Part 1, Division 1: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3770

Summary

Although The Metamorphosis falls neatly into three parts, for the purposes of our discussion, we will divide the work itself into six parts. Part 1, division 1, covers the action of the story from early morning to the chief clerk’s discovery of Gregor Samsa.

When Gregor Samsa awakes one...

(The entire section contains 3770 words.)

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Summary

Although The Metamorphosis falls neatly into three parts, for the purposes of our discussion, we will divide the work itself into six parts. Part 1, division 1, covers the action of the story from early morning to the chief clerk’s discovery of Gregor Samsa.

When Gregor Samsa awakes one misty, rainy morning in his bed, he is astonished to learn that he has been changed into a gigantic insect. He looks around his room and sees all the familiar sights and objects of his former life as a traveling salesman—the sample cloths laid out on his table, his writing desk and chest, the ticking alarm clock, the picture of the woman clothed in furs on the wall that he had cut out of a magazine and framed—and comes to the conclusion that he must have been dreaming. When he tries to move around in his bed and over onto his right side, he discovers that what has happened to him is, after all, no dream and that he is indeed a huge insect, with all the physical characteristics of an insect—a hard back, dome-like belly, and numerous legs.

Outside, as the rain beats down on his windowpane, Gregor’s thoughts turn to his job and to the nature of his work as a salesman. Nevertheless, he is resolved to leave his job one day when he has saved enough money and paid off his parents’ personal debts to the chief of the company.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away, and Gregor becomes more anxious, fearful, and worried since he is now already more than an hour late for work. His anxious parents call out to him through his locked door to find out why he hasn’t opened his door and come out for his breakfast. As Gregor decides upon a course of action and how best to leave his bed without injuring himself or making too much noise, the chief clerk of his office arrives to find out why Gregor hasn’t reported for work that morning. Gregor fears this man as much as he fears the chief himself, and when he hears the chief clerk’s voice on the other side of his door, his anxiety rises.

Mr. Samsa knocks on Gregor’s door, and then Grete calls to him, wanting to know if he’s all right and whether or not he needs anything. When Gregor does finally force himself off the bed, he lands on the floor with a crash loud enough to be heard in the next room. The chief clerk reacts with some alarm and then addresses Gregor rather harshly, telling him his work has been less than satisfactory and that his job is in jeopardy. Gregor weakly responds that he has been ill. He defends his work and service to the company and assures the chief clerk that he is now all right and will be coming out shortly.

When Gregor still doesn’t emerge from his room, his parents send Grete and the servant girl, Anna, for the doctor and the locksmith. Resolved to leave his room, since he is now convinced that his family and the chief clerk think there is something wrong with him, Gregor struggles to turn the key in his locked bedroom door, but the effort takes all his strength, persistence, and cunning. He can only manage to turn the key with his teeth, but after a while, he succeeds in opening the door. The chief clerk is the first to see Gregor as he emerges from his room.

Analysis

Since its publication in 1915, The Metamorphosis has intrigued, troubled, puzzled, astonished, and mystified readers. Part of its universal appeal lies in its very subject matter—a conflicted family that must learn to deal with a strange occurrence within the family. On one level, it is the story about an exploited grown son’s refusal to work and to support his family, to take refuge from the world within the four walls of his room, and to revert back to the almost infantile stage of human development, where his family must now care for him. However, such a reading of the story trivializes its themes and reduces the work in its complexity and content. Kafka’s method, that of fusing ordinary, everyday events with the fantastic and absurd—a method that has its roots in German literature—forces the reader to reread his works in an attempt to penetrate the core of their meaning and to struggle, like his heroes, through the intricate maze of his world to “see the truth.”

The French novelist Albert Camus said, “The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.” Thus, the reader, of necessity, is forced to return again and again to Kafka. For just as the shifting and changing angle of light in the Samsa apartment creates new moods and tones within the story, so, too, does Kafka’s use of symbols and his deceptively simple prose style force us to reenter, reconsider, and reinterpret the characters and events in his stories if we are to gain an understanding of his art.

