The body of Franz Kafka’s work is replete with instances of the author’s use of allegory, metaphor and other literary devices the application of which represented his only means of expressing his alienation from his father, from his mundane existence as an employee of an insurance company, and from the expectations placed upon him to structure his life in accordance with a certain ideal with which he was fundamentally in disagreement. Kafka’s was a life lived torn between the expectations of a demanding father and that of an aspiring writer struggling for the freedoms associated with the creative mind. Many of his protagonists reflect the emotional and intellectual struggles that characterized Kafka’s own short life, and none more so than Gregor Samsa, the tortured soul at the center of The Metamorphosis. Gregor, of course, is a traveling salesman – the quintessential monotonous and wearying profession – and Kafka makes quite explicit Gregor’s sense of alienation from his profession and from those around him. Upon awakening, and not yet realizing that his transformation from human into insect is all-too-real, Gregor lies awake and reflects on the nature of his profession:
‘O God,’ he thought, ‘what a demanding job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road. The stresses of trade are much greater than the work going on at head office, and, in addition to that, I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food, temporary and constantly changing human relationships which never come from the heart. To hell with it all!’
Kafka’s experiences in his own life, especially as an employee at the Assicurazioni Generali insurance company and then the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, were insufficiently intellectually stimulating and, while paying the bills, detracted from his real love, writing. While his profession was hardly the stuff of which horror stories are written, he was clearly not satisfied to live within the parameters of the traditional middle-class existence, with the wife and children, and felt confined in that lifestyle – a confinement that could be reflected in Gregor Samsa’s dissatisfaction with his lot in life. The combination of working in a profession traditionally associated with annoying other people and suffering the indignities of office life with its concomitant responsibility to a chain of command was reflected in the following self-directed inquiry:
“Why was Gregor the only one condemned to work in a firm where at the slightest lapse someone immediately attracted the greatest suspicion?”
Gregor’s sense of alienation is ascribed to his profession, a profession down upon which many looked, leading to his observation that “[p]eople don’t like traveling salesmen. I know that.” It is the relationship with his father, though, that provides some of the story’s most allegorical statements. Kafka’s father was an overbearing, undereducated but successful businessman who was not what one might call ‘enlightened.’ Interestingly, Kafka’s father had once been a travelling salesman, and Franz’s choice of that profession for his alienated protagonist in The Metamorphosis can hardly be coincidental. Gregor’s transformation into an insect can only further strain his relationship with his father, and, in a telling passage in the story, Kafka has Gregor’s reflect disdainfully on his father’s demeanor and reaction to the son’s newly emerged identity:
“Finally Gregor had no other option, for he noticed with horror that he did not understand yet how to maintain his direction going backwards. And so he began, amid constantly anxious sideways glances in his father’s direction, to turn himself around as quickly as possible (although in truth this was only very slowly). Perhaps his father noticed his good intentions, for he did not disrupt Gregor in this motion, but with the tip of the cane from a distance he even directed here and there Gregor’s rotating movement. If only there hadn’t been his father’s unbearable hissing! Because of that Gregor totally lost his head.”
It is hard to imagine a story more allegorical than The Metamorphosis. Kafka uses Gregor’s transformation to illuminate his alienation from the world around him, and to emphasize the unbearableness of his existence. Ironically, or just interestingly, it is the family’s cleaning woman, an “old widow,” who is not in the least surprised or put-off by Gregor’s metamorphosis. On the contrary, she adopts the habit of peering into his room and saying, “’Come here for a bit, old dung beetle!’ or ‘Hey, look at the old dung beetle!’” Gregor’s status in life has reduced him to a level beneath even this elderly maid, and it is she who informs the reader as to the precise type of insect into which Gregor has transformed: a dung beetle, chosen less for its ancient transformative mythological importance than for its fecal-eating dietary habits. It is almost as if Kafka were suggesting that Gregor’s, and perhaps his own, life was the social equivalent of eating fecal matter.