Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Samsa apartment. Dwelling, in no particular city, of Gregor Samsa and his family. Comfortable and spacious, the apartment signifies Gregor’s success in providing for his family, which fell on hard times after his father’s business failure. Gregor’s exhausting work as a traveling salesman keeps the family in respectable circumstances. After his metamorphosis, however, the apartment proves to be too big and expensive to maintain. In a sense, it has always been a burden. Gregor selected it, and his support of the family has stimulated a growing lethargy among them. His mother coughs incessantly, his sister is losing her youth to extreme fatigue, and his father has abandoned his role as the head of the family. All of this changes as Gregor changes, and after his death, the family is liberated from the apartment and from Gregor.
Gregor’s bedroom. Room in which the story begins, with Gregor’s metamorphosis into a giant insect already an accomplished fact. Though initially alarmed, he soon takes comfort in the familiarity of his bedroom. The room itself changes through the course of the story, in ways that mirror Gregor’s own decline. His furniture is removed to provide him with more space to crawl. After his sister neglects to clean the room, filth begins to accumulate. Eventually, the room becomes a storage space for useless household items—much like Gregor himself. Once a...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This novella is an extended literalization of the implications of the metaphor used in its initial sentence. Gregor is metamorphosed into an insectlike species of vermin, with Kafka careful not to identify the precise nature of Gregor’s bughood. German usage applies Kafka’s term, Ungeziefer, to contemptible, spineless, parasitic persons, akin to English connotations of the work “cockroach.” Gregor’s passivity and abjectness before authority link him with these meanings, as Kafka develops the fable by transforming the metaphor back into the imaginative reality of his fiction. After all, Gregor’s metamorphosis constitutes a revelation of the truth regarding his low self-esteem. It is a self-judgment by his repressed and continually defeated humanity.
By having Gregor become a bug, Kafka has also accomplished a bitterly parodistic inversion of a traditional motif in fairy tales. In folktales the prince is rescued from his froghood by the princess’s kiss; beauty redeems the beast with love. In Kafka’s version, however, the “beauty,” the sister Gregor loves, is horrified by her beastlike brother and condemns him to die rather than changing him back through affection. The most poignant aspect of the story is the inextinguishable beauty of Gregor’s soul, as he consents to his family’s rejection of his humanity and dies on their behalf.
Kafka illustrates Gregor’s subjection to his father by the implied parable of the...
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For most of Kafka's lifetime, his home town of Prague was a Czech city within a German-speaking empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only at the end of World War I did that Empire disappear, leading to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. But in 1912, when Kafka was writing The Metamorphosis, the Czechs had not yet won their independence, and despite its Czech majority, Prague was dominated by a German-speaking elite. Recognizing where the power lay in the city, the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the German minority rather than with the Czech majority; the Czechs therefore considered the Jews to be part of the German community, but the Germans themselves did not. As a result, it was easy for the Jews to feel that they did not fit in anywhere.
In general, Prague was a city of ethnic tensions, primarily between Czechs and Germans and between Czechs and Jews. In 1897, when Kafka was fourteen, the tensions erupted into anti-Semitic riots started by the Czechs. Thus Kafka would have grown up knowing hatred and hostility as well as the difficulty of fitting in.
Economically, the late nineteenth century marked the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Industrial development was not as advanced in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as elsewhere in Europe, but within the Empire, Prague was one of the most advanced and prosperous cities. However, along with the prosperity...
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Part 1, Division 1: Questions and Answers
1. What are Gregor’s thoughts and impressions when he wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect?
2. What kind of work did Gregor do before his metamorphosis?
3. What are Gregor’s obligations to his family before his transformation into an insect?
4. What are some of the things that Gregor hopes for?
5. Who sends Grete to get the doctor? The locksmith?
6. How would you describe the chief clerk?
7. What two contradictory goals does Gregor seem to be striving for throughout the story?
8. Why does Gregor finally decide to reveal himself to the chief clerk and his parents?
9. How does the chief clerk threaten Gregor?
10. What is the chief clerk’s reaction when he sees Gregor?
1. Gregor at first seems a little surprised and thinks he may have been dreaming, but as he looks around his room and feels the strange sensations of his new body, he realizes that he has not been dreaming—that he is indeed an insect.