The Metamorphosis is divided into three parts of roughly equal length. Each part ends with a crisis in the hero’s life, each catastrophe more terrible than the preceding one. This classical division of the story into “three acts,” so to speak, allows the action, tension, and conflicts to rise to their tragic climax. Further, all three parts are thematically related: the first part ends with the physical injuries, humiliation, and weakening of Gregor’s body; the second part concludes with a more serious and life-threatening injury—the embedded apple in Gregor’s back—and further disgrace and humiliation; and the final part climaxes with Gregor’s death after a long, lingering illness.

In this respect, the structure of The Metamorphosis follows the outlines of classical or Greek tragedy, where we often see the protagonist waging a battle for survival against impossible odds, only to perish at the end. Like Oedipus, who leaves his once ravished city of Thebes restored to health after his punishment and exile, Gregor’s death enables his family to return to a normal, natural life after his self-sacrifice.

While many critics claim that only the text itself has worth when examining an author’s work, and that any external influences, such as the author’s life, are irrelevant to an understanding and appreciation of that text, it is important to mention Kafka’s autobiographical Letter to His Father in any discussion of The Metamorphosis. While this very personal document was written seven years after The Metamorphosis, it is revealing and compelling evidence of the many childhood grievances Kafka held against his father well into adulthood. Near the end of the letter, Kafka takes on his father’s voice, allowing him to defend himself against his son’s accusations: “I admit we fight each other, but there are two kinds of fight. There is the chivalrous fight, where two independent opponents test their strength against each other, each stands on his own, loses for himself, wins for himself. And there is the fight of the vermin, which not only bite but at the same time suck the blood on which they live.”

There is more than a striking parallel in the way Kafka’s repressed emotions and inner thoughts surface in this scathing Letter to His Father and the way Gregor, the verminous insect, reveals his personality and his very private thoughts to the reader after his transformation. Indeed, the entire story may be read and understood as the unmasking of Gregor’s ambivalent and conflicted feelings toward his father, and his futile attempts to win his father’s love and to settle accounts with him once and for all. As the dutiful, hardworking son, Kafka could not do this, but as a repellent insect, Gregor Samsa can vent his feelings and express his rage and the bile that has been stored up in his heart for so long.

We know that Kafka fought a life-long battle for his father’s approval and that as a child, adolescent, and even as an adult, his father made him feel insignificant and worthless, like “vermin.” The picture that Kafka draws of his father in Letter to His Father is of a brutish man who often ruled the household like a tyrannical bully. Coarse and self-centered, Hermann Kafka seized every opportunity to belittle his son’s achievements, accomplishments, and attempts at literature. And while it’s true that there is much in Kafka’s Letter to His Father that is exaggerated, it is also safe to say that the many psychological and emotional indignities and wounds inflicted on Kafka’s psyche as a child by his father found their way into the son’s fiction and were projected onto his story of the bloodsucking, parasitic son in The Metamorphosis.

From the very famous opening sentence, when Gregor Samsa wakes to learn that he has been changed into a “gigantic insect,” the reader must suspend their disbelief and enter Gregor’s world, accepting what has happened to Gregor as readily as they accept the fact that the rain is falling outside the Samsas’ apartment. Kafka does not explain how Gregor’s metamorphosis has come about, and he gives us no clues. Gregor is not hallucinating, and his imagination is not playing tricks on him either. The metamorphosis simply happens, and given the way the story naturally unfolds, it seems as natural and as logical as if Gregor had awakened with a terrible migraine headache or throbbing toothache.

Gregor himself seems, after the initial shock, least troubled by what has happened to him. Soon after he surveys his familiar room, his thoughts immediately turn to his work as a traveling salesman. “Oh, God,” he thinks, “what an exhausting job I’ve picked on! Traveling about day in, day out.” His anxiety and fear are not rooted in his sudden transformation, but are centered around his job and the chief clerk! Gregor’s “uneasy dreams,” the “faint, dull ache,” he experiences in his side, “something he had never felt before,” his “melancholy” when he turns his head toward the window and sees “the overcast sky,” the “small aches and pains” he often felt when lying in bed and that proved to be “purely imaginary” when he got up, the “severe chill” and “change in his voice” can all be regarded as symptoms of his illness before his metamorphosis and directly related to his life as a traveling salesman, but they do not account for his abrupt transformation. These physical details about Gregor’s condition are interesting because they point to one of the major themes of the story—the gradual disintegration and decay of a living organism in the midst of his family’s complacent well-being.

The painstaking detail Kafka uses to describe Gregor’s room and the Samsa apartment in general contrasts with the everyday, banal levels of existence with Gregor’s own fantastic life.

