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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

See also Franz Kafka Short Story Criticism and "A Hunger Artist" Criticism.

The Metamorphosis is one of the most frequently analyzed works in literature. This elusive story, which chronicles the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a human being into an enormous insect, is renowned...

(The entire section contains 81346 words.)

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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


See also Franz Kafka Short Story Criticism and "A Hunger Artist" Criticism.

The Metamorphosis is one of the most frequently analyzed works in literature. This elusive story, which chronicles the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a human being into an enormous insect, is renowned for its ability to inspire diverse, sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations. For this reason The Metamorphosis has come to be considered one of the central enigmas of the modern literary imagination. Nevertheless, critics generally praise Kafka's powerful and symbolic portrayal of alienation achieved through the literalized metaphor of man as insect.

Plot and Major Characters


The Metamorphosis opens as Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes to find himself transformed into a “monstrous vermin.” Initially shocked by the change, Gregor soon begins to worry that he will miss his train and be late for work. He also laments the boredom of his job, employment to which he had resigned himself for as long as necessary to pay off his parents’ debts. From outside the room, Gregor’s worried mother calls to him. Gregor, unfamiliar with his new body, struggles to get out of bed. Later, the chief clerk of his office appears outside the locked door to Gregor’s room, inquiring why his employee has missed the early train. Speaking through the door, Gregor claims that he is slightly ill but will soon be on his way. Meanwhile, Gregor’s concerned mother asks her daughter, Grete, to call for a doctor and a locksmith. Finally Gregor manages to open his door. His appearance startles the chief clerk, and although Gregor tries to reason with him, claiming he will get dressed and be on his way to work, the clerk retreats from the giant insect, as does Gregor’s frightened mother. Gregor’s father then appears and drives Gregor back into his room.


Time passes, and Gregor’s family members grow more accustomed to living with Gregor in this strange form, though only Grete has the courage to enter her brother’s room in the ensuing days. When Gregor leaves his room weeks later, his mother becomes distraught, and her husband forces Gregor to his room under a hail of thrown apples. Gravely injured and largely unable to move, Gregor suffers a lonely convalescence that lasts for more than a month. In the interim Gregor’s mother devotes herself to sewing while his sister takes a job as a salesgirl. Increasingly, Gregor is neglected by his family. They hire a charwoman to attend to the heavier work around the house, tasks that used to be performed by Gregor. Odds and ends are placed in his room for storage, primarily to make space for three male lodgers the Samsas have taken in to supplement their income. One evening as Grete plays the violin for these men, Gregor is attracted by the music and crawls unnoticed into the living room. Later, one of the boarders observes him. Citing the revolting condition of the household, the lodgers threaten to give notice and depart. Grete realizes that they must get rid of this giant bug, which she seems to no longer view as her brother. The following morning, the charwoman enters Gregor’s room and finds him dead. When the lodgers appear and demand breakfast, Mr. Samsa orders them to leave. Meanwhile, the giggling charwoman returns and explains that she has disposed of Gregor’s body. The story closes as Gregor’s parents, newly optimistic for the future and without a thought of their deceased son, comment on their daughter's vivacity and beauty, realizing she has grown into a woman.

Major Themes


Thematic analysis of The Metamorphosis has tended to focus on the psychoanalytic and symbolic, or allegorical, nature of the story. While evaluations of the narrative vary, many commentators view the theme of alienation from humanity at the center of the story and interpret Gregor’s transformation as a kind of wish fulfillment or as an extended metaphor. Critics who perceive the metamorphosis as a form of wish fulfillment on Gregor’s part find in the text clues indicating that he deeply resented having to support his family. Desiring to be in turn nurtured by them, he becomes a parasite in entomological fact. The complete dependence of Gregor’s family and employer on him, then, is seen as an ironic foil to the reality of Gregor’s anatomical transformation into a parasite. Many critics who approach the story in this way believe the primary emphasis of The Metamorphosis is not upon Gregor, but on his family, as they abandon their dependence on him and learn to be self-sufficient. One interpretation of the story holds that the title applies equally to Gregor’s sister, Grete: she passes from girlhood to young womanhood during the course of the narrative. Another view of Gregor’s transformation is that it is an extended metaphor, carried from abstract concept to concrete reality: trapped in a meaningless job and isolated from the human beings around him, Gregor is thought of as an insect by himself and by others, so he becomes one.


Critical Reception


Kafka's letters to his fiancée Felice Bauer, and his diary entries concerning The Metamorphosis, indicate that although he was generally satisfied with the tale, he felt the ending was seriously flawed. For this he blamed a business trip that had interrupted him just before he completed the story. However, critics have noted that The Metamorphosis is one of the few works for which Kafka actively sought publication. Since Kafka’s death, critical interest in the novella has been considerable. In addition to the attention critics have placed on thematic analysis of The Metamorphosis, several have observed its sustained realism, which contrasts with the initially fantastic occurrence of Gregor’s transformation into an insect. Many critics have also offered psychoanalytical interpretations of The Metamorphosis, seeing in the work a dramatization of particularly modern neuroses. For its technical excellence, as well as for the nightmarish and fascinating nature of the metamorphosis itself, Kafka’s story has elicited a vast amount of interest, and its various problematic features continue to challenge its readers. Stanley Corngold has noted that “no single reading of Kafka escapes blindness” but that each new reading of his work encourages the study of the vast body of criticism devoted to it.

Norman N. Holland (essay date 1958)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3664

SOURCE: "Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1958, pp. 143-50.

[In the following essay, Holland examines Kafka's attribution of spiritual value to realistic elements in "The Metamorphosis," claiming "the realistic details of the story are fraught with significance."]

In allegory, symbolism, and surrealism—the three genres are in this respect, at least, indistinguishable—the writer mixes unrealistic elements into a realistic situation. Thus, Kafka, in Metamorphosis, puts into the realistic, prosaic environment of the Samsa household a situation that is, to put it mildly, unrealistic: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin." Kafka's strategy does not in essence differ from the techniques of Spenser and Bunyan: though they used for the unreal elements allegorical names, they, too, set them in realistic or conventional situations. Kafka's method, while rather more overpowering, works the same way: the unreal elements, be they allegorical names or human cockroaches, set up a kind of electric field; the most trite and prosaic detail brought into that field glows with extra meaning. To read allegory is simply to "probe" this field of meaning. We can probe it only if we momentarily put aside the unreality which creates the field and measure the extra values given the realistic elements. By reading them imaginatively, we can understand the nature of the field; only then can we turn back to and understand the unreal element that created the field.

If we look first at the unrealistic elements, there is a danger that we will be dazzled and see no more, as in the usual crude reading of Metamorphosis: Samsa is a cockroach, Samsa equals Kafka, Kafka thinks of himself as cockroach, and so on. Reading Kafka that way is like seeing The Faerie Queene as a moralistic tract about temperance or Justice without realizing the rich, plastic meanings Spenser's realism develops for his allegorical names. Looking first at the realistic elements and their extra values avoids a second danger in reading allegory: substituting abstractions for the realism of the story. Kafka's meaning, as Mr. Elíseo Vivas points out, "is something not to be better stated abstractly in terms of ideas and concepts, to be found beyond the fable, but within it, at the dramatic level, in the interrelationships . . . among the characters and between them and the universe."

If, momentarily, we put aside the unreality of Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis, we can see that the story builds on a commonplace, even a trite, situation: a man feels sick and decides to stay home from work. For fully the first sixth of the story Gregor goes through exactly the kind of internal monologue any of us might if we had caught a discomforting, but not disabling, cold. "Nothing is more degrading than always to have to rise so early." "How would it be if I go to sleep again for awhile?" "I'd like to see what my boss would say if I tried it; I should be sacked immediately." "What a job I've chosen . . . To hell with it all!" Job, employer, and employee are the core of the realism of Metamorphosis', not unnaturally, they form the heart of the allegory as well.

Metamorphosis has three parts, each marked by Gregor's emerging from his bedroom into the Samsa's dining-room and then retreating. The first part of the story tells of Gregor's metamorphosis and of his job. In the second part, Gregor's father goes back to work for the first time since the failure of his own business five years before. In the third part, Gregor's mother and sister go to work, although Gregor had hoped to send his sister to the conservatory, and the family takes in three lodgers, employers, as it were, in the home. After Gregor's death, in the third part, the lodgers are thrown out, and the Samsas write three letters of excuse to their three employers, and take the day off. Only by reading imaginatively the passages that deal with employers, employees, and jobs, can we see the extra meaning Gregor's metamorphosis gives to these elements.

Gregor, a traveling salesman who sells cloth, says of his boss: "That's a funny thing; to sit on a desk so as to speak to one's employees from such a height, especially when one is hard of hearing and people must come close! Still, all hope is not lost; once I have got together the money my parents owe him—that will be in about five or six years—I shall certainly do it. Then I'll take the big step!" Gregor muses about the firm:

Why was Gregor, particularly, condemned to work for a firm where the worst was suspected at the slightest inadvertence of the employees? Were the employees, without exception, all scoundrels? Was there among their number not one devoted faithful servant, who, if it did so happen that by chance he missed a few hours work one morning might have found himself so numbed with remorse that he just could not leave his bed?

After Gregor's metamorphosis, his father goes to work for a bank. "By some capricious obstinacy, [he] always refused to take off his uniform even at home . . . as if to keep himself always ready to carry out some order; even in his own home, he seemed to await his superior's voice." Gregor's mother "was killing herself mending the linen of strangers, the sister ran here and there behind her counter at the customers' bidding."

The three lodgers whom the family takes in "were very earnest and serious men; all three had thick beards . . . and they were fanatically tidy; they insisted on order, not only in their own room, but also, now that they were living here, throughout the whole household, and especially in the kitchen." Gregor's mother brings them a plate of meat in the dining room. "The lodgers leaned over it to examine it, and the one who was seated in the middle and who appeared to have some authority over the others, cut a piece of meat as it lay on the dish to ascertain whether it was tender or whether he should send it back to the kitchen. He seemed satisfied, however, and the two women, who had been anxiously watching, gave each other a smile of relief."

These descriptions are ambiguous, even cryptic—but not in themselves unrealistic; the pallor of unreality is cast by the impossible metamorphosis always present to our minds. The description of Gregor's boss has breadth enough to apply not just to a petty office tyrant, but even to an Old Testament God. Indeed, the reference to the high desk echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the God "most high" who yet can "hear" us: "Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly" (Ps. 138:6); "The Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Is. 59:1-2). Read this way, the debt that Gregor assumed for his parents and must pay resembles original sin. Only after he has expiated the sin-debt can he "take the big step" toward freedom.

The description of the "firm," with its atmosphere of universal guilt and punishment, also hints at original sin: "A faithful man who can find?" (Prov. 20:6). Gregor and his fellow-workers are treated like the evil servant whose lord "shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 24:50-51). Gregor is indeed cut off from men; he gets his "portion" of garbage from his hypocritical family, and one evening when he eavesdrops on the three lodgers eating: "It seemed curious to Gregor that he could hear the gnashing of their teeth above all the clatter of cutlery." The lodgers themselves, "very earnest and serious," "fanatically tidy," resemble gods. Frau Samsa's submitting a plate of meat to them is almost like making a burnt offering to some very choosy deities:

"Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me" (Jer. 6:20).

The fact that employers come in threes after the metamorphosis hints at a shift from Old Testament to New like that of "In the Penal Colony"; more immediately, however, it suggests that each member of the family has to take up a share of the burden of subservience that Gregor had borne alone before. Thus, Gregor had proudly brought home cash as a traveling salesman for a cloth concern. His job is now broken into its separate components. His father goes to work for a bank: he now wears the special clothes and acquires Gregor's pride in supporting the family. His mother deals with the cloth, "the linen of strangers." His sister "ran here and there." The fact that there are three lodgers suggests that there is a "god" for each member of the family. The one in the middle, the most important one, corresponds to Gregor's father.

Space does not permit a full development of all the realistic elements in Metamorphosis that Gregor's predicament has charged with extra, non-realistic meaning. In every case, however, the same procedure would apply: an imaginative reading of the passages dealing with a particular "realistic" detail. In the few passages I have already quoted, some of these elements emerge. Employers are like gods. Money suggests psychic resources; debts suggest psychic deficits or guilt. Traveling—not only Gregor's normal occupation, but even after his metamorphosis, he learns "to distract himself by walking"—suggests the need to serve an employer, an escape from freedom (sitting still) for homo viator. Cloth and clothing are the badges of subservience; it is only in states of nightdress or undress that the inner self can emerge.

Other passages would show many more realistic elements with significance beyond mere physical reality. Food, for example, suggests devotion-reverent offerings demanded by lodgers or communion with one's equals. All the family intercourse of the Samsas seems to take place in the dining room. "Breakfast was the most important meal of the day," because it was the transition from bed, one's private life, to employment. The outdoors, the place where one goes to work, where one travels and wears formal clothing, belongs to the employers. Gregor himself sees his problem as that of getting out of bed: "He would dress, and above all, he would have breakfast; then would come the time to reflect, for he felt that it was not in bed that a reasonable solution could be found. He recalled how often an unusual position adopted in bed had resulted in slight pains which proved imaginary as soon as he arose."

The trifid division of the locale into bedroom (private self), dining room (personal relationships), and outdoors (obligations) hints at that other division into id, ego, and superego. The rooms correspond to areas of experience, the whole apartment upstairs to life on earth and the outdoors downstairs to heaven, with "some unearthly deliverance . . . at the foot of the stairs." Locks and doors, then, symbolize the barriers between these areas of experience. Normally, we break down such barriers by speech, but Gregor can no longer speak intelligibly: he can, however, twist open the lock to his bedroom with his mouth. Locks also symbolize Gregor's imprisonment in the body of an insect. Thus, at first, "without differentiating between them, he hoped for great and surprising things from the locksmith and the doctor."

Once understood, Kafka's method is quite straightforward. In every case, he has charged a specific realistic element of the story with a specific non-realistic or spiritual value. Having understood the method and some of the values created in this field of meaning, one can go on to understand the non-realistic element that creates the field. If, in every case, Kafka converts a spiritual concept down to a physical fact, then the transformation of Gregor to dung-beetle, of man to animal, must stand for the transformation of god to man, and, indeed, Kafka has given Gregor a number of Christ-like attributes. At the opening of the story, Gregor had taken on the responsibility of working for the whole family—in particular, he had taken on his parents' debts (guilt or original sin). His metamorphosis takes place around Christmas; he remains a bug for three months and dies at the end of March. What finally kills Gregor is an apple thrown by his father, the apple, presumably, of Eden and mortality. "One lightly-thrown apple struck Gregor's back and fell off without doing any harm, but the next one literally pierced his flesh [sic]. He tried to drag himself a little further away, as if a change of position could relieve the shattering agony he suddenly felt, but he seemed to be nailed fast to the spot."

Gregor becomes weaker and weaker until he dies. The account of his death parallels the Biblical accounts of Christ's death:

He lay in this state of peaceful and empty meditation till the clock struck the third morning hour. He saw the landscape grow lighter through the window.

He realized that he must go. . . . Against his will, his head fell forward and his last feeble breath streamed from his nostrils [sic].

The charwoman arrived early in the morning—and though she had often been forbidden to do so, she always slammed the door so loudly in her vigor and haste that once she was in the house it was impossible to get any sleep.

. . . . .

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour (Matt. 27:45).

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were accomplished that the scripture might be fulfilled . . . said, It is finished: and He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost (John 19:28-30).

Behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose (Matt. 27:51-52).

The Samsas arise from their beds and learn of Gregor's death; they cross themselves. "Well," says Herr Samsa, "we can thank God for that!" The charwoman, "gigantic . . . with bony features and white hair, which stood up all around her head," wearing a "little ostrich feather which stood upright on her hat," which "now waved lightly in all directions," describes Gregor as "absolutely dead as a doornail," "stone dead." "The angel of the Lord," says Matthew, "descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow." "He is not here: for he is risen," becomes another kind of divine comedy: "'Well, . . .' she replied, and she laughed so much she could hardly speak for some while. 'Well, you needn't worry about getting rid of that thing in there, I have fixed it already.'"

One question, however, remains: why a cockroach? Several critics have pointed out Metamorphosis's descent from the "loathly lady" genre of medieval tales, in which, as in "Beauty and the Beast," someone is transformed into a loathsome animal and can be transformed back only by love. Love, in other words, is tested by disgust, and in Metamorphosis, love is found lacking. In at least one such tale which Kafka probably knew, Flaubert's "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller," the loathsome creature turns out to be Christ. Kafka, however, could have used any loathsome animal, a toad, a snake, a spider: why a cockroach? The German word is Mistkaefer, applied to Gregor only once—by the charwoman. Technically, the word means a dung-beetle, not a cockroach, and the distinction is important. For one thing, biologically, a cockroach undergoes only a partial metamorphosis, while the beetles go through a total metamorphosis. More important, dung beetles are scarabs. "The Egyptian scarab," says the redoubtable Britannica, "is an image of the sacred dungbeetle . . . which was venerated as a type of the sun-god. Probably the ball of dung, which is rolled along by the beetle in order to place its eggs in it, was regarded as an image of the sun in its course across the heavens, which may have been conceived as a mighty ball rolled by a gigantic beetle." Gregor, we should remember was a travelling salesman; a collection of samples was "entrusted" to him. Samson (Samsa) means in Hebrew "the sun's man." In German, the title of the story, Die Verwandlung, like the hieroglyphic beetle-sign, means either an insect's metamorphosis or transformation in a general sense. Die Verwandlung, moreover, is the normal word for transubstantiation. The dung-beetle, then, was the one animal that gave Kafka everything he needed: total metamorphosis from a wingless grub to a hard-working, traveling-salesman-like adult plus the combination of loathsomeness and divinity.

Samson's sacrifice is a traditional analogue to Christ's; in German he is called a Judenchrist. Gregor's first name means "vigilant," and so he was when he supported his family. When he is a dim-sighted scarab, though, his first name makes an ironic contrast to his last: Samson was blinded. Samsa, like Samson, rid the chosen people (his family) of the domineering Philistines (the lodgers who didn't like the sister's music) by his own self-destruction, his wished-for death. Gregor, at one point, longs to climb up on his sister's shoulder and kiss her neck; in general, Gregor has a great many incestuous impulses. In this context, his name echoes the medieval legend of Pope Gregory, who in expiating his incestuous birth and marriage became the holiest man in Christendom: chained to a barren rock for seventeen years, the legend says he became an ugly little hedgehog-like creature.

Gregory-Gregor's situation strongly resembles that prophesied by Isaiah: "His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men . . . he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities" (Is. 52:14-53:5). In fact, a good deal of the incidental imagery of Metamorphosis was derived from Isaiah. For example, the statement that Gregor's sister had worn on her neck "neither collar nor ribbon ever since she had been working in the shop," corresponds to, "Loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion" (52:2). The details of Gregor's death are taken from the Passion, and the whole allegorical scheme of employers as gods and money as spiritual resources probably came from the various New Testament parables of lords, stewards, and "talents."

In a crude sense, then, Metamorphosis satirizes Christians, who are only distressed, angry, and, ultimately, cruel when a second Christ appears. They take gods in times of trouble, even into their own homes, then throw them out when the trouble ends. After Gregor's death, a butcher's boy comes up the stairs, meeting and passing the evicted lodger-gods going down the stairs. Priest-like, he brings the meat that the Samsas will eat themselves, suggesting communion, as opposed to the burnt offerings they had formerly made to the lodgers. At one level, Kafka is parodying Christ's sacrifice, but a merely theological account of the story is far from complete. It neglects the rich sexual symbolism, the double doors, for example, through which Gregor must pass (a birth image) or the phallic symbols associated with his father: indeed, at one point Herr Samsa is described in terms rather more appropriate to a phallus. Kafka is reaching for more than theological allegory.

At the risk of being trite, I would like to suggest that Gregor's transformation dramatizes the human predicament. That is, we are all blind, like Samson, trapped between a set of dark instinctual urges on one hand and an obscure drive to serve "gods" on the other. Like dung-beetles, our lives are defined by the urge to mate and the urge to labor that comes from it. Our only freedom is not to know we are imprisoned. Metamorphosis represents abstractions physically and charges physical realities with spiritual significance. Gregor's physical transformation, then, stands for a spiritual transformation. Gregor is a dung-beetle means he is spiritually like one. His back, "hard as armor plate," dramatizes and substitutes for his awareness of this human predicament. Similarly, his metamorphosis forces his family to a reluctant awareness of this imprisonment: again, the physical events of the story, taking jobs, for example, dramatize and substitute for the awareness itself. Finally, Gregor's metamorphosis forces the reader to an awareness of the cage of id and superego. The reader, so long as he believes in the metamorphosis, by its very unreality is driven to see the realities, Biblical and Freudian, hiding behind the ordinary reality of the story.

The first part of Metamorphosis forces this understanding on us, but the ending whimsically urges on us the virtues of ignorance. As Gregor's sister says, "You must get the idea out of your head that this is Gregor. We have believed that for too long, and that is the cause of all our unhappiness. How could it be Gregor?" That is, so long as we believe in Gregor's metamorphosis, the realistic details of the story are fraught with significance. If we can forget Gregor's predicament and ours, we can relapse into blissful ignorance. To read Metamorphosis, one must put aside the "unreal" metamorphosis momentarily; the trouble with the Samsas is that they put it aside forever.

Peter Dow Webster (essay date 1959)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6071

SOURCE: "Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' as Death and Resurrection Fantasy," in The American Imago, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1959, pp. 349-65.

[In the following essay, Webster offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of The Metamorphosis as a tale of death and redemption.]



Kafka's Metamorphosis has fascinated many readers who respond to it on an unconscious level of apprehension rather than on a level of conscious understanding. The tale is as weird as many a nightmare they have had, and as strangely, even humorously disturbing. Here are the eternal ones of the dream or the archetypal constructs of the unconscious subjected to the secondary elaboration and conscious control of the artistic mind. Although most readers feel the import of these characters vaguely, many prefer not to know their total meaning too clearly because of the anxiety involved in facing even artistically created reality, and the revelations of art, like those from the unconscious itself, do challenge and sometimes destroy the frontier defenses of the ego.

Even Kafka himself took care not to examine too closely his dreams, though a man of his religious training must have heard the aphorism, "A dream not understood is like a letter unopened." It is impossible to say whether or not he consciously refused understanding of his multifarious dream-life, but he was certainly fascinated by it. Because of his refusal or maybe his ego's fear of a total invasion of the unconscious, he continued to pay throughout his life for a deep-seated destructive urge against the mother image and an equally strong desire to possess or to be possessed by this archetypal image. What Kafka presumed, or at least claimed, to be detestation, originating in fear, of the father was merely or primarily a masochistic attachment to the denying mother, whom he strove to displace in his creative work as artist. What he thought was a cause was an effect. In his ego he felt like an unclean pest, and it is to the dung beetle that his ego is reduced in Metamorphosis.

This fantasy of twenty-three thousand words is neither a case history of a traumatic experience, nor yet a simple initiation romance, though both of these elements are present. Metamorphosis is misleading as a title; it should be pluralized since the whole family constellation, father, mother, and sister imagos, are equally transformed in the intrapsychic action. The drama as a whole is merely activated by this upwelling into the conscious of the infantile fantasy introject of the beloved and hated maternal imago, which occurred when the hero was five years of age. This initial conversion of the hero into the image of the dung beetle is followed by the inward discharge or abreaction of the castration fantasy, with progressive release of the oral and anal fixations or cathexes, until a total phallic libido is achieved, as symbolized in the three priapic gentlemen, the restoration of the father and mother imagos, and especially the nubility of the emancipated anima, Grete. There is, obviously, the symbolic death of the form into which the hero had metamorphosed himself, but he resurrects in the recathecting of the family constellation. Kafka leaves to the imagination and the understanding of the discerning reader the completion of this intrapsychic romance, knowing that such a reader understands the projection of the ideal personality of Gregor in the teleological image of the officer (Gregor himself) in military uniform, with his hand on his sword, and a carefree smile on his face, inviting one to respect his uniform and his military bearing. Until Gregor as beetle has abreacted the infantile, it is the picture of the earth mother, with a fur cap on and a fur stole to which he clings or by which he is possessed, but when all metamorphoses are complete, and his infantile fixation has been expiated, the mother-sister (or mother-daughter) image is reinvested with phallic libido. Thereafter, the officer projection is the dominant, life-giving reality within the psyche.



As Metamorphosis opens its intrapsychic action, Gregor Samsa, a chronologically mature travelling salesman, finds his ego world flooded by a volcanic explosion of the repressed traumatic experience of the terrible mother and the castrating father. He is, or imagines himself to be, transformed into a huge beetle, an object of consternation to himself, his family constellation, and his superego or employer; he is "so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed." There is a curious condensation of affect in the beetle: in one sense it is a fantasy introject of the hated or castrating father, for it is the father who attacks the son with the symbolic apples; yet the energy impacted in the form of the beetle represents the amount of libido incestuously invested in the maternal imago, for it is the apple which is used for the symbolic castration, and it is the preoedipal (terrible) mother who appears at the end of the story to sweep out the remains of the desiccated beetle into which Gregor Samsa had been metamorphosed. In the concluding scene or movement the father image achieves phallic identity through absorption and dominance of the three cigar-smoking gentlemen, and this genitalized libido transforms the violin-playing Grete into a marriageable young woman. The unconscious is timeless, and apparently incongruous fantasy components coexist in an irrational balance until some strategic maladjustment reactivates the whole inner, repressed content and permits or necessitates the kind of abreaction and progression we find in Metamorphosis.

The psychic problem of such a hero as Gregor Samsa is to redeem through symbolic death that amount of libido impacted in incestuous longing for the mother's breast or womb and the undetermined amount of libido invested in patricidal destrudo. Though Kafka himself as a man failed to accomplish this up to and through his abortive romance with Milena, it is conjecturally possible that he passed the barrier of the Medusa-encirclement in his last year's liaison with Dora Dymant. However neurotic he may have been as judged by extrovert and ideal standards, his inner light kept him true to his artistic purpose, and he consistently repudiated the thousand places of rescue for the one place of salvation. He knew there was only one door for him, and he must have advanced endopsychically far enough to recognize the place of meeting, for all of the familiar symbolic forms of the transformation process appear in the Cathedral Chapter of The Trial. The Garden of Gethsemane is still a lurid experience. The technique by which the pre-oedipal mother is released from her necessary and valuable psychic function of engulfing, strangling, or eating the infant who remains fixated on her breast seems stupidly cruel, and it is crude enough, but she is actually negatively redemptive since the terror she inspires as Sphinx forces the issue and the victim decides a little reluctantly that the possible terrors ahead are at least less obvious than those behind. Gregor's death as desiccated beetle and the disappearance (her work done) of the bony charwoman (with plume) are but two elements, inextricably interwoven, in the pre-oedipal syndrome. Once this terrible phase of the Magna Mater has been energized and discharged (her work done), the benevolent, creative phase is activated, and the mother emerges in her duplicate Grete, who is sister, marriageable woman, and Virgin of Light.

Nor must we be misled by the fact that in the Metamorphosis it is the father image which hisses with the noise of many snakes and seems to be the force driving the beetle back into the symbolic womb. A less sensitive and realistic writer would have simplified the drama in a mechanical way, but Kafka had had plenty of personal experience of what he was writing about. He knew that in the nightmare the symbols and images are often bi-sexual and that emotionalized currents are switched from one dominant imago to its sexual complement. The bull-roarer in initiation is not too different from the Lamia, and the serpent who tempts the woman to sin is but a projection of a man's own inhibited sexuality. Such psychological realism is confusing only to those who have never known the depths of their own being; others read it as a sort of imaginative reminiscence of their own experience; hence the universality of Kafka's appeal.

On one level of his being, Gregor Samsa had preferred his sister Grete to his mother, a more or less normal substitution and yet progression in the psychic evolution of the male. When the Chief Clerk, as employer's representative, arrives on the morning of the metamorphosis, Gregor was sure that if only his sister could have acted for him or explained the situation, the total conflict would have been resolved. For Gregor has failed to catch the train for work or psychic progression, and now the Chief Clerk or superego is about to accuse him of sin. He has had a peculiar love for this violin-playing sister, was fascinated even to the end by her playing, and had even hoped to provide for her musical education at the Conservatory. His train left at five (years) or end of the Oedipal conflict, but here at six-thirty he was till malingering in bed, though a commercial traveller. He has an identity with her and a hope in her which he does not have with either his father or mother. Yet on a deeper level, he is even more involved with the picture he had cut out and framed, of the lady with a fur cap and a fur stole, holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished. He would rather bite his dear sister Grete than to permit her to remove this picture from his room. In fact, in most abject terror, he covers this picture with his whole body as though embracing it in defiance of all the members of his family constellation. This Sphinx maternal imago is the anithesis of the marriageable Grete who appears as the action ends as the prototype of the woman he will marry. The butcher boy coming up the stairs with fresh supplies is the dream symbol which guarantees that though deceased in his infantile form, the psyche as a whole is very much alive; the libido formerly invested as incestuous toward the mother and its concomitant patricidal destrudo are, in fantasy, replaced by the new family constellation.

The castration fantasy thus resolved is a necessary, impersonal drive of the psyche toward wholeness or completion. A week before the actual metamorphosis or reversion to the primary identification with the preoedipal mother, Gregor had cut out of the magazine this picture of the woman in furs and with his own precious knife had made the fretwork frame for it. This symbolic castration appears in the cut finger, the white spots, the wounded trailing foot, and finally in the splintered glass and the corrosive liquid splashed on the face of Gregor when his sister Grete tries to remedy his condition. Grete is no less metamorphosed than Gregor, for instead of remaining the spiritual twin or affinity of Gregor, it is Grete who finally refers to the metamorphosed Gregor as "It", and insists that unless he is disclaimed and rejected the whole family will disintegrate. Here is consummate irony or reversal in a fantasy which though grim is not depressing, for the autoerotic factor involved in the substitution of the sister for the mother is finally transcended in the revitalization of both feminine imagos and the rejuvenescence of the father image.

Grete as daughter fulfills the inner intention of the mother, Mrs. Samsa, just as Persephone duplicated and fulfilled the being of Demeter. Grete even assumes some of the asthmatic symptoms of her mother, who is given to choking for lack of breath, coughing hollowly into her hand, and looking around with a wild expression in her eyes. Such symptoms in the fantasy introject, of course, indicate clearly enough the traumatic terror of the infant denied the breast and projecting onto the mother image his strangling rage with his own impotence. Accordingly, when Grete comes into the room, she rushes to open the window as though she too could not stand the fetid atmosphere, and it is Grete who insists on getting the chest as symbolic womb out of the room (or psyche), or since the representation is by reversal, getting Gregor as beetle out of the womb. Later, when the witch mother with broom and plume (the latter distressing even to Mr. Samsa) has done her work, all the libido formerly invested in her as destrudo is transformed and allocated to Grete, who is now fully dressed, ready for work, without band or collar. There is thus a psychic unity latent in the mother in her consciously accepted form, the woman in furs as infantile fantasy introject, the bony charwoman as preoedipal, destroying mother, and the changing forms of Grete. Such is a typical psychic progression of the anima in man as we know it in the universal symbolism of myth and dreams.



A more detailed analysis of the time and place elements in this fantasy of death and resurrection will clarify the story. The hour-year analogue indicates that Gregor, who awakens thus metamorphosed into a beetle, should have caught the five o'clock train for work as a commercial traveller, that is, a psychic change should have occurred at the normal age of five, when the first awareness of a divided or sinful nature usually appears with the formation of the superego as accuser or inner conscience, in a confusing or distressing form. But here it is, already six-thirty (Gregor is six and a half years old); he has missed the train or psychic energy necessary for progression, and what is more he is unaccountably metamorphosed into a beetle. In fact, the alarm or inner monitor should have sounded at four, but something in the psyche failed to function, and now that he is ready to make the transitus from adolescence to maturity, the repressed fixation of the five-year old boy is activated, the conscious ego is invaded, and Gregor is reduced to the form of the denigrated maternal ego he had introjected as fantasy, probably while he was at his mother's breast. The woman in furs to which he is obsessively devoted is a variant of the cat or Sphinx mother, a constant archetype in all cultures.

As the topography shows, his personal room in this house, which represents the psyche as a whole, is his mother's womb. The chest and the writing table, over which so much anxiety develops, condense or concentrate this womb and the onanistic fantasies associated with such a fixation. To the left opens a door to a room occupied by his father and mother, or more correctly, his infantile fantasy introjects of these imagos. To the right or conscious, progressive side of his room, the life side, is the room occupied by his sister Grete, with whose dressing he is so much concerned because of its symbolic significance. There is a living room to the front, or Freudian preconscious, where as in The Castle, there is traffic between the ego and the unconscious. The kitchen to the rear is the ordinary dream representation of the sources of the libido, where often enough women are preparing food for the renewal of the distressed ego, which is now under the flood or invasion of the basic fantasy introjects of the primary imagos, including the castrating father. It is necessary to remember that with the departure (their work done) of the three priapic gentlemen the butcher boy comes up the stairs (from the unconscious) with new supplies.

An acute sense of anxiety accompanies this metamorphosis; there will not be another train until seven o'clock. In the meantime, the porter will have informed the chief clerk that Gregor has not reported for work, and sure enough, this representative of the employer or superego, immediately arrives to investigate, to accuse, and to threaten. The father has not been able to work for five years; that is, the father has been psychically inactive as invigorating model or type, and the ego alone has been trying to run the household. What will become of this family constellation now that Gregor is reduced to the image of the destroying mother is of great concern. Not all of his father's original or potential capital has been lost; there is still some latent constructive energy in the paternal imago. Gregor, in fact, has been working to pay off his father's debts (or his debts to his father), unaware of this residual capital which does float the family through the misfortune which comes upon them through this metamorphosis of Gregor. The father image moves through the anality of the bank messenger (with his most precious uniform) to the point where it is he who orders the priapic gentlemen to clear out in order that he can take over. In other words, the endopsychic father image is metamorphosed as the original or prototype of Gregor himself. What happens to the father image is happening within the total psyche of Gregor. And likewise, the mother image moves through the successive forms of the Sphinx, the asthmatic mother who receives the smothered cry of the child, the charwoman, to the form in which she is cleansed and released into the expectation of a new life in better surroundings. And Grete is transformed from the onanistic fantasy into the marriageable young woman expectant of a husband.

As Gregor first becomes aware of his breakdown, he knows he is wounded, for there is a series of small white spots on his belly. When he tries to scratch the itching surface, a cold shiver runs through him. His time problem is now to get out of bed at least by 7:15, but when the chief clerk arrives from his employer's office, Gregor's consternation is so great that he tips out of bed, only to discover that the lower part of his body is extremely sensitive. An almost comic displacement of anxiety now occurs when Gregor wonders why a chief clerk instead of a porter should have been sent to alert him, a commercial traveller who had so faithfully performed his duties. The superego, which has direct access to the secrets of the unconscious is always wiretapping, and then reflecting its knowledge in accusing threats and psychosomatic symptoms. Gregor seems to be greatly concerned lest the chief clerk blame his parents for his failure to catch the five-o'clock train and begin to dun his parents for their unpaid debts, which, of course, are Gregor's or the equivalent of his failure to discharge his infantile fixation on the womb and his fear of his father, who must threaten castration in order to assist the ego into a mature appropriation of libido. In the performance of his unpleasant and yet not too unpleasant task, the chief clerk warns Gregor that his work has not been satisfactory of late, that Gregor may lose his position with the firm, and somewhat grimly though humorously implies that Gregor's absence may be due to the payment of certain sums of cash recently to Gregor. The last is the explanation of the debacle; cash represents here available libido to be reinvested in new, mature forms of the family constellation and the new adjustment of Gregor's ego. If there had been no resurgence of libido for a reconstructive effort, there would have been no metamorphosis; a status of repetition-compulsion would have continued, and this story of death and resurrection could not have been written.

But the frightened ego first resorts to a system of rationalized defense, stalling for time to take in the nature of the metamorphosis. Grete, the sister, sobs when Gregor does not open the door, and the chief clerk or superego just will not take the part of Gregor any longer, though Gregor assures him that he will take the eight o'clock train and begs him not to blame his parents. When Gregor himself turns against the chief clerk, his threat is so effective that comically enough the chief clerk retreats involuntarily and somewhat fearfully. Ego is still here. From the floor Gregor tries to lever himself into an upright position by means of the chest or symbolic womb within his room. He makes the services of the locksmith unnecessary by opening the door with his strong jaws. The key, the locksmith, and the jaws thus integrated by condensation reveal the oral origin of the neurotic jam. His mother, her face half-hidden in her breast, falls on the floor, and his father weeps as Gregor stands half in and half out of his room. As the chief clerk backs away from him as though driven by an invisible pressure, his hand clapped on his mouth, we recognize that we have begun to identify quite closely with Gregor in his effort to withstand the conflict. A humorously pathetic, yet psychologically appropriate move, is made when Gregor tries to conciliate the chief by flattery of conscience money by saying that he prefers the chief clerk to the head of the firm, not knowing that the two are merely different forms of the same function. Having done his work of convicting Gregor of psychic sin by forcing on him the condensed image of the denying mother and the denigrated father, the chief clerk leaves. His mother exclaims, "Help for God's sake!" Gregor is certain that had Grete been there, all would have gone well.

Naturally enough, within this intrapsychic action, the paternal image now takes over the symbolic phalli left by the chief clerk, or shall we say that conscience equips the father image with the necessary costume for his role as initiator and castratori the walking stick, the hat, and the great cloak. As initiator the father now flourishes a newspaper threateningly, and hisses like a snake, driving Gregor back into his room. This is the artistic counterpart to the initiation rites as described by Geza Roheim in The Eternal Ones of the Dream. In real terror and self-pity, Gregor sees only the father who threatens castration, not knowing that upon completion of the psychic transformation, this same father will make the sign of the cross, with the women, over the defunct beetle.

This lex talionis is a requisite (in spite of the rational mind) for the redemptive or rebirth process. As the intrapsychic action intensifies, the hissing no longer sounds like that of a single father; the principle of masculinity becomes multitudinous and coercive. The father does not think of opening the other half of the door, and as the beetle is jammed in his retreat through it, his father bruises the traditional flank (displaced castration), and Gregor's blood flows freely, staining the white floor. As in the ancient mysteries and some forms of Christianity, without the shedding of blood there is no redemption. As the father closed the door with the stick, one of the beetle's little legs trailed uselessly behind him; the castration motif is complete, and the neophyte knows the terror and the pain of masochistic submission to the destroying mother and patricidal destrudo. It is a form of death inflicted as retaliation for a death willed in fantasy. The dynamic of the unconscious or total psyche is not touched by scientific advance, and modern man recapitulates not only the embryonic but also the endopsychic history of his species. It was to such a fulfillment of the law that the doctor from the country returned in his dream one night to visit the boy whose suppurating wound was noisome with worms the size of your little finger.



Interest is now distributed over the whole family constellation, for as in every reintegration process a dynamic shift of energy value at one point means a redistribution throughout the psyche. As Gregor awakens in the room he has occupied for five years, he smells the fresh bread and milk sops, and at first he is so pleased that he buries his head up to his eyes in the mess, much as he once nuzzled into his mother's breast. He is safe at least, and the object of great concern (like many a neurotic) to his family. It is his sister Grete who first looks into the room and finds the "beetle" hiding under the sofa. The curious masochistic desire to be denied, the price paid for oral aggression, is now manifested in Gregor's refusal of the fresh milk and his preference for old, decayed vegetables. The family cook (former source of refreshment) now leaves in alarm, but promises to be quiet about the family scandal, and her place is taken by a sixteen-year old servant girl, who is a sort of earthy duplicate of Grete. Whereas the first appearance of the father was that of a fat and sluggish man who had lived a laborious but unsatisfactory life, and it had been assumed by Gregor that he was penniless, it is now found that not all the capital has been lost, that enough remains with careful planning to afford simple living conditions for a few years. It is upon this fact that the whole reintegration of the family constellation depends.

As time passes, the hospital across the street, symbolic of the therapeutic process involved, is now beyond Gregor's range of vision; he might have believed that his window gave out onto a desert waste, a mere gray sky over a gray land. Imaginatively we are in the same realm as that in which Titorelli painted heathscapes in The Trial, the waste land or the wilderness where rebirth alone can take place. Grete leaves an armchair by the window for her metamorphosed brother. There he has the appearance of a bogey, and a stranger might have thought that he was lying there in wait for his sister, intending to bite her. As his initial orientation to his sister had duplicated the infant's first dependence upon the benevolent mother, so now he duplicates the ambivalent reversal and attack upon the mother's breast, refusing her proffered food and ready to bite her. The curious breast-apple identity appears not only in the popular version of the Garden of Eden sin, but in the apples thrown by the father (lex talionis) into the back of the beetle Gregor.

Observing his delight in crawling around on the walls, ceiling, and floor, mother and sister make an effort to remove such furniture as might inconvenience or obstruct the movements of this huge beetle. Between their points of view a conflict develops: the mother feels so sorry for Gregor she would finally leave the writing desk and chest; but the sister insists on trying to remove them. It was in this chest that Gregor had kept the knife with which he did his fretwork, such as that for the frame of the picture of the lady in furs he cut out of the magazine. Gregor would rather bite his sister than let the furniture in his room be disturbed, and he clings passionately to this picture of the primary destructive cat, or Sphinx, mother. At this point his sister's attitude begins to change radically. The mother sinks to the floor crying out in a hoarse voice, "Oh God, Oh God", and Grete shakes her fist at Gregor for thus disturbing their mother. As she strives to revive her mother with aromatic spirits, Grete lets the bottle fall on the floor, a splinter cuts Gregor's face, and the corrosive medicine is splashed upon him. In hysterical frenzy Gregor as beetle collapses upon the table, and the fantasy has thus repeated symbolically the source of the original introjection and fixation in the traveling salesman for whom the alarm didn't go off at four o'clock. But still true to her restorative or rebirth function, the mother loosening one petticoat after another, sinks into the arms of her husband, begging him to spare the life of her son.

Whereas in his story, "In the Penal Colony", the private escaped the vagina dentata, and the superego died the death it intended to inflict, while the Explorer left the colony forever, in Metamorphosis the conflict is solved by recathecting through metamorphoses the members of the family constellation, and though the story ends with the death of the metamorphosed Gregor, that situation or condition is merely a form of the night-sea journey, the whale's belly, or the descent into Hell, from which the hero triumphantly returns. The last act of the initiatory drama we shall now discuss.

In the supplication of the fainting mother to the father that he spare the life of her son there is a suggestion of the universal mother of grace. The father sleeps in his uniform though he doesn't go to work until six A.M. The mother gets employment sewing for an underwear firm, and Grete begins to learn shorthand and French in order to make her way in the world. The living room door is left open so that Gregor will not have to eavesdrop in order to know what is going on in this intrapsychic household. Hard times, nevertheless, descend upon the household. Most important of all, a gigantic charwoman comes in to do the household work morning and evening. When his father goes to bed, Gregor's wound begins to ache, as though there were some connection with the primal scene or infantile voyeurism, as is recorded in Kafka's personal life. Gregor's injustice collecting becomes complete as he sees his formerly loving sister pushing any old food toward him and leaving all manner of filth in his room. The anal libido even reverts upon his own metamorphosed body as it trails with filth along the floor. The bony charwoman, however, with her plume or phallus does not fear the pseudo-aggression of Gregor; she just commands him to come along now and threatens to bring a chair down on his head. But the split mother image remains partially protective and creative, for she cleans Gregor's room with several buckets of water. But Gregor is upset; the sister storms at the mother; and the father reprimands both mother and sister. Such is the intrapsychic confusion during the progressive phases of the rebirth process. The restored father image refuses the propitiatory advances of Gregor; he now stands erect, and advances with grim visage toward Gregor. When Gregor tried flight, he experienced breathlessness due to a lung condition. This is reminiscent of a curious personal condition of Kafka, who claimed that his spitting up of blood was of psychic origin, just like something to save him from marriage.

But at long last there appear the priapic deities as in the story, "In the Penal Colony". These three gentlemen, symbolising the masculine genitals, now command the household, dominating the father, the mother, and the sister, until their authority is transferred to, or taken over by, the father himself. This is the climactic metamorphosis. As phallic entities they object to any vestigial analism; they have a special antipathy for dirt. As they assume command, the garbage can and the ash can are unceremoniously placed in Gregor's room. Gregor hears the sound of their masticating teeth; the food of men is theirs, while he starves because of his toothless jaws. "Coming events cast their shadow before". The bearded gentlemen are the form of libido in which he is to be resurrected, or would be, had Kafka chose to complete the implied psychic action.

Even under these conditions, Gregor is greatly stimulated by his sister's violin playing, though the priapic deities do not enjoy it. He believes, ironically, that he can now get the unknown nourishment he craves (as indeed he can), and will spit on anyone who tries to take his sister away from him. But Grete prefers these new lodgers to her metamorphosed brother. They don't want filth-covered Gregor in their room at all; they smoke their cigars with great irritation, and the middle one, the one with real authority, spits on the floor derisively and threatens to bring suit against Mr. Gregor for having such a beetle around at all. Grete renounces Gregor as a nameless IT, insisting that unless they get rid of IT, the father and mother will die. Once more the symbolic vestige of the coughing and choking mother activates while Gregor is maneuvered back into his room by his father. There in a state of vacant meditation and tender reminiscence of his family, Gregor sees the breaking dawn through his window and quietly expires. This is the "Consummatum est": the infantile ego dominated by incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo is dead.

As a perfectly classic archetype, the charwoman, seeing Gregor dead upon the floor, lets out a whistle: "It's lying here dead and done for." Grete, with whose dressing Gregor has been so much concerned, now emerges fully dressed from the door of the living room, where she has been sleeping since the advent of the priapic or phallic gentlemen. With a callous sense of the amenities of life, the bony charwoman or preoedipal mother proves that Gregor is dead by pushing his corpse away with her broomstick. On the surface at this point she has conquered. But Mr. Samsa crosses himself, and his example is followed by the three women. The death of such a regressed, fixated libido, properly symbolized by a dung beetle, is indeed to be blessed if the psychic energy impacted in the form has already been channeled into the resurgent life of the other members of the family constellation. However grim the intrapsychic action of Kafka's stones, there are few in which the discerning reader does not see planted or suggested the abiding hope, the confirmed intention, of transcending his conflict and achieving wholeness. Often, as here, there is an incompleteness, for as artist, Kafka was true to himself as man.

With the curious condensation, representation by reversal, and transference characteristic of the dream, these three gentlemen to whom the whole family has been so attentive come out of their room and demand their breakfast. But no breakfast has been prepared. In fact, Mr. Samsa now orders these three gentlemen out of the house, while he, in his splendid uniform, takes his wife on one arm and his daughter on the other. The phallic drive also has done its work. Gregor has become his own father; he is indeed metamorphosed. As the three gentlemen go down the stairs, they are metamorphosed into the butcher boy coming up the stairs with fresh supplies. Thus eros triumphs over thanatos. Since her morning's work is done, the charwoman is leaving. Mr. Samsa is still annoyed by the ostritch feather standing upright on her hat, for the mother of death is a most disturbing archetype in any psyche. She goes out, whirling violently as she always does, and with a frightful slamming of doors.

As they move on to the larger and fuller life, the members of Gregor Samsa's family constellation incorporate his own resurrected and transformed libido, and thus one of the most curious tales of death and resurrection is completed. From the very beginning of the action, Gregor was not only fixated in the depths of his being on the woman in furs; there was also that ideal portrait of himself, as a young officer, proud of his uniform and manly bearing, with his own God-given sword in his hand. Truly enough, the charwoman did dispose of the dead dung beetle, but the sword of Gregor disposed of the charwoman. The malignant mother has become the beloved sister, in the nuptial flight of her soul, ready for marriage. And, of course, the anima is the soul of man.

