Kafka today is a household word around the world, one of the few writers to have an adjective named after him (‘‘Kafkaesque’’), describing the dream-like yet oppressive atmosphere characteristic of his works. When his writings first appeared, however, some reviewers found them baffling, tedious, or exasperating; and the two extreme ideological movements of the twentieth century both found his message unacceptable. The Nazis banned him, and Communist critics denounced him as decadent and despairing.
But fairly quickly Kafka began to be praised by a host of influential writers and intellectuals. The English poet W. H. Auden compared him to Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. The German writer Thomas Mann, quoted by Ronald Gray in his book Franz Kafka, said that Kafka's works are "among the worthiest things to be read in German literature." And the philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing during World War II, said (also as quoted by Gray) that "Kafka's nightmare of a world ... has actually come to pass.’’
Kafka's friend Max Brod, one of the earliest commentators on Kafka, saw his works as essentially religious and Jewish, but later commentators have situated Kafka more in the existential, modernist tradition of the first half of the twentieth century, associating him with writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose works suggest the absurdity and futility of existence.
Among Kafka's works, The Metamorphosis is generally considered one of his most representative and also one of his best, along with the novels The Trial and The Castle. Kafka himself was not always happy with his work, however. In his diary (as quoted in Nahum Glatzer's edition of his stories), he wrote on one occasion that he had ‘‘great antipathy’’ to The Metamorphosis, calling its ending unreadable. However, The Metamorphosis was one of the few works that Kafka made a concerted effort to get published, so he could not have been entirely dissatisfied with it.
In any case, commentators since Kafka have been drawn to the story. By 1973, Stanley Corngold was able to publish a book of summaries of essays on The Metamorphosis containing accounts of well over a hundred articles, beginning as early as 1916, when one Robert Müller described the story as ingenious but implausible. In subsequent years, commentators have generally taken for granted the quality and importance of the story, and have focused on trying to interpret it.
There have been many different and contradictory interpretations. Freudian critics have seen in it a working out of the Oedipal struggle between a father and a son who are rivals for Gregor' s mother. Marxist critics, those not simply denouncing Kafka as reactionary, have seen the story as depicting the exploitation of the proletariat. Gregor Samsa has also been seen as a Christ figure who dies so that his family can live.
Critics interested in language and form have seen the story as the working out of a metaphor, an elaboration on the common comparison of a man to an insect. Some critics have emphasized the autobiographical elements in the story, pointing out the similarities between the Samsa household and the Kafkas, while also noting the similarity of the names "Samsa" and "Kafka," a similarity that Kafka himself was aware of, though he said—in a conversation cited in Nahum Glatzer' s edition of his stories—that Samsa was not merely Kafka and nothing else.
Other critics have traced the story's sources back to Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, the Jewish plays that Kafka saw in Prague, and Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's novel about sadomasochism, Venus in Furs. Some have become caught up in taking sides for or against Gregor Samsa. And some have argued that the story is impossible to interpret, which is perhaps why Corngold called his book on the story The Commentators' Despair.
But however it is interpreted, the fact that the story has drawn so much attention indicates that it is, as Corngold puts it, ‘‘the most haunting and universal of all his stories.’’