Gregor’s room, though small, is clean and neat in the beginning of the story, and everything is in its place. We learn that it contains many things that Gregor has lived with for years—his bed, a chest, a ticking alarm clock, a table that holds his cloth samples, the window that looks onto the narrow street and gives onto a hospital, the gilt-framed picture of the woman he had snipped out of a magazine, and a sofa, which is mentioned later in part 2.

These familiar objects establish Gregor’s human existence before his metamorphosis, and they take on greater importance later on in the story when some pieces of furniture are removed from his room, leaving it virtually empty and making his loneliness and isolation from his family and the human community that much more acute and painful.

Early on in part 1, Gregor begins to think of his life as a traveling salesman, a theme that is taken up again in the latter part of part 1. It is a demanding job that Gregor hates. The constant traveling causes him any number of worries and irritations, and we learn that if not for his parents’ debts owed to the chief of the firm and the fact that Gregor has to support his family after his father’s business failed five years before, he would have quit long ago. It is a job done out of necessity to keep his family together, but it is nevertheless done grudgingly and unlovingly. It inspires Gregor’s hatred and fear, turning him into the family’s reluctant breadwinner. Nevertheless, Gregor still hopes that in another five or six years he will have saved enough money to leave his job, settle his parents’ debts, and start a new life.

The theme of family responsibility is at the heart of the story. Gregor’s responsibilities and obligations to his family are clearly outlined. Not only does he feel the immense weight of these responsibilities and obligations to his family, but his job has produced strange physical symptoms in him as well, symptoms that may have contributed to his “presentiment,” his feeling that something was going to happen to him.

Since his family is totally dependent on his salary for their very survival, Gregor must respond to the alarm clock without fail. He must not shirk his duties to his firm or family, appear to be listless or lazy, or show up late for his job. He must carry out his obligations like a good, obedient soldier performing his duties.

As Gregor thinks about the time in the future when he will be able to leave his job, he is instantly aware that he is already very late for work and that he must get up if he is to catch the next train. Gregor’s sense of responsibility is brought home to him when he hears his mother’s gentle voice calling to him from outside his room, and then his father begins to knock on his door. Finally, his sister, Grete, joins in, plaintively asking Gregor if he’s feeling well or if there is anything she can give him. Gregor makes a determined effort to rise from his bed, but the effort to do so proves to be more painful and difficult than he imagines.

While Gregor is thinking about the best way to fling himself off his bed so as not to arouse too much anxiety and terror in the next room, should his parents hear him crash to the floor, the doorbell rings. Gregor instantly stiffens with fear, and he knows that his office has sent someone to his apartment to check up on him. As soon as Gregor hears the visitor’s voice, he knows it’s the chief clerk, a petty bureaucrat from his firm.

Gregor’s thoughts grow dark with foreboding. He seems both humiliated and outraged that the chief had to send the chief clerk himself to inquire about his lateness, and not some apprentice or minor functionary. Is Gregor’s fear of the chief and the chief clerk unfounded and irrational? Kafka makes it clear that Gregor suffers from more apprehension and dread when the chief clerk arrives than he does when he makes the discovery that he is an insect! In five years of service to the firm, Gregor has never missed a day! He has worked hard, brought money into the firm, and fulfilled his responsibilities to the letter, and yet, what he’s most worried about is the office, the chief, and the chief clerk. “What a fate,” he broods, “to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion!”

The stultifying and unrewarding job has condemned Gregor to a death sentence, where the slightest deviation from the rules is looked upon with the most serious consequences by the chief of the office. This theme of the innocent condemned to a fate worse than death is seen in much of Kafka’s work; his novel, The Trial, giving it perhaps its most compelling and comprehensive expression. Gregor Samsa, the good, loyal, and obedient son is being punished for his father’s financial failure in life. He is trapped, unable to free himself from a position imposed upon him by his father’s defeat and insolvency. Like the cornered insect that he has become, Gregor shivers and trembles at the mere sound of the chief clerk’s voice, and that voice is enough to propel him off the bed and onto the floor, where he lands with a “loud thump.”