It seems, therefore, that though Metamorphosis is paradoxical because the dynamic transformation of libido does not center in the return or resurrection of the hero as centered in a new, absolute Self, Kafka has incorporated all the essential elements of the monomyth except this return. And this return is diffused into the family constellation, with the substitution of the reanimated and completely changed Grete (as anima) for the ego of the hero. We might say that Grete as anima or beloved is the psychic alternate which is resurrected or makes the return. It may be that Kafka could not project a completely redeemed ego because of the incommensurables existing between the old or artistic ego and the Self he wanted as man to be.

Martin Greenberg (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9352

SOURCE: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and Modern Spirituality," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 6, 1966, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Greenberg examines The Metamorphosis as the dying lament of a spiritually vacant modern man.]

The mother follow'd, weeping loud,
'O, that I such a fiend should bear!'


In the Middle Ages it was the
temporal which was the inessential
in relation to spirituality; in the
19th century the opposite occurred:
the temporal was primary and
the spiritual was the inessential
parasite which gnawed away
at it and tried to destroy it.


Kafka's Metamorphosis is peculiar as a narrative in having its climax in the very first sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The rest of the novella falls away from this high point of astonishment in one long expiring sigh, punctuated by three sub-climaxes (the three eruptions of the bug from the bedroom). How is it possible, one may ask, for a story to start at the climax and then merely subside? What kind of story is that? The answer to this question is, I think—a story for which the traditional Aristotelian form of narrative (complication and dénouement) has lost any intrinsic necessity and which has therefore evolved its own peculiar form out of the very matter it seeks to tell. The Metamorphosis produces its own form out of itself. The traditional kind of narrative based on the drama of dénouement—on the "unknotting" of complications and the coming to a conclusion—could not serve Kafka because it is just exactly the absence of dénouement and conclusions that is his subject matter. His story is about death, but death that is without dénouement, death that is merely a spiritually inconclusive petering out.

The first sentence of The Metamorphosis announces Gregor Samsa's death and the rest of the story is his slow dying. In its movement as an inexorable march toward death it resembles Tolstoy's Death of ¡van Ilyich.1 As Ivan Ilyich struggles against the knowledge of his own death, so does Gregor Samsa. But Tolstoy's work is about death literally and existentially; Kafka's is about death in life. Until Ivan llyich stops defending his life to himself as a good one and recognizes that it hasn't been what it ought to have been, he can't accept the knowledge that he is dying; finally he embraces the truth of his life, which is at the same time the truth of death, and discovers spiritual light and life as he dies. Kafka's protagonist also struggles against "the truths of life and death"; in Gregor Samsa's case, however, his life is his death and there is no salvation. For a moment, it is true, near the end of his long dying, while listening to his sister play the violin, he feels "as if the way were opening before him to the unkown nourishment he craved"; but the nourishment remains unknown, he is locked into his room for the last time and he expires.

What Gregor awakens to on the morning of his metamorphosis is the truth of his life. His ordinary consciousness has lied to him about himself; the explosive first sentence pitches him out of the lie of his habitual self-understanding into the nightmare of truth. "The Metamorphosis is a terrible dream, a terrible conception," Kafka's young friend Janouch had said to him in one of their conversations. "Kafka stood still. 'The dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind. That is the horror of life—the terror of art.'" The dream reveals the reality of Gregor's abasement and self-abasement by a terrible metaphor: he is vermin (Ungeziefer), a disgusting creature shut out from "the human circle." The poetic of the Kafka story, based on the dream, requires the literal assertion of metaphor; Gregor must literally be vermin. This gives Kafka's representation of the subjective reality its convincing vividness. Anything less than metaphor, such as a simile comparing Gregor to vermin, would diminish the reality of what he is trying to represent.2 Grègor's thinking "What has happened to me? . . . It was no dream," is no contradiction of his metamorphosis' being a dream but a literal-ironical confirmation of it. Of course it is no dream—to the dreamer. The dreamer, while he is dreaming, takes his dream as real; Gregor's thought is therefore literally true to the circumstances in which he finds himself. However, it is also true ironically, since his metamorphosis is indeed no dream (meaning something unreal) but a revelation of the truth.

What, then, is the truth of Gregor's life? There is first of all his soul-destroying job, which keeps him on the move and cuts him off from the possibility of real human associations:

Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. It's much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the office, and on top of that there's the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bad and irregular meals, the human associations that are no sooner struck up than they are ended without ever becoming intimate. The devil take it all!

Not only is his work lonely and exhausting, it is also degrading. Gregor fails to report to work once in five years and the chief clerk is at his home at a quarter past seven in the morning accusing him of neglect of his business duties, poor work in general and stealing company funds, and threatening him with dismissal. In the guilt-world that Gregor inhabits, his missing his train on this one morning retroactively changes his excellent work record at one stroke into the very opposite.

What a fate, to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion! Were all employees in a body nothing but scoundrels . . . ?

He has been sacrificing himself by working at his meaningless, degrading job so as to pay off an old debt of his parents' to his employer. Otherwise "I'd have given notice long ago, I'd have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him." But even now, with the truth of his self-betrayal pinning him on his back to his bed, he is unable to claim himself for himself and decide to quit—he must wait "another five or six years":

. . . once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents' debts to him—that should take another five or six years—I'll do it without fail. I'll cut myself completely loose then. For the moment, though, I'd better get up, since my train goes at five.

He pretends that he will get up and resume his old life. He will get dressed "and above all eat his breakfast," after which the "morning's delusions" will infallibly be dissipated. But the human self whose claims he always postponed and continues to postpone, is past being put off, having declared itself negatively by changing him from a human being into an insect. His metamorphosis is a judgment on himself by his defeated humanity.

Gregor's humanity has been defeated in his private life as much as in his working life. His mother succinctly describes its deathly aridity as she pleads with the chief clerk:

". . . he's not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work. It makes me almost cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he's been here the last eight days and has stayed at home every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables. The only amusement he gets is doing fretwork. For instance, he spent two or three evenings cutting out a little picture frame; you would be surprised to see how pretty it is; it's hanging in his room; you'll see it in a minute when Gregor opens the door. . . ."

The picture in the little frame shows a woman in furs "holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished"; it is the second object that Gregor's eye encounters when he surveys his room on waking (the first was his collection of samples). Later in the story, when his sister and mother empty his room of its furniture, he defends his "human past" by making his stand on this picture, pressing "himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly." That is about what Gregor's "human past" amounts to: a pin-up.

For most of the story, Gregor struggles with comic-terrible pathos against the metaphor fastened on him. His first hope is that it is all "nonsense." But he can't tell; the last thing he knows about is himself. So he works himself into an upright position in order to unlock the door, show himself to the chief clerk and his family and let them decide for him, as he has always let others decide for him:

If they were horrified then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet. But if they took it calmly, then he had no reason either to be upset, and could really get to the station for the eight o'clock train if he hurried.

The answer that he gets is his mother's swoon, the chief clerk's hurried departure, in silent-movie style, with a loud "Ugh!" and his father's driving him back "pitilessly," with a newspaper and a walking stick that menaces his life, into his room—"from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely. The door was slammed behind him with the stick, and then at last there was silence."

This is the first repulse the metamorphosed Gregor suffers in his efforts to re-enter "the human circle." The fact that his voice has altered so that the others can no longer understand what he says, but he can understand them as well as ever, perfectly expresses the pathos of one who is condemned to stand on the outside looking in. Although he must now accept the fact that he has been changed into a monster, he clings to the illusion that his new state is a temporary one: "he must lie low for the present and, by exercising patience and the utmost consideration, help the family to bear the inconvenience he was bound to cause them in his present condition." Like Ivan Ilyich, he wants to believe that his mortal illness is only a "condition."

In Part II we learn about Gregor's all-important relations with his family. An unambiguous indication already given in Part I is the fact that he locks his bedroom doors at night "even at home"—a "prudent habit he had acquired in traveling." Although he is a dutiful, self-sacrificing son, just such a dutiful son as Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment," he is as much a stranger to his family as he is to the world and shuts them out of his life—he locks them out as much as they lock him in. Concealment, mistrust and denial mark the relations in the Samsa family. It now turns out, as Gregor listens at his bedroom door, that some investments had survived the wreck of Samsa Sr.'s business five years before and had even increased since then, though he thought his father had been left with nothing, "at least his father had never said anything to the contrary, and of course he had not asked him directly." Moreover, this sum had been increased by the unexpended residue of Gregor's earnings, who "kept only a few dollars for himself." But he buries the rage he feels at this evidence of the needlessness of his self-sacrifice, as he has always buried his real feelings:

Gregor nodded his head eagerly, rejoiced at this evidence of unexpected thrift and foresight. True, he could really have paid off some more of his father's debts to the chief with this extra money, and so brought much nearer the day on which he could quit his job, but doubtless it was better the way his father had arranged it.

His parents liked to think that his slaving at his job to support the family represented no sacrifice of himself—"they had convinced themselves in the course of years that Gregor was settled for life in this firm." But they were able to convince themselves of this only because he himself cooperated eagerly with them to deny himself. Deception and self-deception, denial and self-denial now "end in horror." To cap it all, it turns out that his family didn't even need his sacrifice for another reason; when Gregor ceases to be the breadwinner, father, mother and sister all turn to and provide for themselves and the old man is even rescued in this way from a premature dotage.

The decisive figure in the family for Gregor is his father. He sees him something like Georg Bendemann saw his—as an old man, almost a doddering old man, and yet strong. This combination of weakness and strength is signalled in the story's very first words about Samsa Sr.: "at one of the side doors his father was knocking, gently (schwach: weakly), yet with his fist." The combination is present in the description of the father's response to Gregor's first breaking out of his bedroom; a "knotted fist" and "fierce expression" go along with tears of helplessness and humiliation:

His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept till his great chest heaved.

But in spite of his "great chest," in spite of his voice's sounding "no longer like the voice of one single father" when he drives his son back into his room, in spite of Gregor's being "dumbfounded at the enormous size of his shoe soles" the second time his father chases him back into his room, the elder Samsa, unlike the elder Bendemann, does not loom large like a Titanic figure. He is powerful, irascible and petulant, but not mythically powerful. His shoe soles seem "enormous" to his son because of his insect angle of vision—not because the old man is superhuman but because the son is less than human. Everything in the story is seen from Gregor's point of view, the point of view of somebody who has fallen below the human level.

The father's strength is the ordinary strength of human life, which has been temporarily dimmed by his business failure and his son's unnatural ascendancy as the breadwinner of the family. He does not battle his son to recover his ascendancy as Bendemann Sr. does in "The Judgment." There is no battle; Gregor cannot "risk standing up to him." The unnatural state of affairs in the Samsa home corrects itself so to speak naturally, by the son's showing forth as what he really is—a parasite that saps the father's and the family's life. A fundamental incompatibility exists between the son and the family, between sickliness and parasitism on the one hand and vigor and independence on the other, between death and life. As the son's life wanes the family's revives; especially the father's flourishes with renewed vigor and he becomes a blustering, energetic, rather ridiculous man—a regular Kafka papa. From the start Gregor's father deals brutally with him:

. . . from the very first day of his new life . . . his father believed only the severest measures suitable for dealing with him.

Indeed he threatens his life: the first time he shooes Gregor back into his room he menaces him with a "fatal blow" from his stick; at his son's second outbreak he gives him a wound from which he never recovers. But though Samsa Sr. throws his son back into his room two out of the three times he breaks out of it, Gregor's banishment from "the human circle" is not a sentence passed on him by his father. Unlike the father in "The Judgment," Samsa Sr. does not stand at the center of the story confronting his son as the lord and judge of his life. He stands with the mother and the sister, opposite the son but to the side; the center of the story is completely occupied by the son. The father affirms the judgment passed on Gregor—that he is "unfit for life"—but the judgment is not his; it is Gregor's. At the beginning of the novella, before he is locked in his room by the family as a metamorphosed monster, we see how he has already locked himself in as a defeated human being. Gregor is self-condemned.

At the side of the father stands the mother, gentle ("That gentle voice!"), yet "in complete union with him" against her son. Gregor's monstrousness horrifies her no less than the others and she faints at the sight of him. For the first two weeks she prefers, with the father, not to know how or even if Gregor is fed. "Not that they would have wanted him to starve, of course, but perhaps they could not have borne to known more about his feeding than from hearsay. . . ."—Gregor's struggle, in these words, against the truth is a pathetically ironical statement of it. Mrs. Samsa pities her son—"he is my unfortunate son"—and understands his plight as illness; the morning of the metamorphosis she sends the daughter for the doctor, while Mr. Samsa, characteristically (his son is a recalcitrant creature bent on causing him a maximum of annoyance), sends the maid for the locksmith. (Gregor, feeling "himself drawn once more into the human circle" by these steps, "hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them"—agreeing with both parents, he is unable to distinguish between the element of recalcitrance and refusal and the element of illness in his withdrawal into inhuman isolation.) Shame and horror, however, overwhelm the mother's compassion—we learn from Gregor's reflections that the doctor was sent away on some pretext. She protests against Grete's clearing the furniture out of Gregor's room—". . . doesn't it look as if we were showing him, by taking away his furniture, that we have given up hope of his ever getting better . . . ?"—but then acquiesces weakly in it and even helps to move the heavy pieces. At the end, when Grete says that the bug must be got rid of—

"He must go," cried Gregor's sister, "that's the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. . . . If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can't live with such a creature, and he'd have gone away on his own accord. . . ."

the mother, with a terrible silence, acquiesces again in her daughter's determination, which this time is a condemnation of her son to death.

Gregor cherishes his sister most of all. She in turn shows the most awareness of his needs after his metamorphosis into vermin and he is grateful to her for it. But he notices that she avoids touching anything that has come into contact with him and he is forced to "realize how repulsive the sight of him still was to her, and that it was bound to go on being repulsive." For her, too, he is a pariah, a monster shut out of the human circle, and at the end she is the one who voices the thought, which has hung unexpressed over the family since the morning of the metamorphosis, that Gregor must be got rid of.

This, then, is the situation in the Samsa family revealed by the metamorphosis: on the surface, the official sentiments of the parents and the sister toward Gregor, and of Gregor toward them and toward himself; underneath, the horror and disgust, and self-disgust: ". . . family duty required the suppression of disgust and the exercise of patience, nothing but patience."

Gregor breaks out of his room the first time hoping that his transformation will turn out to be "nonsense"; the second time, in the course of defending at least his hope of returning to his "human past." His third eruption, in Part III, has quite a different aim. The final section of the story discovers a Gregor who tries to dream again, after a long interval, of resuming his old place at the head of the family, but the figures from the past that now appear to him—his boss, the chief clerk, travelling salesmen, a chambermaid ("a sweet and fleeting memory"), etc., etc.—cannot help him, "they were one and all unapproachable and he was glad when they vanished." Defeated, he finally gives up all hope of returning to the human community. Now his existence slopes steeply toward death. The wound in his back, made by the apple his father threw at him in driving Gregor back into his room after his second outbreak, has begun to fester again; his room is now the place in which all the household's dirty old decayed things are thrown, along with Gregor, a dirty old decayed thing; and he has just about stopped eating.

At first he had thought he was unable to eat out of "chagrin over the state of his room"—his mood at that stage of his dying, like Ivan Ilyich's at a corresponding stage, was one of hatred toward his family for neglecting him; he hissed at them all in rage. But then he discovered that he got "increasing enjoyment" from crawling about the filth and junk—it wasn't the filthiness of his room that was preventing him from eating. On the last evening of his life, watching from his room the lodgers whom his family have taken in putting away a good supper, he comes to a crucial realization:

"I'm hungry enough," said Gregor sadly to himself, "but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!"

In giving up at last all hope of re-entering the human circle, Gregor finally understands the truth about his life—which is to say he accepts the knowledge of his death, for the truth about his life is his death-in-life by his banishment and self-banishment from the human community. But having finally accepted the truth, having finally bowed to the yoke of the metaphor that he has been trying to shake off, he begins to sense a possibility that exists for him only in his outcast state. He is hungry enough, he realizes, but not for the world's fare, "not for that kind of food." He feels a hunger that can only be felt in full acceptance of his outcast state. Like Ivan Ilyich when he accepts his death at last and plunges into the black sack's hole, he perceives a glimmer of light; in the degradation, in the utter negativity of his outcastness, he begins to apprehend a positive possibility.

He has already had a hint or two that the meaning of his metamorphosis contains some sort of positive possibility. At the beginning of the story, when he is lying in bed and worrying about not reporting to work, he thinks of saying he is sick, but knows that the sick-insurance doctor will come down on him as a malingerer. "And would he be so far from wrong on this occasion? Gregor really felt quite well . . . and he was even unusually hungry." He has just been changed into a huge bug and he is afraid of pleading sick because he will be accused of malingering! And the accusation would after all be correct because he felt quite well and was even unusually hungry! "Of course," the reader says, "he means quite well as an insect!"—which is a joke, but a joke that points right to the positive meaning of his metamorphosis.

A second hint soon follows. After Gregor unlocks the bedroom door with his jaws and drops down on his legs for the first time, he experiences "a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; . . . they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand." The first meaning here is ironical and comic: Gregor, unable to accept his transformation into a bug and automatically trying to walk like a man, inadvertently falls down on his insect legs and feels an instantaneous sense of comfort which he takes as a promise of future relief from his sufferings—with supreme illogic he derives a hope of release from his animal condition from the very comfort he gets by adapting himself to that condition: so divided is his self-consciousness from his true self. But there is a second meaning, which piles irony upon the irony: precisely as a noisome outcast from the human world Gregor feels the possibility of relief, of final relief. Only as an outcast does he sense the possibility of an ultimate salvation rather than just a restoration of the status quo.

As a bug, too, his wounds heal a lot faster than did his old cut finger: the vitality possible to him in his pariah state (if he can only find the food he needs to feed his spiritual hunger on: for he is "unusually hungry") is in sharp contrast with his human debility. And he finds a kind of freedom in crawling around the walls and ceiling of his room instead of going to work each morning—Kafka dwells so much in the first part on the horror of Samsa's job that we feel his metamorphosis as something of a liberation, although in the end he is only delivered from the humiliation and death of his job into the humiliation and death of his outcast state.

When Gregor breaks out of his room the third and last time, he is no longer trying to deceive himself about himself and get back to his old life with its illusions about belonging to the human community. He is trying to find that "final relief which lies beyond "the last earthly frontier" (to quote a phrase from Kafka's diary), a frontier which is to be approached only through exile and solitude. What draws him out of his room the last night of his life is his sister's violin playing. Although he had never cared for music in his human state, now the notes of the violin attract him surprisingly. Indifferent to "his growing lack of consideration for the others"—at last he has the courage to think about himself—trailing "fluff and hair and remnants of food" which he no longer bothers to scrape off himself, the filthy starving underground creature advances onto "the spotless floor of the living room" where his sister is playing for the three lodgers.

Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.

It is a familiar Romantic idea that Kafka is making use of here: that music expresses the inexpressible, that it points to a hidden sphere of spiritual power and meaning.3 It is only in his extremity, as "an animal," an outcast from human life who finally accepts his being cast out, that Gregor's ears are opened to music. Yet in spite of all the hints he has had, Gregor still hesitates to grasp the positive possibility contained in the truth about himself and his death in life—the possibility of life in death, of spiritual life through outcastness. All along he has understood the wellbeing he feels as an insect as an indication of his bestialization. "Am I less sensitive now?" he asks himself after marvelling at his recuperative powers as a bug; he accuses himself of a growing lack of consideration for others, etc., etc. Now he does the same thing: "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" This time, however, his understanding of himself is clearly a misunderstanding; it is nonsensical to associate music and bestiality, music is at the opposite pole from bestiality. His metamorphosis is a path to the spiritual rather than the bestial. The violin notes that move him so build a way through his death in life to the salvation for which he blindly hungers.

Or they only seem to. Certainly the unknown nourishment exists; the goal of his hunger exists. But the music merely draws him toward his sister with the jealous intention of capturing her for himself and immuring her in his cell with him; it only leads him out into the same old living room of his death as a private person, which with the three indignant lodgers staring down at him is the same old public world of bullying businessmen he knew as a travelling salesman. "There is a goal, but no way," Kafka says in one of his aphorisms; "what we call a way is only wavering."

His final repulse follows, with his sister demanding that "he must go. . . . If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can't live with such a creature. . . ." Painfully turning around, Gregor crawls back into his room without his father's having to chase him back and surrenders his life to this demand:

"And what now?" said Gregor to himself, looking round in the darkness. . . . He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath.

Both Georg Bendemann and Gregor Samsa die reconciled with their families in a tenderness of self-condemnation. But Georg is sentenced to death by his father; nobody sentences Gregor to his death in life except himself. His ultimate death, however, his death without redemption, is from hunger for the unknown nourishment he needs. What kills Gregor is spiritual starvation—"Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him," Kafka writes in an aphorism.

Although the story does not end with Gregor's death, it is still from his point of view that the last few pages, with their terrible irony and pathos, are narrated. The family are of course glad to be freed of the burden and scandal he has been to them but dare not say so openly. When the tough old charwoman who has survived "the worst a long life could offer" spares them the embarrassment of getting "rid of the thing," their thanks is to fire her. However the tide of life, now flooding in, soon sweeps them beyond bad conscience and troubled reflections. They make a holiday of Gregor's death day and take a trolley ride into the country. Spring is in the air; a review of their prospects shows them to be "not at all bad." Mother and father notice how their daughter, in spite of everything, has

bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet and stretched her young body.

Life triumphs blatantly, not only over Gregor's unlife but over his posthumous irony—these last lines are entirely without irony. Or if they are ironical it is at Gregor's expense: his moral condemnation of his family here turns into a condemnation of himself. Kafka got his peroration from a description of Ivan Ilyich's daughter in Tolstoy's story, only he twists its meaning right around:

His daughter came in all dressed up, with much of her young body naked, making a show of it, while his body was causing him such torture. She was strong and healthy, evidently very much in love, and annoyed that his illness and suffering and death should cast a shadow upon her happiness.

Tolstoy's condemnation of the living, with their vulgar bursting vitality and impatience to get on with their business of living forever, in Kafka's hands becomes life's impatient condemnation of the dead that is the novella's last word. As another Kafka aphorism puts it, "We are sinful not merely because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we find ourselves is sinful, quite independent of guilt."

Tolstoy's story is dramatic, with a reversal (peripety) and a dénouement at the end in which the dying man finds salvation and death is no more. In Kafka's story there is the beginning of a reversal when Gregor thinks the way to unknown nourishment is opening before him, but it fails to take place and the novella sinks to the conclusion that has been implicit in it from the start. Kafka's story has little drama; a climax that occurs in the first sentence is no real climax. Earlier I described this nondramatic movement of The Metamorphosis as a dying fall, a sinking, an ebbing. The Trial and The Castle too have more or less the same movement, and in his diary entry of December 13, 1914 Kafka remarks on this dying movement of his best work:

. . . the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to die contentedly. All these fine and very convincing passages always deal with the fact that somebody is dying, that it is hard for him to do, that it seems unjust to him or at least cruel, and the reader finds this moving or at least I think he should. For me, however, who believe that I'll be able to lie contentedly on my deathbed, such descriptions are secretly a game, I positively enjoy my own death in the dying person's, therefore I calculatingly exploit the attention that the reader concentrates on death, understand it a lot more clearly than he, who I assume will complain on his deathbed, and for these reasons my complaining (Klage, lament) is as perfect as can be, doesn't suddenly break off in the way real complaining is likely to do, but dies away beautifully and purely. It is the same thing as my always complaining to my mother about pains that weren't nearly as bad as my complaints made one think.

The passage is a characteristically ambivalent appreciation and depreciation of his art for the very same reason. On the side of depreciation, he suggests that his stories aren't real stories at all, with the dramatic conflict of real stories, but a "game" he plays with the reader: behind the apparent struggle of his protagonists to live, undermining and betraying it from the start, is his own secret embrace of death. And just because the struggle is a fake one he is able to prolong it artfully into a sort of swan song, a swan song which at the end of the diary entry he compares to his hypochondriacal complainings to his mother, to his constant whinings about aches and pains. In this Kafka seems to be agreeing with those critics who find him a pusillanimous neurotic, lacking in any force or fight. Edmund Wilson thinks he is "at his most characteristic when he is assimilating men to beasts—dogs, insects, mice, and apes—which can neither dare nor know. . . . the denationalized, discouraged, disaffected, disabled Kafka . . . can in the end only let us down."4 A psychoanalytic critic concludes that "the striving for synthesis, for integration and harmony which are the marks of a healthy ego and a healthy art are lacking in Kafka's life and in his writings. The conflict is weak in Kafka's stories because the ego is submissive; the unequal forces within the Kafka psyche create no tension within the reader, only a fraternal sadness. . . ."5

But on the side of appreciation, Kafka sees his understanding of death as being responsible for his "best things." Thanks to his underlying acceptance of death, the selfsame story that he is always telling about somebody who finds it hard to die is "as perfect as can be" and "dies away beautifully and purely."

Which is it then? Is The Metamorphosis unhealthy art: the artfully prolonged whine of a disaffected neurotic with a submissive ego? Or is it a lament (Klage) that is perfect, beautiful, pure? Does Kafka let us down in the end or does he try to lift us up "into the pure, the true, the unchangeable"? The two opposing characterizations—"neurotic whine" and "beautiful lament"—which I have drawn from Kafka's diary entry express very different judgments, but they agree in pointing to something lyrical about the form of his "best things," something in the nature of a crying-out, rather than a narrative of action with complication and dénouement. Doubtless Kafka's critics would find him depressing in any case. Yet in taxing his stories with lack of tension and his protagonists with being unmanly and discouraged they misunderstand the form of his narratives and ask them to be what they are not and do not try to be: representations of action. The Metamorphosis doesn't unfold an action but a metaphor; it is the spelling out of a metaphor. It doesn't end in an Aristotelian dénouement, but draws the metaphor out to its ultimate conclusion which is death. I called the movement of The Metamorphosis a dying fall. But visual terms serve better than auditory ones. The movement of the story is a seeing more and more: waking up, the metamorphosed Gregor sees his insect belly, then his helplessly waving legs, then his room, cloth samples, picture, alarm clock, furniture, key, living room, family, chief clerk—on and on and on in a relentless march of ever deeper seeing till he sees his own death. Everything he sees is a building stone added to the structure of the metaphor of his banishment from the human circle, capped by the stone of his death. In a story of this kind there is no question of tension or of any of the specifically dramatic qualities: it is a vision.

Of course Gregor Samsa "can neither dare nor know." Neither can Hamlet, his ultimate literary ancestor and the earliest protagonist of the modern plot of doubt and despair in face of the threat of universal meaninglessness.6 That is just the point of the story: that Gregor can neither dare nor know, neither live in the world nor find the unknown truth he craves. The final words of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, commenting on his own Notes, are very apposite here:

. . . a novel needs a hero, and all the traits for an antihero are expressly gathered together here, and, what matters most, it all produces a most unpleasant impression, for we are all divorced from life, we are all cripples, every one of us, more or less. . . . "Speak for yourself," you say, "and for your miseries in your underground hole, but don't dare to say 'all of us'." Excuse me, gentlemen, I am not justifying myself with that "all of us." As for what concerns me in particular, I have only carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry halfway, and, what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you. Look into it more carefully! Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called! Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join onto, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise.

What the Underground Man is saying, what he says all along in his Notes, is that action and awareness, daring and self-knowledge, world and spirit are no longer united but split. To act in the world requires life-confidence based on knowledge; but the Underground Man's "overacute consciousness" exposes doubts which undermine his confidence—self-knowledge turns him into a "mouse" who is incapable of avenging an affront, a nasty "babbler" who can only sit with folded hands. On the other hand, "all 'direct' persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited." The man of action and the man of consciousness, the man of the world and the man of the spirit are equally failures, equally cripples, the one because he is stupid and the other because he is ignominious. Neither knows "what living means now, what it is, and what it is called."

Gregor Samsa, not even a mouse but a bug, an anti-hero if there ever was one, finds that his sister's violin music draws him with the promise of that knowledge of "what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise" which would make it possible to realize the reunion of world and spirit. But his effort to penetrate the mystery of such knowledge fails and he surrenders to the impossibility of living.

Does the Underground Man, Dostoevsky's and Kafka's, try to make a negative good out of his plight? Does he end up morbidly affirming his unlife as true life? Lionel Trilling, in his essay "The Fate of Pleasure: Wordsworth to Dostoevsky," points to the "more life" that Dostoevsky's anti-hero claims for his impotent hole-in-the-wall existence ("So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you") and criticizes the spirituality of modern literature, including Kafka's conception of spiritual life, for being anti-human. It is anti-human because it repudiates pleasure (what Wordsworth called "the grand elementary principle of pleasure")—meaning by pleasure not only sensual gratification but the health of the entire human being: power, energy, libido, success. Instead the antihero chooses suffering and impotence and failure; he morbidly, perversely prefers a spirituality that turns away from life toward death. He does so because he refuses to accept "the conditioned nature of man," to bow his neck to the humiliating yoke of a rationality founded on the principle of pleasure. "If pleasure is indeed the principle of his being, he is as known as the sum of 2 and 2; he is a mere object of reason, of that rationality of the Revolution which is established on the primacy of the principle of pleasure." And Professor Trilling speculates "metapsychologically" whether "we confront a mutation in culture by which an old established proportion between the pleasure-seeking instincts" and the death instincts "is being altered in favor of the latter."

But the Underground Man only says perhaps there is more life in him than in the gentlemen. And the last thing Gregor Samsa or any Kafka protagonist ever claims for himself is "more life." The anti-hero does not seem to me to refuse pleasure on ultimate grounds (metapsychologically); he is metaphysically unable to take pleasure. He is not against pleasure in principle; he only knows that what the world calls pleasure isn't so at all for him. What he rejects is just precisely the metapsychological principle of pleasure: a psychological principle made to do duty as a philosophical one; a deterministic psychology of gratifications substituted for the reality of the good. The reason which the Underground Man defies is that of the "Crystal Palace" and the "19th century": the exiguous reason of a scientism that "excludes value from the essence of the matter of fact" (to quote Whitehead) and therefore kills choice and freedom. It is his freedom as a valuing being he is anxious to defend, not his freedom from human conditions. Far from being anti-human, the nasty creature turns out to be a defender of the human against scientific reduction:

You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there's no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man's nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole of human life, including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. . . . Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning . . . and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives.

The Underground Man, looking inside himself, scrutinizing his whole nature, discovers a soul that is wildly irrational according to the simple psychological arithmetic of the "gentlemen," a self that is completely uncontrollable by their "19th century" reason. Nor, on the other hand, can it be regulated any longer by the traditional religious sanctions and values—it is a modern self, not an anachronistic one. It does not perversely choose unpleasure—its plight is that it does not know what pleasure, true pleasure, is anymore. It does not know. It does not know "what to join onto, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise." Because it doesn't know, it can't act in the world. The Underground Man, speaking in the veritable accents of Hamlet, says that "there are people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general; how do they do it? Why, when they are possessed, let us suppose, by the feeling of revenge, then for the time there is nothing else but that feeling left in their whole being. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull. . . ." But the anti-hero, "an acutely conscious mouse" whose conscience has made a coward out of him, is unable to believe in the justice or the success of his revenge:

For through his innate stupidity [the man of action] looks upon his revenge as justice pure and simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness the mouse does not believe in the justice of it. . . . the luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many . . . nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions . . . that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a stinking mess, made up of its doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly about it as judges and arbitrators, laughing at it till their healthy sides ache. Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mousehole.

Professor Trilling exclaims at the gap that six short decades opened between Wordsworth, with his confidence in pleasure as "the naked and native dignity of man," and Dostoevsky's morbid mouse. But is the gap so great? In Book XI of The Prelude Wordsworth describes how, following the Terror in France, he began to question "all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds" till he arrived in such a state of confusion that he "lost / All feeling of conviction" and "yielded up moral questions in despair." About this crisis in his "soul's disease" he goes on to say the following:

I drooped,
Deeming our blessed reason of least use
Where wanted most: "The lordly attributes
Of will and choice," I bitterly explained,
"What are they but a mockery of a Being
Who hath in no concerns of his a test
Of good and evil; knows not what to fear
Or hope for, what to covet or to shun.
. . ."

(My italics)

At this point in his life the distance separating Wordsworth from Dostoevsky (and Kafka) was not so very great. The only way he was able to rescue himself from his unbelief was by finding the reality of values established in a Nature embraced by and embracing the poet's creative imagination. A hundred years later industrialization had wiped out that possibility.

Wordsworth was able to reunite world and spirit in the Lake country, yet the quiescent world of Nature in which he discovered his life and being stood opposed to, not at one with the power and energy of the encroaching industrial world. The Wordsworthian self, with its "wise passiveness" and deep regard for humble life, was, if not quite "anti-heroic," shy and withdrawn from the modern world in a way which looks forward to the anti-hero. His spirituality, which saw

little worthy or sublime
In what the Historian's pen so much delights

To blazon—power and energy detached
From moral purpose—early tutored me
To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon the unassuming things that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world.

If, as I think, the anti-hero has a starting point in Hamlet, and that is after all a noble ancestry, what is one to say about him today, in his contemporary manifestations, when he is a best-seller, a box-office attraction, a crowd-pleaser? Mr. Trilling asks, tellingly, how "irony can be withheld from an accredited subversiveness, an established moral radicalism, a respectable violence, an entertaining spirituality?" It can't. But his words describe the degeneration of the anti-worldly spirituality of modern literature into a worldly fashion, an attitude.

In Gregor Samsa there is no trace of pride or vanity about himself as a superior suffering spiritual being. The Kafka anti-hero is a genuine hunger artist who fasts because he must, because the diet of the world can't satisfy his spiritual hunger, and not because he has made hunger into a negative good. "Forgive me, everybody," the Hunger Artist whispers in the story of that name when he is dying in his cage. "Of course we forgive you," replies the circus overseer.

"I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger artist. "We do admire it," said the overseer, affably. "But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist. "Well then we don't admire it," said the overseer, "but why shouldn't we admire it?" "Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist. "What a fellow you are," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?" "Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."



1 Tolstoy's short novel was a "great favorite" of Kafka's, so Max Brod reports in a note to the second volume of the Diaries. Philip Rahv makes a detailed comparison of The Trial with Tolstoy's work in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Joseph K." (Image and Idea). Both stories, he writes, "echo with the Augustinian imprecation, 'Woe unto thee, thou stream of human custom!'"

2 In the early fragment Wedding Preparations in the Country,Raban compares himself to a beetle (the idea of vermin is not yet explicit), but the simile remains a "conception" that "lags behind" the reality. Kafka uses the vermin simile in the long accusatory letter he wrote his father in 1919: in a rebuttal speech that he puts into the latter's mouth, Herrmann Kafka compares his son's way of fighting him to that "of vermin, which not only bite but suck blood at the same time to get their sustenance. . . . You're unfit for life." But of course the letter, in spite of its peculiarities, is a letter and not Dichtung, not a story.

3 Thus Kleist, to cite a source of influence near to Kafka, describes the notes of the music score in "St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music" as "the unknown magical signs by which a terrible spirit seemed mysteriously to mark out its sphere." And Coleridge says brilliantly: "Every human feeling is greater and larger than the exciting cause—a proof, I think, that man is designed for a higher state of existence; and this is deeply implied in music, in which there is always something more and beyond the immediate expression."—"On Poesy or Art"

4 "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka," in Classics and Commercials.

5 Selma Fraiberg, "Kafka and the Dream," in Partisan Review(Winter 1956).


. . . O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

When Hamlet says the question is "To be or not to be," not only suicide is the question but also Being itself—he calls Being into question. That is how he has been understood since the beginning of the 19th century, when Coleridge called him a "philosopher or meditator." The view of him as a protagonist of philosophical disillusion and despair goes hand in hand with the elevation of the play from its old position side by side with Shakespeare's other tragedies to a unique height of reputation in the modern age. For us the play is intensely, archetypally modern. With Hamlet imagination turns inward, out of the world and away from action, away from drama, to search inside Wordsworth's "Poet's Mind" (The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet's Mind) and Yeats's "blind, stupefied heart" for a ground of Being; imagination turns to search inside the self for true being. Tragedy, action, drama itself almost, are impossible in such an atmosphere of radical spiritual questioning—then "enterprises of great pitch and moment . . . lose the name of action." How can you have a revenge tragedy which consists of episodes in the revenger's uncertainty about taking revenge, not of an action of revenge? Eliot is quite right: Hamlet is a failure—as a tragedy. But that is according to the Aristotelian judgment of classical tradition. According to the modern judgment, its very failure as a tragedy is its success as—as what? It is hard to say, because Hamlet takes us out of the traditional realm of more or less clearly defined forms into a modern realm of problematic forms.

Still, we should be able to say something in answer to the question, What is the form of Hamlet's modern success? Lionel Abel calls it metaphysical drama, in which the protagonist raises philosophical objections to the action that the playwright would have him perform—Hamlet asserts himself so to speak as a rival playwright against Shakespeare; the play is a drama of ideas about the possibility of acting at all (Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form). This expresses the essential Coleridgian idea; but it does not really answer the question about Hamlet's literary form, continuing to call it drama. It is just drama, however, that I find the play turning away from. Hamlet seems successful to me as a vision, a vision of non-being, rather than as a play; I wonder if we do not read it as a kind of modern poetic novel. Certainly, with its episodic plot made up of a series of accidents, it reads better than it acts. The metaphysical abyss it discloses to the reader becomes on the stage that gap between the actors' efforts and our idea of the play which makes any production of Hamlet a disappointment.

Why this long footnote about Hamlet in an article about Kafka? Because Hamlet, seen as a vision rather than an action, anticipates the form and effort of the modern imagination and the form and effort of Kafka's imagination.

Norman Friedman (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5738

SOURCE: "The Struggle of Vermin: Parasitism and Family Love in Kafka's Metamorphosis1," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 23-32.

[In the following essay, Friedman discusses themes of guilt, dependency, and parasitism in The Metamorphosis.]

The basic motif in Franz Kafka's life and work is guilt, and the search for freedom from guilt. Indeed, the circumstances of his biography seem to have conspired in insuring that this would be so.


He was born in 1883 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which was then part of the old Austrian Empire, a large and ungainly assortment of nationalities and states, run by a vast and intricate bureaucracy. And to make matters worse, he was a Jew, so that his life was even more complex and document-ridden than that of the ordinary citizen. Added to these, he was the shy and withdrawn son of a domineering and successful businessman, and this became the primary fact of Kafka's life. In 1919, when he was thirty-six, he wrote a long "Letter to My Father," in which the meaning of this fact becomes painfully clear. His mother, who was to act as intermediary, returned it undelivered to her son, and nothing more was said about it. But Max Brod, Kafka's friend and biographer, published some parts of it after Kafka's death, and in reading these selections, we can see that Kafka's whole soul was warped from childhood by feelings of inadequacy. He felt, and was made to feel, that he could never measure up to the standard of manhood set by his father, and so he went through life haunted by an endless and unendurable shame. The attempt to come to terms with this shame, to get out from under it, governed the entire course of his career. And this task was made doubly difficult by two more twists of the knife: first, he actually loved his father and remembered their good moments together with nostalgic tenderness; second, he had intelligence enough to see that what was torturing him was completely senseless and irrational, yet he still could not free himself of it.

Here are a few central passages from this letter:

Courage [he writes to his father], resolution, confidence, joy in one thing or another never lasted if you were opposed to it, or even if your opposition was only to be expected—and it was to be expected in nearly everything I did. In your presence—you are an excellent speaker in matters that concern you—I fell into a halting, stuttering way of speech. Even that was too much for you. Finally I kept still, perhaps from stubborness, at first; then because, facing you, I could neither think nor speak any more. And since you were the one who had really brought me up, this affected me in everything I did.

The result of this upbringing was—and here he quotes at the end of this passage the closing words of his novel, The Trial—that "I had lost my self-confidence with you, and exchanged a boundless sense of guilt for it. Remembering this boundlessness, I once wrote fittingly about someone: 'He fears that his feeling of shame may even survive him'."2

The rest of his life, Brod comments, Kafka then reconstructs as a series of attempts to break away from his father's influence. He even planned at one time to call his writings The Attempt to Escape from Father, and he says:

My writing was about you, in it I only poured the grief I could not sigh at your breast. It was a purposely drawn-out parting from you, except that you had forced it on me, while I determined its direction. [And so, too, with his life:] My self-appraisal depended on you much more than on anything else, such as, for instance, an outward success. . . . Where I lived, I was repudiated, judged, suppressed, and although I tried my utmost to escape elsewhere, it never could amount to anything, because it involved the impossible, something that was, with small exceptions, unattainable for my powers.3

He went to the German elementary and secondary schools, and when he was eighteen he went to the Prague University. After a few false starts in literature and then chemistry, he decided to study law, sensing the need for a profession which would not involve him personally, which he could master in a routine way, and therefore at which he could succeed without fear of failure. As he himself explains, in the "Letter":

The point was to find a profession which would most readily permit me [to be indifferent] without injuring my ego too much. And so law was the obvious choice. . . . at any rate this choice showed remarkable foresight on my part. Even as a little boy I had sufficient strong premonitions concerning studies and a profession. From these no salvation was to be expected; I resigned myself to that long ago.4

And this course seemed to offer hope of a post where he might at least have some time for himself. He became a Doctor of Law in 1906, and after a short period as a clerk in an insurance office, he obtained a position in the semi-government office of the "Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia," in Prague in 1908. The work proved to be trying, however, and he found it difficult to live the double life of an official and a writer.

In 1912 he met a girl from Berlin, and they became engaged a few years later, but Kafka could not face up to the consequences of such a decision, and broke off with her several times. He blames this vacillation, too, on his subservience to his father:

The most important obstacle to marriage [he writes] is the already ineradicable conviction that, in order to preserve and especially to guide a family, all the qualities I see in you are necessary—and I mean all of them, the good and the bad. . . . Of all these qualities I had comparatively few, almost one, in fact. And yet what right had I to risk marriage, seeing, as I did, that you yourself had a hard struggle during your married life, that you even failed toward your children.5

After the outbreak of World War I, he was exempted from military service as the employee of an office doing essential work. In 1921 he began to have lung trouble, and spent most of his remaining years in sanatariums. He died of tuberculosis in 1924, at the age of forty-one.

Very little of his work was published during his lifetime, and so diffident, so morbidly inadequate did he feel, that before he died he ordered Max Brod to destroy the unfinished manuscripts of his three great novels, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle. Luckily for us, his friend took upon himself the terrible burden of disregarding Kafka's wishes and published these works posthumously.


The weak son of a strong father; a Jew in a German world; an official in a government bureau; a citizen in a feudal empire; an artist trying to find time to write in the midst of the grinding business of making a living; a modern man whose life was lived in the shadow of two world wars—what sort of vision of life would the writings of such a man reveal? What could they reveal? Guilt, and the search for freedom from guilt—Kafka writes, although never directly of current events, of the condition of twentieth-century man. Alone, homeless, and anxiety-ridden; outsiders, exiles, and aliens, Kafka's strange heroes are at once projections of their creator's neurosis and of our own—for he felt in an especially acute form what we all feel in one degree or another. We are in a nightmare world which is all too real, where forces beyond our control or comprehension are massed destructively against us, and where our love never seems to go right. And nowhere can we find whoever or whatever is responsible, for the enemy is so close to us that we cannot see him—he is inside us, he is ourselves. It does not matter whether this leader or that one is in power: the rush of our doom seems to menace us always. So we are sick, sick with fear, shame, and paralysis of the soul. The more we try to do something about it, the more involved we become in the sticky web of defeat and despair.

The world which we find in his books, then, is a world of parable and allegory, a world in which lonely men wander down endless corridors trying to find a way, a door, to the answer of the riddle of their existence, trying to make sense out of a senseless life. They are obstinately rational in the midst of irrationality, and they patiently and desperately and stubbornly go from clerk to official, from office to bureau, in an endless quest to discover what crime they have been accused of, who the judges are, and how they can defend themselves. They are faced with an enormously and mysteriously proliferating social structure where those at the bottom do not know who is at the top, or whether anybody is at the top at all. In this respect, as in so many others, George Orwell's 1984 shows the influence of Kafka (just as Kafka shows the influence of Charles Dickens, another writer concerned with the clash between the homeless ones and the cruel and monstrous structures of society), for no one knows whether Big Brother actually exists or not—and it probably does not very much matter. It is like playing a game—a grim game of life and death—without knowing the rules, or a game in which only your invisible opponent knows the rules and changes them at his will.

It is with a shock that we realize that what looks like a nightmare is actually our world. For Kafka is a master of the art of serious fantasy: he treats the fantastic literally, and as a result we can see that the literal world is fantastic. The point is not to provide us with an escape from our world, but rather to bring us closer to it. Starting with some weird and impossible occurrence—as, for example, a man turning into a bug one gray morning—he proceeds soberly and realistically to show how this man feels, how he worries about being late for work, how it is difficult for him to turn his doorknob, how his family is horrified but never incredulous. Beginning, in other words, with a completely unnatural event, he treats it so naturally thereafter that all seems perfectly logical and real. The result is that we soon begin to recognize that exaggeration and distortion are serving a significant artistic function: Kafka sees what is happening to the inner reality of our world—he sees the threats developing beneath the surface of our lives because they are closer to the surface of his life than of ours—and by means of the special catastrophes of fantasy brings them vividly to light, making visible the hidden and known the secret. The exaggerations and distortions are poetic license, but the threats they reveal are palpable; they are there, dwelling within the lives of us all. And so it is that when we return to the "real" world we know, after reading his fables and fancies, we are able to see it more clearly. The real world is fantastic, and is becoming more so every day. And so it is that we see that Kafka's fables are not so fabulous after all: we have come full circle, from the real to the fantastic, and back again to the real.

Critics have argued over whether Kafka sees an answer to this enormous puzzle, and if he does, just what that answer is. Does he see any hope, or nothing but despair? Does he believe in God, or in Reason, or in anything? Does he urge the individual to oppose the system, or to join it? Does he see any escape, any freedom? Does he think that life is worthwhile, or not? The fact is that he did not have the decisiveness either to believe or to disbelieve—or perhaps his subtle and ironic attitude was a form of courage. Although readers can find grounds in his work for different conclusions, I believe something can be said about his meaning, if that something is inclusive enough. Let us beware of trying to fit such a complex man and artist into any either-or scheme of interpretation: he was as aware of the loneliness of the outsider as he was of the insanity of society, and in The Metamorphosis, for example, he is as aware of the need for family love as he is of its dangers. He is saying, in other words, that man needs society, man needs the family, but that he needs to be himself as well. The problem is how to reconcile these different and sometimes opposing needs, and the solution, as I hope to show, has something to do with the courage required for a man to cast off a love which has enslaved him, or which he is using in order to enslave himself. Kafka believes in love, and in freedom from love, at one and the same time. This paradox will take some explaining.


But first, let us turn to the story itself.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.

He lay on his back, which was as hard as armor plate, and raising his head a little, he could see the arch of his great, brown belly, divided by bowed corrugations. The bed-cover was slipping helplessly off the summit of the curve, and Gregor's legs, pitiably thin, compared with their former size, fluttered helplessly before his eyes.

