A Review: The Metamorphosis

Imagine yourself awaking to find that you simply aren’t; aren’t yourself that is. Such is the situation that Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s unfortunate “victim” in The Metamorphosis, finds himself in. Gregor awakens one morning from “unsettling dreams” to find that “he” has transformed from a (presumably) twenty-something traveling salesman into a beetle-like vermin. The story of Gregor’s unfortunate predicament begins with the climax, the transformation, and slowly descends from there to Gregor’s ultimate demise. Unlike some of the past philosophers I have read who tend to write essays or prose, Kafka’s insight takes the form of a parable of the conflicts of Gregor Samsa’s internal “self” with his external self and surroundings. This mask of fiction concealing the philosophical musings of the story makes them quite difficult to spot upon initial inspection (in my opinion), making a second read through or browsing of academic articles on the piece if not a necessity, highly recommended.

Kafka’s splitting insight is not for the faint of heart, at the same time that Gregor is lamenting his condition (specifically when he, as the vermin, attempts to get out of bed) he is also pleased with his escape from some of his “human” responsibilities that have shackled him to a miserable existence as a traveling salesman working in a soul-grinding firm paying off a debt owed his employer by his parents. As the story progresses, unbeknownst to Gregor, the reader is shown more to convince them that the family was more akin to vermin than Gregor may have transformed into. In Gregor’s early reflection he cites the importance of his work to help support his family and the necessity of his sacrifice (of freedom) to work in the firm that his parents are indebted to. As time wears on however, and Gregor is incapable of working (contrary to popular belief, vermin don’t sell too many Encyclopedia’s door to door) his father attains a job as a bank-messenger and his family lets out one of the rooms, in the spacious apartment Gregor provided, to three “roomers” indicating that Gregor’s degrading sacrifice at the firm may not have been necessary at all, ergo the Samsas may have been the vermin feeding off of Gregor instead of the inverse.

The issue of food, or rather nourishment, is another interesting theme Kafka adds into the already complex literary-gumbo of The Metamorphosis. The first day of Gregor’s transformation he is offered some of his favorite food by his sister Grete (we can assume she is trying to help cure what is perceived as an illness by Gregor’s family as opposed to the transformation it truly is) to which he refuses and scurries back under the couch to which he oft finds refuge. As the story wears on Grete slowly discovers that Gregor, the new Gregor, prefers what essentially boils down to table-scraps and garbage, but this is still not enough to “nourish” Gregor. He consistently complains (in thought) about a longing for nourishment, a lack of fulfillment of some sort that is finally placated one day when he hears the beautiful violin music Grete has taken to playing for the three “roomers.” This still doesn’t seem to be enough to “nourish” Gregor in the sense that he still longs for something, a certain something that he finds the fateful morning when he exhales his last breath with the rising morning sun (finding contentment, or fulfillment, with death is an interesting point Kafka raises for me after reading a few essays on both Absurdism and Existentialism).

Slowly Gregor becomes more of a curse in the eyes of the rest of the Samsas instead of a son with an inordinate amount of legs. When Gregor dies, it is a release in more than one sense. While Kafka cites most immediately the lifting of the burden from the Samsas’ backs, it is apparent that Gregor has also been relinquished of his conflicts with the firm, his parents, and most importantly, himself; with his death Gregor is finally set free, just as he had hoped to become after repaying his parents’ debt to his employer. While there is some academic discussion on whether the metamorphosis itself relinquished Gregor from some of his bourgeois-responsibilities, it is without a doubt that in his death he finds the freedom for which he had longed. An interesting point was raised in one of the analysis of the piece that pointed out that maybe the parents were truly the “blood-sucking vermin” with regards to the last few pages of The Metamorphosis, when the parents turn to Grete, the daughter, and prepare her to be married off to a good husband, pointing out that with Gregor (the initial host) gone they must switch to a new one, Grete.

Unlike most stories, there are no likable characters in The Metamorphosis, as Gregor continues to act more and more like the “vermin” he has transformed into and his parents react negatively to their son’s predicament, the reader is left without solace. Although Gregor eventually attains the freedom he had so desired, he is still a poor choice for the “hero” of Kafka’s work. That is not to say however, that there are no identifiable characters; Gregor typifies a lot of the internal struggle most found themselves in, in the whirlwind of capitalist growth in the early 20th century along with the lessening of the importance of the individual; both very fundamental conflicts most (including Kafka) found/find themselves in, especially in western culture. Simultaneously many can identify with the denial the Samsas find themselves in with their disgust of the vermin that comes to inhabit Gregor’s room. The Metamorphosis is widely regarded as one of, if not the, most important pieces of literature Kafka ever had published, but is a difficult pill to swallow and at the same time a worthwhile exposure of the conflict that Kafka, and many others, have struggled with.

I highly recommend, if you have not already read The Metamorphosis, purchasing the “Bantam Classics” version of The Metamorphosis which includes over one hundred pages of critical essays and academic discussions on Kafka’s masterpiece. Translator (and PhD) Stanley Corngold made a fantastic selection of analytic essays on the story ranging from incisive psychological analysis of Gregor’s transformation to the oedipal conflict and reversal of roles between the father and son that constantly lurks beneath the surface. Dutifully reading all of the explanatory notes on the text as well as the critical essays that Corngold included in the book drive the point firmly into place, Kafka was a brilliant writer and, like his tragic heroes, was a tormented individual who may have found solace in the escape that his death (from tuberculosis) ultimately offered him.