The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis Franz Kafka
See also Franz Kafka Short Story Criticism and "A Hunger Artist" Criticism.
The Metamorphosis is one of the most frequently analyzed works in literature. This elusive story, which chronicles the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a human being into an enormous insect, is renowned for its ability to inspire diverse, sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations. For this reason The Metamorphosis has come to be considered one of the central enigmas of the modern literary imagination. Nevertheless, critics generally praise Kafka's powerful and symbolic portrayal of alienation achieved through the literalized metaphor of man as insect.
Plot and Major Characters
The Metamorphosis opens as Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes to find himself transformed into a "monstrous vermin." Initially shocked by the change, Gregor soon begins to worry that he will miss his train and be late for work. He also laments the boredom of his job, employment to which he had resigned himself for as long as necessary to pay off his parents' debts. From outside the room, Gregor's worried mother calls to him. Gregor, unfamiliar with his new body, struggles to get out of bed. Later, the chief clerk of his office appears outside the locked door to Gregor's room, inquiring why his employee has missed the early train. Speaking through the door, Gregor claims that he is slightly ill but will soon be on his way. Meanwhile, Gregor's concerned mother asks her daughter Grete to call for a doctor and a locksmith. Finally Gregor manages to open his door. His appearance startles the chief clerk, and although Gregor tries to reason with him, claiming he will get dressed and be on his way to work, the clerk retreats from the giant insect, as does Gregor's frightened mother. Gregor's father then appears and drives Gregor back into his room.Time passes, and Gregor's family members grow more accustomed to living with Gregor in this strange form, though only Grete has the courage to enter her brother's room in the ensuing days. When Gregor leaves his room weeks later, his mother becomes distraught, and her husband forces Gregor to his room under a hail of thrown apples. Gravely injured and largely unable to move, Gregor suffers a lonely convalescence that lasts for more than a month. In the interim Gregor's mother devotes herself to sewing while his sister takes a job as a salesgirl. Increasingly, Gregor is neglected by his family. They hire a charwoman to attend to the heavier work around the house, tasks that used to be performed by Gregor. Odds and ends are placed in his room for storage, primarily to make space for three male lodgers the Samsas have taken in to supplement their income. One evening as Grete plays the violin for these men, Gregor is attracted by the music and crawls unnoticed into the living room. Later, one of the boarders observes him. Citing the revolting condition of the household, the lodgers threaten to give notice and depart. Grete realizes that they must get rid of this giant bug, which she seems to no longer view as her brother. The following morning, the charwoman enters Gregor's room and finds him dead. When the lodgers appear and demand breakfast, Mr. Samsa orders them to leave. Meanwhile, the giggling charwoman returns and explains that she has disposed of Gregor's body. The story closes as Gregor's parents, newly optimistic for the future and without a thought of their deceased son, comment on their daughter's vivacity and beauty, realizing she has grown into a woman.
Thematic analysis of The Metamorphosis has tended to focus on the psychoanalytic and symbolic, or allegorical, nature of the story. While evaluations of the narrative vary, many commentators view the theme of alienation from humanity at the center of the story and interpret Gregor's transformation as a kind of wish-fulfillment or as an extended metaphor. Critics who perceive the metamorphosis as a form of wish-fulfillment on Gregor's part find in the text clues indicating that he deeply resented having to support his family. Desiring to be in turn nurtured by them, he becomes a parasite in entomological fact. The complete dependence of Gregor's family and employer on him, then, is seen as an ironic foil to the reality of Gregor's anatomical transformation into a parasite. Many critics who approach the story in this way believe the primary emphasis of The Metamorphosis is not upon Gregor, but on his family, as they abandon their dependence on him and learn to be self-sufficient. One interpretation of the story holds that the title applies equally to Gregor's sister Grete: she passes from girlhood to young womanhood during the course of the narrative. Another view of Gregor's transformation is that it is an extended metaphor, carried from abstract concept to concrete reality: trapped in a meaningless job and isolated from the human beings around him, Gregor is thought of as an insect by himself and by others, so he becomes one.
Kafka's letters to his fiancée Felice Bauer, and his diary entries concerning The Metamorphosis, indicate that although he was generally satisfied with the tale, he felt the ending was seriously flawed. For this he blamed a business trip that had interrupted him just before he completed the story. However, critics have noted that The Metamorphosis is one of the few works for which Kafka actively sought publication. Since Kafka's death, critical interest in the novella has been considerable. In addition to the attention critics have placed on thematic analysis of The Metamorphosis, several have observed its sustained realism, which contrasts with the initially fantastic occurrence of Gregor's transformation into an insect. Many critics have also offered psychoanalytical interpretations of The Metamorphosis, seeing in the work a dramatization of particularly modern neuroses. For its technical excellence, as well as for the nightmarish and fascinating nature of the metamorphosis itself, Kafka's story has elicited a vast amount of interest, and its various problematic features continue to challenge its readers. Stanley Corngold has noted that "no single reading of Kafka escapes blindness," but that each new reading of his work encourages the study of the vast body of criticism devoted to it.