"What has happened?" he thought. It was no dream.6 (P. 537)

This is a young man who has been supporting his father, mother, and sister for the past four years, as a commercial traveler. His father's business had failed five years ago, and Gregor has five or six more years to go before he will have paid off the money his father owes to his employer. As he wakes up this morning in this strange condition, his first anxiety is about his job. His family knock at his bedroom door, but they cannot get in. The manager of his office is sent to find out why he is not at work, and when the door is finally opened, they all panic when they see him thus changed. Gregor himself cannot quite realize what has happened, for within himself he still feels he is the same. Their horror, therefore, is all the more poignant, as we see it from his point of view. The first section of the story ends with his father's beating him back into his room.7

From this point on, both he and his family begin to change—they for the better, he for the worse, so that the story is built on something of an hourglass pattern. Up to this point, they have been his parasites and had fallen into a psychosomatic torpor as a result of their dependence on him. The father is "an old man who had ceased to work five years before," and this had been "his first holiday in a life entirely devoted to work and unsuccess." He "had become very fat and moved with great difficulty. And the old mother . . . passed a good deal of her time each day lying on the sofa, panting and wheezing under the open window." The sister, finally, "only" seventeen years old, was well "suited to the life she had led. . . . nicely dressed, getting plenty of sleep, helping in the house, taking part in a few harmless little entertainments, and playing her violin." (P. 556)

The point is that it is out of the anguish of their horror and their need to support themselves that they begin freeing themselves from their dependency upon Gregor. Indeed, the title may refer as much to their change as to his. The father gets a job, and his appearance improves: "his white hair, ordinarily untidy, had been carefully brushed till it shone." (P. 563) The mother does needlework at home for a lingerie shop, "and the sister, who had obtained a job as a shop assistant, would study shorthand or French in the hope of improving her position." (P. 565) At the end we read: "On careful reflection, they decided that things were not nearly so bad as they might have been, for—and this was a point they had not hitherto realized—they had all three found really interesting occupations which looked even more promising in the future." (P. 579)

In the meantime, Gregor becomes in turn their parasite, and in a very literal form. His room has to be cleared to allow him space to move about in, and moldy food has to be shoved into it to appease his bug-like appetite. He still has some human feelings left, however, and yearns for care and company. One night he wanders out into the dining room and his father has to bombard him with apples in order to drive him back into his room. One of them lodges in his back and festers there. So ends the second part.

With the third and last part, the opposing changes in this double plot come to their logical conclusions. In order to bring in some more money, the family have taken in three men as boarders, but the presence of this monster, who was once their son and brother, in the house is a continuing cause of discomfort and despair. They do not know what to do with him. Even the sister, who has been the kindest of all to him, now wants to get rid of this bug which is ruining their lives. Gregor, who has become weakened as a result of the wound and the subsequent loss of his appetite, and who has had difficulty in retaining his human feelings anyway, simply retreats to his by now filthy room and passes quietly away:

He thought of his family in tender solicitude. He realized that he must go, and his opinion on this point was even more firm, if possible, than that of his sister. He lay in this state of peaceful and empty meditation till the clock struck the third morning hour. He saw the landscape grow lighter through the window; then, against his will, his head fell forward and his last feeble breath streamed from his nostrils. (P. 576)

Some time later, free at last, his family take an excursion to the country. And the story ends on this hopeful note:

Herr and Frau Samsa noticed almost together that, during this affair, Grete had blossomed into a fine strapping girl, despite the make-up which made her cheeks look pale. They became calmer; almost unconsciously they exchanged glances; it occurred to both of them that it would soon be time for her to find a husband. And it seemed to them that their daughter's gestures were a confirmation of these new dreams of theirs, an encouragement for their good intentions, when, at the end of the journey, the girl rose before them and stretched her young body. (P. 579)


What can the implications of such a story be? It is, as I have already suggested, about family love and the dangers of dependency in such a situation. In the beginning, the family has been Gregor's parasite, and then he becomes theirs. Two harmful consequences are involved in this sort of love: the dependent one becomes weak, and the strong one becomes paradoxically entrapped in his responsibilities toward the weak one. Thus, before his change, Gregor's family had fallen into a useless stupor, and he had become enslaved by the endless task of paying off his father's debts and supporting the family—he had no normal life of his own, and his growth was as effectively blocked as theirs. After his change, the tables were turned, and he becomes dependent while they become chained to the hopeless responsibility of taking care of him, A way out of this vicious circle must be found, however, and his death frees them finally to live and grow again.

The story says, in other words, that we must be free of the dependency of love in order to be ourselves. This statement does not mean that we must be free of love, but of the dependency of love. We might say that love is provisional rather than absolute, and that when one person becomes so dependent upon the love of another that he prevents the other's growth, as well as his own, then both must free themselves of such a love. Just as his growth is thwarted by their dependency, so too is theirs blocked when he becomes dependent on them. And just as his family were not fulfilling their capacities when they were his parasites, so too was he becoming less than himself when he was their parasite. As his sister says: "I will not mention my brother's name when I speak of this monster here; I merely want to say: we must find some means of getting rid of it. We have done all that is humanly possible to care for it, to put up with it; I believe that nobody could reproach us in the least." (P. 573) And so it is that misfortune, in a paradoxical way, can sometimes free us from a love we cannot break away from on our own and so allow us to become ourselves: he must become a bug in order to release them from their dependency on him, and he must die in order to allow them to grow. Through this involuntary exchange of roles, he redeems them.

But it is a tragic redemption. Gregor still has a few human feelings left at the end, and we feel that his sacrifice is a cruel price to pay for his family's welfare. Especially since they are somewhat shallow people, and even in their renewed vitality at the end, they seem somewhat coarse and vulgar. But what, after all, were the alternatives? Had he continued on as the sole support of his family, neither he nor they would have benefitted. For he was not really alive at all in his role as provider, and ironically his continued success in that very role could only have reduced his family further in their moral degradation. Even if he had paid off that impossible debt, they all would have lost in the end—he wasted by overwork and they wallowing in indolence. As it turns out, he paid off the debt in a better way after all.


We may ask, finally, how these implications relate to what we have been saying about Kafka's life and vision. We have come, in our discussion, from the projection of his family problems into a social vision, back to a concern with family life itself, the root and source of that vision. Only something has gotten turned around in the process, for the personal situation has been reversed: in this story, at least to begin with, it is the father who is weak and the son who is strong, and it is the family which must be freed from the son rather than the son from the family. This reversal of roles makes the issue more universal and less personal, and it makes it less stereotyped by showing that the dependency problem works both ways. It is an artistic tour de force thus to turn the son's inadequacy into the family's. Of course the story itself, in detailing Gregor's change from breadwinner to parasite, reverses these roles once again, and thus does reflect more immediately Kafka's personal sense of inadequacy, his sense of being indeed a bug, and his feeling that it would be better for all concerned if he did die.

I remarked earlier that Kafka not only feared his father, but he loved him as well. He writes in his "Letter":

. . . when I used to see you, tired out on those hot summer noons, taking a nap after lunch in your store, your elbow stemmed on the desk; or on Summer Sundays, when you arrived exhausted on a visit to your family in the country; or the time when mother was seriously ill, when you leaned against the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or during my recent illness, when you came softly into my room, remaining on the threshold and stretching your neck to see me in bed, and then, out of consideration, greeting me only with a wave of your hand. At such times I would lie down and cry with happiness, and I am crying again while writing it down.8

But it is as if he were saying in this story that only by freeing himself from this love could he become free of this fear.

In his life, however, he could not manage such freedom, for he could not find it in himself to reject his father as Gregor's family had to reject him, perhaps because he could not see his father as a revolting insect—only himself. In his letter, he puts these imagined words of reproach against the son in his father's mouth:

You have simply made up your mind to live entirely on me. I admit that we are fighting each other, but there are two kinds of fight. There is the knightly battle, where equal opponents are pitted against each other, each for himself, each loses for himself or wins for himself. And there is the struggle of vermin, which not only stings, but at the same time preserves itself by sucking the other's blood. . . . such are you. You are not fit for life, but in order to live in comfort, without worry or self-reproach, you prove that I have taken away your fitness for life and put it all into my pocket.9

Max Brod speculates that this is a crucial passage for the understanding of The Metamorphosis, and I think he is right.

It was the tragedy of Kafka's life that he could see the way to freedom, but could not bring himself to take it. Although he wanted desperately to free himself from his dependency on his father, he could not surrender the comfort of his love for his father, a love which enslaved him because it enabled him, in a twisted and neurotic way, to avoid self-reproach for his inadequacies, inadequacies of which he was somewhat too exquisitely aware and on whose bitter fruit he had to feed in order to live at all. By thus convicting himself of defeat in advance, he simply did not have to try to succeed, for if he tried and then failed, he would have had only himself to blame. To try is to put one's efforts to the test of experience, and this Kafka could not risk, for then the failure would be his and not his father's at all. That is why he purposely sought out a dull profession, that is why he could not marry, and that is why he wanted his manuscripts burned after his death. He made a career out of failure by refusing to risk success.

But he also made great art out of it, so that in a paradoxical way he succeeded after all. What he could see but not act upon as a man, he could, as a writer, have his characters both realize and do something about. In this way, he has left us the legacy of a partial victory at least. By making a fantasy out of the problem of family love, and then by treating the fantasy as real, he has shown us that the inner reality is fantastic indeed. The metamorphosis of a man into an insect symbolizes parasitism: Gregor becomes literally what his family had become figuratively—a vermin, a creature which not only stings, but which at the same time preserves itself by sucking the other's blood.

How can such parasitism be explained? If someone does not approve of you, he can make you feel inadequate only if you want his approval, only if you care about his opinion. Now this wanting and caring can be motivated either by your fear of him or your love for him, or by a mixture of both. Your fear may be caused by some power he has over you, and your love by some tenderness he has shown toward you or by your sense of duty toward him. Obviously, the parent-child relationship has a great potential for producing love and fear: this is what happened to Kafka in relation to his father, and this is what happens, in a reverse way, to Gregor's family in relation to Gregor.

The point is that this caring, which enables you to nourish your feelings of inadequacy instead of seeing that the other's love may be at fault, may be a cover-up for your fear of failure, for it allows you covertly to make the person you love responsible for your own inadequacies. Your love for him has made his smiles or frowns the cause of your joys and despairs. If you did not care about his approval, you would not be able to feel he was responsible when you feel you have failed. The attribution of responsibility is the vermin's sting, and the love is the bloodsucking of the parasite—the love which makes your whole emotional life dependent on him, and which in turn allows you to hold him responsible in the first place. Thus does your dependency become a form of domination, and thus does the person you have placed in the commanding role become your prisoner, the prisoner of his victim. For you are asking him to give you what no one can give you except yourself: security, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Your success or failure depends on his approval or disapproval, and so is not a knightly battle where "each loses for himself or wins for himself." That is why it is a dependent love, and that is why such a love is wrong: it allows you "to live in comfort, without worry or self-reproach." When you cannot win security and self-esteem by trying something on your own, this love becomes a substitute for independent risk taking and so prevents you from growing. The answer is easy to see but hard to do: you must free yourself from this love in order to become yourself; you must cease to care about the person who has reduced you—whether because of your fear or your love—to ineffectuality; you must purge yourself of your concern for him.

That is why Kafka had Gregor turn into a bug: so that his family would be able to stop caring about him. Once they see that he is no longer their son and brother, they no longer feel responsible for loving him and so are free to grow and prosper for themselves. It is almost as if Gregor, in seeing that they had become his helpless parasites, decided unconsciously to exchange places with them in order to free them, for they could not find it in themselves to break away from their dependency on him any more than Kafka could find it in himself to break away from his dependency on his father. Thus he made himself their dependent, becoming the bug in fact that they were becoming figuratively, so that they could no longer depend on him even if they wanted to. They are forced by his subservience to become independent, but they must also stop loving him in order to stand on their own feet. And they cannot love a bug—no one can—so they are free.

His support of them was ruining them all anyway—it is as if he chose to sacrifice himself quickly rather than drag the ordeal out endlessly. In this way, they can be free of him, and do it without guilt in the bargain. They would have earned from us even less sympathy than they do now if they had rejected him when he was still in human form: his metamorphosis enables them to do what they otherwise could not have done. His change is therefore, from their point of view, ultimately an act of mercy, for it lets them off the hook, as it were. The worm has indeed turned, or rather the strong one has made himself weak in order to make the weak ones strong. They must do to him what he was unable to do to them; unable to quit them, he makes them quit him. They cannot lift themselves by their bootstraps. As the parasites, they must stop loving him, but they cannot do so until he is the bug. A parasite is by nature dependent, and can only rebel when the one he is feeding on starts feeding on him. There is a delayed reaction here, for Kafka understood that once a parasite, always a parasite, that a vermin cannot will his own freedom: he has to be vanquished and then freed by another vermin, not a knight. Had Kafka's father become hopelessly sick or crippled, Kafka might have been freed from his bug-hood. But Kafka was the one who got tuberculosis instead, and died, imprisoned by love to the end.


1 First delivered as a talk at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, New York, on January 23, 1964. I wish to express my gratitude to Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser for certain helpful suggestions which I have incorporated in this paper.

2 The source of my biographical data is Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (New York, 1960). Extracts from the "Letter," with commentary by Brod, are found in A Franz Kafka Miscellany (New York, 1946), pp. 39-50. The passage quoted is on p. 43.

3Kafka Miscellany, pp. 43-44.

4Ibid., p. 45.

5Kafka Miscellany, p. 44.

6 The text I am using is found in Charles Neider, ed., Short Novels of the Masters (New York, 1948), pp. 537-79. Page numbers parenthetically inserted into the body of this page refer to that volume.

7 Certain portions of the analysis here and below are derived from my earlier article, "Kafka's Metamorphosis: A Literal Reading," Approach, no. 49 (Fall, 1963), 26-34.

8Kafka Miscellany, p. 42.

9Ibid., p. 50.

Stanley Corngold (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7250

SOURCE: "Kafka's Die Verwandlung: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor," in Mosaic, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 91-106.

[In the following essay, Corngold analyzes Kafka's literalization of metaphorical language in The Metamorphosis.]

To judge from its critical reception, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is the most haunting and universal of all his stories; and yet Kafka never claimed for it any particular distinction. His comments on the story in his letters and diaries are almost entirely negative. "A pity," he wrote to Felice Bauer on December 6, 1912, "that in many passages in the story my states of exhaustion and other interruptions and worries about other things are clearly inscribed. It could certainly have been more cleanly done; you see that from the sweet pages."1 His disappointment with the ending was especially great. "My little story is finished, but today's conclusion doesn't make me happy at all; it should have been better, no doubt about it" (F163).2 This charge recurs in the diary entry for January 19, 1914: "Great antipathy to Metamorphosis. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip."3

Kafka's own sense of The Metamorphosis tends, I think, to shift the weight of its significance towards its beginning. This result is confirmed by other evidence establishing what might be termed the general and fundamental priority of the beginning in Kafka's works. One thinks of the innumerable openings to stories which are scattered throughout the diaries and notebooks, which are suddenly born and as swiftly vanish, leaving undeveloped the endless dialectical structures they contain. Kafka explicitly expressed, on October 16, 1921, "The misery of a perpetual beginning, the lack of the illusion that anything is more than a beginning or even as much as a beginning . . ." (T542).4 For Dieter Hasselblatt "[Kafka's prose] is a fugitive from the beginning, it does not strive towards the end: initiofugal, not final. And since it takes the impulse of its progression from what is set forth or what is lying there at the outset, it cannot be completed. The end, the conclusion, is unimportant next to the opening situation."5

One is directed, it would seem, by these empirical and theoretical considerations, to formulate the overwhelming question of The Metamorphosis as the question of the meaning of its beginning. What fundamental intention inspires the opening sentence of The Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin (ungeheures Ungeziefer)" (E71)?6 In answering this question we shall do well to keep in mind, in the words of a recent critic, "the identity [of the beginning] as radical starting point: the intransitive and conceptual aspect, that which has no object but its own constant clarification."7 Much of the action of The Metamorphosis consists of Kafka's attempt to come to terms with its beginning.

The opening of The Metamorphosis recounts the metamorphosis of a man into a monstrous, verminous bug, but in doing this it appears to accomplish still another metamorphosis: it metamorphoses a common figure of speech. This second metamorphosis emerges in the light of the hypothesis proposed, in 1947, by Günther Anders: "Kafka's sole point of departure is . . . ordinary language. . . . More precisely: he draws from the resources on hand, the figurative character (Bildcharakter), of language. He takes metaphors at their word (beim Wort). For example: Because Gregor Samsa wants to live as an artist (i.e., as a 'Luftmensch'—one who lives on air, lofty and free-floating), in the eyes of the highly respectable, hard-working world he is a 'nasty bug' ('dreckiger Käfer'): and so in The Metamorphosis he wakes up as a beetle whose idea of happiness is to be sticking to the ceiling."8 For Günther Anders The Metamorphosis originates in the transformation of a familiar metaphor into a fictional being literally existing as this metaphor. The story develops, as aspects of the metaphor are enacted in minute detail.

Anders' evidence for this view is furnished partly by his entire comprehension of Kafka: "What Kafka describes are . . . existing things, the world, as it appears to the stranger (namely strange). . . ."9 Anders adduces, moreover, examples of everyday figures of speech which, taken literally, inspire stories and scenes in Kafka. "Language says 'To feel it with your own body' ('Am eignen Leibe etwas erfahren') when it wants to express the reality of experience. This is the basis of Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony,' in which the criminal's punishment is not communicated to him by word of mouth, but is instead scratched into his body with a needle."10

Anders' hypothesis has been taken up in Walter Sokel's writings on The Metamorphosis. The notion of the "extended metaphor," which Sokel considers in an early essay to be "significant" and "interesting" though "insufficient as a total explanation of Metamorphosis,"11 reemerges in The Writer in Extremis (Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 47, as a crucial determinant of Expressionism: "The character Gregor Samsa has been transformed into a metaphor that states his essential self, and this metaphor in turn is treated like an actual fact. Samsa does not call himself a cockroach; instead he wakes up to find himself one." Expressionist prose, for Sokel, is to be defined precisely by such "extended metaphors, metaphoric visualizations of emotional situations, uprooted from any explanatory context" (p. 46). In Franz KafkaTragik und Ironie (Munich, Vienna, 1964), p. 99, the factual character of the Kafkan metaphor is reasserted: "In Kafka's work, as in the dream, symbol is fact. . . . A world of pure significance, of naked expression, is represented deceptively as a sequence of empirical facts." But in Franz Kafka (Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 5, Sokel first states the "pure significance" of Kafka's literalization of the metaphor:

German usage applies the term Ungeziefer (vermin) to persons considered low and contemptible, even as our usage of "cockroach" describes a person deemed a spineless and miserable character. The traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, is "like a cockroach" because of his spineless and abject behavior and parasitic wishes. However, Kafka drops the word "like" and has the metaphor become reality when Gregor Samsa wakes up finding himself turned into a giant vermin. With this metamorphosis, Kafka reverses the original act of metamorphosis carried out by thought when it forms metaphor; for metaphor is always "metamorphosis." Kafka transforms metaphor back into his fictional reality, and this counter-metamorphosis becomes the starting point of his tale.

The sequence of Sokel's reflections on Anders' hypothesis contains an important shift of emphasis. Initially the force of The Metamorphosis is felt to lie in the choice and "extension" (dramatization) of the powerful metaphor. To confirm his view, Sokel cites Johannes Urzidil's recollection of a conversation with Kafka: "Once Kafka said to me: 'To be a poet means to be strong in metaphors. The greatest poets were always the most metaphorical ones. They were those who recognized the deep mutual concern, yes, even the identity of things between which nobody noticed the slightest connection before. It is the range and the scope of the metaphor which makes one a poet.'"12 But in his later work, Sokel locates the origin of Kafka's "poetry," not in the metamorphosis of reality accomplished by the metaphor, but in the "counter-metamorphosis" accomplished by the transformation of the metaphor. Kafka's "taking over" images from ordinary speech enacts a second metaphorization (metaphero = carry over)—one that concludes in the literalization and hence the metamorphosis of the metaphor.13 This point once made, the genuine importance of Kafka's remarks to Urzidil can be revealed through their irony. In describing the poet as one "strong in metaphors," Kafka is describing writers other than himself; for he is the writer, par excellence, who came to detect in metaphorical language a crucial obstacle to his own enterprise.

Kafka's critique of the metaphor begins early, in the phantasmagoric story "Description of a Struggle" (1904-05). The first-person narrator addresses with exaggerated severity another persona of the author:

"Now I realize, by God, that I guessed from the very beginning the state you are in. Isn't it something like a fever, a seasickness on land, a kind of leprosy? Don't you feel it's this very feverishness which is preventing you from being properly satisfied with the genuine (wahrhaftigen) names of things, and that now, in your frantic haste, you're just pelting them with any old (zufällige) names? You can't do it fast enough. But hardly have you run away from them when you've forgotten the names you gave them. The poplar in the fields, which you've called the 'Tower of Babel' because you didn't want to know it was a poplar, sways again without a name, so you have to call it 'Noah in his cups.'" (B43)14

In the sense that "language is fundamentally metaphoric,"15 in the sense that naming links the significations within words (Sprachinhalte)16 to the "significations to which words accrue,"17 this critique of naming amounts to a critique of the metaphor. But what is remarkable about this passage is its dissatisfaction with both ordinary names and figurative names. With the irony of exaggerated emphasis, it calls the conventional link of name and thing "genuine" and the act of re-naming things, an act which generates metaphors, arbitrary. The new metaphor leaves no permanent trace; it is the contingent product of a fever, or worse: it arises from deliberate bad faith, the refusal to accept the conventional bond of word and thing. The exact status of ordinary names remains unclear; but what is important is that Kafka sees no advance in replacing them with the figures of poetic language.

In a diary entry for December 27, 1911, Kafka states his despair of a particular attempt at metaphor: "An incoherent assumption is thrust like a board between the actual feeling and the metaphor of the description" (T217).18 Kafka has begun this diary entry confidently, claiming to have found an image analogous to a moral sentiment: "This feeling of falsity that I have while writing might be represented in the following image. . . ." The image Kafka constructs is of a man in front of two holes in the ground, one to the right and one to the left; he is waiting for something that can rise up only out of the hole to the right. Instead of this, appearances rise up, one after the other, from the left; they try to attract his attention and succeed finally in covering up even the hole on his right. At this stage of the construction, the image predominates in its materiality. As the image is developed, however, the role of the spectator is developed, who expels these appearances upwards and in all directions in the hope "that after the false appearances have been exhausted, the true will finally appear." But precisely at the point of conjuring up "truthful apparitions," the metaphorist feels most critically the inadequacy of this figurative language: "How weak this image is." And he concludes with the complaint that between his sentiment and figurative language there is no true coherence (though he cannot, ironically, say this without having recourse to a figure of speech). Now what is crucial here is that an image which is mainly material has failed to represent the sentiment of writing; and though it has been replaced by one which introduces the consciousness of an observer, between the moral sentiment of writing and an act of perception there is no true connection either. If the writer finds it difficult to construct metaphors for "a feeling of falsity," how much graver must be his difficulty in constructing figures for genuine feelings, figures for gratifying the desire "to write all my anxiety entirely out of me, write it into the depths of the paper just as it comes out of the depths of me, or write it in such a way that I could draw what I had written into me completely" (T185)?19

Kafka's awareness of the limitations of figurative language continues to grow more radical. The desire to represent a state-of-mind immediately in language, in a form consubstantial with that consciousness, and hence to create symbols, cannot be gratified through figurative language. "For everything outside the phenomenal world, language can only be used in the manner of an allusion (andeutungsweise), but never even approximately in the manner of a simile (vergleichsweise), since corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations" (H92).20 But try as language will to reduce itself to its allusive function, it continues to find itself dependent on the metaphor, on accomplishing states-of-mind by means of material analogues. Kafka writes on December 6, 1921 : "Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing. Writing's lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat wanning itself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair" (T550-51).21 Indeed, the question arises, what truth could even a language determinedly non-figurative—in Kafka's word, "allusive"—possess? The parable employs language allusively, but in the powerful fable, "On Parables," Kafka writes: "All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already" (B95).22 At this point, it is clear, the literary enterprise is seen in its radical problematicalness. The growing desperation of Kafka's critique of metaphorical language leads to the result (in the words of Maurice Blanchot) that, at the end of Kafka's life, "the exigency of the truth of this other world [of sheer inwardness desiring salvation] henceforth surpasses in his eyes the exigency of the work of art."23 This situation does not suggest the renunciation of writing, but only the clearest possible perception of its limitations, a perception which emerges through Kafka's perplexity before, and despair of escaping, the metaphor in the work of art.

Kafka's "counter-metamorphosis" of the metaphor in The Metamorphosis is inspired by his fundamental objection to the metaphor. This is accomplished—so Anders and Sokel propose—through the literalization of the metaphor. But is this true? What does it mean, exactly, to literalize a metaphor?

The metaphor designates something (A) as something (B), something in the quality of something not itself. To say that someone is a verminous bug is to designate a moral sensibility as something unlike itself, as a material sensation complicated, of course, by the atmosphere of horror which this sensation evokes. We shall call, with I. A. Richards, the tenor of the metaphor, (A), the thing designated, occulted, replaced, but otherwise established by the context of the figure; and the vehicle, the metaphor proper, (B), that thing as which the tenor is designated.24 If the metaphor is taken out of its context, however, if it is taken literally, it no longer functions as a vehicle but as a name, directing us to (B) as an abstraction or an object in the world. Moreover, it directs us to (B) in the totality of its qualities, and not, as the vehicle, to only those qualities of (B) which can be assigned to (A).

This analysis will suggest, I think, the paradoxical consequence of "taking the metaphor literally," supposing now that such a thing is possible. Reading the figure literally, we go to (B), an object in the world in its totality, yet, reading it metaphorically, we go to (B) only in its quality as a predicate of (A). The object (B) is quite plainly unstable and, hence, so is (A); as literalization proceeds, as we attempt to experience in (B) more and more qualities that can be accommodated by (A), we metamorphose (A); but we must stop before the metamorphosis is complete, if the metaphor is to be preserved and (A) is to remain unlike (B). If, now, the tenor, as in The Metamorphosis, is a human consciousness, the increasing literalization of the vehicle transforms the tenor into a monster.

This genesis of monsters occurs independently of the nature of the vehicle. The intent towards literalization of a metaphor linking a human consciousness and a material sensation produces a monster in every instance, no matter whether the vehicle is odious or not, no matter whether we begin with the metaphor of a "louse" or of the man who is a rock or sterling. But it now appears that Anders is not correct to suggest that in The Metamorphosis literalization of the metaphor is actually accomplished; for then we should have not an indefinite monster but simply a bug. Indeed the progressive deterioration of Gregor's body suggests ongoing metamorphosis, the process of literalization and not its end-state. And Sokel's earlier formulation would not appear to be tenable: the metaphor is not treated "like an actual fact." Only the alien cleaning woman gives Gregor Samsa the factual, the entomological identity of the "dung beetle"; but precisely "to forms of address like these Gregor would not respond" (El25). The cleaning woman does not know that a metamorphosis has occurred, that in this insect shape there is a human consciousness, one superior at times to the ordinary consciousness of Gregor Samsa. Our analysis shows that the metamorphosis in the Samsa household of a man into a vermin is unsettling not only because a vermin is unsettling, and not only because the vivid representation of a "human louse" is unsettling, but because the indeterminate, fluid crossing of a human tenor and a material vehicle is in itself unsettling. Gregor is at one moment pure rapture, at another, very nearly pure dung beetle, at times grossly human, at times airily bug-like. In shifting incessantly the relation of Gregor's mind and body, Kafka shatters the suppositious unity of ideal tenor and bodily vehicle within the metaphor. This destruction must distress common sense, which defines itself by such "genuine" relations, such natural assertions of analogues between consciousness and matter, and this way masks the knowledge of its own strangeness. The ontological legitimation for asserting analogues is missing in Kafka, who maintains the most ruthless division between the fire of the spirit and the principle of the world: "What we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world . . ." (H44).25

The distortion of the metaphor in The Metamorphosis is inspired by a radical aesthetic intention, which proceeds by destruction and results in creation—of a monster, virtually nameless, existing as an opaque sign.26 "The name alone, revealed through a natural death, not the living soul, vouches for that in man which is immortal" (Adorno).27 But what is remarkable in The Metamorphosis is that "the immortal part" of the writer accomplishes itself odiously, in the quality of an indeterminacy sheerly negative. The exact sense of his intention is captured in the "Ungeziefer," a word which cannot be expressed by the English words "bug" or "vermin." "Ungeziefer" derives (as Kafka probably knew) from the late Middle High German word originally meaning "the unclean animal not suited for sacrifice."28 If for Kafka "writing is a form of prayer" (H348),29 this act of writing reflects its own hopelessness. As a distortion of the "genuine" names of things, without significance as a metaphor or as literal fact, the monster of The Metamorphosis is, like writing itself, a "fever" and a "despair."

The metamorphosis of a vermin-metaphor cannot be understood as a real vermin, as that biting and blood-sucking creature to which, for example, Kafka has his father compare him in his Letter to His Father (H222).30 But it may be illuminated by the link which Kafka established earlier between the bug and the activity of writing itself. In the story "Wedding Preparations in the Country" (1907), of which only a fragment survives, Kafka conjures a hero, Eduard Raban, reluctant to take action in the world (he is supposed to go to the country to arrange his wedding); Raban dreams instead of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and omnipotence. Kafka finds for this transparent reflection of his early literary consciousness the emblem of a beetle, about which there hovers an odd indeterminacy:

"And besides, can't I do it the way I always used to as a child in matters that were dangerous? I don't even need to go to the country myself, it isn't necessary. I'll send my clothed body. If it staggers out of the door of my room, the staggering will indicate not fear but its nothingness. Nor is it a sign of excitement if it stumbles on the stairs, if it travels into the country, sobbing as it goes, and there eats its supper in tears.

For I myself am meanwhile lying in my bed, smoothly covered over with the yellow-brown blanket, exposed to the breeze that is wafted through that seldom aired room. The carriages and people in the street move and walk hesitantly on shining ground, for I am still dreaming. Coachmen and pedestrians are shy, and every step they want to advance they ask as a favor from me, by looking at me. I encourage them and they encounter no obstacle.

As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stage beetle or a cockchafer, I think.

. . . . .

The form of a large beetle, yes. Then I would pretend it was a matter of hibernating, and I would press my little legs to my bulging belly. And I would whisper a few words, instructions to my sad body, which stands close beside me, bent. Soon I shall have done—it bows, it goes swiftly, and it will manage everything efficiently while I rest." (H11-12)31

The figure of the omnipotent bug is positive throughout this passage and suggests the inwardness of the act of writing rendered in its power and freedom, in its mystic exaltation, evidence of which abounds in Kafka's earliest diaries:

The special nature of my inspiration . . . is such that I can do everything, and not only what is directed to a definite piece of work. When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, "He looked out of the window," it already has perfection. (T41-42)32

My happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field. And here I have, to be sure, experienced states . . . in which I completely dwelt in every idea, but also filled every idea, and in which I not only felt myself at my boundary, but at the boundary of the human in general. (T57)33

How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again. (T293)34

But this is only one side of Kafka's poetic consciousness. The other is expressed through the narrator's hesitation in defining his trance by means of an objective correlative ("a stag beetle . . ., I think"), which suggests, beyond his particular distress, the general impossibility of the metaphor's naming immediately with a material image the being of an inward state, and hence a doubt that will go to the root of writing itself. After 1912 there will be few such positive emblems for the inwardness and solitude of the act of writing; this "beautiful" bug35 is projected in ignorance; the truer emblem of the alien poetic consciousness, which "has no basis, no stability" (Br385),36 which must suffer "the eternal torments of dying" (T420),37 becomes the vermin Gregor. The movement from the beautiful bug Raban to the monstrous bug Gregor marks an accession of self-knowledge—an increasing awareness of the poverty and shortcomings of writing.

The direction of Kafka's reflection on literature is fundamentally defined, however, by "The Judgment," the story written immediately before The Metamorphosis. "The Judgment" struck Kafka as a breakthrough into his own style; after the night he spent composing it, Kafka wrote in his diary, with a fine elation, "Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul" (T294).38 But in his later interpretation of the story, Kafka described it in a somewhat more sinister tonality, as having "come out of me like a regular birth, covered with filth and mucus" (T296).39 The image has the violence and inevitability of a natural process, but its filth and mucus cannot fail to remind the reader of the strange birth which is the subject of Kafka's next story—the incubus trailing filth and mucus through the household of its family.

Mainly two aspects of "The Judgment," I think, inspire in Kafka a sense of its authenticity important enough to be commemorated in the figure of the vermin. First, the figure of the friend in Russia represents with the greatest clarity to date the negativity of this "business" of writing (the friend is said by the father to be "yellow enough to be thrown away" [E67]);40 secondly, "The Judgment," like The Metamorphosis, develops, as the implications of a distorted metaphor are enacted: "The Judgment" metamorphoses the father's "judgment" or "estimate" into a fatal "verdict," a death-"sentence."

Kafka's awareness that "The Judgment" originates from the distortion of the metaphor dictates the conclusion of his "interpretation." The highly formal tonality of this structural analysis surprises the reader, following as it does on the organic simile of the sudden birth: "The friend is the link between father and son, he is their strongest common bond. Sitting alone at his window, Georg rummages voluptuously in this consciousness of what they have in common, believes he has his father within him, and would be at peace with everything if it were not for a fleeting, sad thoughtfulness. In the course of the story the father . . . uses the common bond of the friend to set himself up as Georg's antagonist" (T296).41 This analysis employs the structural model of the metamorphosed metaphor. At first Georg considers the father as the friend; his friend, as the metaphor of the father. But Georg's doom is to take the metaphor literally, to suppose that by himself sharing the quality of the friend, he possesses the father in fact. Now in a violent counter-movement the father distorts the initial metaphor, drawing the friend's existence into himself; and Georg, who now feels "what they have in common . . . only as something foreign, something that has become independent, that he has never given enough protection . . ." (T296), accepts his sentence.42

It is this new art, generated from the distortion of relations modelled on the metaphor, which came to Kafka as an elation, a gross new birth, and a sentence; the aesthetic intention comes to light negatively when it must express itself through so tormented and elliptical a strategem as the metamorphosis of the metaphor. The restrictedness and misery of this art is the explicit subject of The Metamorphosis; the invention which henceforth shapes Kafka's existence as a writer is original, arbitrary and fundamentally strange. In a later autobiographical note he writes: "Everything he does seems to him extraordinarily new, it is true, but also, consistent with this incredible abundance of new things, extraordinarily amateurish, indeed scarcely tolerable, incapable of becoming history, breaking the chain of the generations, cutting off for the first time at its most profound source the music of the world, which before him could at least be divined. Sometimes in his arrogance he is more afraid for the world than for himself (B279).43 Kafka's pride in his separateness is just equal to his nostalgia for "the music of the world." We shall think of the violently distorted metaphor which yields this figure, of Gregor Samsa, who in responding to his sister's violin playing, causes this music to be broken off. That being who lives as a distortion of nature; who, without a history and without a future, still maintains a certain sovereignty; conjures through the extremity of his separation the clearest possible idea of the music he cannot possess.

In his letter of July 5, 1992, to Max Brod, Kafka envisions the writer as inhabiting a place outside the house of life—as a dead man, as one among the "departed," of the Reflections, who long to be flooded back to us (H39).44 It cannot be otherwise; the writer has no genuine existence ("[ist] etwas nicht Bestehendes"); what he produces is devilish, "the reward for devil's duty—this descent to the dark forces, this unbinding of spirits by nature bound, dubious embraces and whatever else may go on below, of which one no longer knows anything above ground when in the sunlight one writes stories. Perhaps there is also another kind of writing. I only know this kind" (Br385). "Yet," as Erich Heller remarks, "it remains dubious who this One' is who 'writes stories in the sunlight.' Kafka himself? 'The Judgment'—and sunlight? The Metamorphosis . . . and sunlight . . . ? How must it have been 'below ground' if 'above ground' blossoms like these were put forth?" (F22).

Kafka's art, which Kafka elsewhere calls a conjuration of spirits, brings into the light of language the experience of descent and doubt. And even this experience has to be repeated perpetually: "Thus I waver, continually fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. . . . [It] is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying" (T420).45 There is no true duration in this desperate flight; conjuring his own death, Kafka writes: "The writer in me of course will die at once, for such a figure has no basis, has no substance, isn't even of dust; is only a construction of the craving for enjoyment. This is the writer" (Br385). The self-indulgence which defines the writer is that of the being who perpetually reflects on himself and others. The word "figure," in the passage above, can be taken à la lettre: the writer is defined by his verbal figures, conceived at a distance from life, inspired by a devilish aesthetic detachment craving to indulge itself; but he suffers, too, the meaninglessness of the figure uprooted from the language of life—the dead figure. Kafka's spirit then does spend itself "zur Illuminierung meines Leichnams" (Br385), in lighting up—but also in furnishing figurai decorations for—his corpse.

It is this dwelling outside the house of life, "Schriftstellersein," the negative condition of writing as such, which is named in The Metamorphosis-, but it cannot name itself directly, in a language that designates things that are, or in the figures that suggest the relations between things constituting the common imagination of life. Instead Kafka utters in The Metamorphosis a word for a being unacceptable to man (ungeheuer) and unacceptable to God (Ungeziefer), a word unsuited either to intimate speech or to prayer. This word evokes a distortion without visual identity or self-awareness—engenders, for a hero, a pure sign. The creature of The Metamorphosis is not a self speaking or being silent but language itself (parole)—a word broken loose from the context of language (Iangage), fallen into a void the meaning of which it cannot signify, near others who cannot understand it.

As the story of a metamorphosed metaphor, The Metamorphosis is not just one among Kafka's stories but an exemplarily Kafkan story; the title reflects the generative principle of Kafka's fiction—a metamorphosis of the function of language. In organizing itself around a distortion of ordinary language, The Metamorphosis projects into its center a sign which absorbs its own significance (as Gregor's opaque body occludes his awareness of self), and thus aims in an opposite direction from the art of the symbol; for there, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, the sign is "devoured" by its signification.46 The outcome of this tendency of The Metamorphosis is its ugliness. Symbolic art, modelled on the metaphor which occults the signifier to the level of signification, strikes us as beautiful: our notion of the beautiful harmony of sign and significance is one dominated by the human signification, by the form of the person which in Schiller's classical conception of art "extirpates the material reference."47 These expectations are disappointed by the opaque and impoverished sign in Kafka. His art devours the human meaning of itself, and indeed must soon raise the question of a suitable nourishment. It is thus strictly internally coherent that the vermin—the word without significance—should divine fresh nourishment and affinity in music, the language of signs without significance.48

But the song which Gregor hears does not transform his suffering; the music breaks off; the monster finds nourishment in a cruder fantasy of anger and possession. This scene communicates the total discrepancy between the vermin's body and the cravings appropriate to it, and the other sort of nourishment for which he yearns; the moment produces, not symbolic harmony, but the intolerable tension of irreconcilables. In Kafka's unfathomable sentence: "Was he an animal, that music could move him so?" (El30), paradox echoes jarringly without end.

At the close of The Metamorphosis Gregor is issued a death-sentence by his family which he promptly takes over as his own; he then passes into a vacant trance.

He had pains, of course, in his whole body, but it seemed to him as if they were gradually getting weaker and weaker and would finally go away entirely. The rotten apple in his back and the inflamed area around it, which were completely covered with fluffy dust, already hardly bothered him. He thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even stronger than his sister's. In this state of empty and peaceful reflection, he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. (El36)

He is empty of all practical concerns; his body has dwindled to a mere dry husk, substantial enough to have become sonorous, too substantial not to have been betrayed by the promise of harmony in music. He suggests Christ, the Christ of John (19:30) but not of Matthew (27:50) or Mark (15:37), for Gregor's last moment is silent and painless. "He still sensed that outside the window everything was beginning to grow bright. Then, against his will, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils came his last weak stream of breath" (El36-137). For a moment the dim desert of Gregor's world grows luminous; his opaque body, progressively impoverished, achieves a faint translucency. Through the destruction of the specious harmony of the metaphor and the aesthetic claims of the symbol, Kafka engenders another sort of beauty and, with this, closes a circle of reflection on his own work. For, in 1910, just before his mature art originates as the distortion of the metaphor, Kafka wrote in the story fragment, "'You,' I said. . . .": "Already what protected me seemed to dissolve here in the city. I was beautiful in the early days, for this dissolution takes place as an apotheosis, in which everything that holds us to life flies away, but even in flying away illumines us for the last time with its human light" (T23).49

At the close of The Metamorphosis the ongoing metamorphosis of the metaphor accomplishes itself through a consciousness empty of all practical attention and a body that preserves its opacity, but in so dwindled a form that it achieves the condition of a painless translucency, a kind of beauty. In creating in the vermin a figure for the distortion of the metaphor, the generative principle of his art, Kafka underscores the negativity of writing, but at the same time enters the music of the historical world at a crucial juncture; his art reveals at its root a powerful Romantic aesthetic tradition associated with the names of Rousseau, Hölderlin, Wordsworth, Schlegel, Solger, which criticizes symbolic form and metaphorical diction in the name of a kind of allegorical language.50 The figures of this secular allegory do not refer doctrinally to Scripture but to the source of the decision to constitute them. They replace the dogmatic unity of sign and significance with the temporal relation of the sign to its luminous source. This relation comes to light through the temporal difference between the allegorical sign and the sign prefiguring it; the exact meaning of the signs is less important than the temporal character of their relation. The vermin that alludes to vermin-figures in Kafka's early work, whose death amid increasing luminousness alludes casually to Christ's, is just such a figure. But to stress now the temporal character of the metamorphosed metaphor of The Metamorphosis is to distinguish it fundamentally from the "extended metaphor" of Sokel's discussion; for in this organistic conception of the figure, sign and significance coincide as forms of extension. And if Expressionism is to be defined by its further extension of metaphor, then The Metamorphosis cannot be accommodated in an Expressionist tradition.

But though The Metamorphosis joins an allegorical tradition within Romanticism, it does so only for a moment before departing radically from it. The light in which Gregor dies is said explicitly to emanate from outside the window and not from a source within the subject. The creature turned away from life, facing death, and as such a pure sign of the poetic consciousness, keeps for Kafka its opaque and tellurian character. It is as a distorted body that Gregor is struck by the light; and it is in this light principally unlike the source of poetic creation that the work of art just comes to recognize its own truth. For, wrote Kafka, "our art is a way of being dazzled by truth; the light on the flinching, grimacing face (zurückweichenden Fratzengesicht) is true, and nothing else" (H46).51 Because the language of Kafka's fiction originates so knowingly from a reflection on ordinary speech, it cannot show the truth except as a solid body reflecting the light, a blank fragment of "what we call the world of the senses, [which] is the Evil in the spiritual world . . ." (H44).52

And so the figure of the nameless vermin remains principally opaque. More fundamental than the moment of translucency; reflecting itself not so much in the dawn as in the fact that this moment is obtained only at death and without a witness; is the horror that writing could never amount to anything more than the twisted grimace on which glances a light not its own. Here the essentially linguistic imagination of Kafka joins him to a disruptive modern tradition, described in these words of Michel Foucault:

The literature of our time is fascinated by the being of language. . . . As such, it brings sharply to light in their empirical vividness the fundamental forms of finitude. From inside language experienced and traversed as language, in the play of its possibilities taken to their limit, what comes to light is that man is "finite"; and that arriving at the summit of all possible utterance, it is not to the heart of himself he comes, but to the edge of that which limits him: that region where death prowls, where thought fades out, where the promise of the origin retreats indefinitely. . . . And as if this probing of the forms of finitude in language could not be borne . . . it has manifested itself inside madness—the figure of finitude thus appearing in language as that which discloses itself in it but also before it, on its near side, as this shapeless, mute, meaningless region in which language can liberate itself. And it is truly in this space thus laid open that literature . . . more and more purely with Kafka, with Bataille, with Blanchot has appeared . . . as the experience of finitude.53



1 All of Kafka's comments on The Metamorphosis are conveniently brought together in Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Kafka, ed. Erich Heller and Joachim Beug (Munich, 1969), pp. 51-61.

2Briefe an Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born (Frankfurt am Main, 1967), p. 160. Henceforth a letter and number in parentheses in the text, viz. (F163) [F = Briefe an Felice] will be used to refer to the appropriate work and page of the Lizenzausgabe of Kafka's writings (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer—New York: Schocken Books). All these works, with the exception of the Briefe an Felice, have been edited by Max Brod.

3The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923, ed. Max Brod, trans. Martin Greenberg (New York, 1949), p. 12; hereafter referred to as Diaries, II.

4Diaries, II, p. 193.

5 Dieter Hasselblatt, Zauber und Logik, Eine Kafka Studie (Köln, 1964), p. 61.

6E = Erzählungen. All translations of The Metamorphosis are from the forthcoming The Metamorphosis, newly trans, and ed. by Stanley Corngold (New York, 1970).

7 Edward Said, "Beginnings," Salmagundi (Fall 1968), 49.

8 Günther Anders, Kafka—Pro und Contra (Munich, 1951), pp. 40-41. For an English version (not a literal translation), see Günther Anders, Franz Kafka, trans. A. Steer and A. K. Thorlby (London, 1960).

9 Anders, Kafka—Pro und Contra, p. 20.

10 Anders, KafkaPro und Contra, p. 41.

11 Walter Sokel, "Kafka's 'Metamorphosis': Rebellion and Punishment," Monatshefte, XLVIII (1956), 203.

12 John (sic) Urzidil, "Recollections," The Kafka Problem, ed. Angel Flores (New York, 1963), p. 22.

13 Anders, KafkaPro und Contra, p. 42.

14Description of a Struggle, trans. Tania and James Stern (New York, 1958), p. 60. B = Beschreibung eines Kampfes.

15 Jacques Derrida, "Violence et Métaphysique," L'écriture et la différence (Paris, 1967), p. 137.

16 Leo Weisgerber, "Die Sprachfelder in der geistigen Erschließung der Welt," Trier-Festschrift (Trier, 1954), pp. 38 ff.; cited in Hasselblatt, pp. 48-49.

17 "Den Bedeutungen wachsen Worte zu." Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen, 1963), p. 161.

18The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, ed. Max Broad, trans. Joseph Kresh (New York, 1948), pp. 200-201; hereafter referred to as Diaries, I.

19Diaries, I, p. 173.

20Dearest Father, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (NewYork, 1954), p. 40. H = Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf demLande.

21Diaries, II, pp. 200-201.

22The Great Wall of China, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York, 1960), p. 258.

23 Maurice Blanchot, "The Diaries: The Exigency of the Work of Art," trans. Lyall H. Powers, Franz Kafka Today, ed. Angel Flores and Homer Swander (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), p. 207.

24 I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York, London, 1936), p. 96.

25Dearest Father, fifty-fourth aphorism, p. 39.

26 Hasselblatt, pp. 195, 200.

27 Theodore W. Adorno, "Notes on Kafka," Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London, 1967), p. 272.

28 Kafka studied medieval German literature at the University of Prague in 1902 (see Klaus Wagenbach, Franz Kafka, Eine Biographie Seiner Jugend [1883-1912], Berne, 1958, p. 100). He assidously consulted Grimm's etymological dictionary (see Max Brod, Uber Franz Kafka, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Bücherei, 1966, pp. 110, 213). The citation from Grimm is discussed in depth by Kurt Weinberg, Kafkas Dichtungen (Bern, Munich, 1963), pp. 316-317.

29Dearest Father, p. 312.

30Dearest Father, p. 195.

31Dearest Father, pp. 6-7.

32Diaries, I, p. 45.

33Diaries, I, p. 58.

34Diaries, I, p. 276.

35 Sokel, Franz KafkaTragik und Ironie, p. 81.

36 Br = Briefe 1902-1924.

37Diaries, II, p. 77.

38Diaries, I, p. 276.

39Diaries, I, p. 278.

40The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York, 1948), p. 62.

41Diaries, I, p. 278.

42Diaries, I, p. 279.

43The Great Wall of China, pp. 263-264.

44Dearest Father, fourth aphorism, p. 34.

45Diaries, II, p. 77.

46 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris, 1945), p. 213.

47 "Darin also besteht das eigentliche Kunstgeheimnis des Meisters, daß er den Stoff durch die Form vertilgt." Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen, zweiundzwanzigster Brief.

48 "[Music] speaks by means of mere sensations without concepts and so does not, like poetry, leave behind it any food for reflection. . . ." Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford, 1928), p. 193.

49Diaries, I, p. 28.

50 This observation and the observations in the three sentences which follow it are suggested by Paul de Man's essay, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," Interpretation, Theory and Practice, ed. Charles S. Singleton (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1969), esp. pp. 177 and 190.

51Dearest Father, sixty-third aphorism, p. 41.

52Dearest Father, fifty-fourth aphorism, p. 39.

53 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris, 1966), pp. 394-395.

Carol Helmstetter Cantrell (essay date 1977-78)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4659

SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis: Kafka's Study of a Family," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1977-78, pp. 578-86.

