The Metamorphosis, stands as the crowning achievement of a man who knew the spirit, wounded and impotent as it is, of the modern man. It is the story of Gregor Samsa’s discovery that he has been nothing more than a host to the parasitical feedings of a family that either love him only mechanically or not at all. Waking to find himself transformed, by the long predations of his parents and sister, into the mere dung beetle he actually always has been in their sight, Gregor learns first hand the resentments that come when those who have grown used to living off of the good will of another find their host inexplicably unable to further satisfy them. His feelings of isolation, which have been growing for some time, find actual form in his new state, as his lowly stature becomes the excuse for his being pushed farther and farther out of the family whose care he has sacrificed for and provided for so long. Kafka beautifully expresses a sense of absolute despair and loneliness through his insectoid metaphor, displaying, through Gregor’s metamorphosis a literal interpretation of the fear that one is truly adrift in the world, unconnected to even those one loves the most.
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From its very first line Kafka sets out in The Metamorphosis to establish the sheer, pitiful lowness that is embodied in Gregor Samsa. Rather than display the hardworking clerk as a man being drug down by feeling othered by society to a point where he can go no lower in his own esteem, Kafka flat out states the message: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka 3).
Here it is important to note that Kafka is leaving no part of the metaphor’s intention vague, for, rather than proclaim Samsa has changed into a dung beetle (as we learn later) he describes him with the far more derisive “monstrous vermin.” As Stanley Corngold points out (in referencing Günther Anders) the stories meaning “originates in the transformation of a familiar metaphor into a fictional being having the literal attributes of this figure” (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis 80). This literal nature deprives the reader of one of the natural elements of metaphor, Corngold goes on to point out, in that the person is no longer separate from the metaphor, and so is no longer granted the given reality of being like but not exactly the thing to which it is being compared. Samsa is vermin.
Such an absolute statement goes far into presenting the totality of the isolation to which Samsa is subjected. He is isolated from his father by his father’s disgust over what he has become, or, rather how he has become what the father always considered him. He is isolated from his mother by her revulsion at how far he has fallen; and he is isolated from Grete by the reality of what his ended patronage means for her lifestyle. However, Kafka doesn’t stop there, for in the act of immediately dehumanizing Gregor, Kafka isolates him from the reader as well. Unable to fully relate to the inhuman creature, who grows increasingly more inhuman as the story progresses, the reader is left only the option of empathizing with the feeling of the creature, and thusly the reader is cut off from the remaining characters as well, becoming isolated in the emotions of Samsa.
Kafka begins his tale with the Samsa family in various states of decline. His father, a failed businessman who has saddled the family with a large debt, has “gained a lot of weight and as a result become fairly sluggish” (Kafka 21). Mrs. Samsa, for her part is asthmatic-with the insinuation that it’s psychosomatic-to the point of being unable to live a normal life; so much so, “she spent every other day lying on the sofa under the open window, gasping for breath” (Kafka 21). While Grete, the little sister upon whom Gregor dotes, is accustomed to a life of “wearing pretty clothes, sleeping late, helping in the house, enjoying a few modest amusements, and above all playing the violin” (Kafka 21). The case can easily be made that the Samsa’s are a slothful, lazy family, while Gregor exists in stark contrast. He is hard working, spending “practically the whole year round” (Kafka 13) on sales trips; and healthy, having not missed a single day of work in five years (Kafka 5). This sharp difference keeps Gregor distanced from his family, but it is necessary to his belief that he must take care of them and provide for them.
What’s interesting is that Kafka ties Gregor’s health and work ethic directly to the rest of the Samsa’s moral and physical failings, it is as though he has caused their low state through his benevolence. This is displayed further by the fact that when Gregor has his fortune reversed, when he becomes a dung beetle, his family becomes hardworking and industrious, even to the point that Gregor’s eventual death leaves them robust and happy, with career prospects that are “exceedingly advantageous and especially promising” (Kafka 42). It is as though Gregor, having brought them low by working hard in a menial job which dehumanizes him, quite literally to the point where he is no longer human, must atone for his actions by being brought low. It is only through his absolute degradation that the family can be free of him and excel in life.
Iris Bruce further supports the idea of Gregor atoning through his metamorphosis by noting that such a theme is a staple of the Yiddish mythology that Kafka was exceedingly fond of. The fact that Gregor’s wrongdoing seems nonexistent except in the minds of his family only goes on to confirm the metamorphosis as atonement. Bruce states, “The experience of displacement and repeated “punishment” demanded a…religious explanation. Hence the concept of metamorphosis…charged with biblical notions of transgression, punishment, exile, and redemption”. Gregor is thus, in a very traditionally Jewish sense, a stranger in a strange land, cut off by his very existence from all others, the victim of “an unnamed god who has arranged it all for his amusement” (Corngold, Preface ix).