SOURCE: "Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1958, pp. 143-50.
[In the following essay, Holland examines Kafka's attribution of spiritual value to realistic elements in "The Metamorphosis," claiming "the realistic details of the story are fraught with significance."]
In allegory, symbolism, and surrealism—the three genres are in this respect, at least, indistinguishable—the writer mixes unrealistic elements into a realistic situation. Thus, Kafka, in Metamorphosis, puts into the realistic, prosaic environment of the Samsa household a situation that is, to put it mildly, unrealistic: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin." Kafka's strategy does not in essence differ from the techniques of Spenser and Bunyan: though they used for the unreal elements allegorical names, they, too, set them in realistic or conventional situations. Kafka's method, while rather more overpowering, works the same way: the unreal elements, be they allegorical names or human cockroaches, set up a kind of electric field; the most trite and prosaic detail brought into that field glows with extra meaning. To read allegory is simply to "probe" this field of meaning. We can probe it only if we momentarily put aside the unreality which creates the field and measure the extra values given the...
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SOURCE: "Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' as Death and Resurrection Fantasy," in The American Imago, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1959, pp. 349-65.
[In the following essay, Webster offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of The Metamorphosis as a tale of death and redemption.]
Kafka's Metamorphosis has fascinated many readers who respond to it on an unconscious level of apprehension rather than on a level of conscious understanding. The tale is as weird as many a nightmare they have had, and as strangely, even humorously disturbing. Here are the eternal ones of the dream or the archetypal constructs of the unconscious subjected to the secondary elaboration and conscious control of the artistic mind. Although most readers feel the import of these characters vaguely, many prefer not to know their total meaning too clearly because of the anxiety involved in facing even artistically created reality, and the revelations of art, like those from the unconscious itself, do challenge and sometimes destroy the frontier defenses of the ego.
Even Kafka himself took care not to examine too closely his dreams, though a man of his religious training must have heard the aphorism, "A dream not understood is like a letter unopened." It is impossible to say whether or not he consciously refused understanding of his multifarious dream-life, but he was certainly fascinated by it. Because of his...
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SOURCE: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and Modern Spirituality," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 6, 1966, pp. 5-20.
[In the following essay, Greenberg examines The Metamorphosis as the dying lament of a spiritually vacant modern man.]
The mother follow'd, weeping loud,
'O, that I such a fiend should bear!'
In the Middle Ages it was the
temporal which was the inessential
in relation to spirituality; in the
19th century the opposite occurred:
the temporal was primary and
the spiritual was the inessential
parasite which gnawed away
at it and tried to destroy it.
Kafka's Metamorphosis is peculiar as a narrative in having its climax in the very first sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The rest of the novella falls away from this high point of astonishment in one long expiring sigh, punctuated by three sub-climaxes (the three eruptions of the bug from the bedroom). How is it possible, one may ask, for a story to start at the climax and then merely subside? What kind of story is that? The answer to this question is, I think—a story for which the traditional...
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SOURCE: "The Struggle of Vermin: Parasitism and Family Love in Kafka's Metamorphosis1," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 23-32.
[In the following essay, Friedman discusses themes of guilt, dependency, and parasitism in The Metamorphosis.]
The basic motif in Franz Kafka's life and work is guilt, and the search for freedom from guilt. Indeed, the circumstances of his biography seem to have conspired in insuring that this would be so.
He was born in 1883 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which was then part of the old Austrian Empire, a large and ungainly assortment of nationalities and states, run by a vast and intricate bureaucracy. And to make matters worse, he was a Jew, so that his life was even more complex and document-ridden than that of the ordinary citizen. Added to these, he was the shy and withdrawn son of a domineering and successful businessman, and this became the primary fact of Kafka's life. In 1919, when he was thirty-six, he wrote a long "Letter to My Father," in which the meaning of this fact becomes painfully clear. His mother, who was to act as intermediary, returned it undelivered to her son, and nothing more was said about it. But Max Brod, Kafka's friend and biographer, published some parts of it after Kafka's death, and in reading these selections, we can see that Kafka's whole soul was warped...
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SOURCE: "Kafka's Die Verwandlung: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor," in Mosaic, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 91-106.
[In the following essay, Corngold analyzes Kafka's literalization of metaphorical language in The Metamorphosis.]
