In The Metamorphosis, how does Kafka manipulate time to create tension?

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At the beginning of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Gregor wakes up and realizes that he has failed to hear the alarm, and so he is late. He must get up and go to work, for his family depends on him for their survival.

He saw the alarm clock over there, ticking on the chest of drawers. “Good God!” he thought. It was half past six, and the hands were going quietly on. It was past the half hour, almost quarter to seven. Shouldn't the alarm have sounded? One could see from the bed that it had been properly set for four o'clock. Certainly it had rung. And was it even possible for one to sleep quietly through the noise that made even the furniture shake?

Gregor is frantic about the time. He has overslept by two and a half hours. The idea of being late increases a sense of anxiety related to time. That feeling is heightened even more as Gregor describes the sound of the clock as something so loud that it makes "the furniture shake." A sense of urgency related to time is found again as Gregor tries to decide what he must do:

The next train left at seven o'clock. To catch that one, he would have to make a mad dash...

Using time, the mood of the story (in addition to the curiosity of Gregor's change into a giant insect) promotes a feeling of tension. At the beginning, references to time are precise. Time is a specific measure in Gregor's life. As he lies in bed, he bemoans the fact that he has no time to himself. In working so hard for his family, all of his time—and his very life—have been stolen away from him. He has been powerless to change it.

As the story goes on, Gregor begins to lose sense of the passage of time. Whereas it completely controlled his life at the start, the reader notices that with his advancing metamorphosis, the concept of time becomes unfamiliar to him. "Vague hopes" refer to things he once was concerned with, but the passing of time make these hopes distant and difficult to recapture. This seems to apply to all aspects of his life.

There he remained the whole night, part of which he spent dozing, always waking with a start because of his hunger, and another part of which he spent in worry and vague hopes…

A schedule of sorts is established, but specific times are not used: only generalizations in keeping with the activities of the family. Instead of a time, there is a general reference to “morning” and “after…lunch.”

In this manner, Gregor now received his food daily: Once in the morning while the parents and the maid still slept, and a second time after the common lunch…

At the story's outset, Gregor may refer time in minutes or hours, but soon he recognizes only days and, then, only months passing.

Once—a full month had already gone by since Gregor's transformation…

Other terms that vaguely refer to time can be found in the story:

Gregor's wish to see the mother was soon fulfilled. 

We have no specific referent point as to how long it takes for Gregor to see his mother; we know only that it happens “soon.”

Gregor fills his days climbing the walls, and the evenings listening to what he can of his family's activities. The alteration in his concept of time coincides with his growing disconnect from humanity. The days become an endless stream of Gregor's wandering about and casual wondering about his situation, but more so concerned about his family and their circumstances. 

Gregor is unable to maintain his grasp on time or the human world; and his family is also changing. His father has started to work again, and there is even some money the older man had hidden away when his business went under—money that could have eased Gregor's burden. But the knowledge of money was kept hidden from him, despite his struggles and sacrifices for his family. 

Kafka seems to use the element of time to promote Gregor's feeling of alienation, as well as a sense that the world is moving along at a rate with which Gregor can no longer keep up.

The physical changes in Gregor and his inability to provide support for them any more have widened the chasm between him and his family. The tension created by Gregor's inability to navigate time may well be used to prepare the reader for the ultimate separation—Gregor's death. Manipulating time in this way makes the reader feel that time is actually running out for Gregor, as he cannot measure it any longer. Making use of and living for time was once the thing that controlled every moment of every day of Gregor's life. Now, however, it moves steadily forward with little recognition of its passing and no chance of controlling it, not even to recognize it in connection to a clock.

Whereas time meant everything to Gregor at the start of the story, it has no hold over him now, for neither can he use time to measure what is required of him or calculate his accomplishments. Tension is created using time in that large chunks disappear, as well as those days when the family shared some connection. It creates tension as we realize Gregor has no time. While the family's circumstances change, Gregor's do not. Certainly there will be no accommodations made for Gregor. In having no time, and no time left, Gregor dies.


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