For five years, Gregor Samsa has been an exemplary employee and a dutiful son and brother, the sole support of the family since the failure of his father’s business. When an extraordinary physiological change prevents him for the first time from catching the early train to work, Gregor’s manager is immediately outside his bedroom demanding an explanation.
Gregor’s situation, like Kafka’s universe, is inscrutable, and the story, presented in three sections, details the changing dynamics of Gregor’s relationship to his family. Out of work and dependent on the goodwill of the others, particularly sister Grete, Gregor increasingly comes to regard himself as a repulsive burden.
In late March at 3 a.m., after three months of accumulated evidence that it would be best for all if he simply ceased to exist, Gregor expires. Father, mother, and sister acquire new vitality and celebrate with a trip to the countryside.
The metamorphosis of the title is not simply Gregor’s dehumanizing mutation. It also refers to the changing status of his father, whose self-esteem bears an inverse relationship to his son’s. Drawing on his own troubled filial ties, Kafka focuses on the violent tensions between father and son.
This novella is one of the supreme embodiments of early 20th century anxieties over the powerlessness and alienation of the individual in an irrational universe. Its intensity is heightened by a severely understated style and by presenting most details through Gregor’s baffled but trustful point of view. It offers a distinctively Kafkaesque parody of salvation from individual guilt and solitude.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “The Narcissistic Drama and Reader/Text Transaction in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” In Critical Essays on Franz Kafka, edited by Ruth V. Gross. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Heinz Kohut’s work on narcissistic disorders suggests a new reading of Gregor’s hostile world, arguing against the theory of depersonalization.
Eggenschwiler, David. “The Metamorphosis, Freud, and the Chains of Odysseus.” In Modern Critical Views: Franz Kafka, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. The author traces the psychological origins of the story in Kafka’s life and encourages a recognition of the tension between parable and interpretation.
Gray, Ronald. Franz Kafka. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. This is the best and most accessible short analysis of Kafka’s work, and it furnishes a literary context for the tale.
Hayman, Ronald K. A Biography of Kafka. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. This biography is a solid and readable account of Kafka’s life.
Karl, Frederick R. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. Karl’s exhaustive study of Kafka’s culture extends the possible interpretations of his work.