Summary of the Novel
Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes one morning to find out that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect. From his bed, he looks around his room, adjusting physically and mentally to his new body and wondering if he hasn’t been dreaming. But when he tries to turn over onto his right side and can’t, he realizes that it is no dream, that indeed he is an insect, complete with a hard shell for a back, wriggling legs, and feelers.
He wants to go back to sleep, but he remembers that he has to get up for work and is already late. His thoughts turn to his job and to the work he does. He hates his job, and he dislikes the Chief of the company. Five years before, Gregor’s father’s business failed, and Gregor has been supporting his parents and his sister ever since. He has also been paying off his parents’ personal debts to the Chief, and he hopes one day to quit his job, settle his parents’ accounts, and send his sister to the Conservatory to study music.
While his parents are trying to find out why Gregor hasn’t come out of his room, the chief clerk arrives to inquire about Gregor’s lateness. When Gregor still doesn’t emerge from his room, his parents become worried and send Grete and Anna to get the doctor and locksmith, respectively. The chief clerk threatens Gregor with the loss of his job if he doesn’t come out and report for work. Gregor responds by saying that he hasn’t been feeling well, but promises to report for work anyway.
When Gregor finally unlocks the door to his room and shows his face, the chief clerk, who is the first to see him, reacts with shock and horror and retreats to the staircase. Mrs. Samsa collapses to the floor at the sight of her son, and Mr. Samsa breaks down and cries. The chief clerk meanwhile is on the landing and wants to flee. Gregor tries to speak to him in order to give him some explanation for what has happened to him, but the clerk flies out of the house. Gregor’s father picks up the chief clerk’s walking stick, which he left behind, and a rolled newspaper and drives Gregor back into his room. In his panic to escape his father, Gregor gets caught in the door of his room and sustains multiple injuries to himself. Shaken and bleeding, he lies dazed on the floor of his room.
When Part 2 opens, it is twilight of the same day, but we learn later that more time has really elapsed between the morning’s events and the time Gregor wakes up again in his room. Grete has taken on the responsibility of feeding Gregor and cleaning out his room, since her parents seem unwilling or unable to cope with the new crisis. The cook implores Mrs. Samsa to let her go. Mrs. Samsa has no choice but to dismiss her, and now Grete must help her mother with the cooking chores as well.
Gregor is able to listen in on his parents’ conversation, and he learns that the family has some money left over from his father’s investments to live on for about a year. Grete decides that it would be best if much of the furniture is removed from Gregor’s room to give him greater freedom of movement. To this end, she enlists her mother’s help and the two women start to take out the chest and the writing desk from Gregor’s room. When they come back for the picture on the wall, Gregor is clinging tenaciously to it, daring them to take it from him. When Mrs. Samsa sees Gregor spread out on the wallpaper, she shrieks with horror and faints. Grete rushes into another room for something to revive her with. Gregor worriedly follows Grete out, and when the two confront each other, Grete drops a bottle in alarm. The bottle shatters and a sliver of glass cuts Gregor’s face. At this point, Mr. Samsa returns to the apartment wearing a blue bank messenger’s uniform and cap. When he sees his stricken wife and learns from Grete what has happened, he begins to bombard Gregor with apples. One apple lodges in Gregor’s back. Hurt, exhausted, and mortally wounded, Gregor loses consciousness.
Refusing to eat, Gregor is growing weaker and thinner as Part 3 begins. His eyesight is failing him and, because of his injuries—one leg is badly mangled—his movements are severely restricted. The family is now working: Mr. Samsa as a bank messenger, Mrs. Samsa as a seamstress for an underwear company, and Grete as a salesgirl. As Gregor’s condition continues to deteriorate, Grete takes less interest in her brother’s health and welfare.
Three men come to rent a room in the Samsa apartment. One night after dinner, when Grete is serenading them with her violin, Gregor, who is drawn to the music, sticks his head out his door and is spotted by one of the lodgers. The three men express their outrage and threaten to sue Mr. Samsa for damages. Soon after the men depart to their room, Grete sits down with her parents and urges them to get rid of Gregor.
That night, plagued by guilt, Gregor agrees with his sister that the only solution is for him to disappear. At three o’clock in the morning, he dies.
