By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Metamorphosis’ is a short story (sometimes classed as a novella) by the Czech-born German-language author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). It is his best-known shorter work, published in German in 1915, with the first English translation appearing in 1933. ‘The Metamorphosis’ has attracted numerous interpretations, so it might be worth probing this fascinating story more closely.
You can read ‘The Metamorphosis’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Kafka’s story below.
‘The Metamorphosis’: plot summary
Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect. Although he briefly considers this transformation, he quickly turns his thoughts to his work and his need to provide for his parents (he lives with them and his sister) so that they can pay off their debts. He also thinks about how much he hates travelling.
He realises he is already late for work, but hesitates to call in sick because he has never had a day off sick before, and knows this might raise alarm bells. When he responds through the bedroom door after his mother calls to him, he realises that his voice has become different as a result of his metamorphosis into an insect. When his family try to enter his bedroom, they find the door locked, and he refuses to let them in.
Then there’s a knock at the door and it’s the chief clerk for whom Gregor works, wondering where Gregor has got to.
Still Gregor refuses to open the door to his family or to his visitor. The chief clerk is affronted and tells Gregor through the door that his work has not been good enough and his position at the company may not be safe. Gregor seeks to defend himself, and assures the clerk that he will soon return to work. However, because Gregor’s voice has changed so much since his transformation, nobody can understand what he’s saying.
Gregor opens the door and his mother screams when she sees him. He asks the chief clerk to smooth things over at the office for him, explaining his … sudden metamorphosis into an insect.
Later that evening, having swooned and dozed all day, Gregor wakes up at twilight and finds that his sister had brought him milk with some bread in it. Gregor attempts to drink the milk, but finds the taste disgusting, so he leaves it. He climbs under the couch so his family don’t have to look at him, while his sister tries to find him food that he can eat.
Gregor overhears his family talking in the other room, and discovers that, despite their apparent debts, his parents have some money stashed away. He has been going to work to support them when he didn’t have to.
As well as the changes to his voice, Gregor also realises that his vision has got worse since his transformation. He also discovers that he enjoys climbing the walls and the ceiling of his bedroom. To help him, his sister gets rid of the furniture to create more space for him to climb; Gregor’s mother disagrees and is reluctant to throw out all of Gregor’s human possessions, because she still trusts that he will return to his former state one day.
When he comes out of the room, his mother faints and his sister locks him outside. His father arrives and throws apples at him, severely injuring him, because he believes Gregor must have attacked his own mother.
After his brush with death, the family change tack and vow to be more sympathetic towards Gregor, agreeing to leave the door open so he can watch them from outside the room as they talk together. But when three lodgers move in with the family, and his room is used to store all of the family’s furniture and junk, he finds that he cannot move around any more and goes off his food. He becomes shut off from his family and the lodgers.
When he hears his sister playing the violin for the lodgers, he opens the door to listen, and the lodgers, upon spotting this giant insect, are repulsed and declare they are going to move out immediately and will not pay the family any of their rent owed. Gregor’s sister tells her parents that they must get rid of their brother since, whilst they have tried to take care of him, he has become a liability. She switches from talking about him as her brother and as an ‘it’, a foreign creature that is unrecognisable as the brother they knew.
Gregor, overhearing this conversation, wants to do the right thing for his family, so he decides that he must do the honourable thing and disappear. He crawls off back to his room and dies.
Gregor’s family is relieved that he has died, and the body is disposed of. Mr Samsa kicks the lodgers out of the apartment. He, his wife, and their daughter are all happy with the jobs they have taken, and Mr and Mrs Samsa realise that their daughter is now of an age to marry.
‘The Metamorphosis’: analysis
The one thing people know about ‘The Metamorphosis’ is that it begins with Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself transformed into an insect. Many English translations use the word in the book’s famous opening line (and we follow convention by using the even more specific word ‘beetle’ in our summary of the story above).
