The Metamorphosis Critical Evaluation
by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis book cover
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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Franz Kafka began writing in his early twenties while studying law at the University of Prague from 1901 to 1906. In 1908, he began publishing extracts from his novel, Amerika (1927; America, 1938; better known as Amerika, 1946), and The Metamorphosis was written in late 1912, appearing in print in 1915. His working career spans only sixteen years, and, when he died in 1924 at the age of forty-one, many of his major novels had not been published; his work was little known beyond avant-garde German literary circles.

Kafka is now regarded as a central figure in twentieth century literature. The commentary on his writings and his life is extremely large, including scores of books and hundreds of articles. Of all his publications, The Metamorphosis is undoubtedly his most famous. The novella has been widely anthologized and is available in several single-volume editions; in addition, the number of articles and portions of books about the story make it the most heavily analyzed of all Kafka’s works.

Because the work has been so frequently discussed from so many different perspectives—psychological, sociological, political, philosophical, linguistic, and religious—it is difficult to summarize the responses to The Metamorphosis. Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists, feminists, Zionists, structuralists, and poststructuralists have all interpreted the story in different ways. However, there is some general agreement that such overall themes as guilt, judgment, retribution, alienation, and the place of the artist in society are contained in the core of the narrative.

Kafka’s writings largely originated from the conflicted relationship he experienced with his family, especially his father. This biographical connection has been much discussed, and it is easily perceived in Gregor Samsa’s reaction to his family. Although constrained by his obligations to support his father, mother, and sister, Gregor nevertheless seeks throughout the tale to be reintegrated into the family circle. Made aware of his alienation from them by his transformation, he vainly attempts to ignore the change at first and to maintain a semblance of normality, until he is finally abandoned by his sister, with whom he had had a close relationship. It is her firm rejection of him as a person that ultimately causes him to surrender his own sense of self, precipitating his death.

The Metamorphosis is constructed in three acts, each involving an escape by Gregor from his room and a return to it. With each retreat, Gregor becomes noticeably less human and more accepting of his transformative state. With each act, Gregor also becomes physically weaker. As his family abandons its denial of his insectlike appearance and their hope for his full recovery to a normal human condition, they gradually become indifferent to his fate and recognize their need to pursue their lives without him. His father returns to work,...

(The entire section is 703 words.)