[In the following essay, Cantrell examines the Samsa family in light of the work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing, focusing on "the relationship between the strange and the ordinary aspects of family life. "]

Critical discussions of Kafka's The Metamorphosis have long been based on the questionable assumption that the Samsa family's judgment of Gregor, the son, is accurate. In fact, literary critics have been nearly as severe and unanimous in their condemnation of Gregor Samsa as is the Samsa family itself. "When Gregor first appears before his family," Mark Spilka writes, "they are appalled by his condition, and their revulsion gives the full measure of his deformity." Like other critics, Spilka shares the Samsa family's revulsion against Gregor for more subtle reasons than antipathy to mere physical deformity; as he puts it, "the crust on Gregor Samsa is the mode of his regression; his psychic 'evils' have crystallized and risen to the surface, and his conscious self . . . is trapped within their insect shape."1

Spilka sees in Gregor a deformed psyche; other critics condemn his spiritual and metaphysical defects. Johannes Pfeiffer, for example, argues that Gregor is guilty of ignoring the possibility "of escaping the imprisonment in existence and thereby becoming free, free to return into essential, true absolute Being."2 This conception of Gregor's predicament rests on the assumption that his fate is fundamentally unfathomable, an assumption expressed most clearly by Heinz Politzer and Wilhelm Emrich. Politzer writes that Gregor's depth of guilt "seems to be reflected by [his] metamorphosis in that both are paradoxes of human existence, knowing of neither cause nor effect."3 And Emrich dismisses the possibility of discussing Gregor's metamorphosis in any terms: "The beetle is, and remains, something 'alien' that cannot be made to fit into the human ideational world. That alone is its meaning."4

All of these interpretations assume with the Samsa family that Gregor's metamorphosis is fatal and mysterious, a sign of failure on Gregor's part, or on the part of the universe, or both. But there is no reason to rely on the Samsa family's assumptions. In fact, if we analyze them not as guides to understanding but as part of the context in which the metamorphosis takes place, Gregor's experience emerges as part of a coherent and destructive pattern of family life.

The Metamorphosis is a strange story about an ordinary family, but it is the story of a family: every detail of it is concerned with the Samsas' life together. To understand The Metamorphosis, we need to understand the relationship between the strange and the ordinary aspects of family life. Here the work of the existential psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, offers valuable assistance. Laing has studied patterns of family behavior in a setting very different from that of literary criticism; his interest in the way families work arises out of his studies of schizophrenics. Laing's approach to behavior is, nonetheless, of particular use to a literary critic because of his basic premise that words and deeds of disturbed people are not symptoms of disease, but symbols which express perceptions of reality.5 To understand symbolic expression, Laing suggests, one must interpret it in the context which produced it.

This principle seems obvious enough, but it has been easy for both psychoanalysts and literary critics to ignore. The revolutionary nature of Laing's approach is strikingly demonstrated in his reinterpretation of an account of schizophrenic behavior discussed by a pioneer in the field, Emil Kraepelin. Kraepelin has recorded the following exchange with a schizophrenic whom he questioned in front of a group of curious students:

When asked where he is, [the patient] says, 'You want to know that too? I tell you who is being measured and is measured and shall be measured. I know all that and could tell you, but I do not want to.'

Kraepelin comments that the patient "has not given us a single piece of useful information. His talk was . . . only a series of disconnected sentences having no relation whatever to the general situation." With some restraint Laing points out that the patient

Presumably . . . deeply resents this form of interrogation which is being carried out before a lecture-room full of students. He probably does not see what it has to do with the things that must be deeply distressing him.6

Laing's reading of this patient's words probably seems obvious to most people who teach and write about literature. Their symbolic meaning seems inescapable when seen in their context. But we should not be too smug—Kraepelin's approach to his patient has its parallels in critical approaches to The Metamorphosis. In both cases, behavior is seen as unintelligible—"without cause or effect"—when it is considered outside of its context.

The context Laing has come to perceive as crucial for discovering the meaning of what seems to be meaningless behavior is the family. Specifically, Laing uses his knowledge of a family's preconceptions and ways of responding to one another to make sense of the behavior of its individual members. Because his approach is to derive the meaning of behavior from its context, he is much like a careful reader of a puzzling text who derives the meaning of particular symbols or symbolic actions from their context. And, like our close reader, he is wary of any explanation that is external to the context; he comes armed with no tools to locate complexes or inevitable stages of development. Each family context must be confronted afresh; each family has created its own unique patterns of behavior.

Though Laing's approach emphasizes the uniqueness of each family situation, some general principles do emerge from his work which are of special relevance to understanding The Metamorphosis. Laing implies that to understand how any family works, one must locate perceptions of all its members share as well as perceptions which all deny. If a child's perceptions do not fit into the family's framework and are invalidated day after day by one or both parents, he may find himself expressing his sense of reality in ways which no one knows how to deny and for which no one is responsible, because no one can understand them. Much strange behavior, according to Laing, loses its strangeness when it is seen as a person's way of expressing with relative safety thoughts unacceptable to the people around him and, consequently, to himself.

Our first task, then, is to ask what the shared perceptions of the Samsa family are. Here we are momentarily checked, for their most striking feature seems to be their disharmony. As Martin Greenberg puts it,

The unnatural state of affairs in the Samsa home corrects itself so to speak naturally, by the son's showing forth as he really is—a parasite that saps the family's life. A fundamental incompatibility exists between the son and the family, between sickliness and parasitism on the one hand and vigor and independence on the other, between life and death.7

Greenberg is expressing the Samsas' view of the situation, for they would agree with his formulation of it. Any family, however, who all agree that one of its members should die, even the intended victim, exhibits an unusually high degree of compatibility on at least one important point: that is, the rightftil role of the son in their family.

Kafka's narrative examines this role in detail. The first few pages of The Metamorphosis describe Gregor's metamorphosis in the context of the expectations of himself he shares with his family. These expectations are represented by his job. Gregor has assumed the responsibility not only of being family breadwinner but of repaying the debt resulting from the collapse of his father's business. He believes that his family is utterly dependent on his salary. When Gregor wakes long after his alarm was supposed to have gone off at 4:00 a.m. to find that he has become an insect, he is mostly concerned about getting to work but at the same time resentfully rationalizes his staying in bed: "What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought . . ." and "This getting up early, he thought, makes one quite stupid."8

That his desire to sleep a little longer is an implicit threat to the rest of his family is made abundantly clear by his parents, his sister, and even the chief clerk, each of whom pleads with him not to forsake his duty. His father asks "What's the matter with you?" and his sister inquires if he is ill. They have good reason to wonder, for Gregor's behavior is wholly unlike him. His mother's insistence to the chief clerk that nothing but illness would make Gregor miss a train has an odd echo in his decision not to claim that he is ill because "that would be most unpleasant and would look suspicious, since during his five years employment he had not been ill once" (p. 11). It is as unthinkable for Gregor to feign illness as it is for his parents to imagine that he would not and should not keep his job. He is a good son; to be anything else is to be some sort of vermin.

To the extent that Gregor resents his job, he is not a good son but a betrayer of his parents' expectations, and when he acts on his resentment, he sees his actions just as he knows they will. In fact, it is hard to say who "he" is after his metamorphosis: a gigantic insect who is incapable of work or a son and salesman who worries frantically about trying to make the best of a bad situation. This split within himself9 is so wide when the story begins that Gregor simply puts aside the fact that his body has suddenly become foreign to him. One side of Gregor is anxious to go to work, to satisfy his parents and sister and the chief clerk; the other, with which he has as little traffic as possible, wishes to please himself. The possibility that his "indisposition" might prove to be "quite a good thing" (p. 9) if he lost his job because of it crosses Gregor's mind only fleetingly, for he quickly reminds himself that his parents are depending on him. Nonetheless, the "good" Gregor, who is responsible to his family and their picture of him, loses out to the "bad" Gregor, the insect, who is able not just to sleep late but to give up the unhappy life of the commercial traveler altogether. He explicitly denies responsibility for this choice, however, or even that he has made a choice: "He was eager to find what the others . . . would say at the sight of him. If they were horrified, then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet" (p. 29). The fact that he is not himself sanctions an otherwise unacceptable change in his relationship with his family.

It is possible to see Gregor's metamorphosis as a sign of health, of his trying to escape a deadening life. And so it may be. But the same dynamics which created the need for a metamorphosis stifle any creative possibilities it might have. Gregor's family locks him in his room and tacitly agrees, with some hesitation on the mother's part, that he is outside what Gregor thinks of as "the human circle" (p. 31), a judgment which he accepts. Locking Gregor in his room is the Samsa family's most suggestive act. It absolutely precludes intrusion from the outside, and Gregor must rely solely on his family. Significantly, they do not keep him in his room to help him, but to keep him under their control. Gregor never challenges the wisdom or justice of being locked in his room; nonetheless, despite his best efforts to signal his willingness to do what they want, his father is convinced that he means them harm. The most dreaded words in the Samsa household are those which Grete speaks: "Gregor got loose again"—to which her father characteristically replies, "Just what I expected" (p. 81).

Gregor's attitude toward outside help is just as characteristic of him. At first he finds himself hoping for "great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith" (p. 31), but he painfully opens the door himself and thinks, evidently to his relief, "So I didn't need a locksmith" (p. 33). Here, as elsewhere, Gregor differs from the rest of the family in his ambivalence toward their shared assumptions, but, as always, he finds himself seeing it their way in the end. He begins by wanting outside help and ends by obviating the need for it, just as he denies his desire to sleep late, to quit his job or get another, or, later, simply to stay alive.

Thus, he joins the rest of the family in preferring not to bring outsiders into their lives; they do so only when they have no choice. Significantly, the outsiders of their social class in the story consist of Gregor's employer, the chief clerk, and the three lodgers. None of them are friends or neighbors, but sources of income. Gregor's job had maintained the wall between the Samsa household and the rest of the world, and he had earlier felt his family's "special uprush of warm feeling" (p. 59) when he was able to keep the leisurely household world intact for them by working as a commercial traveller. Thus,

At first, whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor let go his hold on the door and threw himself on the cool leather sofa beside it, he felt so hot with shame and grief. (p. 63)

Gregor had kept his job to spare his family the suffering of humiliation; the family keeps him in his room for the same reason. Gregor had made himself indispensable by protecting them from the unpleasantness of the world outside; Grete repeats the pattern by becoming an indispensable mediator between her parents and Gregor. For Gregor has become an outsider to them—unmanageable, incomprehensible, and capable at any moment of bringing them shame and ruin.

The Samsa attitude toward outsiders implies that their conception of "the human circle" is rather restrictive. It admits only those who keep up appearances; the most powerful emotion for them is not love or loyalty, but shame. Grete, for example, is able to recommend that Gregor "go away" when she is able to say, "We've tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as is humanly possible, and I don't think anyone could reproach us in the slightest" (p. 111). Perhaps this attitude explains why Gregor is of two minds about having the furniture in his room removed, for its removal would symbolize his freedom from the definition of "human" he has grown up with.

As it turns out, Gregor cannot free himself from it. While he becomes more and more disreputable, even vindictive, his insect behavior is not so much an escape from the Samsa way of life as it is a violation of its guiding principles. Nowhere is his distance from a better life more apparent than in the episode where he is attracted to his sister's violin playing. For a brief moment he experiences a bliss which lies outside the Samsa realm of possibility—he enjoys something for its own sake. Such an experience, he thinks, is outside the range of respectable human experience. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved" (p. 107). The way may be opening, but he is unable to follow it. His bliss is cut short by his disastrous desire to rescue his sister from her unappreciative audience and to keep her "safe" in his room. He is showing that he cares in the only way he knows, which is to try to protect the object of his care from effort or discord. This he has done in the past by meeting the household expenses, and he does it most definitively in his decision to "disappear." He dies as he lived, trying to insulate his family from shame.

Up to this point I have been underlining the essential unanimity of the family's actions and perceptions, following Laing's suggestion that these shared perceptions provide the context out of which strange behavior may arise and in which we may find explanations for it. This unanimity, however, is less apparent at first glance than the differences among members of the family, and if we look at these differences in the context of their common life, we have a way of analyzing what Laing calls praxis—who is doing what to whom.

Each member of the Samsa household has a particular part to play which is his or hers uniquely. Gregor's mother has the simplest role. She is a loving but weak person who manages to combine a fainting spell with a suggestion of sexual abandon every time her husband's wrath or Gregor's aggressiveness begins to threaten. Though she attempts to act as Gregor's mediator both with his sister and with his father, her attempts are always doomed by her squeamishness; she is easily swayed by her husband and her daughter into taking a hard line against Gregor. It is the mother, for example, who persists in thinking of Gregor as a member of the family and who objects to moving the furniture out of the room, but it is also she who becomes so hysterical at the sight of Gregor that she loses control and abandons herself—and Gregor—to the stronger-willed husband and daughter who both feel obligated to protect her from unpleasantness.

Grete, Gregor's sister, is a more complex character; indeed, her metamorphosis during the time of the story's action is as complete as Gregor's, though it takes a form which looks more positive. From being a girl who lounges about the house all day and who is something between a confidante and a pet to her brother, she becomes a young woman who works hard, earns money, and has the ambition to better herself by learning French. She also very rapidly develops a desire to gain power within the family. Significantly, she is virtually nameless during the first part of the story, where she is referred to as "Gregor's sister," until the point at which she decides to move the furniture out of Gregor's room. From then on she is called "Grete"; and from then on her interests emerge as clearly distinct from Gregor's. As she becomes "Grete," Gregor gradually becomes "it," and she is finally bold enough to suggest that "We must try to get rid of it" (p. 113). In her lack of sympathy or squeamishness, Grete is more like her father than her mother, but it is clear that Grete follows her mother's example as well. She courts an alliance with her family by emphasizing feminine weakness and budding sexuality; Gregor's last glimpse of his family suggests the extent of Grete's success:

His mother lay in her chair, her legs stiffly outstretched and pressed together, her eyes almost closing for sheer weariness, his father and his sister were sitting beside each other, his sister's arm around the old man's neck, (p. 115)

The story closes on the promise of Grete's sexual maturity and inevitable marriage—marriage would of course have been inconceivable for the Samsa family so long as Gregor was alive to shame them—her father and mother "half-consciously" exchange a glance of agreement that "it would soon be time to find a good husband for her" (p. 127).

The story's ending is curiously similar to traditional comic endings; an imbalance in the world is righted, and the beginning of a new cycle is announced by the promise of marriage. But, of course, marriage and family life as defined by the Samsas are hardly suggestive of abundance and happiness. Gregor had imagined a different kind of happy ending for his sister, that is, sending her to the Conservatorium. Though tainted by his wish to live a more satisfactory life vicariously, Gregor's ambition for his sister was a challenge to the Samsa tradition; and as such was not a topic of discussion permitted by his parents.

It is misleading, of course, to describe what is or is not permitted as the mutual decision of both parents. What is permitted in the Samsa household finally depends on Gregor's father. He is the member of the family who sets things in motion and keeps them running his way. Everyone in the family—Gregor, Grete, and their mother—adjusts his or her responses to fit Mr. Samsa's expectations.

Gregor's cautious circling when his father is trying to chase him back into his room is only the most abject of these responses. The Samsa family life is lived in a barely successful attempt to please him. Their efforts to do so pervade the story from first to last, from the morning of the metamorphosis, when Gregor opens his door to see the lavish breakfast in the next room, "the most important meal of the day for Gregor's father" (p. 35), to the moment after Gregor's death when his father says, "Let bygones be bygones. And you might have some consideration for me." He commands immediate obedience: and without hesitation, "The two of them complied at once, hastened to him, carressed him" (p. 127).

Gregor's mother and his sister must be content with the expropriation of power fit for women and their tasks; Gregor is necessarily more threatening and more threatened. As family breadwinner, he is at his father's service; as an insect, he is not, nor is he any longer part of the family. Only after he is crippled by the apple thrown by his father which lodges in his back is he tacitly recognized once more as a member of the family. The challenger has been defeated; Gregor has been put in his place. The family power structure remains intact.

Gregor is never the same, though. He is dying, and because he has nothing more to lose, he is now free to think ill or even indifferently of his family. He begins to spend time studying the details of his father's increasingly unkempt dress. As Gregor's attitude approaches disinterest, his perceptions of his father begin to resemble the reader's casual impressions of Mr. Samsa. Indeed, one of the most curious qualities of this story is the discrepancy between the Samsa family's conception of Mr. Samsa and that of the reader, and we are now able to appreciate the significance of that disparity. To the reader, Mr. Samsa is a little ridiculous; he is a pompous failure, a petty tyrant. But for his family, Mr. Samsa is the center of their world, and pleasing him is more important than anything else they can imagine. In his world, Gregor's "indisposition" is a rebellion so threatening that it is punishable by banishment, then death. Gregor knows why and can never really be free of his knowledge; the reader must piece the answer together.

That distinction leads us to the heart of the story; a network of shared perceptions makes a literal life or death difference to the members of Mr. Samsa's family. The fear of shame, the habit of secrecy, and the hope for power within the family all work to cut off alternate ways of seeing things before they are even expressed. Thus, the dynamics of the Samsa family life catch and hold them all in a pattern from which there is no escape.

One inevitably asks what the relationship of the Samsa family to the Kafka family might be, as one suspiciously notes the similarity of the two names and recalls Kafka's subtle and bitter denunciation of his own father and mother in A Letter to My Father. Kafka made two cryptic remarks about the story which suggest that the two families are in fact similar. Referring to The Metamorphosis, Kafka asked of a friend, "What have you to say about the dreadful things going on in our house?"10 And in a conversation recorded by Gustav Janouch, he remarked that The Metamorphosis was not so much a confession as an indiscretion, asking "Is it perhaps delicate and discreet to talk about the bugs in one's own family?"11

Clearly, much of The Metamorphosis is drawn from Kafka's own experience. But as soon as we begin to draw comparisons between Gregor and Franz Kafka, we see a difference at least as important as the similarities: Kafka was master of his family experience in a way Gregor could never be. The Metamorphosis is a sentence-by-sentence testimony to the clarity of his thought and feeling about a family much like his own. In The Metamorphosis he performs the difficult feat of portraying them accurately, intimately, and boldly enough to bring the shame out into the open, as Gregor could never have done.

Some readers may object that making a distinction between Gregor Samsa's imprisonment and Franz Kafka's ambiguous freedom is a weak substitute for the recognition of Kafka's greatness implicit in an approach to his work which looks beyond its surface to its mystery, strangeness, and depth. A simple answer is that no approach to Kafka could be more reductive than one which assumes that the meaning of his story is that it defies meaning. Furthermore, the approach of this essay does not exclude other interpretations arising from the notion that we may be shaken to the depths of our being if our perceptions do not make sense. Indeed, Kafka's later writings explore the implications of that possibility in great detail and depth.

Finally, there is merit in reminding ourselves that Kafka's writings powerfully exploit and deepen our knowledge of the real world, and for most of us, no world has quite so powerful a hold on our sense of reality as the family which informed it. Perhaps that is why it has been so difficult to see Gregor's plight in any terms other than those defined by the Samsa family, and also why it is important that we look at those terms which have been all too easy to take for granted.



1 Mark Spilka, Dickens and Kafka: A Mutual Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 77-78.

2 Johannes Pfeiffer, "'The Metamorphosis,'" trans. Ronald Gray, in Kafka, a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ronald Gray (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 51.

3 Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 78.

4 Wilhelm Emrich, Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings, trans. Sheema Zeben Buehne (New York: Ungar, 1968), p. 147.

5 R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1965), p. 31. My discussion of Laing derives from this book and two others: The Politics of the Family and Other Essays (New York: Random, 1971) and Sanity, Madness and the Family (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1970), written with A. Esterson.

6The Divided Self, p. 30.

7 Martin Greenberg, The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 76.

8 Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1968), pp. 8-9. Further references to this edition of The Metamorphosis will be indicated in parentheses within the text.

9 This language may suggest the intriguing possibility that Gregor is a schizophrenic, but it is a line of analysis which offers little insight. Laing makes a strong case that the term has been used so broadly as to lose all meaning and usefulness. My discussion, of course, rests on the assumption that The Metamorphosis "is the story of a man who thinks he has become a bug, told as if the content of his delusion were physical reality," as Rudolph Binion puts it in his excellent presentation of the evidence for this position. See "What The Metamorphosis Means," Symposium, 15 (Fall 1961), 215.

10 Johannes Urzidil, There Goes Kafka, trans. Harold A. Basilius (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1968), pp. 11-12.

11 Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, rev. ed., trans. Goronwy Rees (New York: New Directions, 1974), p. 32.

J. Brooks Bouson (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8273

SOURCE: "The Repressed Grandiosity of Gregor Samsa: A Kohutian Reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis," in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, edited by Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Schapiro, New York University Press, 1986, pp. 192-212.

[In the following essay, Bouson views Gregor Samsa's character in terms of the theory of narcissistic personality disorder put forth by noted neurologist and psychiatrist Heinz Kohut, a recognized authority on the subject.]

Why is Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect? Readers have long asked this question. Does it reflect, as some critics argue, his moral or spiritual defects? his extreme alienation? his essential parasitism? his entrapment in a dehumanizing economic system? his Oedipal guilt?1 Or is it, as others argue, ultimately unexplainable, a paradox of human existence, to quote Heinz Politzer, "knowing of neither cause nor effect"?2 Reading Metamorphosis3 in a new context—that provided by Heinz Kohut in his pioneering studies in the narcissistic personality disorder—provides a new depth-psychological insight not only into the underlying cause and meaning of Gregor's transformation, but also into the experiential core of his predicament. Metamorphosis provides, as Kohut himself observed, an "artistic anticipation" of the "leading psychological problem" of our time: the self-disorder.4 In the character of Gregor Samsa, Kafka depicts Kohut's "Tragic Man,"5 the narcissistically defective individual suffering from a fragmenting, enfeebled sense of self.

"The self," in Kohut's words, "arises in a matrix of empathy" and "strives to live within a modicum of empathic responses in order to maintain itself. . . ."6 Gregor's predicament is not, as many critics suggest, fatal and inscrutable or a reflection of his moral and spiritual impairments. What Kafka so poignantly captures in Metamorphosis, as Kohut comments, is the experience of a man "who finds himself in nonresponsive surroundings," a man whose family speaks of him coldly, in the "impersonal third pronoun" so that he becomes a "non-human monstrosity, even in his own eyes."7 In his interactions with his family, Gregor compulsively repeats early narcissistic behavior. Lacking the intrapsychic structure of healthy narcissism, unable, as Kohut would put it, to "sufficiently supply himself with self-approval or with a sense of strength through his own inner resources,"8 Gregor depends on others to validate his worth and provide him with an inner sense of power, strength, and vitality. Attempting to restore his defective self, he acts out his repressed grandiose needs as he tries to capture the attention of family members and extract from them the approval he needs to confirm his worth and reality. When he is thwarted in his urgent need for approving recognition of his uniqueness and both rejected and punished when he seeks to exhibit himself, he experiences self-threatening narcissistic injuries, a repetition of his early response to parental rejection, and thus feels a deep-rooted sense of abandonment, exclusion, and, underlying these, helplessness, empty depression, and rage. Pathetically vulnerable, Gregor is sensitive to what he perceives as rejecting behavior—the emotionally vacant responses of his mother and hostile, punishing behavior of his father—in all his relationships with others. Although he attempts to counteract his feelings of vulnerability through grandiose fantasies—such as his initial insect manifestation—and to repair himself by using others as self-objects, the central defect remains. Lacking a stable cohesive self, subject to what Kohut calls "disintegration anxiety"—"dread of the loss" of the self9—Gregor Samsa is, to use one of Kohut's favorite descriptions, a "broken" man,10 compelled endlessly to enact the same primitive, fixated behavior in his frustrated search for wholeness.

Critics have long argued that one of Kafka's intentions in Metamorphosis is to depict the dehumanization of the socalled "economic man,"11 finding evidence for this in Gregor's recollections of being the family breadwinner. Gregor does become dehumanized, not because he is at the mercy of a self-destructive economic system but because of his underlying self-disorder and because he exists in a non-empathic milieu. After his father's business failure, Gregor, gladly claiming his father's position, becomes the sole supporter of the family, feeling a "sense of glory" when, as a successful salesman, he brings home "good round coin" for his "amazed and happy family" (110).

Behind the apparent Oedipal dynamics of this father-son situation, we find evidence of Gregor's more deeply-rooted, pre-Oedipal needs and wishes. Dominated by the repressed needs of the archaic grandiose self, Gregor becomes a successful money-maker—money being a potent symbol of power and worth—in an attempt to win his family's confirming approval, to become the center of attention, and to become dominant over them. But because he is dependent upon others to repair his defective self and patch over his underlying sense of worthlessness and powerlessness, his self-repair is only temporary. When, ultimately, the family becomes accustomed to the money he provides and accepts it without a "special uprush of warm feeling" (111), he feels devalued, deprived, and emotionally invalidated, and so his chronic low self-esteem and feelings of abject powerlessness resurface. At this point, his job becomes a meaningless, treadmill kind of existence. As a salesman, he leads a lonely life, his salesman's susceptibility to cold chills a physical response to the emotionally cold environment in which he finds himself. Further, as a salesman, he becomes subject to other people's intrusive hostility and their excluding indifference and neglect. In other words, he re-experiences his family situation in his transactions with others. Ultimately, Gregor's feelings of low self-regard are made tangible in his metamorphosis. The family's debt, which Gregor has worked hard to meet, is a psychic debt: they have been deficient in providing him with the mirroring responses he needs to verify not only his value to them but, more importantly, his humanity.

Why, then, does Gregor change into an insect? A reification of his self-state, Gregor's transformation reflects not only his inner feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness but also his repressed grandiosity, a grandiosity made distorted and grotesque because it has not been responded to empathically. Like the biblical Samson (the name "Samsa," as critics have noted, is an allusion both to Samson and Kafka),12 Gregor is at once enfeebled and imbued with secret, magical power. Both the suddenness of his metamorphosis and its magical, fantastic quality signal the eruption of what Kohut calls the "unrealistic grandiose substructure" of the self and a surfacing of archaic feelings of omnipotence.13 Significantly, Gregor awakens a "gigantic" insect (89) and he uses the "huge brown mass" (119) of his body to frighten others away. Although one of his initial worries, as he rocks himself out of bed, is that he will make a "loud crash" and thus perhaps cause others "anxiety, if not terror" (94), unconsciously he wants to provoke just this response from those gathered outside his door. At the very outset of his ordeal, Gregor, while disavowing his need for attention—he claims he wants to be left "in peace" (96)—listens to the discussion about him between the chief clerk and his parents, intent on not missing "one word of the conversation" (96) and later, when they stop talking, he imagines that "perhaps" they are "all leaning against" his door and listening to the noises he makes (99). Moreover, he is "eager" (98) to find out what they will say when they see him. As the chief clerk complains, Gregor is "bent," albeit unconsciously, on making a "disgraceful exhibition" (97) of himself.

In the black comedy of his initial confrontation with the others, Gregor's need for attention and his grandiose wish to exert magical power over others are satisfied. For when the insect-Gregor makes his first appearance, his father knots his fist as if to strike, then falters and begins to weep; his mother collapses; the loathed chief clerk first backs away "as if driven by some invisible steady pressure" ( 100) and then, his right arm outstretched, approaches the staircase "as if some supernatural power were waiting there to deliver him" (102) and finally flees. Seemingly compelled by "some secret injunction to leave the room" (102), the chief clerk obeys Gregor's unconscious wish to get rid of him. But Gregor's display of exhibitionistic grandiosity is short-lived. His traumatic rejection at the moment he exhibits himself points to the central cause of his self-disorder as it repeats and telescopes14 both his experience of early parental rejection and the long series of similar rejections he has suffered throughout his life, rejections that help produce the distortion of his self-image which has become concretized in his metamorphosis.

Significantly, one of the first things he sees when he leaves his room is a photograph of himself dressed "as a lieutenant, hand on sword, a carefree smile on his face, inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing" (101). In the photograph, he sees both a symbolic depiction of what he lacks—a healthy grandiose self—and a depiction of the hollowness of his former experience of self-regard, the uniform signaling his dependency on purely external sources of power and respect. Punished for his self-assertiveness, Gregor is "pitilessly" (104) driven back into his room by his father and then made a prisoner. But Gregor's prison is also his refuge. Narcissistically damaged in each confrontation with the external world, he retreats into the protective isolation of both his room and his insect shell, his hard shell an externalization of his inner need to hold himself together, to be self-cohesive. His public display rebuffed, Gregor, from the refuge/prison of his room, attempts to defend his vulnerable self and become the center of his family's attention.

Paradoxically, Gregor's metamorphosis is not only a concretization of his chronic sense of defectiveness; it also signals his attempt to assert himself and repair his distorted self. For one thing, by acting out his disavowed intentions of abandoning his family and quitting his job—he claims he has no intention of "deserting" his family (96) and that he is "loyally bound to serve the chief (101)—Gregor affirms, in his characteristically dependent-submissive way, his independence. And while consciously thinking that the "whole future" of his family depends on his ability to detain, soothe, and win over the chief clerk (102), he scares off his superior, revealing his hidden aggression toward the family. Moreover, as an invalid, he passively exerts power over and devalues family members, for when he is no longer the breadwinner they are forced to get jobs and thus assume, with their employers, the subordinate role he once embraced. Gregor, in other words, gains active mastery over passive suffering by both rejecting and expressing his veiled hostility toward his family. More importantly, after his transformation, not only do his parents rivet their attention on him, as he learns by listening carefully at the door, but his sister takes care of him. Gregor's need for confirming attention is verified by the narrator, who serves as an extension of Gregor's consciousness, making Gregor, interestingly enough, the focal point of and dominant over the reader's perceptions. When Gregor, just after his metamorphosis, attempts to turn the key of his door, the chief clerk encourages him "but," as the narrator comments, "they should all have shouted encouragement"; Gregor, "in the belief that they are "all following his efforts intently" (99), musters the necessary strength to complete his difficult task. Narcissistically defective, he needs external sources of approbation if he is to counteract feelings of helplessness and find the inner determination to act.

Although Gregor does eventually lose his appetite and starve to death, initially he discovers himself to be "unusually hungry" (91) and his hunger keeps awakening him the first night (107). This craving for food does not, as some critics suggest, indicate Gregor's reversion to his basic animality;15 instead, his oral greediness symbolizes his need to obtain what Kohut calls "narcissistic sustenance or nutriment,"16 i.e., a nurturing, mirroring response. After his transformation, Grete, the only family member he feels close to, becomes his sole source of narcissistic supplies. When Gregor rejects the milk she brings him, he symbolically rejects his sickly, asthmatic mother. Thus, the first time he displays himself, she faints—a repetition of his early relationship to an emotionally unavailable and depleted mother, who disclaims her responsibility for him, in essence abandoning him when she allows Grete to become his caretaker. After refusing the milk, Gregor, disavowing his need to be noticed, simultaneously determines he "would rather starve" than draw Grete's "attention" to his hunger and feels a "wild impulse" to "throw himself at her feet, and beg her for something to eat" (107), for narcissistic supplies. When she first brings him food, he eats "greedily" (108) for he is starved for attention, and discovers that his "wounds," narcissistic injuries, seem to have "healed completely" (108). He feels restored by his sister's attention. But the fact that what he eats is garbage—not narcissistically sustaining—reveals that his needs are not truly being met. Moreover, when Gregor greedily consumes the garbage, he not only signals his craving for an empathic, nurturing response, he also symbolically depicts his internalization of the family's negative attitudes toward him. In effect, he says, "I know that this is all that I'm worth. I'm garbage and so I'll eat garbage." Initially, he takes masochistic delight in his self-humiliation both because he is unconsciously punishing himself for his oral—narcissistic—neediness and rage and also because, in so doing, he openly indicts his family for their neglect of him.

Unable to communicate his deep-seated, preverbal needs, symbolized by his loss of the power of human speech, Gregor accepts the few scraps of attention given him by his sister. Recognizing how "repulsive" (113) she finds him, he hides under the sofa when she is in his room and fancies that he sees a "thankful glance from her eye" when he covers with a sheet the "small portion" of his body that protrudes from the sofa (114). In other words, he must hide and cover himself—efface himself and disavow his grandiose needs—to win approval and attention. Totally isolated from the others, Gregor becomes sensitive to eye glances, this hypercathexis of the visual mode, as Kohut would describe it, a signal of Gregor's unmet primitive need to be mirrored, to be the "gleam in the mother's eye."17 While he craves attention, Gregor is however, ashamed to have others look at him; his shame is a response to his exhibitionistic wishes, his distorted grandiose self, his fear that he will be traumatically rejected and, on the family drama level, his awareness that his family is ashamed of him. Never once questioning his family's desire to keep him hidden from the world's eyes, Gregor must repress his deep-rooted need to display himself if he is to avoid bringing public shame and humiliation upon both himself and his family. Gregor's transformation, in part a defensive ploy to restore the self, serves to further the ongoing process of self-dissolution.

Of perennial fascination to readers of Metamorphosis is Gregor's initial reaction to his transformation. What shocks the reader is passively, if not blandly, accepted by Gregor. Why this response when Gregor's initial discovery of himself in an insect's body starkly conveys the feeling-state of body-self estrangement? Instead of reacting with open anxiety, Gregor thinks at length about his job and family; he becomes anxious about the passing time and preoccupied with his new bodily sensations and his strange aches and pains. In other words, he defends himself from underlying fears of self-disintegration by focusing his attention, as Kohut would put it, on "verbalizable conflicts and anxieties" and away from an "awareness" of the "potentially crumbling self."18

While Gregor does this again and again to ward off feelings of diffuse, preverbal anxiety, he also signals, in other ways, his impending sense of body-self dissolution. His initial inability to control the chaotic movements of his insect legs and his later submissive turning movements before his father make manifest his inner feelings of helplessness and powerlessness; his "senseless crawling around and around" his room (117) and his increasingly disorganized appearance, his feelings of psychic disorganization; his self-mothering gestures—he rocks back and forth and tries to replicate the protective feeling of the mother's embrace by hiding under the sofa, a "half-unconscious action"19 (106-7)—his attempts to soothe himself; his dissolving sense of clock time, his loss of an awareness of himself, to use a Kohutian description, as a cohesive "continuum" in time;20 his lethargy and depression, his inner feelings of deadness, depletion. Suffering from a crumbling sense of self, Gregor experiences what Kohut describes as the "hollowness and insecurity" of archaic experiences of the body-self and emotions.21 In both Gregor's hypochrondriacal preoccupations and his vague mystical feelings—he hangs suspended from the ceiling in "almost blissful absorption" (115)—there is evidence of regression to the most archaic levels of experience.22 The description of Gregor's demise outlines, in almost clinical detail, the experience of self-dissolution: in Kohutian terms, "fragmentation of and "estrangement from" the mind-body self.23 Gregor's metamorphosis gives experiential immediacy not only to what Kohut calls the "devastating emotional event" referred to as a "severe drop in self-esteem"24 but, more significantly, to the terrifying experience of the break-up of the cohesive self.

Narcissistically sensitive, Gregor is condemned to re-experience with Grete his early feelings of injury and rejection. Although initially Grete seems to be emotionally in tune with his needs, he senses behind her apparent kindness both rejection and veiled hostility. When, for example, family members first knock on his door, Grete is the only one to ask "Aren't you well? Are you needing anything?'" (92). Despite this, Gregor wonders why she does not "join the others" (96) who stand outside his door harassing him. "In the goodness of her heart" (107) Grete feeds him the garbage he craves, taking care to bring the food that "might especially please" him (125); but she also sweeps up and shovels into a bucket not only the "remains" of his meal but also the untouched, fresh food "as if it, too, were "now of no use to anyone" (108). Gregor takes the few comments she makes about his eating as "kindly meant" or as remarks that "could be so interpeted" (109).

Although Grete tries "to make as light as possible" whatever is "disagreeable in her task" and Gregor wants to thank her for her "ministrations," "time" also brings "enlightenment" to him for when she enters his room, she rushes to the window, tears it open, and gasps for air (113). Grete, in other words, becomes a mirror image of the asthmatic—emotionally rejecting and depleted—mother. Recognizing how disgusting Grete finds him, he covers himself with a sheet even though "this curtaining and confining" of himself is not conducive to his "comfort" (113). And when Grete looks into his room for the first time and is "startled" when she catches sight of him under the sofa, Gregor's repressed, angry self comments, "well, he had to be somewhere, he couldn't have flown away, could he?" (107). From the outset, he suspects that Grete wants to get rid of him. Despite this, Gregor, at first, typically interprets Grete's behavior in a positive way both to ward off feelings of anger and rejection and because he needs an empathic response from her, for she is the only member of the family with whom he feels "intimate" (111). His very survival depends on it. Emotionally abandoned by his mother, Gregor finds a mother-surrogate figure in Grete. But tragically, when Grete becomes his sole caretaker and thus the center of Gregor's and her parents' attention, she begins to make narcissistic use of him as she asserts her own grandiose needs. Not only does she assume complete dominance over him, jealously guarding her caretaker's rights and flying into a rage when Mrs. Samsa cleans his room (an act which Grete interprets as a threat to her authority), she also begins to lose interest in him, treating him more and more as an encumbering nuisance, an object.

In a grotesque attempt to be noticed, Gregor leaves "sticky" traces of himself wherever he crawls (115) and Grete, observing this, determines to remove several pieces of furniture from his room, ostensibly to give him more crawling space. When Mrs. Samsa opposes this idea, Grete then determines to remove all the furniture "except the indispensable sofa" (117). In his characteristic way, Gregor interprets Grete's resolve as basically well-intentioned, as a sign of her "enthusiastic" but "adolescent" desire to "do all the more for him" because she has, in fact, "perceived" that he really needs "a lot of space to crawl about in." But he also senses the hidden grandiosity behind her "childish recalcitrance," for in a room where Gregor lords it "all alone over empty walls," only she is "likely ever to set foot" (117). In other words, she wants to isolate and control him. Pitifully, Gregor is compelled to hide—efface himself—when his mother comes into his room to help Grete remove the furniture. "Come in, he's out of sight," as Grete tells Mrs. Samsa (115). Despite Mrs. Samsa's at times melodramatic assertions that she wants to see Gregor, her "exclamations of joyful eagerness" die away when she approaches the door to his room (115) and she deliberately speaks in a low voice to avoid rousing him. And yet, ignoring his mother's rejecting behavior, Gregor defensively sees her as the absent, but longed for, empathic mother and he feels drawn from "the brink of forgetfulness" and back into the human circle when he hears her voice. When his mother comments that removing the furniture may show Gregor that the family has "'given up hope'" and left him "'coldly to himself" (116), Gregor recognizes that being dispossessed of his furniture is tantamount to relinquishing the symbolic vestiges of his human identity. But he hesitates instead of immediately intervening because he is afraid that the sight of him "might sicken" (117) his mother; he is, in other words, deeply ashamed of his deformed self, afraid that his mother will again reject him and that he may in some way harm or deplete her.

Only in extremity, only when his room has been all but stripped of its furniture, does Gregor assert himself by rushing out and attempting to save something. In a pathetic act of self-preservation, he attaches himself to the picture of a woman dressed in furs which he carefully framed just before his metamorphosis. Imagining that Grete will try to "chase him down from the wall," he determines to cling to the picture and "not give it up. He would rather fly in Grete's face" (119). Although the description of Gregor pressing his insect's body against the picture suggests, as some critics maintain, Gregor's inhibited sexuality,25 it also suggests, on a more primitive level, a telescoped memory of clinging, in both anger and longing, to a cold, detached, unresponsive mother.

Significantly, when Gregor, attempting to repair his defective self, angrily clings to the picture, his mother faints and his sister, mirroring the father, responds first with open hostility and then by isolating him, cutting him off from both herself and his mother. Similarly, on both this occasion and the first time he shows himself, Gregor's mother faints when she sees him—when he expresses his narcissistic needs and anger—and then he is narcissistically injured by his father and subsequently isolated by being locked in his room. Behind the manifest content of these repetitive incidents, which provide a mimetic recapitulation of Gregor's infantile experiences of parental unavailability and rejection, there lies an intricate cluster of archaic fantasies, fears, and defenses. The fact that the mother faints suggests at once a telescoped memory of the unresponsive mother and the infantile fantasy of the depleted mother who is harmed or destroyed through the infant's intense narcissistic neediness and rage. Gregor's hostile father and sister, moreover, simultaneously represent a telescoped memory of the angry father, warded-off aspects of the self—Gregor's projected, rageful grandiose self—and a condensed image of both the punishing Oedipal father and a split-off aspect of the primal mother, the all-powerful, rejecting "bad" mother who causes self-threatening, narcissistic injuries. Similarly, all the authority figures in the novel depict both warded-off aspects of the self and the omnipotent mother-father images. For example, the thwarting of the three lodgers, who assume power over the family only to be sent "scuttling" off, insectlike (138), expresses defensive devaluation of, projected rage against, and fantasied depletion or harming of the parental-imagoes as well as the thwarting of Gregor's grandiose self. Narcissistically fixated, Gregor exists in a strange, twilight world of resonating fears and fantasies. When Gregor, in his current situation, re-experiences his primal narcissistic traumas with his family members, his fragile sense of self-cohesion is undermined. Lacking a stable, cohesive self, he is deeply threatened by his own deep-rooted needs and anger and by any behavior which he perceives as rejecting, neglectful, or hostile.

"Harassed by self-reproach and worry" when Grete cuts him off from his mother and herself and thus excludes and rejects him, Gregor acts out his feelings of disintegration anxiety as he senselessly crawls "to and fro, over everything" until, becoming enfeebled, he collapses (119). At this point, Gregor is subjected to the fury of his "angry and exultant" (120) father who, no longer lethargic, has metamorphosed into a terrifying figure of power and strength, an incarnation of the omnipotent parental-imagoes and Gregor's angry self. His fear of his father reveals both primitive fear of the punishing-rejecting parent and his fear of his own destructive impulses. "Dumbfounded at the enormous size" of his father's shoe soles—this description revealing the insect-Gregor's infantile perspective—he fears he is about to be trampled underfoot. Acting out his submissive psychic response to dominant figures, he runs before his father, "stopping when he stopped and scuttling forward again" when his father makes "any kind of move" (121). To "propitiate" his father, he wants to "disappear at once" inside his room.

During this second escape from his room, Gregor discovers, once again, how hazardous the external world is. Again his father attacks him, this time by bombarding him with apples. Sustaining a deep narcissistic injury when an apple lodges in his "armor-plated" back (89), Gregor experiences momentary self-fragmentation, a "complete derangement of all his senses" (122). Gregor's protective isolation, symbolized by his insect's shell, affords no real defense against a hostile, uncomprehending family environment or inner feelings of instability and fragility. Just before blacking out, Gregor sees his mother, in loosened clothing, embracing his father—"in complete union with him" (122)—as she begs for her son's life. Although this description of the combined parent-imago does depict, as some critics maintain, a veiled allusion to the primal scene, it also reveals Gregor's sense of exclusion and abandonment, his wish for his mother's self-confirming, life-giving attention, and his repressed desire for and fear of a symbiotic merger with an idealized, powerful figure. Merger would bring the desired fusion with the idealized imago but at the terrible cost of self-annihilation. Similarly, Gregor's punishment at the hands of his father symbolically depicts not only destructive castration but also a more basic, underlying fear: the break-up of the cohesive self through a self-threatening, narcissistic injury. Behind the apparent Oedipal dynamics of Gregor's family drama,26 we find evidence of a richly complex, proliferating core of pre-Oedipal needs, fears, and fantasies.

Crippled by his injuries, Gregor creeps across his room "like an old invalid" (122). But he is "sufficiently compensated" for the "worsening of his condition" (123) when the door to his room is left open during the evening and he can watch and listen to the family by their "general consent as it were" (123) and thus participate, from a lonely distance, in family life. And yet often Gregor ignores the family and instead lies "in the darkest corner of his room, quite unnoticed by the family" (128), as the narrator describes it, drawing the reader's attention to Gregor. When his mother and sister, after getting his father to bed, sit close to each other and then exclude Gregor by shutting the door to his room thus leaving him in total darkness, the wound in his back begins to "nag at him afresh" (125). Succumbing to narcissistic rage, which is expressed as oral greediness, Gregor becomes deeply angered at the way the others are "neglecting him" and he fantasizes "getting into the larder to take the food" that is his "due" (125). He wants, in other words, to appropriate the narcissistic sustenance that he feels is rightfully his. Displacing his rage toward the family onto the charwoman, he angrily thinks that there is no reason for his being neglected and that the charwoman should be "ordered to clean out his room daily" (127), a wish expressing his unmet archaic need for parental attention and, on the family drama level, his inhibited desire to assume power over others and get their attention. Although unlike the family members, the charwoman does not recoil from Gregor, she does call him a "dung beetle" and subjects him to unempathic and thereby self-threatening stares (127). In a feeble act of self-defense, Gregor runs toward her once, only to retreat when she raises a chair as if to attack him. Imagining that her "strong bony frame" has allowed her to "survive the worst a long life could offer" (126), he sees in her an embodiment of what he lacks: a solid, cohesive self. More significantly, he also finds in her "gigantic" (124), terrifying figure an embodiment of not only his projected, grandiose self but also the primal, all-powerful, sadistic, and rejecting parent figures. Narcissistically experienced, the charwoman takes on deep significance in Gregor's solitary life, becoming a focal point for his primitive wishes, fears, and memories.

Increasingly neglected by his sister—twice a day she "hurriedly" pushes into his room "any food . . . available" (125)—Gregor loses his appetite, begins to shun the scraps of food, the narcissistic nutriment, that she gives him and thus slowly starves to death. When Grete becomes a mirror image of his neglectful, rejecting parents, he refuses the food she gives him just as he once refused the mother's milk given him. Through his self-starvation, Gregor makes one last, desperate plea for attention as he masochistically complies with his sister's—and family's—wish to get rid of him and as he punishes himself for his intense narcissistic neediness and fantasied harming of the fainting, asthmatic mother and, by extension, the entire family which becomes increasingly enervated as Gregor's illness progresses. In mute protest, Gregor sits in the corner to "reproach" (126) Grete for the filthiness of his room but to no avail. Behind Gregor's silent "reproach" is repressed rage which is later voiced by the middle lodger when he gives "notice" and considers "bringing an action for damages" because of the "disgusting conditions prevailing" in the "household and family" (132). Instead of openly expressing his anger, Gregor responds in a seemingly empathic but really resentful way to his family's neglect, recognizing how difficult it is for his "overworked and tired-out" family to "find time" to "bother" about him more than is "absolutely needful" (124). Moreover, despite his mother's outrageous neglect of him, he defensively protects her against his anger through splitting: he keeps intact his conscious image of her as the unavailable (absent) but "good" mother and projects her "badness"—her rejecting, narcissistically injuring behavior—onto others.

In stark contrast to this neglect of Gregor, Grete and Mrs. Samsa do find the time to bother about, if not dote on, Mr. Samsa; and the three lodgers, who become dominant over the family, are the center of the Samsas' attention. Gregor resentfully watches while the family prepares lavish meals for the three lodgers who then stuff themselves with food while he, abandoned, is "dying of starvation." But though ignored by his family, Gregor remains the focus of the narrator's attention, the narrator acting both as an objective, factual reporter of Gregor's plight and as an extension of Gregor's consciousness. Interestingly, this dual narrative perspective invites the reader to respond to Gregor both empathically and with the emotional distance of his family.

Outcast, excluded, rejected, Gregor, when he hears his sister playing the violin, makes his final and fatal escape from his room in an attempt to repair his defective self. Although he is "filthy," covered with dust, fluff, hair, and food remnants, he feels no "shame" and "hardly any surprise at his growing lack of consideration" as he, in his desperate desire to display himself, advances over the "spotless" living room floor. Narcissistically disabled and depleted, Gregor is indifferent to "everything" but the music he hears (130). Compelled because of what he hears in the music—authentic emotional expression—Gregor wants Grete's eyes to meet his: he craves a confirming, healing gaze. Feeling as if the "way" is "opening before him to the unknown nourishment" he craves (130-31)—narcissistic gratification—he wants to take Grete into his room and never let her out so long as he lives (131). Gregor's desire exclusively to possess Grete signals not only his unmet, archaic need for symbiotic merger with and exclusive possession of the idealized parent imago, but also his need for parental nourishment, protection, and self-validating empathy. Attempting to restore his disabled, defective self, Gregor wants to use Grete as a selfobject and fulfill, through her, his primitive needs. He wants to extract praise from her (he imagines she will be touched and admire him when he tells her how he had meant to send her to the Conservatory); he wants to dominate her (he disavows this need, imagining that she will stay with him of "her own free will" (131); and he wants to merge with her power and strength). Not only does Gregor's plan fail miserably, he is both subject to the unempathic stares of the three lodgers and made aware of how ashamed his family is of him when his father tries to "block" the lodgers' view of him (131).

