each other? Consider, for example, Mr. Samsa's uniform, the boarders' long beards, and, obviously, Gregor's insect body.
    3. What is the effect that language and communication have on Gregor's identity? Does the fact that he can no longer form words mean that he's no longer human? Do you think the other characters should have been open to the possibility that Gregor may be communicating in other ways? Why or why not?
    4. How does your attitude toward the characters change when you use their names? For example, how does calling Mr. Samsa just "the father" or "his father" for most of the story affect the way you see the character? Why do you think Grete refuses to call Gregor by his name at the end of the story?

    Chew on This

    By showing how much Gregor's identity is affected by the others' treatment of him, the story shows how identity is socially constructed, rather than an inborn trait.

    The most significant consequence of Gregor's transformation is not his insect form, but actually his loss of language; without language, Gregor loses the power to express who he is and control his own life.

  • Isolation

    Early in The Metamorphosis, we learn that Gregor wishes to quit his job and be free of his family obligations. Be careful what you wish for.

    Being turned into a bug takes care of this problem for Gregor—you could say it's overkill. Gregor's physical isolation from the outside world in his room speaks to his general alienation from modern society, which expects him to work hard and find a wife. Despite the fact that he's finally gotten his wish, Gregor is overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame at being—literally—a parasite to his family. In the bleak world of the novella, happiness is impossible because the needs of the individual and society are irreconcilable yet equally compelling.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Do you think Gregor was a loner to begin with, or do you think his isolation is caused by his transformation?
    2. How do characters such as Grete, the cleaning woman, and Mr. and Mrs. Samsa include or exclude Gregor from human society? What are the different ways that they ease or aggravate his loneliness?
    3. What is the effect of isolation and solitude on Gregor's state of mind? Do you think his loneliness makes it easier or harder for him to forget his human side and embrace his insect side?

    Chew on This

    Gregor's life as a vermin is a metaphor for feelings of alienation and isolation that existed long before his transformation.

    The devolution of Gregor's room from a human bedroom to a storage closet reflects how his connection to human society deteriorates as the story progresses.

  • Family

    Kafka's The Metamorphosis toys with the traditional family structure where the father is at the head of the household and the son is a bug. Oh. Wait.

    The story begins with Gregor, the son, as the sole provider and the father as a weak, physically debilitated dependent, on par with the mother and daughter. But Big Daddy Samsa returns to his position as the patriarch of the family as he asserts his power more and more aggressively. But the novella questions the traditional family structure by showing the Samsas turning their backs on their duty to Gregor as a member of their family. How "natural" is the family bond if the family bond is so easy to ignore when things get tough?

    Questions About Family

    1. What are some ways that the Samsas fulfill traditional roles—mother, father, son, daughter? What are some ways that the Samsas do not fit the "normal" family stereotypes?
    2. What do you think is the story's attitude toward traditional family structures?
    3. Who is the head of the Samsa family before Gregor's transformation? After Gregor's transformation, who seems to have the most control over the situation? At what points in the story do you see the power dynamic shift from one character to another?
    4. Do you think Gregor is a member of the family even though he's a bug? Why or why not?
    5. Do you think Gregor's family is responsible for his death?

    Chew on This

    With Gregor's transformation into a bug, the rest of the Samsas return to their traditional family roles.

    Kafka's The Metamorphosis satirizes traditional family structures by showing how easily the Samsas dispose of their responsibility to Gregor, who, despite his transformation, remains a member of the family.

  • Society and Class

    Kafka's stories are known for their exploration of the nightmare of bureaucracy and the dehumanizing effects of modern life—all of those things we think of when we use the term "Kafkaesque."

    Ever had to deal with the DMV or the IRS? For many people, such institutions exemplify the Kafkaesque. You can still see the Kafkaesque working its dismal magic on Gregor's attitude toward his profession and the behavior of characters who are not members of the family.

    southern-gothic--kafka-and-moby-dick--kafkaesque

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is Gregor's (former) job as a traveling salesman like? Do you think he found the job personally fulfilling? Why or why not?
    2. With Gregor no longer the breadwinner, how does the Samsas' status change? Do they adjust well to the change? Why or why not?
    3. Take a closer look at the cleaning woman and the boarders. How do these relatively minor characters enhance our understanding of the Samsas and their situation?

    Chew on This

    Gregor's transformation into a vermin is a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of his life as a traveling salesman.

    The changes in the Samsa family fortunes illustrate how class can be as radically transformative as Gregor's own insect metamorphosis.