2. Gregor worked as a traveling salesman.
3. Gregor is the sole support of his family before his metamorphosis. He paid the rent, all the bills, and he was paying off his parents’ private debts to the chief of his firm.
4. Gregor hopes one day to leave his job for good. His fondest wish is to send his sister, Grete, to music school to study the...
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Part 1, Division 2: Questions and Answers
1. How do Mr. and Mrs. Samsa react when they see Gregor for the first time?
2. Why can’t Gregor explain himself to the chief clerk?
3. What are some of the things Gregor tries to tell the chief clerk?
4. Who knocks over the coffee pot?
5. What causes Mrs. Samsa to collapse to the floor?
6. How does Mr. Samsa force Gregor back into his room?
7. What happens to Gregor as he is being driven back into his room?
8. In what ways has Gregor been alienated from society?
9. How have the roles within the Samsa family changed?
10. What is the major theme of the story?
1. Mrs. Samsa collapses on the floor and buries her face on her breast, while Mr. Samsa looks angrily at Gregor and begins to cry.
2. Gregor can’t explain himself to the chief clerk because the chief clerk is not listening and because Gregor’s speech is unintelligible to him.
3. Gregor tries to remind the chief clerk that he is often the target of unfounded rumors and malicious attacks. He begs the chief clerk to have some compassion for him, and he reminds him that he has to provide for his family’s welfare.
4. Mrs. Samsa, in her panic and confusion, knocks over the coffee pot.
5. Seeing Gregor for the first time, Mrs. Samsa at first stares incredulously at him and then falls to the floor....
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Part 2, Division 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why doesn’t Gregor drink the milk his sister leaves for him?
2. Why does the household cook ask Mrs. Samsa to let her go?
3. Where does Gregor like to hide?
4. Who has assumed major responsibility for Gregor’s life?
5. Why did Gregor become a traveling salesman?
6. How do the Samsa’s expect to live now that their son’s source of income is lost?
7. Why is Gregor so intent on sending his sister to the conservatory to study music?
8. In what ways are Gregor’s physical powers declining?
9. How has Grete’s attitude and behavior toward Gregor changed?
10. Why does Grete want to remove most of the furniture from Gregor’s room?
1. Gregor finds it hard to eat anything with the soreness and tenderness in his side, and the sight of the milk only repulses him, even though it has always been his favorite drink.
2. The cook wants to leave the Samsa household because she no longer wants to work in the same apartment where there is a repulsive creature living.
3. Gregor likes to hide under the sofa in his room because it is a safe place and gives him some protection from the outside world.
4. Grete has assumed the major task of caring for Gregor.
5. Gregor became a traveling salesman after his father’s business failed.
6. Mr. Samsa made...
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Part 2, Division 2: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Gregor cling to the picture of the woman in furs on the wall?
2. What causes Mrs. Samsa to faint on the sofa?
3. Why does Gregor run after Grete after his mother faints?
4. What kind of job has Mr. Samsa taken?
5. Why doesn’t Gregor recognize his father in his new uniform?
6. How does Mr. Samsa react when he first comes into the apartment and sees his wife lying on the floor?
7. How does Mr. Samsa punish Gregor?
8. Why does Gregor lose consciousness?
9. Who saves Gregor from an almost certain death?
10. How has the balance of power in the Samsa household changed by the end of Part 2?
1. Gregor feels a certain attachment for this picture. He had cut it out of a magazine and framed it at one time. It is something special for him. The figure of the woman may remind him of his own mother, or it may just give him a sense of warmth and comfort knowing it’s there on his wall for him to gaze at.
2. Mrs. Samsa faints when she sees Gregor sprawled out across the picture on the wall.
3. Gregor is worried that his mother may be dying and so runs after Grete to try to help.
4. Mr. Samsa has taken a job as a bank messenger.
5. Gregor hardly recognizes his father at first when he comes into the apartment because he is wearing a blue uniform and because...
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Part 3, Division 1: Questions and Answers
1. How has Mr. Samsa’s attitude toward Gregor changed at the start of Part 3, Division 1?
2. What kind of job does Mrs. Samsa have?
3. What kind of job does Grete have?
4. How is Grete trying to improve her prospects for the future?
5. How do you explain Grete’s ambivalence toward Gregor?
6. Why does Grete become angry with her mother?
7. Who do the Samsas hire to clean Gregor’s room?
8. Why do the Samsas rent a room to the three men?
9. Why doesn’t Kafka give us any information about the three men?
10. How does Gregor feel when he hears the three men chewing their food at dinner?
1. Mr. Samsa decides to be more patient with Gregor, to suppress his real feelings toward Gregor, and not to regard him as the enemy.