To judge from its critical reception, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is the most haunting and universal of all his stories; and yet Kafka never claimed for it any particular distinction. His comments on the story in his letters and diaries are almost entirely negative. "A pity," he wrote to Felice Bauer on December 6, 1912, "that in many passages in the story my states of exhaustion and other interruptions and worries about other things are clearly inscribed. It could certainly have been more cleanly done; you see that from the sweet pages."1 His disappointment with the ending was especially great. "My little story is finished, but today's conclusion doesn't make me happy at all; it should have been better, no doubt about it" (F163).2 This charge recurs in the diary entry for January 19, 1914: "Great antipathy to Metamorphosis. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip."3
Kafka's own sense of The Metamorphosis tends, I think, to shift the weight of...
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SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis: Kafka's Study of a Family," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1977-78, pp. 578-86.
[In the following essay, Cantrell examines the Samsa family in light of the work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing, focusing on "the relationship between the strange and the ordinary aspects of family life. "]
Critical discussions of Kafka's The Metamorphosis have long been based on the questionable assumption that the Samsa family's judgment of Gregor, the son, is accurate. In fact, literary critics have been nearly as severe and unanimous in their condemnation of Gregor Samsa as is the Samsa family itself. "When Gregor first appears before his family," Mark Spilka writes, "they are appalled by his condition, and their revulsion gives the full measure of his deformity." Like other critics, Spilka shares the Samsa family's revulsion against Gregor for more subtle reasons than antipathy to mere physical deformity; as he puts it, "the crust on Gregor Samsa is the mode of his regression; his psychic 'evils' have crystallized and risen to the surface, and his conscious self . . . is trapped within their insect shape."1
Spilka sees in Gregor a deformed psyche; other critics condemn his spiritual and metaphysical defects. Johannes Pfeiffer, for example, argues that Gregor is guilty of ignoring the possibility "of escaping the imprisonment in...
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SOURCE: "The Repressed Grandiosity of Gregor Samsa: A Kohutian Reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis," in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, edited by Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Schapiro, New York University Press, 1986, pp. 192-212.
[In the following essay, Bouson views Gregor Samsa's character in terms of the theory of narcissistic personality disorder put forth by noted neurologist and psychiatrist Heinz Kohut, a recognized authority on the subject.]
Why is Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect? Readers have long asked this question. Does it reflect, as some critics argue, his moral or spiritual defects? his extreme alienation? his essential parasitism? his entrapment in a dehumanizing economic system? his Oedipal guilt?1 Or is it, as others argue, ultimately unexplainable, a paradox of human existence, to quote Heinz Politzer, "knowing of neither cause nor effect"?2 Reading Metamorphosis3 in a new context—that provided by Heinz Kohut in his pioneering studies in the narcissistic personality disorder—provides a new depth-psychological insight not only into the underlying cause and meaning of Gregor's transformation, but also into the experiential core of his predicament. Metamorphosis provides, as Kohut himself observed, an "artistic anticipation" of the "leading psychological problem" of our...
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SOURCE: "Transformation of Criticism: The Impact of Kafka's Metamorphosis" in The Dove and the Mole: Kafka's Journey into Darkness and Creativity, edited by Moshe Lazar and Ronald Gottesman, Undena Publications, 1987, pp. 13-34.
[In the following essay, Beicken surveys contemporary criticism of The Metamorphosis.]
The history of Kafka criticism appears to be a history of controversy. At the center of these critical combats is a writer about whom Ralph Freedman once remarked: "Kafka's obscurity is mirrored in the confusion of his critics."1 Indeed, Kafka's quintessential mode of writing and representation seems to be responsible for what the critics have done to his works: they have attributed every possible interpretation to his works and as a result the myriad of readings which exist seem to attest to the persistent paradoxes, impasses and pitfalls of establishing meaning in Kafka. And a cursory view of this plurality at best, and critical chaos at worst, yields the inevitable impression that both the history and the field of Kafka criticism demonstrate a sad state of affairs, namely the pervasiveness of an ever growing critical confusion.
Taking a close look at one particularly prolific strand of Kafka criticism, Stanley Corngold summed up the aim of his critical scrutiny of studies on Metamorphosis which gave a critique of almost one hundred and thirty...
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SOURCE: "Transforming Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis" in Signs, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 651-67.
[In the following essay, Straus offers a feminist reading of The Metamorphosis that explores the central importance of Gregor's sister, Grete Samsa, in the work.]