At this point, Gregor, disappointed and weak "from extreme hunger" (132)—depleted from a lack of narcissistic sustenance—fears that there will be a "combined attack on him" (133), that he will sustain traumatic narcissistic injury. And he does when his sister pronounces judgment on him: "I won't utter my brother's name in the presence of this creature," as she tells her parents, "and so all I say is: we must try to get rid of it. We've tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as is humanly possible, and I don't think anyone could reproach us in the slightest" (133). When she complains that Gregor "persecutes" the family, "drives away" the lodgers, "wants the whole apartment to himself and would have the family "sleep in the gutter" (134), she both projects her own hostility onto Gregor and voices his hidden wishes. This makes her judgment against him doubly deadly: her desire to punish him is compounded by his masochistic desire to punish himself for his repressed grandiose needs and anger. When Grete invalidates him by refusing to recognize him as her brother, he, in effect, suffers a repetition of his primal, self-fragmenting experiences of parental rejection. Impaired, enfeebled, he crawls back to his room, his last glance falling on his impassive mother who is "not quite overcome by sleep" (135). Again, when Gregor displays himself, his depleted mother becomes non-responsive, he is punished, then locked in his room and, on this final occasion, left to die. Disavowing his anger and disappointment, Gregor, just before his death, thinks of his family with "tenderness and love" (135). To the end, his needs for love and confirming attention are unrequited. When Gregor agrees with his sister's "decision" that he must "disappear" (135), he expresses, on the family drama level, his feeling that his family is better off without him. This feeling is corroborated by the narrator's description of the family's cold, uncaring response to his death, a description which invites the reader to feel Gregor's disavowed anger. "Now thanks be to God" (136), Mr. Samsa pronounces when the family gathers around Gregor's emaciated body. "Let bygones be bygones," Mr. Samsa further comments (139) as the family members quickly leave off mourning and rejuvenate as they begin to celebrate their liberation from the insect-Gregor, their release from a shameful, secret family burden.

Agreeing to "disappear," Gregor also expresses, on the depth-psychological level, his extreme self-rejection and masochistic desire to remedy his situation by effacing himself and thus nullifying his unendurable sense of worthlessness, shame, failure, and defectiveness. Moreover, in dying he both punishes himself for his hidden aggression against the family and magically undoes his hidden crime against them—his fantasied depletion of and retaliatory devaluation of family members through his intense neediness and anger—and thus revitalizes them. The description of Grete's metamorphosis—she has blossomed into "a pretty girl with a good figure" (139)—symbolizes, at once, Grete's development of a cohesive self and the revitalization of the depleted mother. In stark contrast to his sister's transformation, Gregor has been reduced to a thing, an "it," his "flat and dry" carcass (137) imaging his empty, depleted, hollow self. It is appropriate that the charwoman, an embodiment of the neglectful, hostile aspects of the family, is the one to dispose of his body. Desperately seeking but never receiving the self-confirming attention, that "matrix of empathy" which Kohut feels the individual needs to form and sustain a cohesive sense of self, Gregor, in the end, is destroyed. His fragile, exquisitely sensitive self has been eroded, bit by bit, by the emotionally invalidating responses of his family.

The "deepest horror man can experience," as Kohut comments, "is that of feeling that he is exposed to circumstances in which he is no longer regarded as human by others, in a milieu that does not even respond with faulty or distorted empathy to his presence."27 In Metamorphosis, Kafka conveys, in exacting detail, the horror of such a situation. Essentially a family story, Metamorphosis reflects, as many critics have noted, aspects of Kafka's life: his submissive relationship to his father, his alienation from his mother, his hidden anger and resentment, his hypochondria, depression, feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, physical imperfection, loneliness, isolation. Although most discussions of the autobiographical elements of Kafka's fiction focus on his relationship with his insensitive, domineering father, which is well documented in his "Letter to His Father," Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen, in her "Psychoanalytic Notes" on Kafka, offers an interesting speculation on Kafka's early relationship with his mother, pointing to a disturbance in the early mother-child relationship. "The early death of Kafka's brothers and his mother's reaction to their loss—probably warding off emotion on the surface but deeply depressed beneath—," she writes, "must have had a profound effect on Kafka."28 Equally suggestive are recent discussions of Kafka's narcissistic relationships with both Felice and Milena.29

In his letters, diaries, and conversations, Kafka gave compelling testimony to his inner feelings, fears, and needs. Expressing his deep self-rejection and depressive, suicidal feelings in a conversation, he said, "Every day I wish myself off the earth."30 "The present is a phantom state for me," he said in his diary, "Nothing, nothing . . . merely emptiness, meaninglessness, weakness."31 "[I]f," he wrote, revealing his deep-rooted feelings of defectiveness, "I lacked an upper lip here, there an ear, here a rib, there a finger, if I had hairless spots on my head and pockmarks on my face, this would still be no adequate counterpart to my inner imperfection."32 Describing an experience of momentary self-fragmentation, he recalled how, during an "attack of madness" the "images became uncontrollable, everything flew apart until, in my extremity, the notion of a Napoleonic field marshal's black hat came to my rescue, descending on my consciousness and holding it together by force."33

While Kafka, in a deep-rooted way, experienced his family members as "strangers"—"you are all strangers to me, we are related only by blood, but that never shows itself'34—he formed deep narcissistic attachments to the women in his life, especially Felice and Milena. The first time he saw Felice he was struck by her "Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly."35 When they began what turned out to be a prolonged correspondence, he insisted that she share with him every detail of her life: he wanted totally to possess her in fantasy and in writing but not in the flesh. "You are my own self; "you belong to me"; "I belong to you",36 he wrote her. "I wish you were not on this earth, but entirely within me, or rather that I were not on this earth, but entirely within you; I feel there is one too many of us; the separation into two people is unbearable."37 But in his diary, he confided his "Anxiety about being a couple, flowing into the other person."38 Similarly, Kafka told Milena that she belonged to him and described how he felt "dissolved" in her and how, in a dream, he envisioned them "merging into one another, I was you, you were me."39 And yet, despite the imaginative intensity of these relationships, he could never assuage his inner feelings of alienation, aloneness. "I am capable of enjoying human relationships," as he once described it, "but not experiencing them."40 To be fully understood by one person, Kafka felt, "would be to have a foothold on every side, to have God."41

Having only a precarious foothold on such feelings, Kafka, as biographer Ronald Hayman puts it, used writing to "give him the illusion of inching his way towards his objective of being understood, of bringing the reader to know him as well as he knew himself."42 In Metamorphosis, Hayman comments, Kafka allegorized his "relationship with the family, building out from his sense of being a disappointment, a burden."43 That Kafka was thinking of his own family situation when he wrote Metamorphosis is revealed in the few recorded comments he made about the story. After its publication, he remarked to an acquaintance, "What do you have to say about the dreadful things happening in our house?"44 In a conversation with Gustav Janouch, he described the story as an "indiscretion. Is it perhaps delicate and discreet," he asked, "to talk about the bugs in one's own family?" When Janouch described the story as a "terrible dream, a terrible conception," Kafka responded, "The dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind. That is the horror of life—the terror of art."45 Verbalizing in his art his preverbal fears, needs, and fantasies, Kafka confronted and gave artistic expression to the twilight world of "Tragic Man."

Kafka was one of those writers who felt compelled to write. At times, in the actual process of writing, he felt a sense of perfection and self-approval which he rarely experienced in his daily life. "If I indiscriminately write down a sentence," he once wrote in his diary, "it is perfect."46 "Not to write," as he commented in a letter, "was already to be lying on the floor, deserving to be swept out."47 Through art, Kafka could express, distill, and distance himself from the "horror of life" and thus gain temporary mastery over his deep-rooted feelings of vulnerability, impotent rage, and inadequacy. Critics have long commented on the repetitive nature of Kafka's fiction. The "form" of Kafka's fiction, as one critic puts it, is "circular"; the "basic situation" of a given narrative "emerges again and again" like the repetition of a "trauma."48 Reading Metamorphosis through a Kohutian lens, we can understand, in greater depth, both the source and experiential core of that central, narcissistic trauma.




1 For an overview of the critical response to The Metamorphosis up to 1972, see Stanley Corngold's critical bibliography, The Commentators ' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973). Corngold's bibliography includes the work of American, English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian critics.

2 Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 78.

3The Metamorphosis, trans. Edwin and Willa Muir, in Kafka: The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), pp. 89-139. Page references to The Metamorphosis, indicated parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.

4 Kohut, ROS, pp. 285-88. See also Ornstein, SFS, vol. 2, pp. 680-81, 780 and Goldberg, ASP, pp. 518-19.

5 See, e.g., ROS pp. 132-33, 206-7, 224-25, 238-39; SFS, 757-61; ASP, 539-40, 543, 545-46.

6 SFS, fn. 5, p. 752.

7 See, respectively, SFS, pp. 718, 680 and ROS, 287.

8 SFS, p. 846.

9 ROS, pp. 104-5.

10 "[N]owhere in art," states Kohut, "have I encountered a more accurately pointed description of man's yearning to achieve the restoration of his self than that contained in three terse sentences in O'Neill's play The Great God Brown. . . 'Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.' Could the essence of the pathology of modern man's self be stated more impressively?" (ROS, p. 287).

11 For example, Franz Kuna (in Franz Kafka: Literature as Corrective Punishment [Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974], p. 51) states: "The main aspects of economic man debased to a functional role, as they were amply analysed by early twentieth-century philosophers and sociologists, emerge in Kafka's story in paradigmatic fashion."

12 The Samson allusion, e.g., has been noted by Norman Holland in "Realism and Unrealism, Kafka's 'Metamorphosis,'" Modern Fiction Studies, 4 (Summer 1958), 148-49 and by Jean Jofen in "Metamorphosis," American Imago, 35 (Winter 1978), 349. In a conversation with Kafka, Gustav Janouch commented that the name Samsa sounded "like a cryptogram for Kafka. Five letters in each word. The S in the word Samsa has the same position as the K in the word Kafka. The A . . ." To this, Kafka replied: "It is not a cryptogram. Samsa is not merely Kafka, and nothing else." (Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, rev. ed., trans. Goronwy Rees [New York: New Directions, 1968], p. 32).

13 See "The Therapeutic Activation of the Grandiose Self," in AOS, pp. 105-99. Archaic grandiose fantasies of omnipotence and magical power (such as superman fantasies) often emerge when the narcissistically disturbed individual feels powerless, disappointed, lonely, and/or abandoned. This also happens in the case of Gregor Samsa. See also the casebook, Arnold Goldberg ed., The Psychology of The Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1978), pp. 281, 284, 291-92, 308-9, 321-24, and passim.

14 "Telescoping," i.e., "the recall of memories of analogous later experiences which correspond to the archaic ones" (AOS, p. 39) according to Kohut, signals the psyche's attempt to "express the early trauma through the medium of analogous psychic contents that are closer to the secondary processes and to verbal communication" (AOS, p. 53).

15 See, e.g., Irving Howe's "Introduction" to Metamorphosis in Classics of Modern Fiction, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p. 405.

16 If the grandiose self is repressed too early, according to Kohut, the "reality ego" is deprived of "narcissistic nutriment" from the "deep sources of narcissistic energy" resulting in the "symptomatology" of "narcissistic deficiency": "diminished self-confidence, vague depressions, absence of zest for work, lack of initiative, etc." (AOS, p. 177). Because Gregor lacks an inner sense of sustaining self-esteem, he depends upon external approbation to supply him with narcissistic nutriment.

17 See, e.g., AOS, pp. 117-18.

18 ROS, pp. 106, 108.

19 Gregor's hiding under the couch recalls the behavior of one of the infants observed by Margaret Mahler and her collaborators. "[W]hen in distress," writes Mahler, "she would lie flat against the surface of the floor, or on the mattress on the floor, or would squeeze herself into a narrow space; it was as if she wanted to be enclosed (held together) in this way, which would afford her some of the sense of coherence and security that she was missing in the relationship with her mother." (The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant [New York: Basic Books, 1975], p. 94).

20 ROS, p. 177.

21 Ibid., p. 20.

22 See AOS, pp. 9, 29-30, 86, 214-17, and passim.

23 ROS, p. 105.

24 ASP, p. 503.

25 See, e.g., Politzer, Franz Kafka, p. 72.

26 See, e.g., Hellmuth Kaiser's Freudian interpretation of the text: "Franz Kafka's Inferno," Imago, 17: 1 (1931), 41-104. See also Corngold, The Commentators' Despair, (pp. 148-51) for a summary and discussion of Kaiser's analysis.

27 ASP, pp. 486-87.

28 Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen, "Psychoanalytic Notes on Franz Kafka," Psychocultural Review, 3 (Winter 1979), 5.

29 For a discussion of Kafka's relationship to his mother and to Felice and an interesting analysis of the pavlatche incident described in Kafka's "Letter to His Father", see Charles Bernheimer's Flaubert and Kafka: Studies in Psychopoetic Structure(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 149-61, and passim. For a discussion of Kafka's relationship with Milena, see Harmut Böhme's "Mother Milena: On Kafka's Narcissism," trans. John Winkelman, in Angel Flores ed., The Kafka Debate (New York: Gordian Press, 1977), pp. 80-99.

30 Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (New York: Schocken Books, 1960), p. 75.

31 Diary entry, 3 May 1915 in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-23, trans. Martin Greenberg, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1949), p. 126. Hereafter cited as DII.

32The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-13, trans. Joseph Kresh, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 19. Hereafter cited as DI.

33 Letter to Felice, 6 August 1913, in Letters to Felice, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth, eds. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 298. Hereafter cited as LF.

34 Diary entry, 15 August 1913, in DI, p. 297.

35 Diary entry, 20 August 1912, DI, p. 268.

36 LF, 4 Dec. 1912, p. 85; 19 October 1916, p. 525; 11 Nov. 1912, p. 37.

37 Ibid., 13 May 1913, p. 256.

38 Diary entry, 21 or 22 July 1913, cited and translated by Ronald Hayman in Kafka: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 163; from Tagebücher 1910-23 (New York: Schocken Books, 1951), p. 195. See also DI, #5, p. 292.

39Letters to Milena, trans. Tania and James Stern, ed. Willi Haas (New York: Schocken Books, 1953), pp. 71, 79, 207.

40 Letter to Grete Bloch, 6 Nov. 1913, in LF, p. 326.

41 Diary entry, 4 May 1915, cited and translated by Hayman, Kafka, p. 256 from Tagebücher, p. 296. See also DII, p. 126.

42 Hayman, Kafka, p. 198.

43 Ibid., p. 151.

44 Johannes Urzidil, There Goes Kafka, trans. Harold A. Basilius (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968), pp. 18-19.

45 Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, p. 32.

46 Diary entry, 19 Feb. 1911, cited and translated by Hayman, Kafka, p. 92 from Tagebücher, p. 29. See also DI, p. 45.

47 Letter to Felice, 1 Nov. 1912, cited and translated by Corngold, The Commentators' Despair, p. 24 from Briefe an Felice, eds. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Lizenzausgabe, 1967), p. 65. See also LF, p. 20.

48 Günter Anders, Franz Kafka, trans. A. Steer and A. K. Thorlby (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1960), p. 37.

Peter Beicken (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9507

SOURCE: "Transformation of Criticism: The Impact of Kafka's Metamorphosis" in The Dove and the Mole: Kafka's Journey into Darkness and Creativity, edited by Moshe Lazar and Ronald Gottesman, Undena Publications, 1987, pp. 13-34.

[In the following essay, Beicken surveys contemporary criticism of The Metamorphosis.]


The history of Kafka criticism appears to be a history of controversy. At the center of these critical combats is a writer about whom Ralph Freedman once remarked: "Kafka's obscurity is mirrored in the confusion of his critics."1 Indeed, Kafka's quintessential mode of writing and representation seems to be responsible for what the critics have done to his works: they have attributed every possible interpretation to his works and as a result the myriad of readings which exist seem to attest to the persistent paradoxes, impasses and pitfalls of establishing meaning in Kafka. And a cursory view of this plurality at best, and critical chaos at worst, yields the inevitable impression that both the history and the field of Kafka criticism demonstrate a sad state of affairs, namely the pervasiveness of an ever growing critical confusion.

Taking a close look at one particularly prolific strand of Kafka criticism, Stanley Corngold summed up the aim of his critical scrutiny of studies on Metamorphosis which gave a critique of almost one hundred and thirty works, most of them from the 'Fifties and 'Sixties:

the intention of this work is to stabilize to some degree the state of Kafka interpretation and to help create a point of departure for a self-conscious criticism of Kafka's fiction. For too long critics have disregarded the perspective they could gain from standing on the shoulders of their predecessors: they have either not known or not wanted to know such help exists. According to Benno von Wiese, Kafka's interpreters ignore each other 'although or precisely perhaps because they contradict each other in the crassest way.' But the lines of even contradictory arguments have since grown long, and positions have become entrenched; no one now writing about Kafka can suppose that he does so without entering a tradition.2

Corngold's remarks from his 1973 book, The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, point to a crucial dilemma of Kafka criticism: the unscholarly avoidance of scholarly discourse or lack of meta-criticism in criticism. Thus the plurality of views on Kafka seems to be a state of coexistence by way of mutual neglect. While it seems an obvious truth to put the critics at fault for having compounded the confusion surrounding Kafka due to their lack of intercourse, Kafka's works themselves because of their peculiar qualities seem to have generated much of that confusion. Freedman sees as a key element of Kafka's "obscurity" the "significant distortion" which he shares with Expressionism. But Kafka's "metamorphosed world," as Corngold puts it, tests the hero's "own capacity for understanding." Freedman explains: "Kafka's way of exploring the paradoxes Gregor confronts is therefore at first epistemological; that is, it is concerned with different ways of knowing the reality, of exploring the shifting relations between self and world."3

As obvious as this observation might seem, it came at a time when most critics were still trying to undo the shifts in the world Kafka depicts in order to arrive at a viewpoint that would allow for an understanding in terms of a mimetic space and time. Kafka's otherness, his shifting mode of representation with its noted affinities to some major principles of Expressionism and certain roots in Naturalism,4 creates a distorted fiction that undermines the principle of mimesis. As a result his world is rendered inaccessible to traditional approaches based on the conventions of poetic realism. This was recognized as early as 1926 when Felix Weltsch, one of Kafka's close friends, tried to come to terms with Kafka's fictional otherness, coining the word "meta-reality" to describe Kafka's non-mimetic mode of representation.5 Weltsch anticipated the notion of surrealism which was ascribed to Kafka only a few years later, above all by the French surrealists. Subsequently Albert Camus, the champion of the philosophy of the absurd, fit Kafka into his concept of the absurd.6 Essentially, however, Camus moved from observations of Kafka's otherness in representing the world to a view of Kafka ascribing to him a distinct position vis-a-vis the non-sensical. The problem of distinguishing between method and meaning in Kafka is a critical one, all the more so since Kafka's method of distortion essentially generates the meaning which critics have found incomprehensible, obscure, absurd, nonexistent.

Faced with this state of affairs, Corngold rigorously sought after a new base for future Kafka studies. Critiquing the existing interpretations of The Metamorphosis, he confronted the many readings with his own declaring that it,

takes its starting point from a formal dimension of the work—the metamorphosis of a metaphor from conventional speech. This approach belongs to a tradition of critical analysis focusing on the intentions which originate the language and style of Kafka's fiction. These intentions can be deduced from the history of Kafka's profound commitment to the act of writing, a commitment inscribed in his fiction as well as in his confessional works.7

Writing replaces mimesis as imitation of the world insofar as writing becomes its own mimesis. Rather than imitating the world in whatever fashion of realism, writing is envisioned here and ascribed to Kafka as the mimesis of the concepts of reality as they unfold in the process of writing. Corngold rejects interpretation as commentary. In a different way the Tübingen school, Friedrich Beissner, Martin Walser, and later Jörgen Kobs, pursued a rigorously descriptive analysis of Kafka's works. Adopting elements from formalist approaches, this critical school championed a foremost "werkimmanent" or "intrinsic" method. Corngold however favors a different kind of interpretation as non-commentary: conceding "the fact that no single reading of Kafka escapes blindness," he nevertheless dispels the notion "that Kafka is indecipherable or that all plausible interpretations are equally valid." Instead, Corngold proposes "validity" of interpretation as

measured by a scrutiny of the work, which unfolds as the adventurous combat of principles authorizing interpretations. These principles of symbolic and allegorical action organize the empirical history of interpretations of The Metamorphosis, and in many cases determine their correctness.8

Criticism as a combat zone, symbol and allegory as the action principles. This binary classification of all Kafka criticism into two generic modes of interpretations sets the stage for a powerful decision with which Corngold decides the antagonism between the warring factions. As arbiter, however, he is concerned to show the basis for both camps in the works themselves. Kafka's works allow for the two different and opposing approaches. They are, according to Corngold, intrinsic to the works insofar as they are the two major modes of validating a given interpretation. Reading Kafka symbolically according to Corngold means to complete the work by supplying its deficiencies with a compensatory fullness. For example:

the gist of all symbolic readings is most clearly present in the psychoanalytical reading, which fills in the literary text as psychoanalysis fills in an oral report of a dream, as if both texts were essentially nonliteral communications, full of gaps and ellipses.9

Symbolic interpretation, as suggested here, takes the text as a pretext for deciphering a meaning in the context of conventional decoding of hidden signifiers. Symbolic reading, exemplified by Corngold in his reading of The Metamorphosis, presupposes: 1. the continuity of the empirical phenomena within the fictional world; 2. the meaningfulness of an accessible intentionality; 3. the coherence of meaning underlying the apparent deficiencies in the mode of representation; and 4. the prescriptive and prophetic bearing of the work, its universality of intended significance.10

This concept of symbolic reading presupposes the work of art as the ontological place that stores meaning in a coherent system of signifiers, the references of which point to phenomena on the outside. The reader gains understanding in the act of partaking in the referential process. He recovers what the work can only elucidate by way of addressing a referent. Hence, interpretation is necessary on the part of the reader to unify all interacting elements and restore completeness to the work of art as an ontological unity.

Contrary to this model of re-constructing meaning, Corngold defines "the allegorical reading" as opposing the symbolic "in every detail." In the case of Kafka's story The Metamorphosis Corngold contends:

It takes literally the metamorphosis, the radical disjunction separating Gregor Samsa from the vermin. It considers the work as literally constituting an uncanny, unsettled existence. Hence, it reads Gregor's consciousness of his sister's violin playing, through which he senses the way to an unknown nourishment, not as compensation for his existence but rather as an integral condition of it. Finally, his situation is not seen as a defective or any other kind of empirical situation: it cannot be grasped through familiar experience.11

Corngold's insistence on the separation between the mimetic and the represented, the poetic and the empirical realm dissolves the familiar notions of the symbolic and allegorical. It introduces the allegorical not with reference to conventions of signifiers and the signified. It maintains a radical departure from such codification insofar as the writer's existence becomes the focal point for the new allegory:

Mainly because this reading stresses the absolute interval between Gregor Samsa and his new situation—his unbeing—it can be called allegorical according to Walter Benjamin's definition of allegory as the nonpresence—that is to say the nonexperienceable character—of what is signified.12

This rigorous classification of the allegorical resounds Benjamin's critique of the major two ways of misreading Kafka when he dismissed both the "religious" and the "psychoanalytical" interpretations in his seminal essay of 1934 commemorating the tenth anniversary of Kafka's death. Unlike Benjamin who stayed with a blend of mystical reading and materialist analysis of Kafka, Corngold champions the allegorical mode, because it seems to him to deal effectively with the self-referential qualities of the work of art. Practicing his prescribed self-conscious criticism, he proceeds:

What, then, is allegorized in The Metamorphosis? What intention finds its correlative in the metamorphosis of a man into an Ungeziefer, an unbeing? It is, first of all, Kafka's intention to exist as literature, to write fiction; for this intention to write. . . . is realized only insofar as it both lives in the historical process and knows itself as so living. In this story writing reflects itself, in the mode of allegory, as metamorphosis, literality, death, play, and reduction—the whole in a negative and embattled form.13

Corngold's sense of allegory takes the Schriftstellersein and its enactment in the process of writing as the essential correlative of what is allegorized in the text, suspending the traditional sense of allegory as representation of a metaphysical nonpresence. Thus allegory becomes a self-enclosed form which gives shape to an existential mode of being: Schriftstellersein as an encoding of existential givens in the act of writing removed from the historicity of the actual person involved. This is not unfamiliar to Kafka scholars. Martin Walser, without referring to the allegorical mode, established a dichotomy of the "bürgerlichhistorische Persönlichkeit" ("empirical person") and the "poetica personalità," a term and concept taken from Benedetto Croce's theory of art.14 Whereas Walser wanted to establish a base for his formal analysis of Kafka's works rejecting all commentaries and philosophical interpretations as basically speculative, Corngold re-establishes the speculative mode of interpretation with regard to the meaning of the signified by relating it back to an allegorical signifier which serves as a codifying element in the representation of Schriftstellersein. When Corngold speaks of the combat between the symbolical and the allegorical mode, he refers to the conflicting approaches which generate meaning by way of reading the signs and signifiers either as referential, i.e., pointing to another realm such as the empirical, the historical, the psychological, or by remaining strictly self-referential, i.e., allegorical, which in Corngold's terminology is the self-reflexiveness of Schriftstellersein. It follows from his argument that the allegorical mode is the higher form of reading whereas the symbolical interpretation is rendered subordinate.

A similar hierarchical structure of interpretive modes was established by Horst Steinmetz in 1977 when he made his plea for a "suspended interpretation" (Suspensive Interpretation)5 If the allegorical is superior to the symbolical in Corngold's estimate, so Steinmetz subordinates reception and elevates interpretation to a higher level. Basically, reception is reductionist and therefore illegitimate, whereas interpretation finds meaning in the unending process of its own suspension. According to Steinmetz, reception as an individual and collective act and historical reality has produced a method which supplies meaning to a work of art that essentially defies completion of its intentionally open-ended structures. The crucial qualities of Kafka's narratives, his modernist features suggest, according to Steinmetz, not the identification of one particular meaning in any familiar mode, but require a process of interpretation which keeps its options open. Because of the modernist structures, that is, disjunction of the signifiers and the signified, Kafka's narratives cannot be equated with existing modes of thinking. Rather, the presuppositions of these interpretive viewpoints are in dire need of being called into question. Steinmetz suspects and blames existing world views for the reductionist results in the receptive process. He also decries the lack of critical control when critics affirm their readings by way of annihilating the disjointedness of Kafka's form and suspended meaning. Steinmetz incorporates the notion of the modernist artist's alienation into his concept of Kafka's works. Self-alienation then, is not only a state of the artist but of his work as well—a fact which, according to Steinmetz, renders all attempts to arrive at a definite and definitive meaning useless. These attempts represent, at best, ways of harmonizing the work of art into an existing world view depriving it of its inalienable otherness. Whenever the empirical or the historical interest of the critic enters interpretation, Steinmetz sees the danger of impurity, imperfection, and impropriety. To keep the work of art, the modernist work of art and its alienated otherness free of such contaminations from the historical realm, interpretation requires its own suspension. For Steinmetz it is the only way that the modernist artist can, through the work of art, critique the state of things in the true sense of Ideologiekritik.16

Kafka's works become self-fulfilling prophecies for critics and readers alike, but the two sides are often worlds apart. Steinmetz' claim that Kafka need not be read within the historical frame deprives the critic and the reader of his historicity and dislocates the works from their quintessential locus of reception and interpretation. Suspended interpretation makes reading a monologue without any possibility for discourse between work and critic from a historical point of view. As history leaves, confusion settles in. This need not be.

Alienation as an element in Kafka's writing and a quality of his works is, at the same time, a crucial factor in the historical process which shaped Kafka's life. The self-alienated artist is a detectable part of his writings, and the narrative form is apt to subject the reader to the experience of alienation in its manifold manifestations, thematically, structurally, and in meaning. A point well made by Steinmetz and others before him is to guard one's critical reading of Kafka against the encroachments from traditional approaches and the conventions of established world views. Kafka's texts require a decoding which comes to terms with the unconventionality of his works. Their modernity proposes a criticism that combats the uses of preconceived modes of interpretation. The shifts in Kafka's writings call for a critical sequence that reflects the progressive innovation in Kafka's works. The evolution of Kafka's method provokes a corresponding critical evolution. The history of the reception of The Metamorphosis reveals the transforming power of this story on its criticism.


Most modernist artists in the twentieth century issued statements accompanying their works directed at the public for purposes of explaining their rationale for writing. Kafka lived in a period when the production of manifestos was rampant. He himself, one of the most self-effacing writers in the modern era, refrained from presenting statements, explanations, or an ideology of writing. This restraint in self-revealing discourse is quite unthinkable in the case of Thomas Mann or Bertolt Brecht, to mention two very articulate and profilic self-promoters of their art. Their theories and declarations were self-serving in the context of the artist-audience-dialogue. Kafka's self-effacement allowed for mediators, above all in the person of his promoter-friend Max Brod. He encouraged Kafka to publish, he urged him to yield to interested publishers, and he served as interpreter-critic throughout. After Kafka's death Brod assumed not only the sole dictatorship, at least for the first posthumous editions, he also modelled himself into an authoritative source of views on Kafka's enigmatic art, soon recognized as a special authority whose interpretations became canonic for quite a long time. Brod's religiously slanted explications in the afterwords of the three novel fragments published consecutively from 1925 on, served as guidelines to many a critic, even more so insofar as Kafka's own confessional writings, through which later periods accomplished more sensitive readings of his works, had not been edited by that time. Brod presented strategically placed interpretations privileged because of their authoritative exclusivity and seemingly valid because of his overall closeness to Kafka the writer and man. Thus Kafka had entered into discourse with his readers through a mediator, or so it seemed, and Brod confirmed that notion by slowly editing parts of the confessional writings—from diaries, letters, notebooks—which appeared to substantiate his critical claims. The Metamorphosis did not fall into Brod's religious scheme and although the story was recognized as a major one from early on, this work was spared Brod's legitimizing efforts, unlike the novels for which Brod had developed his eschatological concept of Kafka's movement from despair to hope.

Kafka's reflections on his writing date back to his early letters and the beginning diaries of 1909-10. He was, above all, concerned with truthfulness in writing, focusing on method, inwardness or introspection, and artistic rigor insofar as formal perfection is concerned. The existential dimension of his "scribbling," the absolute necessity to come into being as a writer, split his daily routine into a life of dull normalcy at his unloved position as an insurance official, whereas the other life was of a consuming power during his nightly obsessions to produce literature. All his confessional writings reveal an excessive sense of failure underscored by the ardent fervor of his passion for writing which led him to extremes of anguish and frustration with only occasional elations and raptures, rare moments of satisfaction for this lone artist. The torments suffered from his dual life were quintessential, though, to Kafka's experience as "Schriftsteller," and he transported these tensions and conflicts into his works, partly to rid himself of them, partly to seek solutions by way of objectification. If one looks at his work as a large, oversize fresco of a most complicated life situation, then this text is inscribed with another text. As much as Kafka's work seems to be an encoding of his inner life in the form of fictionalizations, the text within the text is the representation of the writing self. It originates in the consciousness of the artist and manifests its artistic choices, strategies, intentions.

The year 1912 represented the turning point in Kafka's life and career as a writer. Aside from publishing his first book, Meditation, he produced his breakthrough story "The Judgment," and soon thereafter The Metamorphosis. The breakthrough was one in method and in theme. Kafka succeeded in finding the narrative structure adequate to his intentions, and he introduced the omnipresent father-figure, a key element to the punitive fantasies of the years after 1912. Within the evolution of Kafka's style the radical shift in narrative method which occurred in "The Judgment" and appeared more refined in The Metamorphosis can be described as a "defamiliarization" or, in Russian, "ostraneniye," a term with which the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky revolutionized the theory of narration.17 Shklovsky observed the dialectical process inherent in the evolution of literature and its forms. He recognized that the emergence of the new versus the old follows the principle of innovation which "defamiliarizes" what has become convention through significant, if not radical, shifts. These shifts go through transitions which produce the appearance of phenomena looking alike, although the sameness is one of appearance only. What seems alike is not the same. So the new replaces the old by way of absorbing it and superseding it through innovative shifts. The innovative is always a composite of the familiar and the unfamiliar which, in a true dialectical process, progress dynamically towards the evolution of the new.

In Kafka's writing of The Metamorphosis the new and dissimilar was present to him as a plan he tried to realize within a very short period of time. In fact, beginning the writing on November 17, 1912, Kafka at first believed he would be able to finish his "little story" in one setting as he did on the night of September 22 to the 23rd when he wrote "The Judgment."18 Kafka's desire to write uninterruptedly through one night, however, was not fulfilled in the case of The Metamorphosis. Interruptions occurred, the story grew longer than expected, court dates in the provincial towns of Reichenberg and Kratzau necessitated a trip from the office, the effect of which Kafka laments as disastrous for his writing, which he resumed after his return, disrupted and resigned to the fact that the inspirational process of writing had been damaged irreparably. In the almost daily reports to Felice, Kafka noted disheartenedly: "The story progresses in a dull, placid way, illuminated only by moments of the essential clarity." In the same letter he wrote ". . . the new story, though nearing its end, has been trying for the past 2 days to make me believe I have been all wrong."19 This "exceptionally repulsive story," despite its being "infinitely repulsive," nevertheless made writing for Kafka "highly voluptuous."20 But the interference with the creative process by the outside world sent Kafka through the seesaw experiences of rejecting his story to the point of an auto-da-fé while he derived contrasting states of elation and rapture as well. Wishing to destroy what he had written, Kafka also got fired up about his story, the ending of which he envisioned with "uniformity and the fire of consecutive hours."21 About two and a half weeks after the beginning Kafka put an end to the story, disliking the ending instantly and judging the story as "bad" a year later.22 Harsh judgments such as these, reflecting Kafka's dissatisfaction with the interrupted writing process of The Metamorphosis, did not prevent him from reading himself "into a frenzy" with his story when he presented it to his friends at a private reading at which everybody did let go "and laughed a lot."23 It is this laughter that is revealing. It indicates to us what critics of The Metamorphosis missed for many years to come: this story follows strategies and a game plan which are not accessible to the uninitiated reader, one who follows the reading patterns of literary reception that Kafka defied in his most disturbing and unsettling tale.

Kafka resisted publication of the story for a while. An offer by Robert Musil to publish the work in Die neue Rundschau did not materialize, because there was intervention from the publishing house where someone deemed the story too long for the journal.24 When The Metamorphosis finally appeared in another magazine and shortly thereafter in book form in November 1915, the critics reacted swiftly and according to their respective attitudes concerning contemporary literature. Kafka himself acted as a critic of sorts when he sent a warning to the publisher not to have an illustration depicting the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, on the cover. Struck by the idea that the illustrator Ottomar Starke "might want to draw the insect itself," Kafka exclaimed categorically: "Not that, please not that! I do not want to restrict him, but only make this plea out of my deeper knowledge of the story. The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance."25 Kafka's concern for a possibly misleading cover illustration is revealing insofar as he gave an inkling that Gregor Samsa's transformation into a gigantic insect is to be understood quite differently from conventional tales of metamorphoses. In fact, Kafka indicates that he is not following the traditions of the fairy tale. Rather, his ardent plea for the inconceivable nature of the insect suggests a form of existence that hints at a new element in the fantastic. The conflict between the literary depiction and Kafka's verdict against visual illustration denotes combating principles within Kafka's mode of representation. It is the conflict between mimetic and non-mimetic elements.

One of the earliest critics to react was Kasimir Edschmid, himself an ardent champion of Expressionism. Comparing Kafka's story to Gustav Meyrink's employments of the fantastic, Edschmid observed the tendency in The Metamorphosis to bring the miraculous in touch with ordinary reality. Kafka, in positing the miraculous as an intrinsic part of the everyday world, surprises with the shock of the incomprehensible. The uncanny is part of this reality depicted with minute detail and veracity. Edschmid noted the absence of the symbolic and hailed the realistic representation of the miraculous in the disturbing images and their oppressive impact. Quite clearly, Edschmid had abandoned the traditional pattern of reading conventional symbolism into a story which defied the conventions of the symbolic mode.26

Others clung to the symbolic reading objecting most often to Kafka's experiment for reasons that reveal a disposition towards the conventional interpretation of the symbolic. It is no surprise that charges leveled against Kafka such as the deriding remark in the conservative journal of the Dürerbund which rejected The Metamorphosis as "unimaginative and boring"27 had to miss the point of Kafka's innovative narrative. The conventions of the nineteenth century narrative and even the traditions of the fairy tale if taken as models are prone to make a story like The Metamorphosis seem out of step with the right kind of story making. If this reviewer of the Dürerbund journal had attributed to Kafka a strenuous fantasy and a strained, even grotesque sense of reality, the charge would have appeared more plausible. But the outright condemnation judging the story "unimaginative" demonstrates the pejoratives of a critical mind inept to cope with the dialectics of the old and the new.

Of a different kind were critical responses which attributed to Kafka "something genuinely German," a label which Kafka quite mockingly put down, rejecting such labeling altogether.28 But his close friend Max Brod had listed The Metamorphosis among the "most Jewish documents of our time," and Kafka, confronting the two opposite labels, asked himself whether he really could ride two different circus horses at the same time to come up with one of his genuinely unsettling images: he envisioned himself as being no rider at all, but lying in the dust instead.29 Despite this self-derogatory rhetoric, Kafka was incensed when he read the analysis of the Viennese psychiatrist and Freudian disciple Wilhelm Stekel, who found neurotic and homosexual tendencies in The Metamorphosis which he interpreted as an infantile regressive louse dream. This reading with its apparent scientific analysis claiming verifiable truth prompted Kafka to remark sarcastically that "Stekel reduces Freud to small change."30 Obviously, the psychoanalytical view point and its reductive method of reading literary texts as documents of regressive tendencies and neurotic behavior on the part of the author went against Kafka's sense of literary strategies. His fear of entrapment by the psychoanalytical method was alleviated by the readings of two other critics who sensed in Kafka's story the new and dissimilar. Oscar Walzel in a remarkably perceptive essay utilized the eighteenth century concept of the miraculous to explicate the "logic" of The Metamorphosis which he saw in the tradition of Heinrich von Kleist's and E. T. A. Hoffmann's fantastic realism. Pointing out precursors of Kafka, Walzel refrained from reducing the story to a scheme of narrative conventions. Rather, he saw Kleist and Hoffmann as outsiders of a narrative tradition to which Kafka seemed to be more opponent than heir.31 Likewise innovative was the critical appreciation by a Prague acquaintance of Kafka's, Eugen Löwenstein, who detected a crucial aspect of The Metamorphosis, the image of the father figure. With a suggestive reference to the Oedipus myth—a clear indication that Freud's thesis had been adopted here—Löwenstein saw two transformations, that of Gregor into an estranged being and the other focusing on the family, which develops into a morally questionable group representing repressive tendencies by forcing the hapless member of the family outside the inner circle. Interestingly enough, nobody seems to have noticed this perceptive reading, not even Kafka himself.32

Toward the end of his life Kafka was still a quite unknown author. After his death he was effectively rediscovered as a writer of novels due to Max Brod's editorial policy which emphasized the larger narratives. From the middle of the 'Twenties on, critics such as Herman Hesse, Kurt Tucholsky, Thomas Mann, and Alfred Döblin recognized Kafka's talent and stature. However, little documentation remains of further reception of the shorter works. A 1920 mediocre literary history, for example, disqualified The Metamorphosis as tasteless, while the 1927 edition of Soergel's famed work called Gregor Samsa a "loving, kind soul," summarizing the major quality of the story in the label "dreamscape."33

When Bertolt Brecht attacked traditional esthetics in the Twenties, he used as a model for future writing Kafka's non-psychological mode of representation, but derived his concept of radical change mainly from a social and political analysis of the existing society, and he found Kafka's The Trial closest to his materialist redefinitions.34 Likewise did Walter Benjamin focus his attention on this novel, and his remarks on The Metamorphosis are scant. Nevertheless, he tried to put to rest the claims of Hellmuth Kaiser's 1931 reductionist psychoanalytical reading of three Kafka's stories, "In the Penal Colony," "Report to an Academy," and The Metamorphosis, a reading Benjamin labeled "naturalist," condemning its crude and obvious translation of literary elements into blatant sexual symbolism. Kaiser reduced the oedipal conflict to a mere genital rivalry excluding any other meaning, and this model of a psychoanalytical reading found many adulators in America during the first wave of mainly psychoanalytical interpretations of Kafka's works in the late 'Forties.35

Whereas Fascism in Germany eclipsed criticism of The Metamorphosis by the year 1935, translations of the story into English (1937) and French (1938) triggered new interest in the respective countries. Much of this criticism centered on The Metamorphosis followed in the symbolical vein. Philip Rahv, for example, in his essay "Franz Kafka: The Hero as Lonely Man" (1939) arranged a full spectrum of literary elements, the fantastic, the autobiographical, the literary influences, and, in addition, the psychological, the religious, and the theme of the evolutionary process which Rahv saw reversed in Kafka. According to Rahv, Kafka depicts civilization as turning back into a primeval state to be seen as symbolic of "the estrangement of man from his environment."36 Critiquing this symbolic reading, Corngold objects to Rahv's translation of literary imagery into philosophical commentary suggesting that "within Kafka's works is a cogent internal evolution of the image of the insect. The insect allegorizes developing possibilities of self-consciousness."37

Speculative interpretations of The Metamorphosis sprang up in Germany after World War II when the Kafka boom, developed particularly in the U.S., was assimilated by a nation traumatized by the deluge of the war years. Kafka's stories and novels seemed to represent obvious messages about humans being victims and victimized by anonymous powers. The sacrificial aspect of The Metamorphosis was focused upon by Edmund Edel who turned Gregor Samsa's "unique form of spiritual existence" into a positive, religious, and metaphysical message. According to Edel "this hero of authentic self-consciousness" elevated through his sacrificial death "the life of the spirit into God's order."38

Against this speculative symbolic interpretation and the failures of mimetic readings Wilhelm Emrich developed his notion of an intrinsic interpretation or "werkimmanente Interpretation" which, by his designation was to explain the symbols of the literary text as functional aspects no longer referring to a transcendental reality.39 Taking the earlier Raban dream of wishful escapism from "Wedding Preparations in the Country" into account, Emrich found in Kafka a basic drive to free the self from the pressures of the social sphere. In his observations on Gregor Samsa he proceeded to detect a striking dichotomy of body and mind or otherness and self. Rather than seeing this otherness as symbolic of the dream-like, unconscious, and the instinctual in the self, Emrich considered it inexplicable and devoid of representational value.

It is precisely this question which was raised by Walter H. Sokel in his investigation of The Metamorphosis. Subjecting the protagonist and his relationship to his own self and to his environment to a rigorous Freudian analysis, Sokel described the nature of Gregor's personality as split manifest in his form of behavior, discourse, and mode of thinking.40 Using the cogent concept of "Rebellion and Punishment" which echoes Fedor Dostoevsky's awesome title Crime and Punishment, Sokel detects the estranging powers in Gregor Samsa's unconsciousness. Out of Gregor's divided self come the forces which render him alien to himself. Sokel values the metaphor of estrangement as documentation and manifestation of a hidden truth to the hero. Thus the metamorphosis represents alienation from himself and the world.

The metaphorical manifestation of an unconscious state of mind and being, however, utilizes as a device the metamorphosis which, in itself, has a history of formal application. The metamorphosis as a technique of story-telling is age old, employed by myth, fairy tale and literary traditions as well. But metamorphosis as a traditional motif and device is deprived in Kafka of its familiar function to denote fantasy, refuge, or punishment. Kafka does not relate fictional and empirical reality to demonstrate the wonders of the miraculous. The unsettling effect of his metamorphosis is the total estrangement and the literalness of the metaphor. The Metamorphosis presents an incomprehensible fact and a progression towards dissimilarity. The familiar connotations of conventional symbolism disintegrate when applied to Kafka's alienating motif. The metamorphosis seems to be an enactment of forces and events which conceal rather than reveal their meaning.

A point in case is the allusion to the fairy tale La Belle et la Bete in The Metamorphosis. Taking the fairy tale into account, the reader is lead to believe that Gregor's sister will fulfill the expectations suggested by the fairy tale and actively pursue a re-metamorphosis of her unfortunate brother. Metamorphosis or re-metamorphosis as salvation, however, does not occur in Kafka's story. Instead, the blood relationship and the societal taboo of incestual love seem to block the realization of Gregor's fantasy as wishful thinking. Kafka utilizes the conventions of literary traditions to achieve the "ostraneniye"-effect. Focusing on the estrangement in The Metamorphosis, Heinz Hillman proposed an analysis which centers on the self, the environment, the father figure, alienation and the psychological structure of the story.41 His detailed investigation reveals Gregor Samsa as a victim of societal forces which prevented his human development. Instead, the hierarchies of the authoritarian, patriarchal and capitalist society thrive on subordinating human beings who do not even gain individuality and a personal sense of being. Hillman sees The Metamorphosis as a critique of the authoritarian structures prevailing in the minds of both masters and victims. However the story criticizes in fictional form what the Letter to His Father critiques in discursive analysis. Chiding the fictional representation of experiences in the real and the imaginary, Hillman indicates a preference for the discursive text as a superior means of enlightenment. Yet the reception of The Metamorphosis proves the unending fascination evoked by this particular work of fiction. It is the art factor that wins over the more analytical discourse.


From a structuralist point of view the interaction of all elements present in The Metamorphosis constitutes the meaning of the story. This interaction is a vital factor in the reception process. Of particular interest are those elements which show Kafka's reception of literary motifs from other works and writers. Here his process of "defamiliarizing" and "estrangeing" familiar texts is most obvious and especially enlightening for his own method too.

Following Kafka's revealing remark about his "sheer imitation" of Dickens in writing his novel Der Verschollene (Amerika), Mark Spilka investigated Dickens and other writers as precursors whose influence he found quite prevalent.42 Noting Dickens as Kafka's "greatest influence," Spilka observed:

the dreamscape is the distinctive element in Kafka's fiction. Fantasy evokes it, and the infantile perspective gives it focus and direction. Where Joyce, Faulkner and others adopt the stream-of-consciousness as an artistic device, Kafka plunges deeper and selects the dream as his terrain; or rather he projects it onto the realistic level, and proceeds to depict a world controlled by dream devices.43

Determining "fantasy" the "inclusive term for Kafka's world," Spilka finds it "more suitable than allegory or symbol, since it meets more centrally the demands of grotesque fiction."44 Hence, the "vital blend of fantasy with urban realism," which begins with E. T. A. Hoffmann, N. Gogol and F. Dostoevsky, was of utmost importance for Kafka and, according to Spilka, "it was Dostoevsky's tale, The Double, which provided Kafka with his immediate inspiration."45 Dostoevsky, who used the double to express the unconscious of the hero, Mr. Golyadkin, a minor civil servant, took several chapters to establish the mental illness of his protagonist displaying the wastefulness and clumsiness of his method and mode of representation. Kafka in a manner that is more reminiscent of Hoffmann begins his story with the metamorphosis accomplished, catching the reader by surprise and bringing out the full terror of urban nightmare Gregor Samsa's fate was to represent. Whereas Dostoevsky points to the hallucinatory state of mind of his main character, Kafka blends the grotesque with the real in his fictional fantasy. Although it is true that in detail Kafka is much more obliged to Dostoevsky, in method he differs and he remains closer to the mastery of the grotesque in Hoffmann and Gogol. Gogol's The Nose and The Overcoat are of particular interest in this respect, and it is noteworthy that Spilka does not spend much time discussing these two works. Whereas Dostoevsky depicts vividly Golyadkin's hallucinatory state of mind, Gogol's mode of representation avoids psychological introspection. Two examples illustrate Gogol's use of symbolism that defamiliarizes conventional symbols. While The Nose presents the startling event—the barber Ivan Yakovlevich finds one morning collegiate assessor Kovaliov's nose—right at the beginning to estrange the familiar world with a stark element of the grotesque, The Overcoat adopts a more subtle way of blending urban pressures and human fantasy. The life of the petty clerk Akaky Akakievich represents the drudgery, misery and poverty of the urban lower classes. The tale that unfolds is focused on the overcoat which becomes the central image of Akakievich's pitiful existence. As his life is dulled in the civil service his overcoat shows the wear and tear of his personal misery. To find a replacement for his used up coat, Akakievich has to literally starve himself until he is finally able to pay for a new coat of which he is robbed. In the end, after his death, he takes revenge by haunting the people and the authorities who had ignored him all along.