The new cleaning woman discovers his body. She alerts the Samsas, and then she quickly sweeps up Gregor’s corpse. The Samsa family decides to take a ride in the country. They now pin all their hopes for the future on Grete who, despite her ordeal, has grown into a beautiful, prospective bride.
The Life and Work of Franz Kafka
The oldest of six children, Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on July 3, 1883, the son of prosperous, middle-class parents, Hermann and Julie Löwy. Kafka’s childhood and adolescence were dominated by his father, a successful merchant who owned a dry goods business. Kafka’s father’s powerful influence and often tyrannical presence marked Kafka’s life both as an artist and as a man. The struggle to free himself from his overbearing father found expression in his fiction as the shy, passive, sensitive victim who suffers and struggles against authoritarian forces and figures. In his Letter to His Father (1919), Kafka wrote: “My writing was all about you.”
After completing his elementary and secondary education, Kafka graduated from the German University of Prague with a degree in law. Always an avid reader, Kafka was drawn to philosophy and literature, and he soon started to write his own sketches and stories. Among his favorite writers were Dickens, Göethe, Flaubert, Kleist, Thomas Mann, and the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, the founder of modern existentialism, a philosophy that emphasizes the individual as an agent responsible for his own choices in life.
In 1902, Kafka met the writer Max Brod, who became his close friend, admirer, and biographer. The two young men shared a passion for literature, and they often traveled together in the early years of their friendship. In 1908, Kafka began working for the Workman’s Accident Insurance Company in Prague, a government job that would later provide him with material for two of his unfinished novels, The Trial (1915) and The Castle (1921).
In 1912, an important year in Kafka’s life, Kafka met Felice Bauer. Kafka was engaged to her twice during a five-year period, but never married her. During this year, he also finished two important works, The Judgment and The Metamorphosis. Both stories focus on the tortured, father–son relationship; in the latter story, the theme of the individual’s estrangement from society is given compelling, dramatic expression. This theme occupied Kafka throughout his life, and recurs throughout his mature fiction.
The year 1919 saw three more important works: A Country Doctor, In the Penal Colony, and the autobiographical document Letter to His Father.
In 1924, while receiving treatment for tuberculosis in Merano, Italy, Kafka met the married writer, Milena Jesenka, with whom he had an affair. In 1923, losing his battle with tuberculosis, Kafka met the 19-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, Dora Dymant. Dora devoted herself completely to Kafka’s care and welfare, and they lived together in Berlin until Kafka’s death. He died on June 3, 1924 in Kierling, outside Vienna. He was buried alongside his parents in the Jewish cemetery of Prague-Straschnitz. His three sisters all perished in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Kafka’s influence on twentieth-century literature is both profound and incalculable. The word Kafkaesque has passed into the literature to describe an unsettling, disorienting, nightmarish world that is at once both fearful and menacing in its ambiguity and complexity. His haunting, disturbing, and sometimes grotesque images, combined with his struggling but ultimately defeated heroes, defined an age wherein alienated man—the anti-hero—grappling with meaning and justice in an inscrutable world, is denied answers to both.
The years 1880–1914 (1914 marked the outbreak of World War I) were significant in terms of the changes taking place in the arts in Europe. Traditional artistic forms and structures in literature, painting, poetry, music, and the theatre were undergoing innovative, and in some cases, revolutionary change. Romanticism and naturalism in the fields of painting, music, and literature and realism in the theatre spawned other artistic movements: impressionism and cubism in painting, the atonal system in music, dadaism in poetry and art, and expressionism and absurdism in the theatre. Composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schönberg, writers like James Joyce, Alfred Jarry, and Apollinaire, and painters like Henri Rousseau and Piet Mondrian were experimenting with conventional artistic forms and creating newer, more abstract and symbolic works of art. It was into this vital period of dramatic change in the arts that Franz Kafka was born.
In 1883, the year of Kafka’s birth, modern Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Kafka, a Jew who wrote his stories and novels in German, living in Prague forced him into a certain kind of social and cultural isolation. He was not an observant, Orthodox Jew and was therefore estranged from his own people. And since he considered himself a German in language and culture, he was alienated from the Czech people, who comprised the majority of people living in the country. This sense of cultural and societal estrangement was keenly felt by Kafka and it influenced his thought and outlook and contributed to his artistic expression as a writer.
