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, his mother learns to operate the house without the help of a maid, even adding the burden of taking in boarders, and his sister assumes the responsibilities of adulthood. Where once he was the center of their lives, he now becomes an unnecessary burden and an embarrassment.
The horror of a tale about a man who transforms into an insect is heightened by Kafka’s literary style: a matter-of-fact tone laced with mordant humor. The fact that Gregor initially greets his metamorphosis with a chilling calm suggests that he previously saw himself as verminlike, as somebody who was already less than human. This internal lack of self-esteem and the insecurities it produces are heightened by the change in his body. One of the major problems to reading The Metamorphosis is accepting Gregor’s transformation as literal and not merely symbolic; he has really turned into an insect. The strangeness of this fact, along with his and his family’s reactions to it, is what makes the narrative so fascinating and rich in interpretative possibilities.
The power of Kafka’s fiction relies primarily on the uncanny ways he captures the alienation of twentieth century life. Denied the saving grace of religious belief, skeptical of the achievements of modern science, and leery of the significance of art, Kafka’s characters are left adrift in a world of their own making over which they seem to have little control. The Metamorphosis captures all of the fear and doubt with which human beings face their future.