I never metamorphosis I didn’t like, until I read of Gregor Samsa’s tragic transformation in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (1915). As it goes, Gregor is changed into a cockroach, the most vile & hated lower-form of insect there is; but because the focus of the story is not on the why & wherefore of this dreadful change but on Gregor’s family & relation to, it’s an elementary step to deduce that the aforementioned metamorphosis is a profound metaphor for … well, many things… let’s dive into the suggested themes therein.
After a night of anxious dreams – which already tells us that there is unconscious tension in his life – Gregor awakes to find that the state of his life is something he cannot recognize; it’s grotesque to him, for certain, but his chief concern is that he is unfit to make it to work & hardly able to roll out of bed. For years, leading up to this fateful morning, Gregor has worked as a traveling salesman & has taken up the position as the sole bread-winner of his family. He has the spirit of a man, begrudgingly, working his way out of some bondage or other but honors his responsibilities to his family as an insect does to its colony, with tireless selflessness. Despite his loyalty to his family, this situation has led Gregor to be somewhat estranged from them; except for his relationship with his sister, Grete, to whom Gregor invests his total enthusiasm, there are obvious underlying tensions in his relationships with his mother & particularly his father. Gregor’s metamorphosis has been years in the making, but on the morning in question, Gregor does not question how he has come to be in this shape – he knows it, he feels it – but it is his own family that cannot believe their eyes. Is it not common for a man to be astounded by himself when he realizes he has changed from one life-form to another? If it is a sudden transformation, then surely, but if it has taken years to evolve into that form, he hardly notices, though he may recognize, at once upon some blurry-eyed morning, that he has, at last, become something else entirely than what he use to hope for & his acceptance of his gross embodiment can lay a debilitating tax on his spirit, taking from him the ability to do anything for himself or for anyone any longer – as is the case with Mr. Gregor Samsa.
When the chief clerk arrives at his home to investigate his absence from the office, Gregor makes a desperate attempt to convince him of his worth as a loyal worker but his appeals are all for naught, for his voice makes only the unintelligible hissings of an insect. When Gregor reveals himself to his family, & the impatient chief clerk, they are horrified by his appearance. The clerk all but stumbles over himself as he flees the apartment, while Gregor’s father jumps into action to kick Gregor’s monstrous form back into his bedroom. From then on, Gregor remains shut up in his room & remains a prisoner to his own condition & is looked after by his compassionate, yet disgusted, sister, whom brings him rotten food & arranges the room to be more comfortable for him. Gregor hides away & scarcely makes himself visible, out of consideration for her – he is ashamed & knows the sight of him is an unbearable horror to his family. Frequently, he listens at his door while his family talks about what they shall do to provide for themselves now that Gregor is incapable of providing for them. Gregor despairs that he cannot help them & that his condition completely isolates him, but as it is, the only thing he can do for himself is to try to adapt to the challenges of his unfortunate circumstance. Months pass by…
One day, Gregor’s mother decides that it is part of her motherly duty to assist Grete in rearranging Gregor’s room. They exhaust themselves in removing some furniture much to Gregor’s agitation. Taking defense, Gregor positions himself on a picture, indicating his wish they should not remove it. Upon laying eyes on his horrifying form, Gregor’s mother faints. Grete runs from the room & Gregor scuttles after her. At this time Gregor’s father returns home, erupts in anger when he sees Gregor has gotten loose from his room, & commences to chase Gregor around the table pelting apples after him. One apple strikes Gregor solidly, embedding itself in his shell. Coming to, Gregor’s mother rushes to her son’s helpless defense, entreating her husband to spare his life. Imagine the cracking of poor Gregor’s shell. What does this metaphor say of many a father-son dynamic? In Kafka’s case, his own relationship with his father was quite troubled, & this sequences signifies the damaging effects of the senior’s frightening abuse of power. Anyways, some more time passes…