But the German word Ungeziefer does not lend itself easily to translation. It roughly denotes any unclean being or creature, and ‘bug’ is a more accurate rendering of the original into English – though even ‘bug’ doesn’t quite do it, since (in English anyway) it still suggests an insect, or at least some sort of creepy-crawly.
For this reason, some translators (such as David Wyllie in the one we have linked to above) reach for the word vermin, which is probably closer to the German original. Kafka did use the word Insekt in his correspondence discussing the book, but ordered that the creature must not be explicitly illustrated as such at any cost. The point is that we are not supposed to know the precise thing into which Gregor has metamorphosed.
The vagueness is part of the effect: Gregor Samsa is any and every unworthy or downtrodden creature, shunned by those closest to him. Much as those who wish to denigrate a particular group of people – immigrants, foreigners, a socio-economic underclass – often reach for words like ‘cockroaches’ or ‘vermin’, so Gregor’s transformation physically enacts and literalizes such emotive propaganda.
But of course, the supernatural or even surreal (though we should reject the term ‘Surrealist’) setup for the story also means that ‘The Metamorphosis’ is less a straightforward allegory (where X = Y) than it is a more rich and ambiguous exploration of the treatment of ‘the other’ (where X might = Y, Z, or even A, B, or C).
Gregor’s subsequent treatment at the hands of his family, his family’s lodgers, and their servants may well strike a chord with not just ethnic minorities living in some communities but also disabled people, people with different cultural or religious beliefs from ‘the mainstream’, struggling artists whose development is hindered by crass bourgeois capitalism and utilitarianism, and many other marginalised individuals.
This is one reason why ‘The Metamorphosis’ has become so widely discussed, analysed, and studied: its meaning is not straightforward, its fantastical scenario posing many questions. What did Kafka mean by such a story? Is it a comedy, a tragedy, or both? Gregor’s social isolation from his nearest and dearest, and subsequent death (a death of despair, one suspects, as much as it is a noble sacrifice for the sake of his family), all suggest the story’s tragic undercurrents, and yet the way Kafka establishes Gregor’s transformation raises some intriguing questions.
Take that opening paragraph. The opening sentence – as with the very first sentence of Kafka’s novel, The Trial – is well-known, but what follows this arresting first statement is just as remarkable. For no sooner has Gregor discovered that he has been transformed, inexplicably, into a giant insect (or ‘vermin’), than his thoughts have turned from this incredible revelation to more day-to-day worries about his job and his travelling.
This is a trademark feature of Kafka’s writing, and one of the things the wide-ranging term ‘Kafkaesque’ should accommodate: the nightmarish and the everyday rubbing shoulders together. Indeed, the everyday already is a nightmare, and Samsa’s metamorphosis into an alien creature is just the latest in a long line of modernity’s hellish developments.
So the effect of this opening paragraph is to play down, as soon as it has been introduced, the shocking revelation that a man has been turned into a beetle (or similar creature). Many subsequent details in Kafka’s story are similarly downplayed, or treated in a calm and ordinary way as if a man becoming a six-feet-tall insect is the most normal occurrence in the world, and this is part of the comedy of Kafka’s novella: an aspect of his work which many readers miss, partly because the comedic is so often the first thing lost in translation.
And, running contrariwise to the interpretation of ‘The Metamorphosis’ that sees it as ‘just’ a straightforward story about modern-day alienation and mistreatment of ‘the other’ is the plot itself, which sees Gregor Samsa freed from his life of servitude and duty, undertaking a job he doesn’t enjoy in order to support a family that, it turns out, are perfectly capable of supporting themselves (first by the father’s money which has been set aside, and then from the family’s jobs which the mother, father, and daughter all take, and discover they actually rather enjoy).
Even Gregor’s climbing of the walls and ceiling in his room, when he would have been travelling around doing his job, represents a liberation of sorts, even though he has physically become confined to one room. Perhaps, the grim humour of Kafka’s story appears to suggest, modernity is so hellish that such a transformation – even though it ends in death – is really the only liberation modern man can achieve.