Is Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis a comedy or tragedy?

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The Metamorphosis describes a tragic event in the Samsa family, yet on further examination, Kafka’s story can be read as a dark, surreal twist on tragicomedy. Plot, narrative structure, and the deft interplay between comic and tragic moments all come together to create a complex, nuanced tale.

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The Metamorphosis describes a tragic event in the Samsa family, yet on further examination, Kafka’s story can be read as a dark, surreal twist on tragicomedy. Plot, narrative structure, and the deft interplay between comic and tragic moments all come together to create a complex, nuanced tale.

According to A Handbook to Literature by Harmon and Holman, the tragicomedy as found in Shakespeare’s plays is

A play that employs a plot suitable to tragedy but ends happily, like a comedy.

Although Kafka’s story was originally written as short narrative fiction, the traditional three-act structure lends itself to theatrical drama as well, and The Metamorphosis has been adapted for stage and film.

By the first part of the above definition, the plot of The Metamorphosis is certainly a tragedy: Gregor, the main breadwinner of the Samsa family, is turned into a large insect and is therefore unable to do his job or even be a part of the family.

Gregor’s transformation into an insect heightens his main flaw of being unable to connect with his family and others on a warm and emotional level, instead seeing himself only in a utilitarian way. If Gregor had turned into a dog or cat, the situation still would be odd, but since these are mammals capable of relationship, the story would end up being more comic. Instead, given the cold and remote disposition of the insect, the situation is tragic.

The narration however, employs comedic elements: Gregor’s problems such as getting out of bed, communicating with his family, and being driven back into his room are presented in sharp detail emphasizing his awkwardness and clumsiness to such a degree that the scenes verge on slapstick comedy.

The story’s sudden happy ending also falls in line with comedy. Having dispensed with the problem of Gregor, his parents and sister play hooky from their jobs and spend the day in the country, forgetting about Gregor to celebrate instead his sister’s “increasing vivacity.”

This abrupt switch from tragedy to comedy throws the reader off balance, underscoring a sense that society in the end does not care about the tragedies of other people. Or, as author Angela Carter wrote in Wise Children, “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.”

The Handbook’s definition also notes the presence of a deus ex machina in tragicomic plays, an outside force that prevents a tragedy from turning into a catastrophe, thus creating a resolution. Readers could view the charwoman as this outside force, one who is under no illusions about what Gregor has turned into. The charwoman has a decisive, no-nonsense attitude that indicates she has arrived to take care of things and to spare the family from any lingering problems Gregor might pose—which she does by literally sweeping his remains away. In keeping with the comic yet dark tone of the ending, the charwoman grins and giggles after having disposed of the body.

Reading The Metamorphosis as a tragicomedy is one way to understand it. The brilliance of this story lies in its ability to yield additional layers of meaning with each reading and analysis.

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There is school of literary theory that likes to read against the grain and find almost all literature ironic, and it is also true that tragic works can include elements of the comic to offer relief to the suffering: Romeo and Juliet is a classic example.

I would, however, put The Metamorphosis firmly into the category of tragedy. Gregor, whatever bits of dark comedy might adhere to waking up as an insect, is a tragic figure who sacrifices himself for a family that does not love him.

Gregor sacrifices himself, first, by working a job he loathes to help support them all. His humanity is worth less to him than the paycheck he brings in. They quickly grow impatient with him when he becomes an insect and can no longer work. His father throws an apple at him that painfully lodges in his back, and his sister, Grete, locks him a bedroom to die. Second, when Gregor realizes he is a burden to his family, he sacrifices himself by willing his own death. He has feelings of love for his family as he lays dying:

He remembered his family with deep feeling and love. In this business, his own thought that he had to disappear [die] was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s.

After his death, his family is glad to be rid of him and able to move to another and less expensive apartment. They dwell with happiness on the fact they are all employed and that their daughter is growing into a handsome woman who can soon be married. Gregor is forgotten, his love tragically unreturned.

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Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" is certainly a tragedy. An important aspect to a tragedy is that the main character, or protagonist, has what is known as a fatal or "tragic flaw"—that is, a part of his or her personality that ultimately leads to their demise. Gregor's tragic flaw is that he has never stood up for himself, working a job he hated to take care of his family even though at the end of the story, the reader finds out the family has plenty of money. After Gregor becomes a cockroach, although his sister does try to take care of him, his father is very cruel to him. Ultimately, Gregor is made to feel like he is such a burden on his family that he chooses to die in order to make their lives easier. "The Metamorphosis" is not just a tragedy because the protagonist dies at the end, but it is also a tragedy because the events leading up to Gregor's death, such as hating his job, the misfortune of becoming an insect (a metaphor for being unable to contribute to the family the way he was used to), and being treated badly by his family, are all major tragic elements in the story.

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The Metamorphosis is a tragedy. Not only did Gregor die alone and betrayed by his own family, but that was also how he lived his life. He worked a job he hated to support his family and repay his father's debts, yet the family never appreciated this until he was unable to work. After he became a bug (i.e., "disabled" in a way), his family resented having to care for him. They actually resented his very existence. And after he died they were not sad, but relieved that he was finally gone and their "hardship" was finally over.

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