At the age of 28, Kafka wrote in a letter, “I am separated from all things by a hollow space, and I do not even reach to its boundaries.” Prague—with its old, crooked streets and ancient, medieval buildings, with its diverse population of Czechs, Germans, Rumanians, and Jews—fed Kafka’s imagination from his birth to his death. It was into that “hollow space” that he placed his tormented, alienated characters.
The theme of the artist as an “outsider,” cut off from every day reality to create his own transcendent reality, is seen in German literature from Goethe’s Tasso to Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger. Kafka’s own fiction continues in this tradition, but whereas Mann gives us a reality that is recognizable and familiar to us, Kafka’s world is more opaque, symbolic, and dream-like in quality, often defying interpretation itself. Like the hero K. of the novels The Trial and The Castle, we find ourselves struggling to gain a foothold in vastly unfamiliar territory that is both treacherous and terrifying to negotiate.
Hermann Hesse, a German writer and contemporary of Kafka, called Kafka “The uncrowned King of German prose.” Kafka’s prose style shares the simplicity, clarity, and logic of other German writers, namely, the brothers Grimm and E.T.A. Hofmann. But Kafka’s art, with its emphasis on symbol and on the juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic, the rational and the irrational, the ordinary and the extraordinary is unmistakably modern in its sensibility, themes, and vision of the future.
Master List of Characters
Gregor Samsa—the protagonist or hero of the story.
Mr. Samsa—the protagonist’s father; an old man, described as having bushy eyebrows and black eyes.
Mrs. Samsa—the protagonist’s mother; she suffers from asthma and is anxious to please her husband.
Grete—the protagonist’s younger sister; 17 years old, she plays the violin.
Chief—the protagonist’s boss; although he is never seen in the story, he is much on Gregor’s mind in the early part of the story.
Chief Clerk—a bureaucrat representing the Chief.
Anna—the 16-year-old servant girl.
Household Cook—the woman who asks to be dismissed from her job.
Three Lodgers—the three bearded men who rent a room in the Samsa apartment.
Cleaning Woman (Charwoman)—the woman who takes on the job of cleaning out the protagonist’s room in Part Three.
Estimated Reading Time
The Metamorphosis is a comparatively short work, which is divided into three parts of approximately equal length. An average reader, reading 25 pages an hour, should be able to read the entire work in under three hours. You may want to read each part carefully and slowly at first, and then at a later reading, read the complete work for its continuity and sweep of the action.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Franz Kafka, who wrote relatively little in his short life and who published less, has been enormously influential on later writers, including writers in North America. He is considered an exponent of German expressionism—his work deals with a world that seems normal and recognizable but is also surreal, seemingly influenced by emotional and subconscious states, especially guilt.
Kafka has inspired a lengthy list of American writers. By creating a parallel between anguish and hope, employing a tightly controlled perspective, and adding a liberal sprinkling of black comedy, Kafka’s work may be said to have influenced the works of writers as diverse as Edward Albee, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J. D....
(The entire section is 388 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Metamorphosis is Kafka’s longest story and one of his most frequently analyzed works. Tripartite in form, it traces the months from Gregor Samsa’s unique metamorphosis to his death from dehydration, injury, and general neglect. Gregor’s health declines as the health of his father, mother, and sister improves. His metamorphosis from the sole breadwinner to an utterly dependent and undesirable creature prompts the metamorphosis of his sluggish family into hardworking, happier people.
The point is often made that, although it is Gregor who takes on a grotesque form, the real ugliness in the story lies in his family’s attitude toward and treatment of him, in their assumption that he is responsible for...
(The entire section is 607 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The first sentence of “The Metamorphosis” has become one of the most famous in modern fiction: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Franz Kafka thus subverts narrative tradition by stating his climax in his initial declarative sentence. He then organizes three subclimaxes in three frustrated attempts by Gregor to escape from the imprisonment of his bedroom. The novella’s three sections divide it into three clearly identifiable parts, showing Gregor in relation to his occupation, his family, and his divided psyche.
In the first section, Gregor accepts his fantastic transformation matter-of-factly, perhaps wishing to bury its...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Gregor Samsa wakes one morning from uneasy dreams to find that he has been transformed during the night into a gigantic insect. At first, he tries to remain calm and go back to sleep. His transformed body, however, prevents him from getting comfortable. Regardless of the changes in him, Gregor’s thoughts turn to the job he hates, and, as he looks at the clock, he fears being late at the office. Through the locked door to his room, his mother reminds him of the time, and he notices the change in his voice when he replies. His response alerts the rest of his family that he is still at home, which is unexpected at this time of day.