To show Akakievich's miserable state of existence, Gogol depicts him as a character who essentially lacks any sense of self. Enslaved by his job, humbled by his co-workers, Akakievich wanders the streets of Petersburg oblivious to the world around him:

there were always things sticking to his uniform, either bits of hay or threads; moreover, he had a special knack of passing under a window at the very moment when various garbage was being flung out into the street, and so was continually carrying off bits of melon rind and similar litter on his hat. He had never once in his life noticed what was being done and what was going on in the street.46

Gogol's strategy is obvious here. He depicts a human being who the world has turned into a worthless entity by way of neglect and disregard. The garbage metaphor is the objective correlative serving as a functional symbol the meaning of which is determined by the context of the story. Gogol does not hesitate to reiterate this metaphor to strengthen the reader's understanding of its meaning:

on the way a clumsy chimney sweep brushed the whole of his sooty side against him and blackened his entire shoulder; a whole hatful of plaster scattered upon him from the top of a house that was being built. He noticed nothing of this.47

To be sure, Gogol's negative hero becomes the epitomy of a character who calls for our empathy. Gogol bestowed demonic powers upon him in his afterlife, turning him into a specter plaguing those who had been unjust and ignorant of his humanity. The image of the degraded, garbage and filth covered animal-like human recalls Gregor Samsa, who after his transformation into the giant insect and after a period of time in his old environment, turns into a dust covered being which the cleaning lady refers to as a dung beetle and thing after Gregor's death. Whereas in Gogol's case the filth metaphor heightens the misery of Akakievich's life symbolically, Kafka depicts an animal with human consciousness, and the reader is quite willing to accept Gregor's appearance as a dirty animal more readily than not. It is as if the grotesque had turned full circle and become self-understood reality.

Another point for comparison is Gogol's depiction of Akakievich's self-alienation. On a stroll through the snowy city streets Akakievich comes across the following scene:

he stopped with curiosity before a lighted shop window to look at a picture in which a beautiful woman was represented in the act of taking off her shoe and displaying as she did so the whole of a very shapely leg, while behind her back a gentleman with whiskers and a handsome imperial on his chin was sticking his head in the door. Akaky Akakievich shook his head and smiled and then went on his way.48

In this scene Akakievich experiences in iconographic form a situation which puts him into the position of onlooker while a suggestive act of voyeurism occurs. The sexual is totally alien to Akakievich. His companion is his coat, and in moments of happiness he feels married to this worn piece of material. So the sexual represents itself to him as something outside, alien to him, from which he will remain separated. He is confronted with it not in reality but only in image form. And he partakes in the suggested act as a voyeur who can achieve not more than the satisfaction of wishful daydreaming. Gogol's narrative strategy has to leave the confines of Akakievich's character who normally is totally oblivious to everything around him. Kafka places a similar icon quite differently and more convincingly. Right at the beginning of The Metamorphosis, Gregor has just found himself "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" and he asks himself "What has happened to me?", when he sees the

picture which he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put into a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished.49

Unlike Gogol's Akakievich, Gregor Samsa is doubly removed from this icon of a sexual object which represents his alienated sexual drive. Not only is the object of sexual desire remote by the mere pictorial representation, Gregor Samsa is also transformed from a human into an animal and thus unable to realize and fulfill the desire he once felt as a human. Whereas Gogol had to step out of the character of his unhero Akakievich to confront him with an image of the sexual drive which has become alien to him, it feels sort of "natural" that Gregor Samsa wondering about his new state of being would glance at the "the four familiar walls" of his "regular human bedroom" to connect visually with his past and former life. The suggestive picture of the lady in fur stands out of a highly visible part of his past and an icon of an unrealized, unfulfilled life. A look through another "frame," the window and the image of "the overcast sky—one could hear rain drops beating on the window gutter"—makes Gregor feel his "melancholy," a melancholy that relates not only to the bleak outlook at the present but also to the lost chances of the past.

The lady in the fur as an icon of Gregor Samsa's alienated sexual drive and lack in self-fulfillment in establishing mature relationships, returns in the story at the same time when both mother and sister clear out Gregor's room. While removing his furniture, above all his beloved writing desk to which he clings with fond memories of the time when he used to write homework and school work, Gregor is startled by the realization that the final loss of the lady in the fur picture is imminent:

then on the wall opposite, which was already otherwise cleared, he was struck by the picture of the lady muffled in so much fur and quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly. This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody. He turned his head towards the door of the living room so as to observe the women when they came back.50

Gogol's Akakievich smiled at the picture when he had to resign himself to the fact that the reality it represented, the reality of sexual relations, although depicted in the perverse form of voyeurism, was unattainable to him; Gregor Samsa, however, acts out the desire which was repressed when he still was a human. For in the past Kafka's commercial traveler was too slow in his advance towards women. Inhibited and unable to express his desire or love for the sales clerks, servants and maids he would encounter on his trips, Gregor Samsa had taken refuge in a regressive and infantile form of manifesting his sexual desire by worshiping a lady in the fur. In the end, threatened by the instant loss of his idol, he takes a hold of the picture demonstrating the possessiveness of his drive and his inability to interact on a mutual basis. Kafka quite successfully blends fantasy, the unconscious and the reality of a man transformed into an animal in this episode.

Kafka like Gogol employs the grotesque to heighten the sense of theater in his narrative. If the theater stages humans in action, Gogol's and Kafka's narrative dramas reveal conflicts through enactments of metaphors. The narrative theater of The Metamorphosis stages the repressed feelings and longings of Gregor Samsa through the presentation of an estranged inner and outer reality.51 Kafka's excursions into the imaginary transforms the familiar and renders it unfamiliar. What appears similar to known reality turns out to be dissimilar. It is this principle of inversion in Kafka's mode of representation which transcends the mimetic approaches. Thus, Kafka is neither a realist of the mimetic school nor a psychological realist. His is not a representation of psychological exploration of the sake of symbolical or allegorical analysis. Rather, the transformation of his narrative fiction metamorphoses the critical approach which is aimed at his work.

Most recently Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari presented their investigating of Kafka's transformations in Pour une littérature mineure.52 The title is Kafka's. In his diary of 1911 he discusses the state, purpose, and significance of "minor literatures" ("kleine Literaturen").53 Deleuze and Guattari in their post-structuralist effort apply the concept of estrangement to Kafka's definition of "minor literature" which concerned the impasse of Jewish writers in Warsaw and Prague. Underlying this concept is the dichotomy of being and unbeing, identity and non-identity for a writer belonging not to the cultural majority, but to the "minor literature." Kafka saw the main obstacle in his way to become a writer in a threefold impossibility: "The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently."54 Deleuze and Guattari, rightly taking this statement to be an important reflection of Kafka on his own writing, derive three characteristics from this impasse: one, the estrangement of unbeing ("deterritorialization" or uprootedness); two, the political nature of a "minor literature" because of the master-slave relationship; and three, the individual writer as a constituent to his "minor literature."

Kafka as a "minor" writer par excellence is seen by Deleuze and Guattari to render the psychological and psychoanalytical interpretation as obsolete insofar as it reduces the text to a set of signs to be "translated" symbolically. The famed oedipal conflict so often employed in Kafka interpretation is re-appropriated by Deleuze and Guattari. The father-mother-son-relation is not seen as an enactment of Kafka's childhood experiences by way of Gregor Samsa's oedipal fixation. Rather, the oedipal structure is made autonomous. Deleuze and Guattari observe in Kafka a multiplication of the triadic scheme which forms the center of the original oedipal conflict. Kafka, that is their thesis, oedipalizes the world of his protagonists. Time and again, Kafka's main characters encounter antagonists who band together to bring defeat to the ones who are at the mercy of overpowering figures, institutions, systems, machines. As a result of Deleuze's and Guattari's approach the world represented in Kafka's works is a comprehensive enactment of the metaphoric material to be found in the shifting imagination. The Metamorphosis, then, is not a story with a clear, accessible meaning expressed in fictional terms. It is, rather, estrangement as a process which demonstrates to the reader and critic alike the continual oedipalization of the universe. Oedipus represents the experience of power as sexual violence. The violent part lies in the restriction, inhibition and repression of a drive which is prevented from coming into being. Gregor Samsa's fate is a prime example of this enslaving experience in Kafka's work. Deleuze and Guattari rightly point to Kafka's fascination with servants not unlike Proust's. And it is in pictures and photographs of officials, parents and other characters like the "lady with the fur cap on and a fur stole" that Kafka creates icons which are signifying the oedipal triads.

Deleuze and Guattari are among the most recent of interpreters showing the metamorphosing impact of Kafka's The Metamorphosis on readers and critics alike. Their concept of the oedipalization of the universe in Kafka's work corresponds to the significant shifts in Kafka's mode of representation. It is proof that with Kafka no definitive meaning can be arrived at. Reading and analyzing Kafka transforms the critical mind and process of interpretation and is part of the unending search for meaning.


1 Quoted in Stanley Corngold, The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis' (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973), p. 65.

2 Corngold, p. V.

3 Corngold, p. 117.

4 Wilhelm Emrich, Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of his Writings (New York: Ungar, 1968).

5 Felix Weltsch, "Freiheit und Schuld in Franz Kafkas Roman 'Der Prozess', in Franz Kafka: Kritik und Rezeption 1924-1938, ed. by Jürgen Born et al. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1983), p.125.

6 Albert Camus, "Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka," transl. by Justin O'Brien, The Myth of Sysyphus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), pp. 124-38.

7 Corngold, p. V.

8 Corngold, p. V.

9 Corngold, p. 34.

10 Corngold, p. 34

11 Corngold, p. 35.

12 Corngold, p. 35.

13 Walter Benjamin, "Franz Kafka. On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death," trans. by Harry Zohn. In Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), pp. 111-40, and Corngold, p. 35.

14 Martin Walser, Beschreibung einer Form (München: Hanser, 1961).

15 Horst Steinmetz, Suspensive Interpretation: Am Beispiel Frans Kafkas (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977).

16 For a critique of Steinmetz' views, see Peter Beicken in Colloquia Germanica, XIII (1980), pp. 377-81.

17 Victor Shklovsky, "Art as Technique," in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).

18 "If only the night were free to keep pen to paper and I could write straight through the morning! That would be a good night." Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, trans. by James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth, ed. by Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 47. In another letter to Felice Bauer, November 25, 1912, Kafka states even more emphatically: "This kind of story should be written with no more than one interruption, in two 10-hour sessions; then it would have its natural spontaneous flow . . ." (p. 64). For a detailed look at the genesis of The Metamorphosis, cf. Peter Beicken (ed.), Franz Kafka Die Verwandlung. Erläuterungen und Dokumente (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1983), pp. 100-113.

19 Kafka, Felice, p. 71.

20 Kafka, p. 58.

21 Kafka, p. 76, 80, 84.

22 Kafka, p. 91. And The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, trans. by Joseph Kresh, ed. by Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 303.

23 Kafka, Felice, p. 209. Also: "Great antipathy to 'Metamorphosis'. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its marrow. It would have been turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip." The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923, trans. by Martin Greenberg with Hannah Arendt, ed. by Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1949), p. 12.

24 Cf. Peter Beicken, Frans Kakfa 'Die Verwandlung', pp. 62ff. and 109ff.

25 Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), p. 114f.

26 Kasimi r Edschmid, "Deutsch e Erzählungsliteratur," in Franz Kafka: Kritik und Rezeption zu seinen Lebzeiten 1912-1924, ed. by Jürgen Born et al. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1979), pp. 61-63.

27 Jürgen Born, ed., Franz Kafka: Kritik und Rezeption, p. 75.

28 Born, p. 72.

29 Born, p. 73.

30 Kafka, Letters to Friends, p. 145.

31 Oskar Walzel, "Logik im Wundebaren," in Born, ed., pp. 143-48.

32 Eugen Löwenstein, "Die Verwandlung. Ein Buch von Franz Kafka," in Born, ed., pp. 64-68.

33 Karl Storck, Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, 9th ed. (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1920), p. 620; Albert Soergel, Dichtung und Dichter der Zeit, Neue Folge (Leipzig: Voigtländer, 1927), p. 867.

34 Cf. Peter Beicken, "Kafkas Prozess und seine Richter Zur Debatte Brecht-Benjamin und Benjamin-Scholem," in Probleme der Moderne: Studien zur deutschen Literatur von Nietzsche bis Brecht, Festschrift für Walter Sokel, ed. by Benjamin Bennett, Anton Kaes, William J. Lillyman (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1983), pp. 343-68.

35 Hellmuth Kaiser, "Franz Kafkas Inferno. Eine psychologische Deutung seiner Strafphantasie," Imago 17 (1931), pp. 41-103.

36 Philip Rahv, "Franz Kafka: The Hero as Lonely Man," Kenyon Review I (Winter 1939), p. 67.

37 Corngold, p. 191.

38 Edmund Edel, "Franz Kafka: Die Verwandlung, Eine Auslegung," Wirkendes Wort 4 (1957-58), p. 225.

39 See Emrich, Franz Kafka.

40 Walter Sokel, "Kafka's Metamorphosis: Rebellion and Punishment," Monatshefte XLVIII (April-May 1956), pp. 203-14.

41 Heinz Hillman, Franz Kafka: Dichtungstheorie und Dichtungsgestalt, second, enlarged ed., (Bonn: Bouvier, 1973), pp. 195-231.

42 "Dickens' Copperfield. The Stoker a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The theory of the trunk, the boy, who delights and charms everyone, the menial labor, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al, but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enchanted by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself. Dickens' opulence and great, careless prodigality, but in consequence passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already achieved. Gives one a barbaric impression because the whole does not make sense, a barbarism that I, it is true, thanks to my weakness and wiser for my epigonism, have been able to avoid. There is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style. These rude characterizations which are artificially stamped on everyone and without which Dickens would not be able to get on with his story even for a moment." The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923, p. 188f. It goes without saying that Kafka's most explicit and emphatic statement of his indebtedness to another writer is, at the same time, a rigorous and shrewd defense of his very own method of writing. It is to be seen as a text which can serve as a caution against those who approach Kafka undialectically from the precept of traditional influence studies. This holds true for most of Mark Spilka's investigation.

43 Mark Spilka, Dickens and Kafka: A Mutual interpretation (London: Dennis Dobson, 1963).

44 Spilka, p. 93.

45 Spilka, p. 88.

46 Spilka, p. 89.

47The Overcoat, in Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales and Plays, ed. by Leonard J. Kent (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), p. 566.

48 Gogol, p. 572.

49 Gogol, p. 578.

50 Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed. by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 89.

51 Kafka, p. 118.

52 Cf. James Rolleston, Kafka's Narrative Theater (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press), 1974.

53 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1975). See especially chapters 1-3.

54The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, pp. 191-95 (December 25, 1911) "Kleine Literaturen" is rendered as "literature of small peoples."

55Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, p. 289 (Letter to Max Brod, June, 1921).

Nina Pelikan Straus (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7049

SOURCE: "Transforming Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis" in Signs, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 651-67.

[In the following essay, Straus offers a feminist reading of The Metamorphosis that explores the central importance of Gregor's sister, Grete Samsa, in the work.]

In 1977 there were already ten thousand works on Franz Kafka in print,1 nearly all of them written by men. The reasons for scholars' interest in Kafka, particularly his short masterpiece, Metamorphosis, reflect a recognition on the part of students of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political and social criticism, Marxism, and literature that Kafka's work is inexhaustible. No single interpretation invalidates or finally delivers the story's significance. Its quality of multivalency (Vieldeutigkeit) keeps us talking to each other, against each other, and to ourselves. For fifty years Kafka's work has been seeding thought and precluding that closure of discourse that would imprison us in our old histories. Yet until 1980, gender-based theories and feminist criticisms were rarely articulated in discussions of Kafka's stories.2Metamorphosis is an important source, therefore, for the recent addition to the traditional list of disciplines: feminist studies.

Kafka's story of a family whose son, Gregor Samsa, wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect is what Christian Goodden calls "a literary Rorschach test . . . Kafka critics have hitherto been looking into the mirror of his works to find reflected there the images of their own interpretative attitudes," when they should be looking at the "more significant . . . phenomenon of the mirror."3 If the mirror of Metamorphosis reflects a different image for a feminist, it is because the ambiguities of Kafka's language effect a tension between culturally sanctioned attitudes toward women and his own exploration of those attitudes. Throughout the narration of his characters' experiences, Kafka holds in suspension European, urban, and early twentieth-century masculine attitudes toward women and transforms these attitudes by presenting Grete and mother Samsa in the roles of Gregor's caretakers and feeders and then revealing their rebellion against these roles. Kafka's refusal (or inability) to provide his readers with a clear message about his work or his attitudes toward women is not only characteristic but also useful and prophetic. By reserving judgment on his characters, Kafka puts traditional attitudes regarding gender on trial and deconstructs the reader's expectations as well. His story thus provides correctives to feminist as well as traditional readings that exacerbate through ideological fixations what they seek to remedy. Metamorphosis is about invalidation, our self-invalidations and our invalidations of others; and it does nothing—offers us nothing morally—but this vision of how we do it. The narration focuses on how Gregor invalidates his family, how his family invalidates and destroys Gregor, how his sister, Grete, learns to invalidate her brother. It also compels us, as readers of this fictive mirror, to seek out the perpetrator or the victim of this invalidation and in pointing at him, her, or it, establish our own validation at others' expense.

Traditionally, critics of Metamorphosis have underplayed the fact that the story is about not only Gregor's but also his family's and, especially, Grete's metamorphosis. Yet it is mainly Grete, woman, daughter, sister, on whom the social and psychoanalytic resonances of the text depend. It is she who will ironically "bloom" as her brother deteriorates; it is she whose mirror reflects women's present situation as we attempt to critique patriarchal dominance in order to create new lives that avoid the replication of invalidation. We cannot read Metamorphosis with the sense that we "emerge unscathed,"4 and we write about Kafka with the suspicion that we are writing about "On Not Understanding Kafka."5 I write this article, therefore, to share my suspicion that I have not hitherto understood Kafka and with the "commandment" Walter Benjamin finds intrinsic to approaching Kafka's work: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image."6 Thou shalt not make Woman (in texts and in life) an icon whose images can remain fixed or dominated.

Just as Metamorphosis is written in the kind of language that reflects upon what it is reflecting (or in deconstructionist terms, folds back upon itself), so the story of Gregor is a parabolic reflection of Kafka's own self-exposure and self-entombment. Kafka's articulation of self-exposure is ironically concomitant with self-dehumanization. For him exposure is both liberating, because writing releases the repressed, and dehumanizing, because language can describe the human as nonhuman. This pattern of simultaneous liberation and dehumanization is repeated when Grete is pried loose from her social role and liberated at the end of the story, and, like Gregor, she must pay a dehumanizing price for her liberation. If Grete is a symbol of anything, it is the indeterminacy of gender roles, the irony of self-liberation. Grete's role as a woman unfolds as Gregor's life as a man collapses into itself. It is no accident that this gender scrolling takes place in the literature of a writer who had curious experiences in his life with women—experiences of his own weakness and of women's strengths.7

One of the most dominating and accessible registers of meaning in Metamorphosis is the psychoanalytic. Traditionally, the text has been read not as revealing brother-sister or gender-based relationships but as revealing a father-son conflict or Oedipus complex. It has been understood by Hellmuth Kaiser, for example, as the merciless attack of the elder Samsa upon his insect son, through three chapters which climax consecutively in Gregor's maiming, starvation, and death. Metamorphosis has also been read by Marxist critics as a fable of alienation from patriarchal culture, with its tyrannical bureaucracy, its class warfare between appropriators and expropriators, its conversion of workers (like the salesman Gregor Samsa) into dehumanized things whose labor is exploited. Feminist critics, such as Evelyn Torton Beck, make use of the Marxist-Engelian approach to stress Kafka's patriarchal treatment of women, pointing out that he refers to Gregor as "Samsa," but to Grete as "Grete," and imploying that what Kafka describes, he sanctions. Only recently have critics expressed interest in the idea that Grete's experience is crucial to the meaning of Kafka's tale and that Kafka's attitude toward women needs further interpretation.8

Although it is clear that Grete's labor, like her brother's, is exploited, and that she rises, as it were, from the ashes of Gregor's grave, few readers have been struck with surprise or horror at this transposition. Because the mirror of Metamorphosis has usually reflected masculinist attitudes and orientations, Grete's plight and role have been subsumed by the paradigm of male alienation. The Marxist focus on Gregor suggests that long before his metamorphosis into a giant insect, he discovered that "human power may be exchanged and utilized by converting man into a slave. Men had barely started to engage in exchange when they themselves were exchanged. The active became a passive, whether man wanted it or not."9 Engels's language of exchange, conversion, and passivity seems pertinent to Kafka's metamorphic trope because Metamorphosis transforms the subject into an object and addresses the father's power to barter with his children's bodies. "The sale of his children by the father," writes Engels, "such was the first fruit of father right and monogamy."10 Gregor is so conditioned to an identity in which he must be sold and must sell that despite the discovery of his new insect body, he continues to agonize about missing a day of work, being "sacked on the spot," and about the debt he owes his "chief." "If I didn't have to hold my hand because of my parents I'd have given notice long ago, I'd have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him. . . . Well, there's still hope; once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents' debts to him—that should take another five years—I'll do it without fail."11

This Marxist interpretative focus brings with it an unfailing sympathy for Gregor as the symbol of all men who work, of the burden men carry in relation to their families and their women. This interpretation, however, fails to recognize that the women of the Samsa household also work and that Grete's work in particular has to do with cleaning Gregor's mess. Undeniably the story suggests a grotesque escape (through the change of Gregor's male body into a subhuman form) from Gregor's burdensome patriarchal obligations (an insect cannot be expected to pay off debts), but it is also about Gregor's exchange of roles within his family. As a gigantic insect, Gregor exchanges responsibility for dependency, while Grete exchanges dependency for the burdensome efficiency and independence that Gregor formerly displayed. Once transformed, Gregor is consigned to an inactivity and submission associated with the female role. As Bernard Bödeker has noted, the relations between those who are transformed suggest not only oedipal but family conflict.12 The struggle is between the sexes, and the primary exchange occurs not between Gregor and his demoralized sloven of a father but between Gregor and Grete. The brother's and sister's interchange of male and female roles and powers, the hourglass-shaped progression of the plot as they switch positions, suggests the idea that Metamorphosis is Kafka's fantasy of a gender role change. The transformation of Gregor's body is a "trying out [of] some unreal fable or meaning life might have."13 Its deepest resonances involve the relations of men and women, of the man's wish to be a woman, the woman's wish to be a man.

Yet the emphasis on the exchange of daughter for son, of male supremacy for the blooming of a female daughter, like the financial exchanges that dominate the Samsas' world and Gregor's bodily changes, suggests for the feminist reader neither political prophesy nor transcendent resolution. A feminist reading enlists no parable of recovery or resurrection at the story's end in the service of its interpretation, but it shares with Jungian analyses of Metamorphosis such as Peter Dow Webster's, the idea of "the substitution of the reanimated and completely changed Grete (as anima) for the ego of the hero."14 The ambiguities of Kafka's language do not suggest that Gregor becomes more spiritual or that Grete gets anywhere once she replaces her brother. As Günter Anders notes, Kafka's language allows "two or more possibilities to stand side by side without being able to say himself which he really means."15 In the labyrinth of exchanges that dominates the text, exchange of powers may replicate exchange of identity and exchange of gender but not imply, in the exchange of sister for brother, the spiritual transformation of either.

The multivalency of Kafka's language, discussed by the most notable of Kafka critics,16 situates Kafka's attitude toward women in an interpretable space that eludes easy feminist formulation. Although Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that texts written by men about women symbolize Woman either as angel in the house or madwoman/bitch,17 Kafka's language undermines such fixedly sexist habits of thought. Kafka's use of imagery in place of concepts, so that "rhetorical figures . . . enable him to verbalize his mental operations without ever freezing fluid processes into solid conclusions,"18 serves not only to deconstruct political and philosophical certitudes but also to question the origin of such certitudes in sexual difference. Not only does Kafka's language "break forms, encourage ruptures and new sproutings,"19 but also it explores the barriers imposed on language by notions of gender and biological destiny. Descriptions of Grete's intentions toward Gregor as she takes care of him and his room, for example, are deliberately rendered in a labyrinth of double-entendre that suggests the blurring and exchanging of masculine and feminine "essences." "The furniture did not hamper him in his senseless crawling round. . . . Unfortunately, his sister was of the contrary opinion; she had grown accustomed, and not without reason, to consider herself an expert in Gregor's affairs as against her parents. . . . This determination was not, of course, merely the outcome of childish recalcitrance and of the self-confidence she had recently developed so unexpectedly and at such cost; she had in fact perceived that Gregor needed a lot of space to crawl about in" (103). In this example, the phrase, "not without reason" (sympathetic to Grete as a rational person), contradicts the initial "unfortunately" (critical of Grete's female fussiness) just as the words "determination" and "confidence" (suggesting male qualities) contradict the phrase "childish recalcitrance" (traditionally ascribed to women and children). The narrator thus serves as the advocate for Grete's new sense of self while simultaneously suggesting that her confidence is the result of a will to power achieved only "at such cost" and over which neither gender holds the monopoly. In this sense, the principle of indeterminancy claimed by Alice Jardine and others as fundamental to female writing20 is also fundamental to Kafka's writing—so fundamental that Metamorphosis can be read as disclosing the plight and tragic solution of one who is caught between the shameful desire to identify himself with women and the consciousness that he cannot identify himself with men. The rupture inscribed by Kafka's text parallels the fissure between a male identity (historically determined) which is obsessively concerned with Woman as its opposite, and a male desire to become woman, not to possess her.

The word "shame" is central to both Grete and Gregor's experiences. It is a shame that Gregor cannot get out of bed, that he cannot get up to go to work, that his voice fails him, that he cannot open the door of his room with his insect pincers, that he must be fed, that he stinks and must hide his body that is a shame to others. Shame comes from seeing oneself through another's eyes, from Gregor's seeing himself through Grete's eyes, and from the reader's seeing Grete through the narrator's eyes. The text graphically mirrors how we see each other in various shameful (and comic) conditions. Through Gregor's condition, ultimately shameful because he is reduced to the dependency of an ugly baby, Kafka imagines what it is like to be dependent on the care of women. And Kafka is impressed with women's efforts to keep their households and bodies clean and alive. This impression is enlarged with every detail that humiliates and weakens Gregor while simultaneously empowering Grete, who cares for Gregor, ironically, at his own—and perhaps at Kafka's—expense.

The change or metamorphosis is thus a literary experiment that plays with problems the story's title barely suggests. For Kafka there can be no change without an exchange, no blooming of Grete without Gregor's withering; nor can the meaning of transformation entail a final closure that prevents further transformations. The metamorphosis occurs both in the first sentence of the text—"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" (67)—and in the last paragraph of the story, which describes Grete's transformation into a woman blooming and stretching toward the family's "new dreams" once Gregor has been transformed into garbage (132). Grete's final transformation, rendered in concrete bodily terms, is not only foreshadowed but also reflected by Gregor's initial transformation from human into insect. This deliberately reflective textual pattern implies that only when the distorting mirrors of the sexual fun house are dismantled can the sons of the patriarchs recognize themselves as dehumanized and dehumanizing. Only when Grete blooms into an eligible young woman, ripe for the job and marriage markets, can we recognize that her empowerment is also an ironic reification. She has been transformed at another's expense, and she will carry within her the marketplace value that has ultimately destroyed Gregor, a value that may destroy her as well.

As many readers have noted, Kafka records the damage that patriarchal capitalist-oriented society inscribes in the psyches of men, but Kafka also records the damage that is done to women. Kafka's transformation of the male role into the female, of Gregor into Grete, mitigates the differences between them and the disrespect accorded to women in a culture concerned with men's upward mobility, a concern with which Kafka was well acquainted in his professional and private life. Kafka's fantasies about the women in his world are revealed in the experiment of Metamorphosis, a text written with particular women in mind and suggesting that a relationship with a woman, as Elias Canetti notes, was necessary to Kafka's writing. The purpose of Kafka's correspondence with Felice Bauer, for example, was to forge "a channel between her efficiency and health and his indecisiveness and weakness." Kafka insisted that Felice Bauer provide him with the emotional security he needed to produce the work of "a great period in his life," which included Metamorphosis.21 His fantasies about women's "fat" and strength are crucial to the understanding of a text in which descriptions of the male character's frailty, the drying up and flattening out of Gregor's wounded insect body, are chronicled with meticulous precision. Kafka's description of this process in fiction reflected his urge to resolve his own masculine identity, to decide whether he was fit as a husband and a man. As Canetti suggests, Kafka attempted this resolution by writing passionate letters to a strong and healthy woman and by describing his ailments to her in obsessive detail. The three most important women in Kafka's life—Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenká and Grete Block (whose name, critics suspect, is the origin of Grete Samsa's name)—were "securities somewhere far off, a source of strength, sufficiently distant to leave his sensitivity lucid . . . a woman who was there for him without expecting more than his words, a sort of transformer whose every technical fault he knew and mastered well enough to be able to rectify it at once by letter" (my italics).22

By the time Kafka met Felice Bauer, he "had come to feel that his entire future hinged on the resolution of this terrifying dilemma."23 Could he marry Felice and remain Kafka the writer? Kafka's marriage proposals to Felice took the form of letters that discussed marriage in general, and both Canetti and Ernst Pawel describe them as intimating a preordained failure, summarized by Kafka's statement, "I cannot live with her, and I cannot live without her."24 The dilemma was ultimately resolved by his letter of April 1, 1913, in which he confessed to Felice Bauer, "My true fear—and surely nothing worse can ever be said or heard—is that I shall never be able to possess you, that at best I would be confined, like an insentient, faithful dog, to kissing your distractedly proffered hand, not as a sign of love, but merely as a token of despair on the part of an animal condemned to silence and eternal separation."25

By writing about Gregor's imprisonment in the armored insect body, a writing he pursued at the same time as he wrote his letters to Felice, Kafka seems to have found an image for his self-imposed distance from women as well as an image for the sickness that would make a particular woman, as a source of energy and transformation, necessary to him. Written in a period when his letters to Felice were most self-exposing and agonized, Metamorphosis engaged Kafka in deep self-scrutiny regarding his gender and sexual identity. It could be said that Kafka's writing sprang from his capacity for equivocal self-identifications: struggles with both male/father images and female/mother images that made him unable to live the role of dominating malehood (an incapacity represented by Gregor) but which also enabled him to invent a subversive language that undermined the traditional authority of his father tongue. The "permanent estrangement" resulting from his failure to form an "unequivocal" masculine identity, this arrival "at no solution at all," enabled him to imagine a world in which male and female desires, characteristics, and differences did not figure as essential properties of human nature.26 The image of this gender neutrality emerges when Gregor is referred to as a "thing," an "it." "It's dead," the charwoman announces. "It's lying here dead and done for!" (128).27 The increasing reification or it-ness of Gregor's body is the ground for Grete's ultimate repudiation of him as a brother and for her own transformation. "But how can it be Gregor?" (125) she asks, a question which echoes Kafka's own response in writing to Felice Bauer; "I just don't rest in myself . . . I am not always 'something,' and if I ever was 'something,' I pay for it by 'being nothing' for months on end."28

Such cryptic self-disclosures intimate that this "something" from which Kafka sought to escape by way of ambiguous writings and from which Gregor escapes through his transformation into an insect is Kafka's image of an unequivocal, completely virile and powerful body. In contrast, we must imagine Kafka's own body, a body with which he felt "nothing could be achieved";29 and that body's imagistic parallel in the "pitifully thin . . . legs" of the insect Gregor, waving "helplessly" around a "bulk" that is "divided into stiff arched segments" (67). The solution for this body, or the fantasy of its possible recovery, is linked to the fat and warmth that woman's body is imagined to provide. Writing to Felice Bauer, Kafka petitioned for warmth and life-giving blood that he felt his body lacked. "My body is too long for its weakness, it has no fat whatsoever for creating a beneficial warmth, for maintaining an inner fire, no fat from which the mind could someday nourish itself beyond its daily need without damaging the whole. How shall the weak heart . . . manage to push the blood through the entire length of these legs?"30

Woman's body, in contrast to Kafka's own, is fantasized as the carrier of a life force, just as Grete is the carrier of the nourishment (initially milk, then cheese) upon which Gregor greedily sucks. Metamorphosis thus unfolds by contrasting Gregor's maimed and dying body with the evolving, blooming body of Grete, who takes Gregor's place as family provider and favorite. The incident is more than allegorical: it is the literal representation of the family's need. And since this need and the fantasy it engenders not only is situated in the text's images but also permeates the text's rhetoric as it eschews "solid conclusions," it signals Kafka's attempt to dismantle his own male presumptions by destroying Gregor's. Gregor's obsession with his father is transformed into an obsession with his mother and sister. To be closer to them, and because of them, he infantilizes his body, struggles with his sister, and, consequently, moves toward death.31 The source of the image of Gregor's gigantic, armor-plated body is Kafka's fantasy about burying his own body and being born into another that can create (as he imagines woman's body does) a beneficial warmth, an inner fire.

While the first image in the story's first paragraph suggests a man buried in an insect body, the desire for an exchange of bodies is even clearer in the second image of the paragraph, a picture Gregor keeps on his wall of the muff-laden "lady." This image extends the burial metaphor by indicating how one soft (symbolically female) image is followed swiftly by another "hard" (symbolically male) image, to conflate them in terms of gender. Sharply contrasted with Gregor's "stiff," "dome-like," and impenetrable form, with its small openings that make it difficult for him to speak, the lady in furs has a large opening; she is vaginal and furry: "The picture . . . showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, stting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished!" (67).

In this ambiguous sentence, which suggests both Gregor's male erotic response to women, the desire to stick a phallic "forearm" into a fur muff, and Gregor's identification with a lady encased in fur the way he is encased in armor, a third possibility also arises: that this is a metaphor for a male-female compound. The lady is also engaged in a phallic or lesbian action on her own behalf, as if her body sported both penis and vagina to which the male spectator can only respond: "!" Kafka's mocking of strict sexual symbolism, his conflation of male and female, parallels the duplication in the names "Gregor" and "Grete." The lady in the muff foreshadows the transformations that will occur in the Samsa siblings—the first a change of Gregor into a body that rocks "to and fro" (73), that snaps its jaws, that "crawls" (88), and sucks "greedily at the cheese" (91). Gregor's transformation is regression; his male sexuality is neutered and infantilized. He is suspended not only "between being and non-being"32 but also between opposing symbols in a world recreated to confound them. Gregor does not, as Kafka does not, "just . . . rest in [him]self," he wishes to rest somewhere else; namely, in another body, in a woman's body. Such a wish also indicates Gregor's wish to rest in Grete. She is an image of an alternative and possible self. "With his sister alone had he remained intimate, and it was a secret plan of his that she, who loved music, unlike himself, and could play movingly on the violin, should be sent next year to study at the Conservatorium, despite the great expense that would entail" (95).

What Pawel, Kafka's biographer, calls Kafka's "crab-like approach to women" and "often most comically earnest eagerness . . . to foster women's intellectual growth," does not seem prompted, at least for Gregor, by what Pawel calls an "unconscious need to desexualize them."33 Instead, it is Gregor who wishes to become unsexed or re-sexed, and Kafka who imagined, in his diaries, that a powerful woman could empower him as well: "With my sisters—and this was especially true in the early days—I was often an altogether different person than with other people. Fearless, vulnerable, powerful, surprising, moved as I otherwise only am when I am writing."34 Kafka's sister Ottla would have served particularly well for the figure of Grete. "Throughout her rebellion and search for self, defying the father, working the land, breaking away from home, marrying a non-Jew—she in fact acted out her brother's wildest and most impossible dreams."35 If Ottla was the female double who lived out Kafka's dreams, it can be argued that the exchange motif in Metamorphosis is a radical autobiographical fantasy, concerned not only with the relationships of fathers and sons, but also with those of sisters and brothers, and suggesting what Kafka might have been had he been more like Ottla. Inscribed within this wish, however, is an ironic nightmare about masculinity that affects both brother and sister, both Gregor and Grete.

Kafka's relation to Ottla, and Gregor's to Grete, cannot be subsumed by the term "womb envy," but the notion of a masculine disorientation so acute that the imagination entombs or en-wombs itself indicates the degree to which the male world is a horror and a prison for both Kafka and Gregor. Identification with the apelike father Samsa and the contemptuous, pseudo-urbane boarders (who demand that Grete play the violin for their entertainment) becomes impossible for Kafkaesque men whose introversion is the sign and style of their sensitivity to women, as well as to masculinist brutality. Kafka's wish to feminize his being appropriates the image of the "box" or "house" found frequently in women's writings; Gregor's body is a kind of box or tomb in which his maleness is both incarcerated and protected against masculine requirements and invasions.36 In Metamorphosis Kafka imagines the stages by which the repressed bachelor—whose "only amusement . . . is doing fretwork" as he "stays at home every single evening" (76)—is replaced by the potentially marriageable Grete with her lively "young body," musical talent, and "good job" (132). This replacement is envisioned as a transformation of bodies. Descriptions of the insect's body emphasize its passivity, its being sealed off and shut in. Gregor's brown belly is "dome-like"; he "could not turn himself over" (68); he "let himself fall against the back of a near-by chair, and clung with his little legs to the edges of it" (79). Gregor vaccilates between the active, transcendent mode of the male and what Simone de Beauvoir calls the "immanence" of the second-sex's condition,37 first penetrating the world outside his room, from which he is violently driven back by his father, then returning to rest passively within his "naked den" to wait for his sister to minister to him.

Kafka's text is structured to represent systematically, in the most concrete terms possible, the process by which Gregor's male identity is demolished. Initially, he is preoccupied with male ideals; "I'll be attending to business very soon,'" he assures his family and chief clerk (78). Even after he realizes what his body has become, he expects the attendance due an older brother; he expects Grete to "notice that he had left the milk standing, and not for lack of hunger . . . would she bring in some other kind of food more to his taste?" (90-91). Ironically, by making such demands, Gregor empowers Grete to make him her dependent, and when her attitude toward him becomes less sympathetic as he becomes more filthy and stinking ("hardly was she in the room when she rushed to the window, without even taking time to shut the door") he responds by becoming hostile: "Not only did she retreat, she jumped back as if in alarm and banged the door shut; a stranger might have well thought he had been lying in wait for her there meaning to bite her" (99).

Using the subjunctive—"a stranger might well have thought"—Gregor quickly distances himself from hostility and disassociates himself from the violent "stranger" he might become. With Grete's increasingly frequent gestures of disgust, Gregor passes through various stages of responsive male aggression, each of which is thwarted not only by his father's physical abuse, but by his own awareness of Grete's growing "determination" and "self-confidence" that tempts her to "exaggerate the horror of her brother's condition" (103). She is no stranger to him once he begins to see himself through her eyes. He must submit his masculine prerogative to her. He must eat what she gives him (she becomes the family's cook), scuttle under the sofa so that she is protected from the sight of him, even though he finds this difficult because "the large meal had swollen his body" (92), and he must remain there in deference to her. As Grete sweeps his room and feeds him, the only one who has not forgotten him, he realizes that he has relinquished his male status to her. The sentence "In this manner Gregor was fed" (92) highlights, even in its grammar, his passive, dependent relation to her and indicates the moment in the text when Gregor's degradation and gradual disappearance are finally exchanged for Grete's social upgrading and visibility. As Grete tires of functioning as Gregor's charwoman and nurse, he becomes dirtier, less human; without her ministrations he ceases to care for himself. As she withdraws her service from him, her female voice begins to rise independently in the text, alongside the conflated voice of narrator and male character. "Streaks of dirt stretched along the walls . . . Gregor used to station himself in some particularly filthy corner when his sister arrived, in order to reproach her with it . . . but she simply had made up her mind to leave it alone" (115). It is Grete, not the oedipal father or desultory mother, who announces that Gregor "'must go . . . that's the only solution, Father. You must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we've believed it for so long is the root of all our troubles. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can't live with such a creature, and he'd have gone away on his own accord'" (125).

Speaking for her idea of Gregor and as if she were Gregor, Grete pronounces a death sentence whose symptomatic word choices ("solution," "believed it for so long," "root of . . . our troubles") mark the moment of her rite of passage into an independent, if harsh, sphere of womanhood that separates her from the world of her father(s). "'We must try to get rid of it,' his sister now said . . . 'When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can't stand this continual torment at home on top of it. At least I can't stand it any longer'" (124). Having passed through stages of submission and sympathy, through the burden of symbolically mothering a being that resembles a sickly and degenerate child, and having replicated her brother's stages of maturation and professionalism (for she now has a job), Grete initiates her liberation. Like Gregor, who had wanted to "tell his chief exactly what I think of him" (68), Grete feels repressed and exploited at work. She becomes, in the words of Juliet Mitchell, "vulnerable to the return of (her) own repressed, oppressed characteristics." Her decision that Gregor "must go" involves her in a "tit-for-tat psycho-moral solution"38 that dehumanizes her ethically as it inspires the bloom of her body and confidence.

The exchange of Grete for Gregor, of feminine for masculine prerogatives, is dramatized incrementally throughout the text but reaches a point of crisis when Grete is compelled to strip the picture of the lady in the muff from Gregor's walls. The image suggests Gregor's last physical contact with women, his need to be in-furred and enclosed, to objectify women as sex and "pussy," his wish to be taken care of by women who no longer want to take care of him. He "quickly crawled up to [the picture] and pressed himself to the glass . . . This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody" (105). Grete's decision to deprive him of the picture is perhaps motivated by her sense that it represents a pornographic image of women against which she has rebelled and to which Gregor still clings, yet her interpretation of the image oversimplifies the complex meaning it may have for him. "'Well, what shall we take now?' said Grete. . . . Her intention was clear enough to Gregor, she wanted to bestow her mother in safety and then chase him down from the wall. Well, just let her try it! He clung to his picture and would not give it up. He would rather fly in Grete's face" (105).

By yielding the picture to Grete finally, Gregor is made to abandon his male prerogative to exploit women's sexual image, and he is severed from the fixed libidinal habits of the patriarchal world. He not only gives in to Grete's will, but he also gives up his sexual image repertoire in exchange for her repertoire of new—and I will now say, feminist—desires. Grete's solution for Gregor thus becomes his solution for himself. "He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to possibly even more strongly than his sister."39 With this emphasis, Kafka transfers power and responsibility from the traditional patriarchal inheritor, Gregor, to his sister Grete. The exchange is complicated by the fact that it occurs through the horrific metamorphosis and death of one whose doubles are both male and female: both father Samsa who beats his son, and sister Grete whose "young body" emerges in spring from the "completely flat and dry" corpse (129) of her brother. Kafka's final solution for Gregor involves both oedipal and female complexes; it represents the urge to kill the potential father figure who is himself, as well as the urge to become woman. Such a reading of Metamorphosis, through what might be called a biographical gender analysis, suggests that the tale is not merely an oedipal fantasy but more broadly a fantasy about a man who dies so that a woman may empower herself. Her self-empowering, the transference of a woman into a position where a man used to be, does not transform the social system, however, but merely perpetuates it. When women become as men are, Kafka seems to be saying, there is no progress. Such metamorphoses merely exchange one delusive solution for another.

In the finale of Metamorphosis a return to normal sex roles is parodically celebrated. Grete has "bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure" for whom "it would soon be time to find a good husband" (132). The final irony of Kafka's text is that despite the bizarre experiences that the Samsas have endured, no tragic meaning has been attached to them. The exchange of Grete for Gregor represents the idea that persons, like utilities, can be replaced. Grete can serve as her family's breadwinner either as a woman married to a salaried husband, or as a woman who has learned to exploit (and be exploited by) the system that has exploited her brother. The disappearance of Gregor simply means that the Samsas will move into a cheaper house, "but better situated," and that they will take more journeys to improve the chances of procuring a husband for Grete (132). It is Grete who will now sell and be sold, who will perpetuate the system of exchanges and debts that was formerly Gregor's business. The significance of Gregor's death is referred to with the utter confidence of a patriarchal blindness that all three Samsas now share equally: it is all a matter of letting "bygones be bygones" (132). And Grete, not surprisingly, has become a little patriarch. The sale or sell-out of her brother Gregor is the "first fruit" of her new rights.

The reader who finds this interpretation of Kafka's mirror possible has probably already learned that some feminist projects are not metamorphoses but only changes into another kind of the same—which explains almost a century of interpretations that do not recognize Grete's centrality to the story or speak, particularly, to women. That Grete can be exchanged for Gregor in Metamorphosis, that her substitution for him can be inscribed through male imagination, suggests also that we must distinguish between masculine writers and writers who are male; we should acknowledge Kafka's discomfort with the male role and with a language symbolically "owned" by a male literary establishment. As a prophet of the complexities engendered by "the woman question," Kafka's text, fortunately, no longer delivers a message only to (alienated) men.



1 Christian Goodden, "Points of Departure," in The Kafka Debate, ed. Angel Flores (New York: Gordimer Press, 1977), 2-9, esp. 2.

2 In 1980 and 1981 three articles discussing gender in Metamorphosis appeared in English: Sammy McClean's "Doubling and Sexual Identity in Stories by Franz Kafka," in University of Hartford Studies in Literature 12, no. 1 (1980): 1-17, Larysa Mykyta's "Woman as the Obstacle and the Way," Modern Language Notes 95, no. 3 (April 1980): 627-40; and Evelyn Torton Beck's "Kafka's Traffic in Women: Gender, Power and Sexuality," Notes of the Kafka Society 5, no. 1 (June 1981): 3-14.

3 Goodden, 8.

4 Réda Bensmaïa, "Foreword: The Kafka Effect," trans. Terry Cochran, in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, ed. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), ix-xxi, esp. ix.

5 Eric Heller, "On Not Understanding Kafka," in Flores, ed., 24-41.

6 Quoted in Bensmaïa, xiii.

7 These experiences and their impact on Kafka's writing have remained unexplored until the publication of Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenká (see Hartmut Böhme, "Mother Milena: On Kafka's Narcissism" [1962], in Flores, ed., 87) and, especially, to Felice Bauer (see Erich Heller and Jurgen Born, eds., Letters to Felice, trans. James Stem and Elizabeth Duckworth [New York: Schocken, 1973]).

8 Hellmuth Kaiser, "Kafka's Fantasy of Punishment," in "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka, trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold (New York: Bantam, 1972), 147-56; for the Marxist critique, see, e.g., Kenneth Hughes, ed., Franz Kafka: An Anthology of Marxist Criticism (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for Clark University, 1981); Beck. Some recent works that address Kafka's attitudes toward women are Nahum Norbert Glatzer, The Loves of Franz Kafka (New York: Schocken, 1986); and Rudolph Binion, Soundings: Psychohistorical and Psycholiterary (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1981).

9 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, trans. Evelyn Reed (New York: Pathfinder, 1972), 163.

10 Ibid., 111.

11 Franz Kafka, "Metamorphosis," in Franz Kafka, The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1958; reprint, New York: Schocken, 1964), 67-132, esp. 68-69; all subsequent quotations from Metamorphosis are cited parenthetically in the text.