In 1977 there were already ten thousand works on Franz Kafka in print,1 nearly all of them written by men. The reasons for scholars' interest in Kafka, particularly his short masterpiece, Metamorphosis, reflect a recognition on the part of students of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political and social criticism, Marxism, and literature that Kafka's work is inexhaustible. No single interpretation invalidates or finally delivers the story's significance. Its quality of multivalency (Vieldeutigkeit) keeps us talking to each other, against each other, and to ourselves. For fifty years Kafka's work has been seeding thought and precluding that closure of discourse that would imprison us in our old histories. Yet until 1980, gender-based theories and feminist criticisms were rarely articulated in discussions of Kafka's stories.2Metamorphosis is an important source, therefore, for the recent addition to the traditional list of disciplines: feminist studies.
Kafka's story of a family whose son, Gregor Samsa, wakes one morning to find himself transformed...
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SOURCE: "Competing Theories of Identity in Kafka's The Metamorphosis," in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 23-35.
[In the following essay, Sweeney evaluates the tensions of dualist, materialist, and social-constructionist theories of identity represented in The Metamorphosis.]
Although The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor Samsa finding "himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin," the transformation is at this stage psychologically incomplete, enabling Kafka to conduct a philosophical exploration of the nature of self, personhood and identity. Given the nature of the inquiry, it is significant that instead of providing a monologic commentary with a consistent theoretical framework, Kafka offers a dialogical, polyphonic work, an example of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called a "heteroglossia" of opposed voices (262-64). Since Kafka does not privilege any one theoretical perspective, the reader is encouraged to undertake what Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called an "experimentation" (48-50), a process which involves a recognition of the inadequacy of the respective opposed theories and an acknowledgment of the unresolved nature of the debate.
Aiding the reader in this process of experimentation is the novella's tripartite structure: in each section Gregor attempts to leave his bedroom only to be driven back into it. Repetitive in this way, however,...
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SOURCE: "Semiotic Excess, Semantic Vacuity and the Photograph of the Imaginary: The Interplay of Realism and the Fantastic in Kafka's Die Verwandlung," in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Vol. 65, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 304-17.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses Kafka's mingling of modes of realistic and fantastic representation in The Metamorphosis.]
"Nature hath no outline
but Imagination has"
True to the peculiar hermeneutics associated with his literary works Kafka's poetological utterances are both very infrequent and usually terse and indirect, taking on that familiar paradoxical form which characterizes the articulation of anything resembling a 'statement' in his writing. Approached with the necessary caution however, certain of these utterances provide an interesting perspective firstly on the difficult problem of determining Kafka's poetics of representation and secondly on the complex relationship of his literary works both to the tradition of realism and to the fantastic.
In a conversation with Gustav Janouch for example, Kafka allegedly played down the apparent plasticity of certain of his characters as a mere by-product, emphasizing that "er zeichnete keine Menschen" but was involved only in...
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SOURCE: "Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-level Allegory and The Metamorphosis," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 450-67.
[In the following essay, Ben-Ephraim probes the allegorical meanings of The Metamorphosis while acknowledging that the work "validates contradictory readings that cancel coherent interpretation."]
From Quintilian to Angus Fletcher critics have noted allegory's doubled significance; "twice-told," but many times understood, allegory invariably means more than it says. To supplement meaning, allegory characteristically enfolds abstract significance in narrative images. These suggestions may be provided by presences in the text, verbal signals like the name of the protagonist in Everyman, a nominal allegory which designates significance in its very title, or by absences in the text, covered mysteries like the unknown face in "The Minister's Black Veil," a tale that is itself a mask over figurai meaning. Allegory's polysemous texture is created through addition and subtraction in a doubled allegorical technique.
Writers of allegory often conflate the two methods. Naming a Dragon "Errour," Spenser makes Christian involvement with theological confusion an added element in a knight's encounter with a serpent. He thus points to the danger of hopeless entanglements with ideological...
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Corngold, Stanley. The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis.' Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973, 267 p.
Critical bibliography of The Metamorphosis preceded by a structural and symbolic analysis of the work. Corngold surveys and summarizes various interpretations of Kafka's novella.
Angus, Douglas. "Kafka's Metamorphosis and 'The Beauty and the Beast' Tale." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology LIII, No. 1 (January 1954): 69-71.
Approaches The Metamorphosis as an inversion of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale.
Bruce, Iris. "Kafka's Metamorphosis: Folklore, Hasidism, and the Jewish Tradition." Journal of the Kafka Society of America 11, Nos. 1-2 (June-December 1987): 9-27.
Studies The Metamorphosis within the contexts of Jewish mysticism and folklore.
Eggenschwiler, David. "Die Verwandlung, Freud, and the Chains of Odysseus." Modern Language Quarterly 39, No. 4 (December 1978): 363-85.
Asserts that The Metamorphosis demands a combined psychoanalytic and formalist/aesthetic interpretation....
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