Still attempting to maintain some semblance of normality, Gregor tries to get out of bed,...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part 1, Division 1: Summary and Analysis
Gregor Samsa: the protagonist or hero of the story
Mr. Samsa: the protagonist’s father; an old man, described as having bushy eyebrows and black eyes
Grete: the protagonist’s younger sister; 17 years old, she plays the violin
Mrs. Samsa: the protagonist’s mother; she suffers from asthma and is anxious to please her husband
Anna: the 16-year-old servant girl
Chief Clerk: a bureaucrat representing the Chief
Although The Metamorphosis falls neatly into three parts, for the purposes of our discussion, we will divide the work itself into six parts. Part 1, Division 1 covers the...
(The entire section is 3842 words.)
Part 1, Division 2: Summary and Analysis
The chief clerk leaps back in fright and shock, with one hand clasped to his gaping mouth. Then Gregor’s mother notices him and her reaction is swift and certain: she falls to the floor in a heap, holding her grief-stricken face in her hands. Mr. Samsa can only look on and cry when he sees his unrecognizable and repulsive son.
Realizing that he must do something to explain himself to the chief clerk, Gregor follows him to the stairway in an attempt to reason with him and to calm his fears. However, as soon as he tries to open his mouth to speak, the chief clerk runs out of the house, forgetting his walking stick in the apartment.
As Gregor’s mother recovers and straightens up, she...
(The entire section is 2324 words.)
Part 2, Division 1: Summary and Analysis
Household Cook: the woman who asks to be dismissed from her job
Part 2, Division 1 covers the action of the story from twilight of the same day to the removal of Gregor’s furniture from his room.
When Gregor wakes up it is twilight. He is immediately drawn to the smell of food in his room and sees a basin of milk with little pieces of bread floating around in it. The sight of the food makes him happy because he knows that no one else but his sister, Grete, left it for him and because she knows that milk is his favorite drink. Instead of drinking the milk, however, Gregor discovers that he has lost his appetite for it and he leaves the milk alone. He also...
(The entire section is 2541 words.)
Part 2, Division 2: Summary and Analysis
Part 2, Division 2 covers the action from the sighting of Gregor on the wall by Mrs. Samsa to Mr. Samsa’s bombarding Gregor with apples.
After Grete and Mrs. Samsa remove Gregor’s writing desk and place it in the next room along with the other furniture, they start back to his room to see what other pieces they can take out. Gregor is so agitated and distraught over the removal of his furniture that he runs around his room in a panic hoping to save what is left. The picture of the woman on the wall catches his eye and he flies up to it and clings to it tenaciously, determined at any cost to hold onto it.
Grete sees him first as she and her mother re-enter Gregor’s room. She tries...
(The entire section is 2373 words.)
Part 3, Division 1: Summary and Analysis
Three Lodgers: the three bearded men who rent a room in the Samsa apartment
Cleaning Woman (Charwoman): the woman who takes on the job of cleaning out the protagonist’s room in Part 3
Part 3, Division 1 covers the action from a description of Gregor’s worsening physical condition to the concert Grete gives for the three gentlemen lodgers. One month has elapsed from the time Mr. Samsa injured Gregor with the apple.
The apple decaying in Gregor’s back has made him extremely weak and has greatly limited his physical movement. He is almost completely incapacitated now, but he can lie in the silence of his room and listen in on the conversations...
(The entire section is 2659 words.)
Part 3, Division 2: Summary and Analysis
The action of Part 3, Division 2 begins with Gregor’s emergence from his room during Grete’s violin concert and ends with his death and the Samsa family’s emotional and spiritual rebirth.
From his room, Gregor hears Grete’s violin and sticks his head out of his room to listen. One of the lodgers notices him and immediately alerts Mr. Samsa. Mr. Samsa tries to assuage his boarders but one of the lodgers is so outraged at the sight of Gregor that he threatens to sue Mr. Samsa for damages and for causing him to live in such a close proximity to Gregor. The two other lodgers also protest their disgusting and inexcusable living conditions, and they threaten Mr. Samsa with a lawsuit as...
(The entire section is 3158 words.)