2. Mrs. Samsa has taken a job sewing with an underwear company.
3. Grete has taken a job as a salesgirl.
4. Grete is studying French and learning shorthand in an attempt to secure a brighter, more financially rewarding future for herself.
5. Grete’s ambivalence can best be explained by the fact that she begins to feel a loss of her own personal freedom in caring for Gregor and tending to his needs. She wants to help him and take care of him, but at the same time, she resents having to do so and probably realizes that her burden is...
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Part 3, Division 2: Questions and Answers
1. Why do the three lodgers threaten to sue Mr. Samsa?
2. What private thoughts does Gregor have of Grete when he hears her violin playing?
3. Why does Grete want to get rid of Gregor?
4. How does Gregor feel once he is back in his room?
5. How would you describe the cleaning woman’s responses to Gregor when she first comes into the house?
6. Why does Gregor feel that Grete is right about his disappearing from everyone’s life?
7. Who discovers Gregor’s body?
8. Why does Mr. Samsa order the three lodgers out of the house?
9. What do the Samsas plan to do the day of Gregor’s death?
10. In what sense is The Metamorphosis an “optimistic” story?
1. When it is clear to the three lodgers that they have been living with a disgusting insect in the same apartment, they threaten to sue Mr. Samsa for the disgusting and intolerable conditions that prevail in the household.
2. Gregor fantasizes that Grete will come to his room and play for him alone. He dreams that he will never let her out of his room, that he will guard all the doors against intruders and outsiders, and that Grete will be so happy and thrilled by his promise to send her to music school that she would allow him to kiss her on her bare neck. It is an heroic fantasy, where Gregor sees himself as...
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Point of View
The story is told in the third person but is for the most part limited to Gregor's point of view. Only his thoughts and feelings are presented, and most of the events are seen through his eyes. The point seems to be to present a picture of Gregor and the world as he understands it, both before and after his metamorphosis. This does not necessarily mean that all of Gregor's judgements are to be accepted; on the contrary, Kafka uses irony and black comedy to indicate that Gregor is at times misled, for instance in thinking he can still go to the office even after becoming an insect and, more sadly, in thinking his family is putting his interests first.
Of course, after Gregor's death, the point of view has to shift; it becomes simply impersonal third-person narration, remaining on the outside of the surviving characters, not revealing their thoughts and feelings the way Gregor's were revealed earlier. Interestingly, Gregor's parents are now referred to impersonally as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa; earlier, when the story was being told from Gregor's point of view, they were invariably referred to as Gregor's father and Gregor's mother. The point of this shift seems to be to emphasize that Gregor is not just gone but forgotten.
The story has a very constricted setting; almost all the events take place within the Samsa house, mostly in Gregor's room, reflecting the fact that Gregor is essentially a prisoner....
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It is so difficult to imagine someone being turned literally into an insect that many critics have read The Metamorphosis symbolically, with Gregor's transformation treated obliquely. Kafka does not treat the change in any way other than literal, however. Gregor's story becomes a living nightmare, and readers are told at the outset that when he awakes it was from a restless night. It is as if one cannot escape one's nightmare even by awakening the next morning. Kafka maintains this dreamlike state with the most matter-of-fact prose. Like his protagonist who frantically seeks to live his life normally despite the obvious changes in it, Kafka, too, writes as though describing the most mundane of worlds: a world in which nightmares are the most common of events; a world in which a nightmare is perceived only by the isolated individual experiencing it.
This even and calm prose style characterizes much of Kafka's writing and does much toward giving his stories their spooky surrealism. The prose betrays a world of madness in which one of the conditions of the insanity is the central character's inability to convey to anyone else his understanding of an environment they so clearly do not understand.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Because the world of Kafka's fiction is so bizarre it usually provokes a reaction in his readers. If nothing else, The Metamorphosis prompts a series of questions about how literally we are to take Gregor Samsa's transformation. Is he really an insect? Are we to read his change metaphorically? What is the symbolism imbedded in his vermin-like body? In addition the story explores a number of painful questions about family relationships, and Gregor's rather oppressive home life is extended to include the overly formalized social and moral atmosphere created within the late Hapsburg Empire, a venerable collection of states and ethnic groups which was collapsing toward its final dissolution during the First World War.
