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.