12 Bernard Bödeker, Frau und Familie ïm erzäh lerischen Werk Franz Kafka (Bern and Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1974).

13 Günter Anders, Franz Kafka, trans. A. Stein and A. K. Thorlby (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1960), 81-82.

14 Peter Dow Webster, "Franz Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' as Death and Resurrection Fantasy," American Imago 16 (1959): 349-65, esp. 365; reprinted in Corngold, trans. and ed. (n. 8 above), 157-68.

15 Anders, 53.

16 This group includes Günter Anders, Walter Benjamin, Hartmut Binder, Elias Canetti, Stanley Corngold, Gilles Deleuze, Ronald Gray, Félix Guattari, Eric Heller, Kenneth Hughes, George Lukács, Karel Kosík, Walter Sokel, and Joseph Peter Stern.

17 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971).

18 Hartmut Binder, "The Letters: Form and Content," in Flores, ed. (n. 1 above), 223-41, esp. 229.

19 Deleuze and Guattari, eds. (n. 4 above), 28-42, esp. 28.

20 Alice Jardine, Gynesis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985).

21 Elias Canetti, Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, trans. Christopher Middleton (1969; reprint, New York: Schocken, 1974), 12-13.

22 Ibid.

23 Ernst Pawel, Franz Kafka: The Nightmare of Reason (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1984), 265.

24 Quoted in ibid., 283.

25 Ibid., 286.

26 Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1966), 336.

27 The Muirs' translation of Metamorphosis, quoted in this article, has been criticized by Ronald Gray in "But Kafka Wrote in German," in Flores, ed. (n. 1 above), 242-52. The Muirs' translation of this particular passage, however, supports my reading of Grete's eventual transformation in relation to Gregor's dehumanization.

28 Quoted in Canetti, 33.

29 Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Krash (1948; reprint, New York: Schocken, 1949), 160.

30 Ibid.

31 See the discussion of unwanted siblings as vermin in Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon, 1966), 385-412, esp. 392.

32 Anders (n. 13 above), 23.

33 Pawel (n. 23 above), 84.

34 Quoted in ibid., 86.

35 Ibid., 87 .

36 Canetti (n. 21 above) writes in this connection that "Kafka's room is a shelter, it becomes an outer body, one can call it his 'forebody'" (27).

37 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (1953; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1974), xxxiii and passim.

38 Juliet Mitchell, Woman's Estate (New York: Random House, 1971), 178-79.

39 The Muirs' translation (n. 11 above) does little justice to the strength of Gregor's agreement with Grete's decision against himself, translating the German womoglich as "if that were possible" (127) when the more accurate translation is "possibly even."

Kevin W. Sweeney (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6077

SOURCE: "Competing Theories of Identity in Kafka's The Metamorphosis," in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 23-35.

[In the following essay, Sweeney evaluates the tensions of dualist, materialist, and social-constructionist theories of identity represented in The Metamorphosis.]

Although The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor Samsa finding "himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin," the transformation is at this stage psychologically incomplete, enabling Kafka to conduct a philosophical exploration of the nature of self, personhood and identity. Given the nature of the inquiry, it is significant that instead of providing a monologic commentary with a consistent theoretical framework, Kafka offers a dialogical, polyphonic work, an example of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called a "heteroglossia" of opposed voices (262-64). Since Kafka does not privilege any one theoretical perspective, the reader is encouraged to undertake what Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called an "experimentation" (48-50), a process which involves a recognition of the inadequacy of the respective opposed theories and an acknowledgment of the unresolved nature of the debate.

Aiding the reader in this process of experimentation is the novella's tripartite structure: in each section Gregor attempts to leave his bedroom only to be driven back into it. Repetitive in this way, however, each section of the work also advances a different and opposing philosophical theory about the nature of the self and the maintenance of personal identity. The first section presents a dualist conception of the person: Gregor is a consciousness disembodied from his original body and locked into an alien organism. In the second section, behaviorist and materialist views challenge the earlier theory. Finally, in the third section, both theories are countered by a social-constructionist theory of the self and personal identity.

. . . . .

In the history of Western, philosophical explorations of personal identity, John Locke's example of a prince's consciousness inhabiting the body of a cobbler is perhaps the most famous. At the outset of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa seems to be a cross-species variation of Locke's prince-in-the-cobbler, with Kafka exploring a Lockean-Cartesian theory of self and personal identity. Like Descartes, Locke holds that a person (a self) is essentially a rational, unified consciousness. A person, says Locke, "is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places. . . . For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self . . . as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person . . ." (448-49). Thus to Locke, an individual is personally identical with someone at an earlier time, if the later individual can remember as his or her own the experiences of the earlier. Although he does not share the Cartesian ontological view that consciousness is a separate substance distinct from the body, Locke, as Anthony Quinton persuasively argues (396-97), agrees with Descartes's dualist view that the self could possibly exist independently of its original body.

According to Locke's memory test, the insect is certainly Gregor Samsa. Believing himself to be Gregor, he recognizes the bedroom, recalls Gregor's past experiences and worries about catching the morning train. A wide variety of mental phenomena (sensations, thoughts, intentions) are referred to, all seemingly connected to Gregor's psychological past. They support the conscious link to the past essential to the dualist theory of personal identity.

In keeping with the Lockean-Cartesian perspective, the first section of the novella highlights not only Gregor's consciousness but also his capacity for rational deliberation. For example, Gregor hesitates rocking his new body off the bed, thinking, "he had better not for the life of him lose consciousness . . . [yet] the most rational thing was to make any sacrifice for even the smallest hope of freeing himself from the bed" (7). Sharing access to much of Gregor's interior conscious life, the reader sympathizes with Gregor's plight and tries to understand the rationale behind his behavior. In this narratively privileged position, the reader initially accepts the Lockean-Cartesian explanation for this bizarre catastrophe.

From this perspective, the reader sees Gregor as more than just spatially separated from his family. Outside his room, imploring Gregor to open the locked door, the family are excluded from sharing his trauma and only indirectly sense that something must be wrong. The locked room—"a regular human room" (3)—becomes a philosophical metonymy for Gregor's private mentality. His predicament symbolizes the philosophical problem of other minds: inferring the existence of a mind from physical events and external behavior.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes discusses two criteria for distinguishing "men from brutes" (116-17), both of which play a role in the Samsa family's attempt to discover the truth about what is going on in Gregor's bedroom. First, only human beings qua persons have the linguistic ability to express thoughts. Secondly, while lower animals can do many things, some better than humans, they cannot act with rational deliberation but only react according to bodily predispositions. For Descartes, deliberate action and the rational use of language are the marks and test of a rational consciousness. Locke recognizes a similar test, although—citing the example of a talking parrot (446-47)—he is not as confident that only human beings can speak.

The Samsa family apply both of Descartes's criteria to interpret what is going on in the bedroom. On replying to his mother's questioning about not catching the early morning train, Gregor is "shocked to hear his own voice answering. . . . [It was] unmistakably his own voice, true, but . . . an insistent distressed chirping intruded, which left the clarity of his words intact only for a moment really, before so badly garbling them . . ." (5). These garbled sounds finally betray him when the office manager arrives, wanting an explanation for Gregor's missing the train. Startled by the manager's accusations, Gregor abandons caution and chirps out a long explanation. Family and manager are stunned at what they hear. "Did you understand a word? . . . That was the voice of an animal," says the manager (13). Realizing that his speech is now unintelligible to those outside his door, although it "had seemed clear enough to him," Gregor starts to lose confidence in his personal integrity. A metaphysical barrier now separates him from other people.

The family and office manager also doubt the rationality of Gregor's actions. Unable to understand why he continues to remain locked in his room, the manager calls to him through the door, "I thought I knew you to be a quiet, reasonable person, and now you suddenly seem to want to start strutting about, flaunting strange whims" (11). Clearly both family and manager find his behavior irrational and out of character. When he hears them call for a doctor and a locksmith, Gregor anticipates being "integrated into human society once again and hoped for marvelous, amazing feats from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing sharply between them" (13). Gregor hopes that the locksmith will remove not only a spatial barrier but will reintroduce him into the human and personal realm. Spatial access and medical attention are seen as reaffirming what has come into question: Gregor's status as a person.

When Gregor does unlock the door and reveal himself, however, the family and manager are even more convinced of his irrational behavior They draw back in horror at his insect epiphany and consider his entrance into the living room to be outrageous behavior. Wielding the manager's came, stamping his foot and hissing, the father drives the loathsome insect back into the bedroom. Rational persuasion is deemed inappropriate. "No plea of Gregor's helped," the narrator observes, "no plea was even understood; however humbly he might turn his head, his father merely stamped his feet more forcefully" (18).

Faced with a being they believe to be incapable of linguistic comprehension and whom they see as acting irrationally, the family are in a moral and conceptual quandary. As the only being inside Gregor's locked bedroom who responds to their calls, the creature cannot be condemned simply as alien. Yet neither can it be accepted in its own right as a person. Their response is a comproimse: they accept the creature as Gregor but take him to be suffering from a severe incapacitating illness. Adopting this attitude excuses his strange speech and behavior; they believe that he will be his old self again when he recovers. In the second section, both mother and father regularly ask their daughter whether Gregor has "perhaps shown a little improvement" (31). By believing Gregor to be ill, the family reconciles the opposing beliefs that Gregor still survives and that the monster in the bedroom is something less than a person.

The reader also comes to adopt a strategy of reconciliation, trying to bring together a dualist and a materialist theoretical context for the narrative. Although, as Harold Skulsky argues, it is implausible to interpret The Metamorphosis as a narrative of a "psychotic breakdown" (171-73), Gregor's mental states are so at odds with his transformed body that the reader gives some credence to Gregor's thought that he might be dreaming or imagining the whole situation. Lying in bed, Gregor muses that "in the past he had often felt some kind of slight pain, possibly caused by lying in an uncomfortable position, which, when he got up, turned out to be purely imaginary, and he was eager to see how today's fantasy would gradually fade away" (6). The vividness of his experience coupled with the doubt about its veracity suggests Franz Brentano's theory about the relation of mind to the world. From his attendance at lectures in philosophy at the university in Prague and his subsequent participation in a philosophical discussion group, Kafka, according to Ronald Hayman (35-36), was thoroughly familiar with Brentano's views as presented by Brentano's pupil, Anton Marty. For Brentano, mental phenomena exhibit intentionality: that is, all mental acts are aimed at objects which exist in the mind but for which no correlative object in the world might exist (i.e., one can think about or believe in the Fountain of Youth regardless of whether it actually exists).

The possibility that Gregor's predicament might be imaginary, even though the experience be vivid, challenges the reliability of his narrative point of view. By raising questions about the veracity of Gregor's self-conscious narration, the text makes room for an alternative conceptual explanation of Gregor's identity. Although the reader initially accepts the dualist perspective, Kafka gradually introduces an alternative to this original position, thereby raising doubts about whether the insect continues to be Gregor Samsa. As a result, the reader's attitude toward the underlying framework of the story begins to shift: while accepting the insect as Gregor, the reader comes to acknowledge evidence that undercuts this identity.

. . . . .

As Kafka initially presents it, the relation of Gregor's consciousness to his insect body is not a happy one. The carapace prevents him from acting as he chooses, not allowing him to get out of bed easily, unlock the door, or answer intelligibly his family's questions. He lacks that mental control over his new body that Descartes describes as being closer to one's body than a pilot to a ship. Gregor finds he has "numerous little legs, which were in every different kind of perpetual motion and which, besides, he could not control" (7). The new body also begins exhibiting a motivating character of its own, disrupting the integrity of Gregor's original character. A sign of this change occurs in the first section when Gregor enters the living room and involuntarily starts snapping his jaws at some coffee spilling from an overturned pot (18). The anxious reaction to his father's hissing is another example of insect behavior, one stressed later in the novella when Gregor himself hisses with rage (44).

In the second section, more indications of an insectile nature emerge. He feels a greater sense of well-being when his new body is allowed to behave in its own natural way rather than being forced to stand upright in a human posture. He also discovers the usefulness of his antennae, an ability to crawl up the bedroom walls and a penchant for hanging from the ceiling (19, 31-32). Insect patterns of sleep and waking develop: sleepy trances alternate with wakeful periods punctuated with hunger pangs (23). His taste in food changes. Milk, which had formerly been his favorite drink, is now repugnant to him, as are fresh foods. He prefers leftovers and rotten vegetables, delighting in a "piece of cheese, which two days before Gregor had declared inedible" (24). The range of his vision decreases—"from day to day he saw things even a short distance away less and less distinctly"—as does his sense of connection with the outside world (29). He also begins not to notice the passage of time (47).

His emotional reactions change, often in ways that he does not understand. He is anxious or frightened at things which formerly would not have affected him. He notices that "the empty high-ceilinged room in which he was forced to lie flat on the floor made him nervous without his being able to tell why . . ." (23). This same uneasiness and fear are provoked by his sister's cleaning his room (30). Of course, a change of tastes and habits per se need not show the replacement of one person by another (or a person by an insect). Yet, increasingly in the novella, these changes take place outside the scope and limits of Gregor's awareness: he either does not understand why the shifts in attitude and preference have occurred, or he is only dimly aware of the new motivation. In the beginning of the second section, he crawls to the bedroom door: "Only after he got to the door did he notice what had really attracted him—the smell of something to eat" (21). Increasingly, Gregor acts from animal instinct rather than from self-conscious awareness. This invasion of his private self by a new motivating agency suggests the gradual replacement of his former personality.

In one of his rare moments of reflection, when gobbling down the "inedible" cheese, he ponders: "Have I become less sensitive?" (24). However, unlike the reader who starts to question this creature's identity, he resists an answer. He continues to act in ignorance, on occasion even concocting spurious reasons for his behavior. For example, he worries about not being able to support his parents and sister. "In order not to get involved in such thoughts," the narrator adds, "Gregor decided to keep moving and he crawled up and down the room" (22). An air of false consciousness pervades this "decision." Complicitously selective, the narrator withholds the full account of Gregor's motivations, providing only the rationale as Gregor perceives it. Instead of a conscious choice, a more likely motivation is that crawling up and down is an insect's instinctive response to a frightening situation. Gregor reacts in this same insect-like manner to other anxiety-producing incidents.

With the gradual encroachment of one character on another, the rational conscious self (on the Lockean-Cartesian model) loses its status as sole "pilot," and a new motivating agency exercises control. Gregor's individuality begins to unravel. When Grete (Gregor's sister) proposes to move some furniture out of Gregor's room in order to give him more crawling space, the mother protests: to her "the sight of the bare wall was heartbreaking; and why shouldn't Gregor have the same feeling." On hearing his mother's objection, Gregor realizes that in wanting the furniture removed he had been "on the verge of forgetting" his human past (33). If only for a moment, he perceives that his new attitudes and preferences are in conflict with his human past.

Gregor's awareness and understanding (mental activity identified with his humanity) clash with his new insectile character. In philosophical terms, the Lockean-Cartesian dualist account of Gregor-as-consciousness opposes a materialist-behaviorist account of his emerging instinctive character. From the latter perspective, the disposition to behave in insect-like ways is produced by the insect's physiology interacting with its environment. According to dualism, in contrast, Gregor's pre-transformational psyche or consciousness continues despite the physical changes that have taken place.

The clash between Gregor-as-insect and Gregor-as-consciousness can be seen in the following oppositions. First, the insect-states and behavior do not originate from Gregor's earlier human character: they are newly introduced and independent of Gregor's human past. Gregor's consciousness, however, is clearly related to his human past. Secondly, insect-character and human-character are unfused: no unified personality integrates both insect and human traits. Aside from a few acknowledgments of their existence, Gregor's new insectile attitudes and dispositions remain outside his consciousness. No sense of self-consciousness accompanies them. Although at times Gregor ponders their presence, he does not consciously claim them as his own. Thus, instead of a unified self, the transformed Gregor is fissured into two characters, clashing yet jointly existing in the same body.

Because of this unresolved theoretical clash, the novella does not provide an answer to the question of whether the insect is physiologically intact or composite. In their discussion of The Metamorphosis, both John Updike (121-33) and Vladimir Nabokov (250-83) see Gregor's physical indeterminateness as a necessary feature of the work. This biological indeterminacy is revealed in numerous anthropomorphic descriptions of the transformed Gregor (e.g., his "eyes streaming with tears of contentment" [24]). Leaving in doubt the exact nature of Gregor's physiological transformation more forcefully pits dualism against materialism. To assume that the insect has at least part of a human brain, allows the materialist/behaviorist a consistent explanation for both Gregor's human and insectile behavior.

. . . . .

Not only do dualist and materialist interpretations collide, but a third account of personal identity intrudes. Dominating the novella's final section, this third conception involves seeing a person as an individual constituted by certain social relationships. Personal identity is maintained by preserving the constituting social relationships. Failure to preserve them, even though an individual maintains psychological or material continuity, erodes personal identity.

Prefigured in Plato's Republic, social-constructionist theories of the self have a long and eminent history. Their most influential nineteenth-century advocates are Hegel ("Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'" [229]) and Marx (400-02). In this century, George Herbert Mead's theory of the self as "social object" (136-44) and Louis Althusser's neo-Marxist account (127-86) are in that tradition. Recently, Erving Goffman has promoted a theory of the self as constituted by a nexus of social roles. Selves, he claims, are produced by particular forms of social interaction and do not exist independently of social contexts. For Goffman, the self "as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect . . . [and] the means for producing and maintaining selves . . . are often bolted down in social establishments" (252-53).

Although most fully presented in the novella's final section, the social-constructionist theory of personal identity does appear in earlier sections. In the first section, the locked door, Gregor's chirping and his peculiar behavior are not the only obstacles to social reintegration and self-validation. The family's reaction to Gregor's new body also plays a role. "If they were shocked," the narrator comments, "then Gregor had no further responsibility and could be calm. But if they took everything calmly, then he too, had no reason to get excited . . ." (12). If the family accepts him, then his self (defined as provider, son, brother, household member, etc.) is maintained. If they reject him, these same self-constituting ties are severed and Gregor's identity begins to unravel.

In the second section, after the calamitous rejection by his family, Gregor seeks to reestablish his relationship with them. Wondering how best to lead his new life, he concludes "that for the time being he would have to lie low and, by being patient and showing his family every possible consideration, help them bear the inconvenience which he simply had to cause them in his present condition" (23). His passive resignation in favor of patience and consideration, however, does not actively fulfill his role as family member. It is undertaken more for his own convenience than to mend a ruptured social tie. Being locked in his bedroom by his family is actually reassuring: he feels gratified that there will be no frightening intrusions.

Instead of reintegrating him, Gregor's self-deceived commitment to patient resignation widens the separation between him and his family. The widening gap between them is also a verbal one. After his chirping explanation to the office manager and his subsequent supplication to his mother, he never attempts to communicate verbally with anyone. In turn, his family abandons the notion that he is able to understand their speech: "since the others could not understand what he said, it did not occur to any of them, not even to his sister, that he could understand what they said . . ." (25). He receives news of them only indirectly.

Nevertheless, his sister Grete does try to establish a new relationship with Gregor. Unfortunately, their relationship lacks reciprocity and she ends up creating only a new family role and identity for herself. Up until Gregor's transformation, Grete has been a child with few family responsibilities. By assuming the duty of feeding Gregor and cleaning his room, she takes on the role of an adult and with it an adult self. Gregor hears the family say "how much they appreciated his sister's work, whereas until now they had frequently been annoyed with her because she struck them as being a little useless" (31). Her childish indolence has given way to a more mature acceptance of responsibility. In her parents' eyes she has become an adult.

Although Grete maintains regular contact with Gregor, Grete and the family fail to reestablish a familial personal relationship with him. "If Gregor," the narrator says, "had only been able to speak to his sister and thank her for everything she had to do for him, he could have accepted her services more easily; as it was, they caused him pain" (29). Thus, for want of communication and a reciprocity of relations, Gregor's position in the family disintegrates and his sense of self erodes.

His insect-anxiety toward his sister increases until the watershed scene in which his sister and mother remove the furniture from his room. As the narrator notes, on hearing his mother's objections to moving the furniture, "Gregor realized that the monotony of family life, combined with the fact that not a soul had addressed a word directly to him, must have addled his brain in the course of the past two months, for he could not explain to himself in any other way how in all seriousness he could have been anxious to have his room cleared out." His decreasing contacts with his family have eroded his sense of being a person. Resolving to resist this gradual depersonalizing influence, he now wants "the beneficial influence of the furniture on his state of mind" (33).

The furniture comes to represent Gregor's past self-preserving relationship with his family, awakening him to the intrusion of his animal instincts. When he frightens his mother in an effort to halt their removing the furniture, Grete starts to shout at Gregor. "These were the first words," the narrator interjects, that "she had addressed directly to him since his metamorphosis." They awaken the hope that a family relationship might be reestablished. In the confusion of Grete's ministering to their mother, Gregor runs out of the bedroom, leaving the depersonalizing isolation of his bedroom for the public interactive space of the living room. Hearing that "Gregor's broken out," the father once again drives him back into the confinement of the bedroom, this time wounding him with a thrown apple (36). Patriarchal intervention has dashed Gregor's hopes of reintegrating himself into the family circle.

The third section, the section in which the implications of the social-constructionist theory are most fully explored, begins with the family's seemingly begrudging acceptance of Gregor as a family member. His wound "seemed to have reminded even his father that Gregor was a member of the family, in spite of his present pathetic and repulsive shape . . . [and] it was the commandment of family duty to swallow their disgust and endure him, endure him and nothing else" (40). Yet this commitment to tolerance still allows Gregor no positive role in family matters. He eventually disregards both the open door, which the family leave ajar out of their awakened sense of duty, and his earlier resolution to be considerate of his family, especially in keeping himself clean (46). "It hardly surprised him," the reader learns, "that lately he was showing so little consideration for others; once such consideration had been his greatest pride" (48). Gregor is "hardly surprised" because much of his disregard for his family is motivated by his new instinctual character.

In keeping with this new character, Gregor now shows an interest in music. Unlike his sister who enjoys playing the violin, Gregor had earlier shown little interest in music. Nevertheless, in his role as provider and loving brother, he had planned to realize the "beautiful dream" of sending Grete to the conservatory to study her instrument (27). Hearing Grete playing her violin in the living room for three boarders whom the family have taken in to help meet expenses, Gregor once again leaves his bedroom, creeping through the inadvertently open doorway into the living room (48). Given his earlier complacency toward music, Gregor's attraction is likely produced by his insectile character. Although the Orphic myth of music charming the beast is the underlying theme here, the ambiguity of Gregor's action (the narrator does not specify whether Gregor's attraction is due to animal magnetism or deliberate choice) is sustained by his asking, and failing to answer, another of his self-reflecting questions: "Was he an animal, that music could move him so?" (49). In the reverie of the moment, Gregor starts to fantasize about bringing Grete back to his room and revealing his plan to send her to the conservatory. In his fantasy he attempts to reconstitute his relationship with his sister and reclaim his sense of self. Yet so remote is the likelihood of the fantasy becoming fact (i.e., Gregor's talking to Grete, and her being kissed by something she considers repulsive) that it highlights the absurdity of their reestablishing any personal relationship. A boarder's shriek at Gregor's dustcovered carapace abruptly ends his reverie. This latest outrage by Gregor prompts the family to discuss getting rid of "the monster" (51).

The social-constructionist theory of self underlies much of the family's discussion of what to do with the monster. "If he could understand us," the father bewails, "then maybe we could come to an agreement with him." To which Grete replies: "You just have to get rid of the idea that it's Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn't possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn't have a brother, but we'd be able to go on living and honor his memory" (52). Cut off from communicating with the creature, the family can neither reforge the familial bond with Gregor nor establish a new one. The sister's argument against the monster's being her brother does not appeal to the physical impossibility of his continued existence. To a great extent the family have accepted Gregor's physical transformation. Instead the appeal is social: given the widening disparity between their two life forms, there is no basis for a personal relationship. Not only has Gregor changed, but the family has changed as well, becoming now more resourceful and self-sufficient. All three of them have jobs.

Since the creature cannot maintain the former relationship of being a son and brother, it must not be Gregor. The sister, however, does allow the creature one limit-position in which to be a brother: the monster could disappear and by so doing show its consideration for the family. Such an act would be a brotherly act, fulfilling a role while at the same time dissolving it.

In the hope of resolving the metaphysical impasse, the reader might be inclined to interpret Gregor's death early the next morning as such an act of brotherly consideration. The undercutting of one theory of self by another, however, extends also to his death. The nature of Gregor's death and its causes are equally open to question by the respective theories. No one theory convincingly explains his end.

According to the dualist perspective, Gregor could be seen as consciously committing suicide because he realizes the hopelessness of his situation. After all, the family take his gestures of concern to be either threatening or irrational. No longer wishing to live separated from those he loves, he starves himself to death. Corroborating this view is the narrator's observation: "[Gregor] thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister's" (54). According to this account, his earlier refusal to eat leads up to this "conviction."

The limited and shifting focus of the narration, however, also allows for a materialist reading: the change in eating habits and the death indicate not conscious choices but the course of the insect's life cycle, exacerbated by the infected wound from the apple thrown by the father. Since not all of Gregor's personal reflections are to be trusted (e.g., his conscious rationalizations for his instinctively motivated behavior), events leading up to his death should not be seen as excluding a materialist interpretation. In the description of Gregor's death, there occurs a curious phrase about his lack of volition: "Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last breath" (54; emphasis mine). The denial of "consent" calls into question Gregor's agency: death might be the result of an enfeebled condition rather than an intended starvation.

The social-constructionist theory can also provide an account of Gregor's death. Just before being drawn into the living room by his sister's violin playing, Gregor listens to the boarders eating: "I'm hungry enough,' Gregor said to himself, full of grief, 'but not for these things. Look how these roomers are gorging themselves, and I'm dying!'" (47). Hungry, "but not for these things," Gregor yearns for nourishment other than food, for an emotional sustenance derived from an active involvement with his family. With the dissolution of the family bond, he emotionally and socially starves to death.

Gregor's fantasy of announcing to Grete his intention to send her to the conservatory also supports a social-constructionist interpretation of his later demise. Even if his death is something he consciously contemplated, his passive and fantasized past behavior renders suspicious Gregor's "conviction that he would have to disappear . . ." (54). The narrator is unreliable about Gregor's passive "contributions" to his family: Gregor's patient hiding in his room is instinctively motivated rather than consciously intended. Thus, the reader should be suspicious of crediting Gregor with actively bringing about his own end. On the social-constructionist view, only within the bounds of the family relationship can Gregor act positively and have a sense of personal agency. Despite the sister's claim that Gregor would disappear if he were her brother, the family do not recognize his death as an act of consideration. In fact, they react to it as good fortune.

Thus, by maintaining an ambivalence among the dualist, materialist and social-constructionist explanations for Gregor's death, Kafka preserves the tension and opposition among all three of Gregor's "identities": a self-consciousness, an instinctual organism and a social persona—a "shadow being" trying fantastically to maintain itself in a disintegrating family relationship.

. . . . .

The sustained opposition and tension among the three positions cloud not only the nature of Gregor's death but the extent of the family's moral responsibility toward him. Each of the three theories undercuts the other two positions; this mutual undermining leaves unresolved questions about the limits of responsibility toward those whose personhood is in doubt, just as it leaves unresolved questions about the basis for moral relationships in the face of instinctual behavior and the extent to which social ties create moral responsibilities.

In contrast to the moral debate of the third section, the novella's epilogue introduces a false sense of closure. It drowns out the debate by depicting the family as reunified, smug in their togetherness, having weathered the catastrophe of Gregor's final appearance and death. The epilogue thus obscures an ethical issue that the reader must still confront: whether, prior to his death, Gregor stops being a person who deserves the moral support of his family. The epilogue, especially what Stanley Corngold has called "the falseness and banality of the tone of the ending" (174), cuts off this moral questioning. It closes the work by resolving its moral ambiguity, covering up its thematic antagonisms and destroying what Joseph Margolis (27-42) sees as the philosophical tensions of the work.

In his Diaries, Kafka himself expressed displeasure at the novella's "unreadable ending" (12). For a writer who registered repeated disapproval of his writing, this castigation may be no more than the carping of a perpetually unsatisfied artist unwilling to acknowledge that the writing has ended. Yet, it may also register his adoption of the stance of the reader and a call for the type of "experimental" reading process I have described. Indeed, as Camus has noticed, "The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread. His endings, or his absence of endings, suggest explanations which, however, are not revealed in clear language but, before they seem justified, require that the story be reread from another point of view" (92). Rather than arriving at a "justified" closure, one is more apt on rereading the novella to sense the clash and mutual undercutting of philosophical theories. Perhaps Kafka's displeasure at the epilogue thus reveals not artistic dissatisfaction but rather a desire not to obscure the competing ethical and philosophical issues that the work raises.

In the twentieth century more than any other century, human beings have faced perplexing questions about the nature of their identities as persons. From our educational heritage, we have developed as rational consciousnesses, while at the same time we have increasingly come to understand the biological (i.e., material) determinants of our characters. The rapid social changes of the recent past have made us realize both the role that social organization plays in the constitution of who we are and our dependence on a stable social context for maintaining our identities. These ways of thinking about ourselves (as conscious, biological or social beings) are far from compatible conceptual schemas. Kafka's novella makes this incompatibility all too clear.

Works Cited


Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review, 1971. 127-86.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Camus, Albert. "Hope and The Absurd in The Works of Franz Kafka." The Myth of Sisyphus. 1942. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage, 1955. 92-102.

Corngold, Stanley. The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Deleuze, Giles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method. 1637. The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Vol. I. Trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1911. 79-130.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.

Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. 1807. Trans. J. B. Baillie. New York: Harper, 1967.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1932. Trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1949.

——. The Metamorphosis. 1915. Ed. and trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Locke, John. "Of Identity and Diversity." An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1694. Vol. I. Ed. A.C. Fraser. New York: Dover, 1959. 439-70.

Margolis, Joseph. "Kafka vs. Eudaimonia and Duty." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 19 (1958): 27-42.

Marx, Karl. "Theses On Feuerbach." 1845. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. Ed. and trans. L. D. Easton and K .H. Guddat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967. 400-02.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1934.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1980.

Quinton, Anthony. "The Soul." The Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962): 393-403.

Skulsky, Harold. Metamorphosis: The Mind in Exile. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.

Updike, John. "Reflections: Kafka's Short Stones." The New Yorker (9 May 1983): 121-33.

Richard Murphy (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Semiotic Excess, Semantic Vacuity and the Photograph of the Imaginary: The Interplay of Realism and the Fantastic in Kafka's Die Verwandlung," in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Vol. 65, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 304-17.

[In the following essay, Murphy discusses Kafka's mingling of modes of realistic and fantastic representation in The Metamorphosis.]

"Nature hath no outline
but Imagination has"



True to the peculiar hermeneutics associated with his literary works Kafka's poetological utterances are both very infrequent and usually terse and indirect, taking on that familiar paradoxical form which characterizes the articulation of anything resembling a 'statement' in his writing. Approached with the necessary caution however, certain of these utterances provide an interesting perspective firstly on the difficult problem of determining Kafka's poetics of representation and secondly on the complex relationship of his literary works both to the tradition of realism and to the fantastic.

In a conversation with Gustav Janouch for example, Kafka allegedly played down the apparent plasticity of certain of his characters as a mere by-product, emphasizing that "er zeichnete keine Menschen" but was involved only in "telling a story," the characters being merely "Bilder nur Bilder." Typically he went on to undermine even this modest claim by denying that the production of such images implies or encourages their visual perception (i.e. as part of the mimetic process of representation), and added the antistatement "man photographiert Dinge, um sie aus dem Sinn zu verscheuchen. Meine Geschichten sind eine Art von Augenschließen."1 This opposition to any premature closure afforded by a conventional photographic approach may be seen again in Kafka's reaction upon hearing that the published version of Die Verwandlung was to include a drawing of that central figure which is referred to obscurely there merely by the general term "Ungeziefer":

Das Insekt selbst kann nicht gezeichnet werden. Es kann aber nicht einmal von der Ferne aus gezeigt werden . . . Wenn ich für eine Illustration selbst Vorschläge machen dürfte, würde ich Szenen wählen, wie: die Eltern und der Prokurist vor der geschlossenen Tür oder noch besser die Eltern und die Schwester im beleuchteten Zimmer, während die Tür zum ganz finsteren Nebenzimmer offen steht.2

As we shall see later, it is of the utmost significance that Kafka seems to be attempting here to protect the integrity and anonymity of his central image by obstructing a representational-mimetic tendency and redirecting it towards the kind of object which by its very nature resists and defers fixity and representation: the unknown and the Imaginary. For by displacing attention onto the door of Gregor Samsa's darkened room, Kafka is inscribing openness into the corresponding act of interpretation, so that however detailed and 'photographically' perfect the finished product of representation may be, its ultimate determination is at best that of semantic vacuity.

It is this paradoxical image of a realistic representation of a door opened onto an impenetrable darkness which may serve as a way of understanding the complex nature of Kafka's version of realism as a mode which is in constant interaction with the fantastic. Before we examine this interaction in more detail, let us first consider two paradigms for these modes, as presented in the first case by Georg Lukàcs,3 and in the second by Tzvetan Todorov.4


Lukàcs' model of realism is a particularly appropriate one to take up in order to explore Kafka's peculiar approach to realism via the fantastic. Firstly Lukacs himself explicitly criticizes the ways in which Kafka's texts conflict with his conception. And secondly, the very rigidity of his model serves to highlight the 'unorthodox' nature of Kafka's texts: the manner in which they depend upon such realism only in order to transgress and deconstruct its strictures and its drive towards mimetic closure.

Despite those limitations to which we will be referring presently, Georg Lukàcs' conception of realism is anything but a merely mechanical, reflectionist model.5 Indeed in the three major essays in which he outlines his model, namely "Erzählen oder Beschreiben?," "Es geht um den Realismus," and "Die Gegenwartsbedeutung des kritischen Realismus" he polemicizes against a simplistic reflectionist approach (as it is manifested for him for example in the naturalist movement) where no attempt is made to go beyond a mere reflection of the surface of phenomenal reality. For Lukàcs this version of realism lacks the overall ideological conception and analytical apparatus which would provide the criteria by which firstly the elemental forces of history may be perceived, and secondly the selection of material for the representation may be determined. Where an author lacks the insight provided by an overview of reality, of the "Totalität," he has no means of deciding which aspects should be selected as important for his description and which can be omitted. The consequence of this is a version of realism as "Beschreiben," as a "Stehenbleiben" before the surface of reality. Into this category Lukàcs places the work of Franz Kafka.6

However in this it is clear that Lukàcs' claims for the superior art of analytical "Erzählen" rests upon a thoroughly platonic conception. For this realism proposes to reflect reality not as it appears but as it 'really' is. Lukàcs' conception of realism relies on the operation of "Aufdecken," whereby the realist author penetrates the surface phenomena of reality to reach a more essential underlying reality. Thus the starting-point for any work of realism according to Lukàcs is the perception of 'objective reality': "es kommt also hier, wie überall, auf den richtig erkannten Inhalt an."7 And in this, Lukàcs would seem to have no qualms in deciding what is correct and what is incorrect, for he appears to operate from the premise that 'objective reality' is readily accessible.

Complementary to this act of "Aufdecken" of essences, is "das künstlerische Zudecken der abstrahiert erarbeiteten Zusammenhänge—das Aufheben des Abstrahierens." That is, the attempt to create a "gestaltete Oberfläche des Lebens, die, obwohl sie in jedem Moment das Wesen klar durchscheinen läßt (was in der Unmittelbarkeit des Lebens selbst nicht der Fall ist) doch als Unmittelbarkeit, als Oberfläche des Lebens erscheint."8 Lukàcs demands in other words the creation of a 'realistic gloss' which would tie the fictional world together as an illusionary unity.

Responding to this conception during the so-called "Expressionismusdebatte" (in Das Wort [1937-38]) Ernst Bloch effects a simple critique or deconstruction of Lukàcs' position by pointing to the unreflected aprioris in his system, and principally to his reliance on a notion of 'objective totality' which is really only at best a 'useful fiction':

aber vielleicht ist Lukàcs' Realität, die des unendlich vermittelten Totalitätszusammenhangs, gar nicht so—objektiv . . . vielleicht ist die echte Wirklichkeit auch Unterbrechung.9

The foundation upon which Lukàcs' entire system of realism depends is the idea that there is an objective level of reality, a "totality" which can be apprehended and represented by the author. By calling its objectivity into question, and by posing the possibility that reality exists as "Unterbrechung," Bloch implies that the notion of 'objective reality' is merely a fictional construct which is imposed a posteriori upon the discontinuous world to provide a sense of order. Thus Lukàcs' critique of the avant-garde, of the expressionist movement in general and of Kafka in particular must be relativized by this perspective: if in fact there is no such thing as an 'objective reality' outside of a system of fictions then it is clear that there can be no code of realism which is not in one way or another a "deformation." In this sense, Kafka's version of realism is no more a deformation than Lukàcs' realism of "Erzählen."10

Thus where Lukàcs criticizes Kafka and the avant-garde for their lack of social perspective or insight into the "Totalität" and belittles their subsequent anxiety at a vision of the world as chaotic, he is denying one of the essential functions of his own model of realism.11 For just as the texts valorized by his tradition allow an insight into that which might otherwise remain hidden beneath appearances, so in the same way, the particular perspective of Kafka's 'subjective' system of realism is fulfilling a similar function in providing the possibility of discovering that which might be excluded and so remain hidden by other more dominant and conventional "Weltbilder" and epistemological systems.

If there is a difference between the two in this regard, it lies in the constant disruption in Kafka's texts of the realistic trajectory by alternative modes such as the fantastic. For in undercutting the claims of such "Weltbilder" to objectivity, the 'deforming' realisms of the avant-garde distinguish themselves from the more ideological versions proposed by Lukàcs. In sharp contrast to the texts valorized by his conception of realism, they do not claim to represent the objective truth as 'reality' per se, but, to use Christian Metz' distinction, through this moment of deformation they foreground themselves not as "history" but as "discourse," as mere fictions, at best as a structure of experience or model of reality.12

Lukàcs' harsh criticism that Kafka is "der Klassiker dieses Stehenbleibens bei der blinden und panischen Angst vor der Wirklichkeit" is thus countered by this function of transgressing the boundaries of more conventional notions of reality, and so undermining thereby their claim to the status of 'objectivity' per se.13 Rather than a mere "Stehenbleiben" before the surface of phenomena, such transgressive discourses as Kafka's therefore represent a deconstruction of fixed concepts of reality. A more telling difference between Lukàcs' notion of literary discourse as 'dis-covery' and Kafka's is, as we shall see, that whereas it may be conceivable for the particular insights into the underlying and invisible social forces (which Lukàcs claims for his realist discourse) to be conveyed in much the same manner by a non-literary discourse such as a sociological or historical medium, that undiscovered realm which Kafka's texts make visible is revealed by a function which pertains exclusively to literary discourse and the aesthetic sphere: as a means of experiential access to what otherwise constitutes an 'impenetrable' level of reality.

In a further criticism which Lukàcs directs at the avantgarde (and by implication at Kafka) he maintains that the subjectivist standpoint has the effect of limiting the possible entrances to the text, that is, of closing down the text's general accessibility by a broad audience. Contrasted with the avant-garde's inaccessibility is the tradition of 'critical' realism which Lukàcs valorizes as giving the reader "aus den breiten Massen des Volkes von den verschiedensten Seiten seiner eigenen Lebenserfahrung her Zugang."14 Implicit in this position is the requirement that literature provide an 'Identifikationsangebot' which together with the effect of the realist gloss (the process of "Zudecken") will effect an illusionism and thus encourage the reader to experience the world of the text as real. The demand for accessibility and identification will obviously not be fulfilled in quite the same manner nor to quite the same extent by the avant-garde as it is by Lukàcs' realist paradigm. For the illusionism which is the condition for the fulfillment of these demands takes a very different form in each of these modes, and in the case of Kafka it becomes very difficult to talk about an illusionism at all, since the realist code through which it might be erected is constantly being undermined by what we might call the fantastic element. As we shall see later however, the notions of accessibility and the potentialization of the reader's own life-experiences are nevertheless of the greatest importance in the reception of Kafka's texts, despite the latter's complete disdain for that 'illusionism' which Lukàcs demands.

Before we turn to Die Verwandlung let us give a brief outline of the fantastic in order to describe in more detail its subversive function and its interaction in Kafka's text with the mode of realism.


The thoroughly subversive and marginal nature of the fantastic (its "Grenzcharakter") is underlined by the "differential" definition which Todorov attributes to it.15 He situates it between two realms. On the one side there is the realm of the marvelous ("le merveilleux") an area in which supernatural events may occur and can be accepted as such through the literary convention of the 'once-upon-a-time' contract, whereby all 'reality-testing' by the reader and figure alike is suspended. On the other side there is the realm of "l'étrange" or the uncanny (similar to Freud's "das Unheimliche") in which the function of reality-testing is preserved, so that the apparently supernatural events which occur in the narrative may be rationally explained as deriving for example from the unconscious.16 Since the realm of the fantastic falls immediately between the two, it is characterized by an extended hesitation on the part of the reader and an inability to decide whether the unusual events are real or illusionary, naturally or unnaturally caused:

ou bien il s'agit d'une illusion des sens, d'un produit de l'imagination et les lois du monde restent alors ce qu'elles sont; ou bien l'événement a véritablement eu lieu, il est partie intégrante de la réalité, mais alors cette réalité est régie par lois inconnues de nous . . .

Le fantastique occupe le temps de cette incertitude; dès qu'on choisit l'une ou l'autre réponse, on quitte le fantastique pour entrer dans un genre voisin, l'étrange ou le merveilleux. . . .17

This hesitation, which is often reflected and foregrounded in the fantastic in the behaviour of a fictional character, is symptomatic of the confrontation of a 'normal' person with the inexplicable:

Le fantastique, c'est le hésitation éprouvée par un être qui ne connaît que les lois naturelles, face à un événement en apparence surnaturel.18

Consequently it accompanies a subversive process whereby the existing systems of order and reason by which that person was anchored and oriented undergo a radical interrogation. In this context Todorov quotes an observation by Roger Caillois, which simultaneously serves as an apt description of the function of the fantastic in its interaction with the mode of realism in Kafka's Die Verwandlung.

Tout le fantastique est rupture de l'ordre reconnu, irruption de l'inadmissible au sein de l'inaltérable légalité quotidienne.19

The fantastic is thus reliant upon the code of realism and upon a corresponding realistic attitude.20 For in order to subvert and transgress the laws of reality, it must first call up and legitimize them, or the situation will simply slide into the category of the marvelous, where all is accepted as 'believable.' In the case of Kafka's texts this dependence is very extreme, for here the partial reliance on the real by the transgressive element of the fantastic develops into a full mutual interaction of the modes of realism and the fantastic. Let us now examine this process by close reference to Kafka's Die Verwandlung, and to the ways in which it deviates from the paradigm of the fantastic.


The course of the fantastic narrative, according to Todorov's description, moves from an everyday world of the rational, towards a realm of the supernatural. Kafka's Die Verwandlung however effectively reverses this direction. For, as Todorov observes, after an initial 'twist,' the narrative moves into a rational and realistic mode. In other words, in the case of Die Verwandlung although the factual statement of Gregor's transformation in the first lines of the text serves to set the event within the realm of the fantastic-marvelous, this literary convention is broken almost immediately and soon abandoned completely as the text moves into a realist vein. Thus that hesitation in deciding whether the events are naturally or supernaturally caused, which we have seen to be the characteristic of the fantastic, hardly arises in the case of the miraculous metamorphosis. For although it is true that the narrative begins with Gregor in his bed, waking up after uneasy dreams, and that, as in the fantastic, the real status of narrated events might thus be questioned as a continuation of the dream, these doubts are firstly undermined by the narrative statement "es war kein Traum," and surely dispelled at the very latest, when the Prokurist hears Gregor's voice inside the room and exclaims "'das war eine Tierstimme.'"21 If indeed the metamorphosis is a 'nightmare,' it is one from which Gregor (and the skeptical reader) fail to wake up.

In the fantastic it is this hesitation which signalizes a transgression with regard to the distinction between dream and reality, thereby serving to question and undermine our notion of reality and thus to de-stabilize our conventional means of representing it. In Kafka's texts by contrast this function is fulfilled by the interaction between the fantastic-marvelous event, and the ensuing realistic attitude towards it, as conveyed by the realistic mode. For example, if the reader remains hesitant in his or her attitude towards the causality of narrated events, then this is certainly not the case with the central figure, who attempts by and large to act as if nothing had happened: the change in his voice he puts down to a "Verkühlung," and he is confident that the metamorphosis will "clear itself up like a dream" (60). Similarly, throughout the first section of the story, despite the momentous event which has occurred, Gregor's thoughts continue to revolve around his dislike of his duties in general and around the immediate problem of getting up from his bed in order to face the workaday world. In this manner, the immediacy of the everyday attitude is shown as being inappropriate in the face of larger and more pressing problems—a theme which runs throughout Kafka's works.

Another difference with Kafka's texts is that whereas in the fantastic there is usually a foil, frequently embodied in a secondary figure and representing a contrasting scientific and rational approach to the questionable and the fantastic phenomena whose logic is invariably proven later to be erroneous in the face of the surrounding mysterious forces,22 in Kafka's texts this realistic attitude and overwhelming rationality is questioned not in the figure of a scientist, academic or other representative of good sense and enlightenment, but in an average human being, the 'everyman' with whom the reader is able to identify in an unproblematical manner. Consequently it is patently not the case as Todorov suggests, that Kafka's world is "completely bizarre and just as abnormal as the metamorphosis itself or that it "obeys a logic which has nothing to do with the real world."23 For with the exception of that original 'twist' of the marvelous, the ensuing events in Die Verwandlung are frequently rather mundane and are treated absolutely realistically. In all this, as Adorno says, "nicht das Ungeheuerliche schockiert, sondern dessen Selbstverständlichkeit."24 Thus we can accept the monstrous change in Gregor under the reading conventions of the mode of the fantastic, but are then shocked not by the peculiar event itself but by the realism, and by the ease with which the characters adapt to the metamorphosis.


We have seen that the fantastic fulfills its function of allowing a transgression of boundaries by introducing that which is beyond our everyday norms and systems of perception. In the case of Die Verwandlung however, through the form of its interaction with the realist mode, it allows realistic attitudes and patterns of behaviour which the reader recognizes as his or her own to be provoked, questioned and ironized. Let us examine how this receptive process of self-ironization is brought about.

Gregor's transgression of the boundary of the normal, and his existence in the realm of the Other is associated with his abhorrence of his quotidian existence and his many everyday anxieties. It is primarily his sense of responsibility towards the family which appears to be preventing him from breaking free of his quotidian existence and into the realm of Desire:

Wenn ich mich nicht wegen meiner Eltern zurückhielte, ich hätte längst gekündigt, ich wäre vor den Chef hingetreten und hätte ihm meine Meinung von Grund des Herzens aus gesagt. Vom Pult hätte er fallen müssen! (58)

As a consequence, in the place of a genuine liberation Gregor consoles himself through such fantasies. The most powerful of these is displaced onto his sister Grete, who, in her relatively carefree existence is a figure representing the possibility for 'Entgrenzung,' in her role as a delimited and fictional projection of Gregor's subjectivity, a supplementary self:

Es war sein geheimer Plan, sie, die zum Unterschied von Gregor Musik sehr liebte und rührend Violine zu spielen verstand, nächstes Jahr . . . auf das Konservatorium zu schicken. (79)

As a transgression of the everyday world's demands of duty and responsibility, these expressions of Desire are given the character of a taboo. He retains his plan,

aber immer nur als schöner Traum, an dessen Verwirklichung nicht zu denken war, und die Eltern hörten nicht einmal diese unschuldigen Erwähnungen gern. . . . (79)

Thus the later loss of his role within the family as the breadwinner, and his ensuing exclusions from the family circle represents a 'core-fantasy,' or 'experiential structure' on the theme of liberation. Far from denying access ("Zugang") as Lukàcs would maintain, the text thus encourages an identificatory response by the reader, who can fill this open framework of the core-fantasy with his or her own experience and fantasies. In terms of a dramatization of subjectivity, the metamorphosis may similarly be seen as a form of Entgrenzung or 'de-limitation,' through which Desire is allowed to come to the surface and exert its own influence upon the territory from which it is otherwise excluded, namely the real. This structure may thus be experienced by the recipient as a dramatization of his or her own fears and longings for a similar lapse into Desire, as a dramatization for example of similar fantasies of an escape from everyday responsibilities and from the social group.