Kafka is regarded as the pre-eminent writer of twentieth century modernism with all of the alienation, angst, and dislocation that modern life seemed to suggest for European writers born in the nineteenth century. His stories, for all of their odd trappings, are always about the effects on human beings of the loss of belief systems brought about by the rapid social and economic changes characteristic of our modern world.
1. How literally can we understand Gregor Samsa's transformation to be? What does it mean to be changed into an insect?
2. The German word which is sometimes translated as a "cockroach" or "insect" actually is more properly rendered in English as "vermin." What sorts of changes does this more...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Franz Kafka's fiction is curiously disengaged from its own time. That does not mean, however, that it lacks application to the modern world, for Kafka's primary theme, the one of most social relevance, is man's alienation from contemporary life. The Metamorphosis is a tale about Gregor Samsa, who is transformed one night into a large insect. He becomes increasingly distanced from the world around him, his own family, and finally from himself, and while doing so he shrivels as a human being until at the story's conclusion, his desiccated carcass is swept away with the dust from underneath his bed. Although Kafka never lived for long away from his birthplace in Prague, the city in its actuality does not figure in his fiction nor does the historical epoch of the Hapsburg Empire before World War I, nevertheless the individual struggle to sustain oneself within a world of bureaucratic complexities and racial as well as individual persecution resonate throughout his fiction.
In The Metamorphosis the weight of history and the state, as Gregor experiences it through the pressures from his family (especially his father) and from his office manager, gradually unite with the more generalized horror with which his transformation is greeted by both his sister and mother and the Samsa's lodgers, who humiliate the family, to reduce Gregor to behaving like the insect which he has become. The social pressure to conform, most particularly in outward ways to...
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Compare and Contrast
1840-1920s: Kafka writes at a time when the drudgery of work is becoming a serious issue. Long hours at boring jobs create alienation. And tyrannical employers like Gregor's are the norm.
Twentieth Century: Computers and other advances have allowed for more flexibility for employees, including flex time and telecommuting. Since computers can handle some of the more tedious and repetitious aspects of work, work for some may also be more intellectually stimulating. Also, the trend now is to promote friendlier employer-employee interactions. However, there are new employment problems today, and it is doubtful that the sort of work alienation depicted in Kafka's story has been eliminated altogether.
1840-1920s: In Kafka's day, it is common for reasonably well-off families to employ full-time live-in servants to cook and clean and do other menial chores.
Twentieth Century: Full-time servants are almost unheard of now, replaced primarily by labor-saving devices.
1840-1920s: Kafka's The Metamorphosis depicts a troubled father-son relationship that seems to reflect Kafka's own relationship with his father. Such troubled relationships may be widespread, inasmuch as during this time Sigmund Freud develops his theory of the Oedipus complex, which takes as its starting point the existence of a fundamental antagonism between fathers and...
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Topics for Further Study
Depending on the translation and the commentator, Gregor is described variously as an insect, a bug, a beetle, a cockroach, a louse, and a piece of vermin. Is it possible to say precisely what sort of creature he turns into?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of turning into a bug the way Gregor does?
Music is sometimes identified with the spiritual realm. On the other hand, it is sometimes linked to the animal kingdom as something that appeals even to non-human species. How does music, especially Grete's violin playing, function in this story?
To what extent is The Metamorphosis part of the existentialist tradition in literature exemplified by the works of such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Eugene Ionesco?
What does Gregor die of? His wound? Starvation? Self-starvation? A broken heart? A desire to die? Who is responsible for his death? Is Kakfa being deliberately ambiguous on this issue? If so, why?
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In many ways Kafka does not have any direct predecessors. He borrowed literary forms such as the parable from the trove of literary experiences in his own reading. His work has been likened to Dostoevsky and Kleist; in The Trial (1925), certainly one can see possible connections to the quester-hero of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, (1927) or to Andre Gide's young Bernard from The Counterfeiters (1926), which even has references to the law. When one examines Kafka's work as a whole, however, one is left with the conclusion that despite whatever borrowings it contains, its vision and execution are unique.