With Gregor’s transformation, the family dynamic is entirely flipped, with each reversed role pushing to further ostracize Gregor. He goes from being the caretaker of the family to being the one who requires care. He goes from being the one who provides the money to the one who causes a lack of it. And, finally, he goes from being the downfall of the family to being the salvation of the family.
In the sense of his having been caregiver, Gregor becomes entirely dependent upon the very sister who he had sought to entirely care for. But, as Nina Pelikan Strauss points out, Grete rejects her role of caregiver, not initially, but more and more so as she transforms into a sort of replication of what Gregor had once been. Free from his benevolence maintaining her in a demure and docile state, Grete develops into a successful clerk, and the voice of strength in her family, even to the point where she declares that Gregor must be gotten rid of (Kafka 37).
Gregor’s switch from being the patron of his family to causing its financial woes is another way in which Kafka others the character, and it draws a parallel to Kafka’s own life. Just as Gregor’s father resents and thinks lowly of him for not continuing to provide for the family, so did Kafka imagine his own father thought of him. In his diary, Kafka imagined how his father would express his view of him, writing:
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You have in fact gotten it into your head to live completely off of me. I admit that we are fighting … but there are two kinds of fighting. The chivalrous…and the fight of the vermin which…sucks blood for its self-preservation…that’s what you are. You are unfit for life: but in order to settle down in it comfortably…you prove that I took all of your fitness for life out of you and put it in my pocket. (Letter to His Father 71)
Just as Kafka envisioned his own father’s feelings, so did the elder Mr. Samsa regard the burden of his “vermin” son. Far from overtly stating his own trials, however, Kafka allows the story to stand alone, making its points clearly and without obvious reference to its autobiographical nature.
In Gregor’s final moments, we see the ultimate in role reversals within the story. Gregor makes a desperate last attempt at regaining some place in his family and some bit of his humanity, by crawling from his room with the intent of begging Grete to care for him again (Kafka 36). Of course, his presence brings nothing but misfortune once again to the family, and it spurs Grete to conclude that if he is in fact her brother then he should rid them of himself. As Kevin W. Sweeney points out, Gregor’s fantasy of protecting Greta and even letting her know how he had planned to give her the momentum to pursue her life as she wished – at conservatory – is only fulfilled in his decision to let himself die. It is his existence that brings his family low, time and again, so it is only right that the way he can ensure their happiness and success is to cease to exist.
The isolation and othering of Gregor Samsa is apparent throughout The Metamorphosis on many levels, and it can be seen in a variety of critical approaches. If given a Marxist-feminist reading, we see Gregor as a man out of sync with his time. He is at odds with the patriarchal and capitalist society, loathed by his father and distrusted and exploited by his boss (Straus 126-140). A historical criticism, as given by Iris Bruce, highlights the undertones of Kafka’s experience as a Jewish man in a land which sought to push him to the side and ignore him; noting the ways in which he tweaks the traditional Jewish folklore narrative to fit his own view of redemption and punishment through loss of the self.
Perhaps, no criticism reveals the vast tone of loneliness and loss found in the work more than the psychoanalytic. Sweeney uses the three distinct attempts by Gregor to illustrate the ways in which he slowly loses not only his family and his place in society, but eventually loses his sense of self. Gregor is “a ‘shadow being’ trying fantastically to maintain itself in a disintegrating family relationship”.
Kafka gives the reader a look, though the insect eyes of Gregor Samsa, into the sad and lonely world of a man who has been reduced to vermin by the parasitical lives of the very family members he has worked so hard to care for. It is a bleak and desperate journey, which provides little hope. It is that raw honesty of emotion that perfectly stated appraisal of the isolation of the modern soul, which makes The Metamorphosis truly classic.
- Bruce, Iris. “Elements of Jewish Folklore in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Corngold 107-126.
- Corngold, Stanley, ed. The Metamorphosis: The Translation, Backgrounds and Context, Criticism. New York: Norton and Company, 1996.
- Corngold, Stanley. “Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor.” Corngold 79-106.
- Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. November 1919. Corngold 71.
- Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Corngold, Stanley. Corngold 1-42.
- Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Transforming Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Corngold 126-140.
- Sweeney, Kevin W. “Competing Theories of Identity in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Corngold 140-154.
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