Gregor’s family has made the necessary adjustments to be able to fend for themselves. They sell some valuables, they all takes jobs, they’ve taken on three bearded men as tenants within their apartment, & have neglected Gregor all the more. His sister takes minimal care of Gregor & regards him with outright disgust & anger. His room has become a dusty cave filled with the apartment’s excessive furniture. Gregor’s state has become further dilapidated. The apple that cracked his shell remains encased in his shell as no one thought to remove it – symbolizing the thoroughness of irrevocable nature of the personal damage done to him – his “feelers” are covered in filth, & he’s become incredibly frail & weak because he’s hardly had the motivation to eat at all. The family’s grizzled charwoman looks after him, to some extent, & is unaffected by the wretchedness of his state because she’s seen so much of the world’s strange sufferings to be much dismayed by the worst of it, any longer. She curiously gapes at him & casually remarks upon the pathetic quality of his shape. Tragically, this is as much compassion as Gregor is afforded these days. One evening, as the family eats, Grete proceeds to play the violin to entertain their tenants. While listening to her from his room, Gregor becomes entranced by the music – he was always enthused by his sister’s talent for the violin – &, forgetting himself, he wanders into the living room to, perhaps, convince Grete to play privately for him so that he might indulge his appreciation. His appearance, thus, causes a stir. The disgusted tenants become outraged. Gregor’s father intercedes to push them out of the room, enraging them all the further, until they declare that they shall quit the apartment without paying the rent. The entire family is upset & this incident becomes the point at which their unconditional love can hold no further. Grete, the beloved sister, is the first to loudly admit that Gregor’s burdensome presence is unbearable to them. “We must try to get rid of it,” she exclaims. ” ‘He must go,’ cried Gregor’s sister, ‘that’s the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we’ve believed it for so long is the root of all our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature and he’d have gone away on his own accord. Then we wouldn’t have any brother, but we’d be able to go on living and keep his memory in honor. As it is, this creature persecutes us, drives away our lodgers, obviously wants the whole apartment to himself and would have us all sleep in the gutter.’ “ The metamorphosis could be considered complete, as Gregor’s humanity is now thoroughly rejected by his family. Fatally hurt by this emotional blow, Gregor slowly turns & returns to his room, where the door is harshly slammed & bolted behind him. Weakened by his injuries, starvation, & neglect Gregor collapses, lets go of his will to live. His hurt soul has untied its last fetters & Gregor quietly passes away…
In the morning, the charwoman discovers the dried shell of Gregor’s body & the family is overcome with relief. They’re now free from the burden of their son’s condition & waste no time in celebrating that fact. The three of them, elated in their happiness, take the day off of work & decide to go out to enjoy the warmth of a late-March spring. Mr. & Mrs. Samsa regard the the beautiful maturation of their daughter – a metamorphosis in & of itself – & see hope in her blossoming potential.
One could speculate that Kafka’s focus, in this story, is the limitation of unconditional love within the family, but that is a limiting & hopeless thesis to contemplate. Kafka’s brilliance shone brightest in his power to exemplify juxtaposition. Gregor has become something less than human in form but, within the whole of [the] “Metamorphosis, is the last character to abandon his humanity. If you hold his insectile form at metaphor’s distance, then Gregor remains simply a man in declining health – comparable to Kafka’s infamously poor health – & it is the family with a realistically parasitic bond to Gregor. As his condition worsens, the harsher the family’s abuses become to him. When his humanity is denied by his own family, Gregor is, understandably horrified, because it is the failure of his family’s humanity he can no longer contend with. His death marks his family’s rebirth as insects – therefore, the true mutation, herein, was not solely Gregor’s. Heck, there’s metamorphosis’s occurring all over the place in this story!
This was a darker & stranger story than I first thought it might be, but Kafka continues to astound me at every turn. His language is neat, simple, & always emotionally insightful. His stories are full of oddities & curiosities, yes-yes-of-course – it is Kafka, after all – but there’s always an underlying sensitive factor, a note of ultimate humaneness, to be grasped. Kafka used images of the subconscious to construct allegories calling for people to live sincerely, love fervently, & to gracefully bear our sufferings so that we might become something more than our incomplete & unconscious selves. Read Kafka deeply & with a thoroughly compassionate eye.
“[Gregor], the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair.” – Vladimir Nabokov, on “Metamorphosis”