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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.