“As Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” So begins The Metamorphosis, a sinister allegory of dehumanization and hopelessness in the modern world by Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Once rendered an insect, Gregor becomes a functionless and embarrassing eyesore in a household, whose members grow to resent and neglect him to the point of death. There is no place in domestic, social, and professional life, Kafka’s tale suggests, for the unproductive and the nonconformist.
Written in 1912, The Metamorphosis was one of the few works Kafka published in his lifetime. Owing to the author’s general reluctance to publish and editorial reservations about the story’s bizarre content, The Metamorphosis did not go to press until 1915.
Like much of Kafka’s fiction, The Metamorphosis expresses dominant themes in the author’s own life. In a letter, Kafka mentioned the similarity between Samsa’s name and his own; both writer and character, furthermore, were pressured to take on largely pointless office jobs. Kafka’s anxieties about ill health and fear of physical collapse play out in the unfortunate Gregor, who dies from a wound inflicted on him by his father. But the story resonates most profoundly with the real circumstances of Kafka’s family life. Like his creation, Gregor, Kafka was continually berated by his imposing father, who considered his only son to be an unmitigated failure. Gregor, likewise, cowers in fear of his father, who finds him repulsive and attacks him at every turn. Although Kafka had earned a law degree in part to appease his father, he would remain an object of patriarchal disdain and repudiation—particularly in light of his fictional work, which his father deemed “a waste of time.” Kafka’s mother, like her alter ego in the story, was ever-deferential to her husband and offered little solace to her son; his sister, Ottla, was normally a compassionate ally, but on one occasion she joined the parents in insisting that Kafka increase his hours at the office; shortly thereafter, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor’s sister betrays him by insisting that the family get rid of him.
In addition to these autobiographical references, The Metamorphosis alludes to a number of literary works, including the Russian Nikolay Gogol’s The Nose, in which a man wakes up to find his nose missing; preposterously, the nose goes on to attain a high-ranking position in the civil service. Kafka’s text was also inspired by a Yiddish play, Gordin’s The Savage One. Kafka wrote extensively about the play in his diaries. All of the characters in The Metamorphosis find analogues in The Savage One. Gregor Samsa’s counterpart is an idiot son, who is unable to communicate with his family, stays locked in his room, and fears the wrath of his father. The Metamorphosis, furthermore, resembles Gordin’s drama in its entirely domestic setting and episodic narrative structure. All three texts connect materialism and status consciousness with the degradation of humanity.
In alignment with Kafka’s largely cynical philosophical views, The Metamorphosis supports a decidedly pessimistic interpretation of human nature. Speaking to his friend Max Brod, Kafka once explained that he thought human beings were God’s nihilistic thoughts. Brod asked whether there was hope elsewhere in the universe. To this, Kafka replied, “plenty of hope, for God—only not for us.” This dismal prognosis, a sense of terminal confinement, is represented by Gregor, whose only alternative to the world in which he has unintentionally entered is death. There are glimmers of hope in the concluding lines of The Metamorphosis, as the Samsa family sets about reconstructing itself, but this might also be seen to indicate the unfortunate perpetuation of the worst human qualities. In any case, after the story’s publication Kafka said that he regretted this ending, insisting that it was “unreadable.”
Along with the bleak determinism of The Metamorphosis, the surrealistic scenario depicted—its particular mixture of the impossible and the real—is typically “Kafkaesque.” In several works, Kafka posits an unlikely situation and portrays its development in realistic detail, both psychologically and materially. In his novel The Trial, for example, a man is accused and found guilty of a crime without ever being informed of the charge’s precise nature; in “Before the Law,” a man passes decades waiting to enter the gates of Justice, only to have the guardian, finally, close them in his face. The realist aspect of these texts encourages the reader to probe beyond the specific circumstance—a man, for example, literally becoming an insect—to uncover its symbolic and allegorical implications.
The image of the insect is evocative on several levels. As early as 1907, Kafka described the best part of his creative self as a “beautiful beetle”; he imagined his body moving around in the world while his “true writing self”—a beetle—remained behind. In later years, when his idealism faded, this authorial image was replaced by “filth and slime,” a phrase he applied to his piece “The Judgment” (it tells of a rebellious son condemned to suicide by his father). Gregor Samsa, a giant insect who becomes progressively more and more filthy, may be interpreted as a metaphor for disillusionment.
Bridgewater, Patrick. Kafka’s Novels: An Interpretation. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
Greenberg, Martin. The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
Stach, Reiner. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Translated by Shelley Frisch. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005.
Stern, J. P., ed. The World of Franz Kafka. New York: Holt, Rinehard, 1980.
Weinberg, Helen. The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.