Author: Franz Kafka
Pages: The particular edition that I have (pictured below) is 299 pages long but includes a number of other short stories. Metamorphosis alone is 63 pages.
My rating: 5 stars
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
If there is a book that grips your attention from the very first sentence 👆🏻, it is Metamorphosis. The opening sentence sets the theme for the novella – which is absurdity and wildly irrational event. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. His surroundings appear normal and he thinks he’s in some sort of dream. He attempts to roll over but is unsuccessful due to his new body. He tries to scratch an itch but when he touches himself with one of his many legs, he is disgusted. Gregor’s mother knocks on his door which he keeps locked out of habit. When he answers her, he finds that his voice has changed. A little while later, his office manager comes into the apartment to find out why Gregor has not shown up for work. The manager starts to chide Gregor for his recent work performance. Gregor protests, and of course his voice has become totally incomprehensible at this stage. Using all his might, Gregor rocks himself to the floor and manages to unlock the door using his mouth. Horrified by Gregor’s appearance, the manager bolts out of the apartment. Gregor tries to catch up with him but his father drives him back to his room using a cane and a rolled up newspaper. Gregor got injured when he was squeezing his way back into his room and exhausted, he fell asleep.
That was part 1 of the novella. At this point curious me was totally engrossed and googling about cockroaches. I don’t know why I was quick to assume that the “giant insect” would be a roach. Kafka did not get into specifics. So, anyways, part 2… Gregor wakes up to find that someone (his sister) has put milk and bread in his room. He’s excited because that used to be his favorite food but quickly discovers he has no taste for it. The sister, seeing his food was untouched replaces it with rotting food stuffs which tickles Gregor’s taste buds. Whenever the sister brings in the rotten food, he hides under the couch for fear that his appearance will frighten her. Gregor spends most of his time listening to the family conversations through the wall. Before his metamorphosis, Gregor used to be the sole income earner for the family, working in a job he loathes just so he can provide for the parents and sister. He even planned on sending Grete to a conservatory for violin lessons. Due to his current state, the family is in a bit of a fix financially. His father, who used to pretty much laze around the house now had to take up a job. The mother busied herself and Grete took up a job too. Over the course of the next few weeks, Gregor begins to grow more comfortable with his new body and finds out that he enjoys climbing the walls and ceilings. Noticing his new amusement, Grete decides to remove some of the furniture from his room to give him more space. With the help of her mother, they begin to move some of the furniture pieces. Gregor at first was excited at the prospect of having more space for his crawling activities, but quickly gets distressed that they are taking away items that define his individuality and in essence stripping him to be what he is, an insect. He comes out of his hiding spot and takes his position on a picture hanged on a wall, as if laying his territory. Gregor’s mother see’s him hanging on the wall and passes out from shock as it was only the second time for her to see her son in that state. In the commotion that followed, Gregor’s scurries out of the room where he encounters his father who has just returned home from work. The father throws apples at Gregor and one of them gets lodged in a sensitive spot in his back. He manages to get back in his room but is severely injured.
“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”
In part 3 we learn that in a bid to increase the dwindling family income, Gregor’s father has rented a portion of their flat to three boarders. Grete has been asked to play the violin for them. Since the apple-throwing incident, Gregor took great care to avoid crossing paths with his family. But the allure of his sister’s music grew on him and he crept out of his room. The three men were initially interested in Grete but as she played on, they grew bored with her performance. Gregor on the other hand was transfixed by it. In a show of brotherly support, he inched closer to Grete. The boarders spot him and were alarmed. The father tried to shove the boarders back to their quarters but they used that incident to announce that they will move out immediately without paying rent because of the horrible conditions of the apartment. This greatly frustrates Grete who is now tired of taking care of Gregor. She tells her parents that they must find a way of getting rid of Gregor or else they will all be ruined. The father quickly agrees on this, wishing that Gregor would understand and leave on his own. Gregor does understand. He slowly crawls back to his room. His recent injuries have taken a toll on him, and coupled with the conversation he just heard, he dies. The family is greatly relieved when they find out about Gregor’s death. They take a celebratory walk outside and recount their finances. The father and mother realize that in spite of the recent hardships, Grete has blossomed into a lovely lady and they should now consider her marriage prospects.
“He thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection until the tower clock struck three in the morning. He still saw that outside the window everything was beginning to grow light. Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath.”
And there you have it – Kafka’s bizarre Metamorphosis. I devoured this in one sitting and when I was reading it I didn’t put much thought about the layers that Kafka so masterfully spinned. But let me tell you, days after I read it and I’m still drawing up relationships on what Kafka could have meant when he wrote this tale. Here are some of my half-formed notions..
The opening line of the novella recounts the bizarre event of Gregor’s transformation in a quite straightforward manner. Gregor woke up as a giant insect, yet he didn’t freak out. Neither did his family or the three boarders when they first saw him. The only character who took Gregor’s change with any degree of normalcy was the office manager who ran out of the apartment upon seeing him. Shouldn’t the family have called for a doctor or tried to at least find a reason for Gregor’s change? Why were they unusually calm? He’s a bug, hello? Kafka sort of portrayed the metamorphosis as a normal event – like people change into insects all the time in the 1920s – and that sense of quick acceptance makes the story all the more absurd.
Before I embark on reading an author’s work for the first time, I make a point of researching briefly on the author’s life. I like to get a background feel on a writer and try to figure out what influenced him/her to write that particular story. With Kafka it was easy. I’ll go out on a mill and say that Gregor’s character is based on Kafka himself. Apparently, Franz Kafka had a very rocky relationship with his father. We see in the story that from all the family characters, it was the father who was the least sympathetic to Gregor. In real life, Kafka felt that his father was over bearing and treated him like trash.. perhaps to the point of making him feel like a disgusting insect.
Is Metamorphosis really about a man who wakes up to finds himself transformed into a cockroach or is Gregor a schizophrenic who believes he’s been turned into a human sized roach who terrorizes his family in his mental state? Kafka left that open for us to interpret. He requested his publisher at that time to remove any image involving an insect of the cover.
Of course the most clear change is Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect. But when you deeply analyze the book you see several metamorphosis. The whole family metamorphosized from being utterly dependent on Gregor’s income to getting jobs of their own. Perhaps the biggest metamorphosis after Gregor would be the sister, Grete. She went from being the one who primarily took care of him (getting his meals, removing his furniture) to suggesting that the parents should get rid of him.
The greatest point to take away from Metamorphosis is the psychological distance it creates between Gregor and those around him. What influenced Gregor’s attitude towards himself was the reaction of his parents and sister. He became completely ashamed of himself, striving to completely hide himself from view. The change makes him both physically and emotionally separate from his family. Bringing this point closer to home, how do we treat people with disabilities? If someone close to you got into a car accident which hideously transformed him/her, would we treat them any differently? Its fitting that Kafka named his character ‘Gregor Samsa’. Samsa translates to ‘alone’ in Czech.
I’m sure there’s so much more to analyze from this bizarre but totally relevant story in our society today that I have not touched yet – mind/body disconnect, dissonance of the human spirit, etc. This novella gets 5 stars for me. I cannot recommend it enough.
Seriously guys, read it. I’m sure online copies can be easily downloaded. Its a classic that’s well worth an hour or two of your time.