In this manner the text allows a dramatization of two sets of mutually exclusive notions concerning the self. Firstly the everyday self and its realistic attitude is brought into copresence with an Other, as a lapsed and excluded figure of Desire. In other words the self is extended in order to include a 'not-self,' and identity is undermined by a (non-identical) double. Secondly the desire to escape the real, the quotidian, the stifling 'realm of the father' is juxtaposed with that anxiety at a loss of 'homeliness' which Gregor experiences through his lapse into 'otherness' from within the realm of the "Unheimlichen."

Furthermore, the text allows a confrontation of two mutually exclusive systems of meaning: that pertaining to a dominant version of reality and that pertaining to what it excludes. Significantly these are mediated respectively by the mode of realism and the mode of the fantastic. As a result of this confrontation, any systematized notion of reality as 'objective' loses its fixity, and through the subversive and relativizing effect of this opposition, is revealed to be merely ideological, or held in place by an economy of power. This dialogical interaction between the two systems consequently functions as a form of Erkenntnis or Ideologiekritik, in as far as those attitudes, norms and models of reality which represent the unreflected premises of the reader's orientation in the world are evoked in the self-dramatizing process of reception, and so interrogated and made the object of reflection.

This dialogical text-structure in Kafka's work contrasts sharply therefore with the notion of realism implied by Lukacs' concept of "Totalität," under which a single unified system of meaning is held rigidly in place. For the dialogical interaction is the condition whereby that which is excluded by one system is resurrected by a second system.25 The consequences of this dialogicity are of the utmost significance for a poetics of representation and reception concerned with the interaction of such modes as realism and the fantastic.

As regards the recipient, the results of the dialogical structure may be observed in the frustration with which he or she responds to the mass of realistic details—the semiotic excess—and the fact that they fail to crystallize into a unified fictional heterocosm. According to the criteria of Lukàcs' realist paradigm, this failure would mean that the representational process of "Zudecken," which creates an illusionary unity, is insufficient. In the light of our theoretical assumptions regarding the function of the dialogical interaction in Kafka's text however, we can see that this effect is by no means to be considered a 'deficiency.' For although the realist illusion of an overall context fails to materialize, the multiplication of details creates an interrelated set of 'Realitätsbezüge' without a 'Bezugsrealität.' In other words, the very structure of reality is presented minus its relation to any specific version of reality. And it is through this laying bare of structures, as we have seen, that the text fulfills the essential function of its Erkenntniskritik, whereby the fictional bases of conventional models of reality are made visible.

This is the reason why the recipient's experience of frustration, when faced with the familiar 'Rätselhaftigkeit' of Kafka's texts must be seen as symptomatic for the confrontation with the dialogical text-structure per se. For this dialogicity presupposes an attitude towards semantic acts, which is very different from the position implied by realism, as Lukacs for example, understands it. For through the co-presence of opposing systems, an openness is inscribed into the process of reception which endlessly resists precisely such concepts as "Totalität" or "Zudecken."


For a poetics of representation the consequences of this situation are obviously related. We have seen for example, that it is the function of this interaction between the two systems to question the solidity of the real, by presenting that marginalized realm of the Other which the real would deny. In its central preoccupation with a change of identity and the ensuing problematization of the boundaries of the real, Kafka's text necessarily moves towards an interrogation of our notions of representation per se.

It is significant, for example, that Gregor not only loses his former identity and position but also that his powers of perception and communication suffer: with his "Tierstimme" he loses his ability to speak; furthermore he is gradually becoming blind. In this respect, what is being challenged on a thematic level is the very idea of identity and differentiation itself, and by extension, the ability to isolate and to represent. It is possible for example to claim that the theme of Kafka's text is a meaning which would be excluded by a system of representation such as the one that Lukàcs proposes, and that as a result it would remain 'non-representable' under such a system. For to a degree, Gregor's loss of social identity, his withdrawal from the "symbolic order" and his retreat from self to Other constitute a failure to signify, a retreat into absence.26 This is thematized firstly by the emptying of Gregor's room of all the symbols of 'homeliness' (his furniture and belongings—such as the framed picture on the wall to which he clings as a last reminder of this lost identity).27 Secondly his room is re-categorized as a "Rumpelkammer" and filled with junk and "Unrat," from which Gregor, covered in dust, ultimately becomes indistinguishable or undifferentiated. The story of Gregor's exclusion from the family is described in terms of his treatment as an absence: to a large extent the family tries to go on living as if he did not exist, that is, as if he did not fit into their notion of reality.

Now it is significant that although the realistic attitude of the family and its mechanisms of exclusion are conveyed within the text in terms of realism, no attempt is made to fix precisely or otherwise determine Gregor's ontological status. In as far as his behaviour falls within the scope of a realist discourse, Gregor can be represented. For example his anxieties, his concern to exercise "Rücksicht" as regards his family and so on are all precisely delineated. But the meaning of his transformation remains undetermined precisely because any fixity of outline which would attempt to define the openness of his new 'identity' within the Imaginary realm would necessarily falsify it. Consequently Kafka sketches around this semantic vacuity, describes the parents' and Gregor's own reactions to it but ultimately does no more than offer us a photograph of the Imaginary: an image of an open door and a darkened room.

That which remains hidden from us in our everyday reality or is excluded from our system of meaning and so resists representation may nevertheless become the object of experience via the medium of literary fictionality. And it is an important function of the semantic vacuity within fictionality to facilitate this. For via a dramatization of subjectivity, the 'dialogical' attitude towards representation and interpretation which is subversive of conventional notions of identity similarly takes on the function of 'Erkenntniskritik,' undermining even our most private and concealed notions of selfhood. As a 'core-fantasy,' the narrative structure of Gregor's 'Entgrenzung' encourages the recipient to invest some of his own fantasies and experiences in it, and thereby to experience ironically and from a distance that which may ordinarily remain invisible to him in his everyday life: his own everyday norms, conventions and those 'realistic attitudes' which, as in Gregor Samsa's case, are made to appear capable of precipitating similar existential dilemmas and falsehoods. Through its thematization of the transformed Other, the text puts fictional brackets around subjectivity itself, so that it may be experienced in various forms which would otherwise remain unattainable, such as the figure of the excluded, the hunted etc. Through these fictional brackets the conventional and closed concept of subjectivity can be opened to further reflection. And as semantic vacuity, as a photograph of the Imaginary it then attracts unending semantic determinations and interpretations by the reader.

In conclusion we can see that the arrival at the end of representation (as Lukàcs would understand the term) marks in Kafka's work the beginning of an avantgardistic poetics of realism. For where the limits of realist representation are reached, that semantic vacuum is created which throws the recipient back upon himself and leaves him to his own interpretative devices. Although in Kafka's work realistic details may not add up to form a continuous and overall context or 'world'—the traditional realistic heterocosm—they nevertheless reveal an interconnection and underlying structure analogous to the structure of 'reality' through their relationship to the central semantic vacuum of the text (the "Ungeziefer," "Schloß," "Prozeß" etc.). These vacuums, although by no means allegorical in the sense of relating to a concrete signified nevertheless display an allegorical structure which provokes and encourages semantic closure. This open-ended structure is such however, that it both stimulates semantic acts, but fails to valorize any single interpretation, so that the ensuing experience of hermeneutical helplessness contrasts radically with the demands for absolute meaning by those average human beings in the text whose self-assured stance and realistic attitude is made to appear uncomfortably close to the reader's own realistic norms and expectations.28 And it is precisely this function of bringing these two mutually contradictory attitudes into co-presence which characterizes both Kafka's writing and his reader's self-dramatization through the medium of literary fictionality.

Thus it is through this impossible literary photograph of the Imaginary, as that which resists representation, that a process of performative reception is initiated by which the excluded may be experienced. Rather than photograph a representable object "um sie aus dem Sinn zu verscheuchen," that is, in order to define, fix and close the object to further acts of interpretation, Kafka exercises the anti-mimetic art of "Augenschließen." And it is by this method that the paradoxical is achieved: the projection of the reader into an unknown and imaginary realm, which is his own life.29


1 Gustav Janouch, Gespräche mit Kafka (1951), p. 25.

2 Letter to K. Wolff, 25 October 1915, in Kafka, Briefe 1902-24, ed. Max Brod (1958), p. 138.

3 Georg Lukàcs, "Essays über den Realismus," Werke, vol. IV (1971).

4 Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970). After the page reference to the original edition, in the following notes I will give the German translation and page reference from Einführung in die fantastische Literatur trans. K. Kersten, S. Metz and C. Neubaur (1972).

5 It should also be noted in fairness that in these essays Lukàcs is presenting in extremely condensed and possibly somewhat simplified form a model of realism which was to be developed and refined over the entire course of his work.

6 See "Die Gegenwartsbedeutung des kritischen Realismus" (Section II: "Franz Kafka oder Thomas Mann?"), Werke IV, 500-550, esp. 534-535.

7 Lukàcs, "Es geht um den Realismus," quoted from Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (ed.), Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marxistischen Realismuskonzeption (1973), p. 225 (emphasis by Lukàcs).

8 Lukàcs, "Es geht um den Realismus," Expressionismusdebatte, p. 205.

9 Ernst Bloch "Diskussionen über Expressionismus," Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (ed.), Die Expressionismusdebatte (1973), p. 186.

10 A similar critique can be applied where Lukàcs rejects a mimetic reflection of the mere surface of reality and proposes a reflection of reality on an ideal and hidden level—a level which must first be unearthed and judged "correctly" by the author. If we assume Bloch's position that this version of reality is "gar nicht so objektiv" it nevertheless need not detract from the validity of such a "deforming" version of realism as a useful fiction offering a defamiliarizing and thus enlightening insight into a level of reality which is not immediately accessible.

11 Lukàcs, "Die Gegenwartsbedeutung des kritischen Realismus," p. 529.

12 See Christian Metz, "Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism," Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier (1982).

13 Lukàcs, "Die Gegenwartsbedeutung des kritischen Realismus," p. 534.

14 Lukàcs, "Es geht um den Realismus," Expressionismusdebatte, p. 227.

15 See Todorov's use of this term "Grenzcharakter," p. 27 ("le caractère différentiel du fantastique," p. 31).

16 Freud's essay "Das Unheimliche" was first published in Imago, 5 (1919).

17 Todorov, Introduction, p. 28. "Entweder handelt es sich um eine Sinnestäuschung, ein Produkt der Einbildungskraft, und die Gesetze der Welt bleiben, was sie sind, oder das Ereignis hat wirklich stattgefunden, ist integrierender Bestandteil der Realität. Dann aber wird diese Realität von Gesetzen beherrscht, die uns unbekannt sind. . . .

Das Fantastische liegt im Moment dieser Ungewißheit; sobald man sich für die eine oder andere Antwort entscheidet, verläßt man das Fantastische und tritt in ein benachbartes Genre ein . . ." (p. 26).

18 Todorov, p. 29. "Das Fantastische ist die Unschlüssigkeit, die ein Mensch empfindet, der nur die natürlichen Gesetze kennt und sich einem Ereignis gegenübersieht, das den Anschein des Übernatürlichen hat" (p. 26).

19 Caillois, quoted in Todorov, p. 31. "Das Fantastische ist stets ein Bruch mit der geltenden Ordnung, Einbruch des Unzulässigen in die unveränderliche Gesetzmäßigkeit des Alltäglichen" (p. 27).

20 Georges Jacquemin provides a useful discussion of the dependence of the fantastic upon a realistic mode in "Über das Phantastische in der Literatur," Phaicon, 2: Almanack der phantastischen Literatur (1975), esp. 46-50.

21 Kafka, Die Verwandlung, Gesammelte Werke, ed. M. Brod (1983), p. 66.

22 Rolf Günter Renner offers an interesting commentary on this 'marginal' figure in "Kafka als phantastischer Erzähler," Phaicon, 3: Almanack der phantastischen Literatur (1978), 149.

23 "Che z Kafk a . . . le monde décrit est tout entier bizarre, aussi anormal que l'événement même (la métamorphose, R. M.) à quoi il fait fond." ". . . son monde tout entier obéit à une logique onirique, sinon cauchemardesque, qui n' a plus rien à voir avec le réel" (p. 181 . German translation, p. 154).

24 Quoted in Lukàcs, "Die Gegenwartsbedeutung des kritischen Realismus," p. 535.

25 I employ this term in conscious allusion to the notion of the dialogical developed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. and ed. C. Emerson (1984) and Rabelais and his World, trans. H. Iswolsky (1986).

26 For this perspective on the notion of identity and signification (and also for the formulation "semiotic excess and semantic vacuity" which I have taken out of its original context and employed in a rather different manner in this article) I am indebted to Rosemary Jackson's excellent Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (1981).

27 "Hatte er wirklich Lust, das warme, mit ererbten Möbeln gemütlich ausgestattete Zimmer in eine Höhle verwandeln zu lassen, in der er dann freilich nach allen Richtungen ungestört würde kriechen können, jedoch auch unter gleichzeitigem schnellen, gänzlichen Vergessen seiner menschlichen Vergangenheit?" Die Verwandlung, p. 85.

28 This effect of self-ironization which brings out the reader's own dispositions has been examined in detail by Wolfgang Iser. See especially chapter 6 of Der Akt des Lesens (1976).

29 This article formed the basis for chapter five of my book: Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism and the Problem of Postmodernity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999). My thanks go to Prof. Wolfgang Iser and Prof. Walter H. Sokel who offered invaluable suggestions regarding an earlier draft of the text.

Gavriel Ben-Ephraim (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-level Allegory and The Metamorphosis," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 450-67.

[In the following essay, Ben-Ephraim probes the allegorical meanings of The Metamorphosis while acknowledging that the work "validates contradictory readings that cancel coherent interpretation."]

From Quintilian to Angus Fletcher critics have noted allegory's doubled significance; "twice-told," but many times understood, allegory invariably means more than it says. To supplement meaning, allegory characteristically enfolds abstract significance in narrative images. These suggestions may be provided by presences in the text, verbal signals like the name of the protagonist in Everyman, a nominal allegory which designates significance in its very title, or by absences in the text, covered mysteries like the unknown face in "The Minister's Black Veil," a tale that is itself a mask over figurai meaning. Allegory's polysemous texture is created through addition and subtraction in a doubled allegorical technique.

Writers of allegory often conflate the two methods. Naming a Dragon "Errour," Spenser makes Christian involvement with theological confusion an added element in a knight's encounter with a serpent. He thus points to the danger of hopeless entanglements with ideological opponents, implying that it is better to destroy than engage such enemies. At the same time Spenser's poem contains inexplicable spaces; The Faerie Queene's deep caves and shady forests create an unknown darkness, though Spenser surrounds moral shadows with Christian light to unify a double-vision.

In Franz Kafka's modern allegories meaning is similarly hidden and revealed, but the paradoxes that illuminate Spenser obscure Kafka. Discordant where The Faerie Queene is harmonious, Kafka's Metamorphosis validates contradictory readings that cancel coherent interpretation. Most critics would agree with Stanley Corngold that the story arouses "the commentator's despair," but Kafka's tale can hardly be understood as an affirmation of meaninglessness. Though its complexity anticipates poststructuralist aesthetics, Kafka's fiction resists deconstructive interpretation. His work "is guided," as one critic notes, "by an undeniable metaphysical impulse" (Sandbank, 4). The deconstructive banishing of higher presence fails to clarify the metaphysical irony that can affirm and negate transcendence.

Christine Sizemore brings us closer to Kafka's method when she points out the centrality of "cognitive dissonance," the disturbing co-existence of absolute contraries, to his meaning (382). Demonstrating his ability to combine oppositions without resolving them, Kafka simultaneously builds and dismantles an allegorical ladder ascending the four levels of traditional interpretation. We recall that Medieval commentators like Bede, Aquinas, and Dante divided allegory into the literal (presented), allegorical (hidden), tropological (moral), and anagogical (metaphysical) levels of meaning. These may be reformulated as sign, symbol, significance, and spirit in figurai narrative. The scheme makes the anagogia the very goal of allegory as it identifies figurative meaning with spiritual reality. Kafka's Metamorphosis finds its true context in an equation it threatens to destroy.

The power of The Metamorphosis's introductory image, Gregor Samsa "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" (67), overwhelms the remainder of the story. Critics find the tale's exposition inadequate to its monstrous opening, asserting that their frequent "interruptions" demonstrate "the priority of the beginning in Kafka's works" and Kafka's prose "is in flight from the beginning, it does not strive toward the end" (Corngold, 2). Indeed, Kafka was himself disappointed with a tale whose fitful composition and uneven quality compared unfavorably with "The Judgment," written in a single fluent and inspired night. The strength of The Metamorphosis's opening subordinates the development of its continuing plot to the impact of its initial image; the result is a very specific kind of allegory that we might call an iconic narrative, a story of a symbol.

But this may be more a question of the dominance of the literal than "the priority of the beginning." The letter of The Metamorphosis, our experience of the written text, defeats any interpretive scheme imposed on the text. Demanding yet refusing interpretation, the picture predominates because it cannot be framed, developing an uncanny power as a sign resisting the context that would make it a symbol. By giving us a giant insect that exceeds any metaphorical equation, Kafka shows the monstrous force of a signifier without a clear signified. At the same time, the insect can disappear like the verbal equivalent of an optical illusion; not only does it not resemble any known species, but Kafka prevented his publisher from illustrating the story, decreeing "the insect itself cannot be drawn" (Corngold, 19). The creature Kafka describes is (literally) unimaginable, while the original German description of an ungeheueres Ungeziefer ("a monstrous vermin") presses language toward the utmost disgust.

The giant insect, unacceptable to our sight, is also banished from our vision. Restricted to his quarters throughout his brief lifespan, Gregor's early disappearance and death appear inevitable from the story's beginning. The reader shares the Samsa family's impatience for the insect's removal and its relief when the charwoman disposes of it (or him) like a great piece of trash. Nor can the transformation be rescinded; Gregor cannot be restored to human form after a metamorphosis that is both irreversible and unbearable. Kafka plays ironically on the traditional angel or sun invisible for blinding splendor when Gregor displays the metaphysical ugliness of Frankenstein's monster or the Phantom of the Opera. Hideous but unseen, the unsignifying sign is at once domininant and nonexistent: it is as though, to borrow a term from Derrida, Kafka puts the sign "under erasure" (Grammatologie, xvii).

Judging by Paul De Man's insistence on the independence of fictive language (see his Allegories of Reading), deconstruction would interpret the unreadable image as fiction's alienation from the "real" world, the giant insect indicating that figurai images are monsters in their autotelic separateness from reality. The deconstructive approach would thus stress the autonomy of Kafka's unnatural figure, detaching it from other levels of human experience. Yet the complexity of Kafka's terrible image is found in its being simultaneously in and out of reality. Gregor's anomalous form is inhabited by the same human consciousness that had earlier inhabited a man's body. The reader enters that consciousness in a breakdown of the aesthetic distance that deconstruction finds—and valorizes—in literary texts.

The transformation's psychic immediacy forces us to understand it as a problem of being, not language. The omnipresence of Gregor's (usually banal) consciousness set against an ugly/absent corpus creates a strange disjuncture between mind and body. A transformation that begins in the repetitive rhythms of the mind completes itself in the unwanted proliferations of the body. The mind loses control over the body that represents it to create an unbridgable distance between signified and signifier, a broken metaphor. Gregor's body, his visible aspect, is a dominant yet annihilated sign, both everything and nothing. The description of it as a "huge brown mass on the flowered wallpaper" (106) emphasizes non-formation rather than de-formation to assert the insect's amorphism. After Gregor's death his sister, Grete, observes: "'Just see how thin he was. It's such a long time since he's eaten anything. The food came out again just as it went in.' Indeed, Gregor's body was completely flat and dry" (128-29). After Gregor loses all connection to physical reality, his body has no relation to the world of substance.

Moreover, the text presents a double loss when the annihilation of the signifier is paralleled by the obscuring of the signified. Gregor's former humanity reveals itself as a nostalgic image in the distant past, an unreachable ideal like the framed photograph of Gregor the soldier, "inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing" (82). Thus, if the text's initial image is hideous and ungraspable, its meaning is correspondingly elusive and unreal: an inconceivable present combines with an unapproachable past to create a nightmare in two tenses. The literal also becomes increasingly difficult to locate when the reality behind the image only exists outside the narrated plot (the untransformed Gregor is found in memory, never in action). The literal emerges not as the known or the familiar, but as the letter/al, the presented text which is already a figurative image. We observe that literal has become figurative and figurative literal when Gregor becomes the will-less insect he once resembled and resembles the terrified man he once was. Indeed, literal and figurative become indistinguishable when the figurative devours the literal. Gregor's past human identity is hopelessly lost; the past can be reconstructed but never recaptured for this sometimes-surrealistic narrative takes place within a realistic temporality. Gregor can no more return to a human state than the present can return to the past: the one reality he stays in is time. The insect crosses over to a point where there is no crossing back, moving far from known human forms and falling outside the conceptual structures which make recognition possible.

The allegoria traditionally refers to the historical level of hidden meaning. Often combined with Christological and Typological reading, it reveals the myth in history. Yet a Christian reader like Dante can omit doctrine, interpreting the allegorical significance of a Pagan text as:

a truth hidden under a beautiful fiction. . . . Thus Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made beasts tame, and trees and stones move toward himself; that is to say that the wise man by the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow mild and humble. (MacQueen, 55)

Dante finds in Orpheus' lyre an inner harmony that projects itself outward in unifying art. In this reading of Ovidian metamorphosis, inward peace expresses itself in music, unifying man and nature, and transforming a way of being in the world to a mythic image.

Gregor's disunity with the human world, on the other hand, expresses itself in dissonance. Visual and verbal discord accompany Gregor's appearances throughout, and yet his disunity emerges from a kind of unity as his isolation is born from symbiosis. Gregor's social relationships before his metamorphosis involve others who take precedence over an increasingly unreal self—the priority of the external object leads to a loss of being, a psychic annihilation dramatized and completed in the giant vermin. A specific image gives form to an abstract process in what Stephen Barney calls an allegory of reification. In an ironic Typology, the insect brings to fruition Gregor's earlier roles as intimidated worker, guilty son, and devoted brother. The de-forming (in the double senses of distorting and un-forming) powers of devotion disfigure Gregor into an image for non-being, constructing a symbol for the absence of a man once called Gregor Samsa.

The Metamorphosis begins with the psychic deformities demanded by the workplace, presenting Gregor as a victim of duty in a commercial world. After his transformation, Gregor reacts mildly to his horrifying change but displays terror before the harsh disapproval of authority. Indifference to physical deformation shows psychic deformation, but Gregor has internalized his abusive superiors. Thus, if "he wasted only an hour or so of the firm's time in a morning, he was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed" (74). Commercial authority arouses a sense of idle uselessness, indeed of fundamental worthlessness, that turns cripplingly self-critical. The appearance of the suspicious Chief Clerk at the Samsa home, because of one lateness after years of perfect service, justifies Gregor's "torment." Treated with solicitude by Gregor's obsequious parents, the Chief Clerk charges Gregor with "neglecting [his] business duties in an incredible fashion" (77). The voice of the workplace speaks in the tones of accusation.

A commercial traveler in a hierarchical firm, Gregor's insecure relationships and compulsive schedule create an insectan life. Producing nothing, entirely dependent on the good-will of exploitive employers and uninterested customers, Gregor, the anxious salesman, has discarded entirely his amour-propre. Marginalized by a powerful economic structure, he becomes a mechanical creature operating at the dictate of outside forces. More damaging than Gregor's oppression by the company is his identification with the company, his acceptance of its equation between being and function. Strenuously assuring the astounded Chief Clerk that his minor indisposition will hardly interfere with his duties, Gregor never considers that his boss would be too appalled by his appearance to be impressed by his dedication: "One can be temporarily incapacitated," Gregor explains earnestly to his rapidly retreating superior, "but that's just the moment for remembering former services . . . when the incapacity has been got over, one will certainly work with all the more industry and concentration" (82). The absurdist humor reveals Gregor's psychic deformation professionnel, his self-indifference and terror of authority making him less than human. More worried about the loss of his job than the loss of his body, Gregor's self-destructive devotion to work makes him unfit for work.

But the enormous vermin emerging from Gregor's room both is and is not the former nervous salesman. Re-creating earlier pleadings and self-humblings before authority, the horrific enormity of the insect nevertheless demonstrates an irretrievable figurative transfer, a breakdown rather than an instance of metaphor. We cannot fully interpret the story's events by their prefiguring context, but neither can we ignore the commercial setting of the change, finding in The Metamorphosis, say, an allegory of the unalterable isolation of the writer in his writer's-being, what Stanley Corngold calls Schriftstellers ein (Necessity of Form, 295). While such a reading has much to recommend it in the context of the larger ouevre that includes Kafka's letters and journals, it is hardly textually justified by The Metamorphosis. Rather, we need to find metaphorical breakdown in a metaphorical context.

Metamorphosis—and not only Gregor's change but "metamorphosis" as a figure or trope in itself—emerges beyond metaphor. In Kafka's handling of transformation it is striking that allegory begins precisely where metaphor ends, the obliteration of Gregor's humanity also obliterating the ground for a figurative equation between a man and a bug. The erasure of the human, occuring in Kafka's symbolism as well as in Gregor's experience, allows the presentation of non-images or anti-images, metaphor in the process of negating itself. Kafka can thus capture the uncapturable in effaced forms and stilled voices, examples of the collapse of being. In one of the most difficult of the story's cognitive dissonances, the insect always is and is/not Gregor.

Like Ovid, Kafka works through auditory imagery, sound as the expression of a spiritual state. Gregor's inability to communicate expresses itself in a voice as deformed as his body. Emerging from his room, desperate to explain himself before the others, Gregor's frantic expostulations emerge in a "persistent horrible twittering squeak" (70). Motivated by the need for self-justification, he begs for mercy and bows before power ("Oh sir, do spare my parents! . . . I'll be attending to business very soon"), but such pleading comes out in "no human voice" (78-79).

The Chief Clerk undergoes a corresponding deformation in response to Gregor. The first to actually see the enormous cockroach, the clerk's voice dematerializes as he utters "a loud Oh!'" that "sound[ed] like a gust of wind" (81). Here, the clerk momentarily shares Gregor's unreality, the superior mirroring the inferior in a dehumanizing relationship. But his undignified escape is most significant for allowing his replacement by Mr. Samsa. In a cinematic fading-out and fading-in, horrid and comic, the narrative exposes the interchangability of father and employer. The actual father takes center stage after the retreat of the commercial patriarch; appropriating the clerk's abandoned walking-stick, Mr. Samsa changes from a dependent to a commanding figure in the story's dual metamorphosis.

The father now isolates Gregor, punishing the assertion of will and prohibiting the expression of desire. The violent denial of freedom again dramatizes the relationships that had existed before the metamorphosis. Previously, however, Gregor had been limited not by the father's physical aggression, but by the family's economic need. Now forcibly restricted to his room, he had earlier enclosed himself out of voluntary devotion, the demands of living for others isolating him from others. His life, as Bluma Goldstein notes, had long consisted of "obligations and responsibilities" that "demanded almost total sacrifice," and resulted in a parasitic economic structure ("Bachelors and Work," 155). Sacrificing himself to a familial symbiosis, Gregor submits to a parasitism that drains him of his manhood. Indeed the metamorphosis represents a final symbiosis; Gregor reverses the roles of parasite and host to take on the non-identity of a giant insect and assume the shape that sucks away life.

The significance of Gregor's earlier relationships reveals itself in his later actions. Gregor had become a commercial traveler after the failure of his father's business, indenturing himself to the family to compensate for its losses. But after the metamorphosis he learns that the father's financial collapse had not been total, that "a certain amount of investments . . . had survived the wreck of their fortunes." Gregor had been needlessly enslaved to an oppressive existence, yet he responds with joy to the knowledge of betrayal: "Behind the door Gregor nodded his head eagerly, rejoiced at this evidence of unexpected thrift and foresight" (96). Contrastingly, he feels despair when the metamorphosis forces his "sluggish" father, hypochondriacal mother, and childish sister toward financial independence: "whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor . . . threw himself down . . . hot with shame and grief (97). As his emotions about his family's fortunes exceed his feelings about his own fate, devotion to others results in uncanny self-indifference, the habit of sacrifice undermining the self-perpetuating function of the ego. Gregor's detachment from his own survival indicates a dissipation of the will-to-live and an effacement of the self. Devotion becomes the cause of deformation and eventual destruction in a story that dramatizes moral irony in scenes of physical injury.

Thus Gregor's self-disregard expresses itself in acts of self-mutilation. In his initial attempt to reach the others, Gregor turns his key in toothless jaws, until "a brown fluid issued from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped on the floor" (80). The "brown fluid" recalls dissolution itself, a process associated with the self-damaging and desperate need for his family. Yet his relationship to the others seems reversed when he is transformed from a supportive to a disruptive figure. Entering the salon he spreads confusion as his mother screams and dramatizes her loss of control by spilling a great pot of coffee. The mother's terror is as blind as the fury it arouses in the father, their frenzied responses indicating that Gregor symbolizes something within them (the charwoman's derision eliminates horror as an inevitable response to him). The chaos surrounding his entrances places Gregor in the context of a general emotional formlessness; his body is the paradoxical representation of amorphous form, a concretization of the dependent relations that cause the deterioration of being.

Thus the father mercilessly assaults the symbol for a familial malaise. Like the Chief Clerk, Mr. Samsa mirrors Gregor to reveal his profound connection to a detested object. During the first of his attacks, "hissing and crying 'Shoo!' like a savage" until "the noise . . . sounded no longer like the voice of a single father" (86-87), Mr. Samsa reflects the insect's deformed body in his own cacophonous speech. When the sibilant hissing turns to a chorus of hostility it subsumes Gregor's relationships with all the Samsas. But the aggression comes to a climax when Gregor, pressed in front his half-open doorway, thrusts himself into the too-narrow opening "come what might":

One side of his body rose up, he was tilted at an angle in the doorway, his flank was quite bruised, horrid blotches stained the white door . . . he was stuck fast . . . from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely. (87)

Self-injury and injury combine in a scene acknowledging isolation and destruction as "deliverance." In the remainder of the story repeated injuries cause limitless deterioration; the insect's body is excessively and needlessly brutalized in a physical parallel to a social and psychic process.

Mr. Samsa's second attack injures more than Gregor's body when he undermines exegetical tradition, wounding the scriptural authority of God the Father. When Mrs. Samsa and Grete clear Gregor's room of all its paraphernalia, the insect defends—uncharacteristically—his writingdesk and framed picture of a woman in fur. He clings to signs of a creative past that provide hints of a forgotten humanity. Yet the father punishes self-affirmation with an unexpected if emblematic weapon:

An apple thrown without much force grazed Gregor's back and glanced off harmlessly. But another following immediately landed right on his back and sank in; Gregor wanted to drag himself forward, as if this startling, incredible pain could be left behind him; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and flattened himself out in a complete derangement of all his senses. (109-10)

In a parody of Genesis, the throwing of "apple after apple" negates the traditional meanings of Original Sin: Gregor is punished for existence itself, for the trace of desire in a last remnant of the will-to-live, while God incarnates a principle of murderous repression (Wright, 162-71). The arbitrary and brutal Father invalidates the moral significance of his actions, bringing not only allegorical convention but religious history under the shadow of meaninglessness.

Yet if the scene is an ironic play on the Edenic story, suggesting that Adam suffers far more than he sins, the tortured insect also invokes another child of the Father—Christ the Son. The Gregor who is "nailed to the spot" by an apple in a union of two Christian symbols also mentions Christmas at the moments of his most poignant generosity. His "secret plan" is to offer Grete, "with due solemnity on Christmas Day" (95), violin lessons at the Conservatorium. Repeated invocations of Christmas not only parallel Gregor's sufferings with Christ's slow dying, but associate his gift-giving with Christian bestowal and the hope of salvation.

At the end of the story's second section The Metamorphosis moves in opposed directions. The dominant image of the Father's prolonged destruction of the Son presents a vision of a corps morcelé or "body in bits and pieces" (Lacan-Wilden, 174). The savaging of the story's central symbol is also a savaging of the body of allegory and the corpus of traditional meaning. Yet if the narrative annihilates Derrida's "transcendental signified," subjecting God the Father to semiotic erasure, it stops short of dispelling the role of Christ the Son—the traditional focus of the allegoria. Parodying Gregor's love without negating it, The Metamorphosis both mocks and resurrects Christ.

The incongruent but linked motifs of music and the wound lead toward the story's moral complexities; above all, the rhapsodic agony in Gregor's relationship to Grete both reveals and conceals the allegory's baffling tropologia.

Gregor's wounds have been sensitively described as paths to the moral dimension of experience, openings to "the internal world [of] private consciousness" (Goldstein, "Wound in Kafka," 212). Indeed his crippling injuries intensify awareness of the self and its surroundings. Where, earlier, outbursts of frenetic guilt and sudden assertion had obscured Gregor's inner being, his later interior monologues show quietness and self-possession. Thus memories of "sweet and fleeting" moments reveal an unknown capacity for pleasure, while rages at his family's neglect establish a sense of self through anger (114). At the same time, narrator and protagonist—interdependent and interdetermining presences in Kafka's fiction—perceive the Samsas sympathetically as strained and overworked figures, "very silent" in their catastrophe. By this "lamp-lit" vision (111), the Samsas are no longer grotesques, partial and stark images from Gregor's psychic world, but characters with their own gray reality. Such glimmerings of insight underlie Gregor's passionate response to Grete's violin-playing.

The performance is undertaken at the request of the Samsas' boarders, three bearded men of aggressive appetites and arrogant virility; the boarders' crude energy, manifested in the vigorous consumption of their landlords' overgenerous dinners, contrasts with Gregor's starved alienation from food. (The emaciated Kafka, describing himself as "the thinnest person I know," shared his protagonist's sitiophobia: Letters to Felice, 21.) Gregor's overly deferential family neglects him for these coarse lodgers, insensitive men who soon tire of Grete's playing as they show comic-grotesque displeasure, "blowing the smoke of their cigars high in the air through nose and mouth." Now Gregor emerges from his room in a state of divine inspiration—"[W]as he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" (121). Superior to the boarders' coarse physicality, his wasted body craves only aesthetic "nourishment." Appearing as the image of innocent pathos, Gregor is motivated by love and sensible to beauty, his spirit transfigured—in an echo of Ovidian myth—by music.

Yet this auditory illusion is soon shattered; at Gregor's appearance the boarders are outraged (though amused), and the irrelevant violin falls with a "resonant note." Similarly, the reader becomes aware of the bathos and absurdity of Gregor's presence. Delineated by neglect, his body finally acquires substance and form: "he . . . was covered with dust; fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides" (120). But where he had once been unbearable, he is now merely contemptible; the substance he takes on is that of dirt and refuse. Whatever the significance of his inner change, outwardly he changes, insignificantly, from a figure of horror to a figure of mockery, becoming a creature, in Mary Shelley's phrase, of "filthy creation." The contrast between the way he looks and the way he feels suggests narrative scorn for his sacrificial degradation, his pathetic appearance ridiculing his self-destruction for beloved objects who despise him. In a cruel irony, it is the adored Grete who decides, after Gregor's intervention, that "[he] must go . . . that's the only solution" (125).

Beyond the ingratitude of its receiver, there is further irony in the quality of Gregor's gift. Transported by her playing, Gregor's approach to his sister is also marked by violent possessiveness:

she was to come into his room . . . for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out. . . . He would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders. . . . His sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar. (121)

Gregor's music appreciation pales before this tyrannical and incestuous fantasy, for he threatens to replace, in his own crawling fashion, the "collar" Grete's new independence had removed. The frightful intimacy he desires reminds us that the boarders are strongly male, their penetrating teeth and knives stressing a power unavailable to the toothless, disabled Gregor. The boarders are marriage-prospects for Grete that her brother succeeds in driving away: his impassioned rescue hides his desire to return the beloved sister to a suffocating symbiosis. He deludes himself, clearly, when he insists "she should stay with him out of her own free will," and yet in this longing for mutuality there reverberates his dearest wish.

The violin scene, probably the strongest sequence in the story's comparatively dull last section, strikes dissonances. On the one hand Grete's violin-playing echoes Orpheus' harp, taming a lowly beast to bring out his moral and aesthetic powers. And yet, as we can interpret the violin as a modern version of Orpheus' lyre, we can, just as easily, take it as a modernistic play on Orpheus' liar (the striking pun is irresistible), hearing in the music another discord, the final wound to Gregor's illusions. In Kafka's art there is an irresolvable tension between the lyre and the liar in the vexed copresence of the writer's lyric and ironic voices.

The Metamorphosis's enclosed interiors symbolize suffocating relationships, presenting familial solipsism in spatial terms. Yet its characters open windows—literal and figurative—in the narrative's closed borders. Within a story where realism degenerates to a distorting expressionism, the windows open toward anagogical possibility and a potential space for being.

Initially, Gregor turns to the window to find the landscape reflecting his depressed inner life: a "morning fog" muffles amorphous outer scenes where "gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other" (97). Lack of distinction characterizes Gregor's relationships to landscapes as well as other people, the empty vision paralleling Gregor's emptied being, the private self annihilated by a "bourgeois" family's communal demands—indeed one critic finds all the Samsas looking to the window for an escape from their "withdrawn dependence" (Grandin, 219-20). We may take this a step further to see the window as the way to a reality beyond claustrophobic involvement. Thus Gregor constantly gazes out the casements Grete leaves open, and to which she rushes "even in the bitterest cold" (98), even as the mother, in an arresting fenestral snapshot, "t[ears] open a window . . . leaning far out of it with her face in her hands" (86). (Caught between denial and prayer, she seems to hide her face from Gregor while hopelessly turning elsewhere.)

Yet this seeking outward remains ironic: the characters find nothing in the outer world but amorphous coldness or, at most, vague malevolence: "A strong draught set in from the street to the staircase, the window curtains blew in, the newspapers on the table fluttered, stray pages whisked over the floor" (86). Here the wind, with a play on its Romantic connotations, scatters printed records of human affairs in an atmosphere of futility. The Samsas' appeals to the window succeed in canceling outside powers, establishing the terrible autonomy of the symbiotic order, a network of petty yet total relationships that dispel other realities. Indeed, the Samsas remain unable to find their places in the outside world so long as Gregor lives among them in the representation/non-representation of symbiosis. (Saying "[Y]ou must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor," Grete expresses a central paradox, though she fails to recognize that being Gregor removes Gregor from being [125].)

The text only achieves a major shift of tone and atmosphere, a freedom from the deathly overinvolvement of its characters, when its protagonist culminates a lifetime's self-denial in a sacrificial dying. Gregor yields the last shreds of his will-to-live after Grete's final and cruel rejection; utterly disabled, he drags himself into the abolute darkness of his room while his sister jubilantly "turn[s] the key in the lock" (127). He dies gladly, fulfilling his fate, but before his death he experiences a moment of illumination:

The rotting apple in his back and the inflamed area around it . . . hardly troubled him. He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister. . . . In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath. (83)

His "tenderness and love" encounter a corresponding brightness as the evocative phrase "[T]he first broadening of light in the world" (still stronger in the original German allgemeinen Hellerwerdens or "universal coming of light") suggests both inner and outer illumination, the window now opening to a responsive higher power.

At the same time, the brightness clarifies a doubled irony when it remains ambivalent whether light sanctifies Gregor's death or Gregor's death subverts light. The surrounding of a pointless self-destruction with luminosity allows us to dismiss a traditional representation of the sacred. And yet light's sacral implications can still apply when a death provides supreme benefits to others. Closing out Gregor's dry corpse, the impervious charwoman "open[s] the window wide. . . . A certain softness was perceptible in the fresh air" (129). The welcome entrance of nature, unprecedented in a grim urban tale, looks ahead to the sense of release, at the story's end, where the family takes a holiday from tedious jobs to go out "into the open country" (132); here the elder Samsas discover their daughter as a separate and sexual being: "Mr. and Mrs. Samsa . . . became aware of their daughter's vivacity . . . she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. . . . And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body" (132). The encounter with the natural world is also an exulting in the liberation from a symbol of symbiosis. (The two words, based on the same Greek root, each refer to "likeness," to interconnection and interchangability: symbolism itself is part of the story's horror.)

Only now may the Samsas participate in life fully: the end, the point of narrative closure, is the only point in the story where we feel no thematic closure. This release remains paradoxical when the mediocre Samsas hardly deserve to be saved and self-annihilation for uncomprehending and selfish others makes a mockery of sacrifice. And yet this difficult ending can succeed in interrogating "self as an ultimate value, and allow Kafka, the ultimate hunger artist, to make something out of nothing.

Works Cited


Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Barney, Stephen A. Allegories of History, Allegories of Love. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1979.

Corngold, Stanley. The Commentator's Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1973.

——. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form. Ithaca: Cornell, 1988.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorti. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976.

Fletcher, Angus Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca: Cornell, 1964.

Goldstein, Bluma. "Bachelors and Work: Social and Economic Conditions in 'The Judgment,' 'The Metamorphosis,' and The Trial." In The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time. Ed. Angel Flores. New York: Gordian, 1977. 147-77.

——. "A Study of the Wound in Stories by Kafka." Germanic Review, 51:3 (May 1966), 202-17.

Grandin, John M. "Defenestrations." In Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time. New York: Gordian, 1977. 216-22.

Holland, Norman N. "Realism and Unrealism: Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'." Modern Fiction Studies 4:2 (Summer 1958), 143-50.

Kafka, Franz. Letters to Felice. Eds. Erich Heller and Jurge Born. New York: Schocken, 1973.

——. The Metamorphosis. In The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1948.

Lacan, Jacques. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. with notes and commentary Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1968.

MacQueen, John. Allegory. London: Methuen, 1970.

Sandbank, Shimon. After Kafka: The Influence of Kafka's Fiction. Athens: Georgia, 1989.

Sizemore, Christine W. "Anxiety in Kafka: A Function of Cognitive Dissonance." JML 6:3 (September 1977), 380-88.

Tzvetan, Todorov. Symbolism and Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell, 1978.

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytical Criticism: Theory and Practice. London: Methuen, 1984.

Further Reading

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Corngold, Stanley. The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis.' Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973, 267 p.

Critical bibliography of The Metamorphosis preceded by a structural and symbolic analysis of the work. Corngold surveys and summarizes various interpretations of Kafka's novella.



Angus, Douglas. "Kafka's Metamorphosis and 'The Beauty and the Beast' Tale." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology LIII, No. 1 (January 1954): 69-71.

Approaches The Metamorphosis as an inversion of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale.

Bruce, Iris. "Kafka's Metamorphosis: Folklore, Hasidism, and the Jewish Tradition." Journal of the Kafka Society of America 11, Nos. 1-2 (June-December 1987): 9-27.

Studies The Metamorphosis within the contexts of Jewish mysticism and folklore.

Eggenschwiler, David. "Die Verwandlung, Freud, and the Chains of Odysseus." Modern Language Quarterly 39, No. 4 (December 1978): 363-85.

Asserts that The Metamorphosis demands a combined psychoanalytic and formalist/aesthetic interpretation.

Friedman, Norman. "Kafka's Metamorphosis: A Literal Reading." Approach, No. 49 (Fall 1963): 26-34.

Finds that Gregor's transformation is the only means whereby his family can be freed from their parasitic dependence on him.

Gilman, Sander L. "A View of Kafka's Treatment of Actuality in Die Verwandlung." Germanic Notes 2, No. 4 (1971): 26-30.

Concentrates on Gregor's gradual alienation from temporal and spatial reality.

Goldstein, Bluma. "Bachelors and Work: Social and Economic Conditions in 'The Judgment', The Metamorphosis and The Trial." In The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time, edited by Angel Flores, pp. 147-75. New York: Gordian Press, 1977.

Considers Gregor Samsa's estrangement from his work, his family, and himself within a larger discussion of "the interrelationship of economic factors and social behavior" in Kafka's works.

Jofen, Jean. "Metamorphosis." The American Imago 35, No. 4 (Winter 1978): 347-56.

Psychoanalytic study in which all father or authority figures in Kafka's fiction are equated with Kafka's own father.

Luke, F. D. "Kafka's Die Verwandlung." Modern Language Review XLVI, No. 2 (April 1951): 232-45.

Interprets the tragicomic dimension of The Metamorphosis, seeing the work as a "parable of human irrationality."

McGlathery, James M. "Desire's Persecutions in Kafka's 'Judgment,' Metamorphosis, and 'A Country Doctor'." Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 7 (1981): 54-63.

Focuses on the ironic motif of a bachelor's guilt or panic over marrying in three Kafka stories.

Moss, Leonard. "A Key to the Door Image in The Metamorphosis" Modern Fiction Studies XVII, No. 1 (Spring 1971): 37-42.

Probes the theme of confinement as it is symbolized by closed doors in The Metamorphosis.

Munk, Linda. "What Does Hegel Make of the Jews?: A Scatological Reading of Kafka's Die Verwandlung" History of European Ideas 18, No. 6 (November 1994): 913-25.

Examines the metaphor of excrement in The Metamorphosis.

Sokel, Walter H. "Kafka's Metamorphosis: Rebellion and Punishment." Monatshefte XLVIII, No. 4 (April-May 1956): 203-14.

Investigates the function of Gregor's metamorphosis in relation to his feelings about his employers and family. Sokel concludes that the metamorphosis both frees Gregor from a hated responsibility and punishes him for this release.

——. "From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function of Self-Alienation in Kafka's Metamorphosis" The Literary Review 26, No. 4 (Summer 1983): 485-95.

Explains that Gregor Samsa's death can be seen to support Marxist theory even as it demonstrates the mythic pattern of the scapegoat who dies assuming the collective guilt of the community.

Sparks, Kimberly. "Kafka's Metamorphosis: On Banishing the Lodgers." Journal of European Studies 3 (1973): 230-40.

Notes that the three banished lodgers in The Metamorphosis are "puppet doubles" of Gregor Samsa.

Spilka, Mark. "Kafka's Sources for The Metamorphosis." Comparative Literature XI, No. 4 (Fall 1959): 289-307.

Regards the works of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol as some significant influences upon Kafka's writing of The Metamorphosis.

Taylor, Alexander. "The Waking: The Theme of Kafka's Metamorphosis" Studies in Short Fiction II, No. 4 (Summer 1965): 337-42.

Reads Gregor's transformation as an expression of his disenchantment with society.

Walker, Joyce S. "Armor or Fetish?: Corporeal and Sartorial Armoring in Franz Kafka's Die Verwandlung" Journal of the Kafka Society of America 18, No. 1 (July 1994): 48-57.

Explores The Metamorphosis as a postmodern text that "portrays the dilemma of the collapse of human order and reason." Walker analyzes imagery of armoring and sexual displacement (or fetishism) in the work.

Winkelman, John. "The Liberation of Gregor Samsa." Crisis and Commitment: Studies in German and Russian Literature in Honour of J. W. Dyck, edited by John Whiton and Harry Loewen, pp. 237-46. Waterloo, Ont.: University of Waterloo Press, 1983.

Maintains that Hartmann von Aue's medieval epic Gregorius is an important source for The Metamorphosis.

Wolkenfeld, Suzanne. "Christian Symbolism in Kafka's The Metamorphosis." Studies in Short Fiction X, No. 2 (Spring 1973): 205-07.

Cites parallels between Gregor and Christ in The Metamorphosis.

Additional coverage of Kafka's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 105, 126; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 81; Discovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian', Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Short Story Criticism,Vols. 5, 29; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 6, 13, 29, 47, 53; and World Literature Criticism.

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The Metamorphosis