illustration of a giant insect with the outline of a man in a suit standing within the confines of the insect

The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

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How does Gregor's duality, as both human and insect, contribute to the theme and meaning of Kafka's novel?

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Kafka is commenting on life’s absurdity in The Metamorphosis by creating a character who transforms into a bug but has retained human thoughts. Gregor’s initial reaction to waking up as a bug is not what we would expect. At first, he thinks he’s dreaming, but when he establishes that he is indeed awake, he does not get upset. Instead, he is concerned about catching the train to get to work, and he complains about his job and obligation to his family. “Human beings have to have their sleep.” Gregor’s thoughts indicate that he is not dealing with reality: he is no longer human. He seems to be disconnected from truth as he focuses on one topic—work.

Kafka is warning us of what happens when we disconnect from the world. Gregor has no life beyond work. As a traveling salesman, he is always moving around and so has established no real relationships. As a bug, he surveys his bedroom, which is sparsely decorated, probably because he spends hardly any time at home. His body has clearly changed into an insect’s, yet his mind is still human. He focuses on the samples he left out the night before and the woman’s picture in the frame, the only decoration he has. We are saddened to realize that Gregor had cut the picture out of a magazine and placed it into the frame; clearly, he has no one special in his life to display in the frame, so he is reduced to pretending she is part of his life.

Lost in his thoughts about his lack of life, Gregor is interrupted by his mother reminding him to get out of bed. He answers her and is stunned by his own voice, which has drastically altered to “an insistent distressed chirping.” Yet he continues to push away reality as he considers what he wants to say in detail. He answers any pleas from his family with a few calm words and proceeds to attempt to get up out of bed. Gregor is living in fantasy; in fact, he says he wants to “see how today’s fantasy would gradually fade away.” Humans must deal with what happens in life; since Gregor runs away from life by not acknowledging it, he has metamorphosed into a bug.

Gregor is also disconnected from his family members, who appreciate him only as long as he is working to support them. Grete at first is sympathetic but soon tires of caring for him and is repulsed by his looks. Not wanting to startle her, Gregor hides when Grete enters the room. His human side is always thinking of others, even at his own expense. He has worked for years to pay off his parents’ debt, missing out on an important joy of life—relationships with people. Gregor becomes a bug because he has essentially lived a bug’s life as a human. Later, his parents, who were feeble while Gregor supported him, suddenly take on jobs and become healthier once they realize Gregor will not recover. No one bothers to spend time with Gregor, because they did not have a close relationship with him to begin with. Gregor was constantly away, so they depended on him and took advantage of him. Gregor feels affection for his sister and wants to send her to school, but he eventually comes to realize that she does not truly reciprocate that affection.

Gregor is Kafka’s warning. By depicting Gregor with a human mind inside a bug’s body, Kafka reveals the consequences of not facing reality and of alienating oneself.

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