In general, Kafka has long been linked to other German expressionist writers of the early years of the twentieth century even though such a connection appears only a tangential position, largely supported by what has been reported of Kafka's reaction to other writers of his own time. Although he does exhibit some superficial characteristics with other expressionists, the realistic surface of his prose and lucidity of his style prevent any important comparison.
Perhaps to see him as a "Modernist," if that term has any usefulness, may be as specific as is possible with a writer of Kafka's individuality. He does share certain characteristics of style and theme and cast of mind with other writers of his age, but those similarities are often far outweighed by his idiosyncrasies and may render such comparisons more harmful to...
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In many ways Kafka's prose overlaps both thematically and stylistically as the ongoing saga of the hapless character, K, who appears in various guises in all of the novels and in many of the shorter works. As many of the critics have pointed out, much of the prose is heavily autobiographical and such personal attachment renders it interconnected. However, that is not to say that the work should be read as thinly disguised biography or that it should not be studied as individual works of fiction.
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In 1987, there was a British television adaptation of The Metamorphosis. Called Metamorphosis and starring Tim Roth as Gregor Samsa, it was written by Steven Berkoff and directed by Jim Goddard.
Steven Berkoff also wrote a stage adaptation of the story, which was first performed at the Round House in London in 1969 with him in the role of Gregor Samsa. Between 1969 and 1992, there were nine productions of Berkoff's adaptation, including ones in 1986 at the Mermaid in London with Tim Roth, in 1988 in Paris with Roman Polanski, in 1989 in New York with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and in 1992 in Tokyo. The text of the adaptation can be found in "The Trial"; "Metamorphosis"; "In the Penal Colony": Three Theatre Adaptations from Franz Kafka by Berkoff (Oxford, 1988). Berkoff discusses the various theatre productions in his book, Meditations on "Metamorphosis" (Faber, 1995).
In 1976, a Swedish film directed by Ivo Dvorák was made of The Metamorphosis under the title Förvandlingen. There have also been two short animated versions of the story, one a 1977 Canadian film directed by Caroline Leaf and called The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, and the other an eight-minute-long 1999 Spanish production directed by Charlie Ramos.
There is a 1993 British short film called Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. This odd production is not an adaptation of The...
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What Do I Read Next?
The Trial (1925) is Kafka's novel about a man arrested and put through nightmarish court proceedings for a crime that is never explained to him.
The Castle (1926) is a Kafka novel about a man who seeks in vain to be allowed into a nearby but frustratingly inaccessible castle.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson is an early transformation story about a physician who uses a potion to change himself into an evil, repulsive man.
Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley is a classic novel about a monster who is frustrated in his attempts to connect with human beings.
"The Fly’’ (1957) by George Langelaan is a story that focuses on a scientist who transforms himself into a fly. The story was reprinted in Wolf's Complete Book of Terror, edited by Leonard Wolf (Potter, 1979) and was made into movies under the same name in 1958 and 1986.
Rhinoceros (1959) by Eugene Ionesco is a play about people turning into rhinoceroses. The play is a study of conformity and the dangers of totalitarianism.
The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus, also translated as The Outsider, is a novel concerning an alienated outsider who inexplicably commits a murder.
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich’’ (1886) by Leo Tolstoy follows a man without close personal ties whose family does little for him when he contracts a fatal illness....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Albérès, R.M. and Pierre De Boisdeffre. Kafka: The Torment of Man. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: The Citadel Press, 1968.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. Trans. G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston. New York: Schocken Books, 1963.
Carrouges, Michel. Kafka Versus Kafka. Trans. Emmett Parker. University of Alabama Press, 1968.
Corngold, Stanley, The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Kennikat, 1973.
Gray, Ronald, Franz Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Gray, Ronald. ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1962.
Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. New York: Schocken Books, 1954.
Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories and Parables, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1983.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: The Modern Library, 1936.
Taikeff, Stanley. The Hermit of Prague: A Dramatic Monologue. Middletown, N.Y.: Whitlock Press, Inc. 1985.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Franz Kafka's ‘‘The Metamorphosis,’’ Chelsea House, 1988. This text is a collection of essays analyzing the story.
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