While acting in the capacity of a messenger boy for the chief, the chief clerk is also one more authority figure that Gregor has to contend with. When Gregor’s father tells the chief clerk that his son is probably not well and that is the only excuse for his son’s not catching the early train, the chief clerk brushes off the excuse by replying that business must be “attended to” and that illness is really no excuse for missing a train. Since Kafka does not describe the chief clerk in any detail, we can only assume that he is a symbol of that world of business and commerce that has “condemned” Gregor to his terrible fate as a salesman. Further, the chief clerk, because of his position in the firm, is another threatening father figure that Gregor must confront, a man who symbolizes the hierarchy of power within the company—Gregor’s superior, a man who literally holds his fate in his hands.

And it is exactly because the chief clerk wields that kind of power over Gregor that he launches into a long diatribe, reminding Gregor of his responsibilities to the firm and impatiently demanding to know why he is worrying his parents by barricading himself inside his room. He asks Gregor for an immediate explanation of his stubborn reluctance to show his face. The chief clerk also informs Gregor that the firm has been unhappy with his work and that there is a good chance that he may be fired.

In defense, Gregor tries to explain that he has suffered a minor setback, some mild indisposition that he felt was coming on, but that he is now quite all right and will be coming out in a few minutes. His speech is incoherent, and in his agitated condition, he begs the chief clerk not to implicate his parents in this whole business. “Oh, sir,” he cries, “do spare my parents.” And he tries to tell him that his reproaches and threats are unwarranted; that, in fact, he has brought in a lot of money and business to the firm. Gregor asks the chief clerk to speak to the chief about him and to reassure him that he will be reporting for work very shortly.

Fearing that Gregor is very sick, Mrs. Samsa sends Grete to fetch the doctor, while Mr. Samsa, equally disturbed by Gregor’s strange behavior, orders the servant girl, Anna, to get the locksmith. The chief clerk, in the midst of all this confusion and panic, remarks of Gregor’s voice, “That was no human voice”—a jarring note that at once suggests the extremity of the situation for Gregor’s parents and heightens the suspense of the story by exposing Gregor’s inhumanity to the social community.

At this point, the reader is made fully aware of Gregor’s terrible plight. He is unable to establish human contact through language with the outside world. His voice sounds unnatural, even bizarre and grotesque and shockingly inhuman to the chief clerk.

Throughout the story, we see Gregor struggling toward two contradictory goals: complete and total withdrawal and isolation brought about by his own metamorphosis and his need to be understood and loved by his family, coupled with a desire to be part of the human community. This tug of war in his heart also expresses the ambivalence he feels in his heart. It is poignantly dramatized when Gregor speaks and realizes that although his words are “no longer understandable,” his parents now recognize that there is something very seriously wrong with him and are making preparations to help him. “He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle, and hoped for great and remarkable results from both doctor and locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them.”

The doctor and the locksmith are both seen as Gregor’s saviors, the doctor because he heals the sick and the locksmith because he has the tools to free Gregor from his imprisonment, that is, his room. That Gregor can still hope for “salvation” from the outside world means that he sees a way out of his predicament. His desire to rejoin his family again and to return to his job tells us that he has not yet fully resigned himself to his insect life, that once help arrives he will be “saved” and his former life restored to him. This is ironic, for on one hand, Gregor loathes his job and hopes to leave it one day, and on the other hand, he cries out to be helped, rescued, and saved—to be returned to his normal, mundane life as a salesman.

Because of this apparent contradiction, some critics believe that Gregor’s metamorphosis is nothing more than his fantasy to free himself from his boring life as a salesman and to retreat from the world, with all its cares and troubles, into his own cocoon where he forces the world to take notice of him (the chief and the chief clerk obviously take him for granted). It is from this cocoon that he can safely denounce that world by venting his innermost thoughts and feelings; something, of course, he cannot do as a salesman or as the obedient son providing for his family. This interpretation would be fine if Gregor awoke from his fantasy, but the events in the story do not support it. In fact, the plot builds away from that interpretation through every incident and scene of the story. Rather than awaken from his fantasy-nightmare, Gregor plunges deeper and deeper into it, sealing his fate and forever changing the lives of his family.

Once Gregor opens the door and reveals himself to his parents and to the chief clerk in order to find out what they think of him, all his hopes for a successful resolution to his situation fade. Appalled and shocked, the chief clerk rears back in fear and horror when he sees Gregor.

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Part 1, Division 2: Summary and Analysis