The Metamorphosis Essays and Criticism
by Franz Kafka

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The Meaning and Significance of The Metamorphosis

(Short Stories for Students)

Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, he discusses the significance of the insect symbol in The Metamorphosis.

Probably the two most memorable images in The Metamorphosis occur in its first section: first the picture of Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect, lying on his back in bed and unable to get up, with all his little legs fluttering helplessly in the air; and second the picture of Gregor the giant insect stuck on his side in his bedroom doorway, injured and bleeding and again helplessly unable to move until his father shoves him into the bedroom.

If this were all there were to the story, it would be easy to conclude, as some have done, that The Metamorphosis is a depiction of the helplessness and disgusting nature of the human race; here is what people really are, these two images seem to say: revolting pieces of vermin unable to do anything. But there are two problems with this interpretation: first, not everyone in the story becomes apiece of revolting vermin, only Gregor Samsa does; and second, there is more to Gregor Samsa's life as a bug than being disgusting and helpless. That may be the dominant impression left by Part I of the story, when Gregor is first transformed, but in Part II the situation is different.

In fact, even near the end of Part I, when Gregor begins to adjust to life as a multi-legged insect, he has a sudden ‘‘sense of physical comfort’’; once he is right side up, his legs become "completely obedient,’’ as he noted with joy:

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.

In Part II, there is more of this sense of joy and escape from suffering. For ‘‘mere recreation,’’ Gregor begins crawling across the walls and ceiling, as only an insect could. Moreover:

He especially enjoyed hanging suspended from the ceiling; it was much better than lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; one's body swung and rocked lightly; and in the almost blissful absorption induced by this suspension it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and fell plump on the floor. Yet he now had his body much better under control than formerly, and even such a big fall did him no harm.

Gregor the insect is having fun. Is it good after all to be a bug?

Certainly, Gregor's life as a bug seems in some ways better than his life as a human being. As a human being, he is stuck in a job he immensely dislikes and has the burden of supporting a family to whom he does not even feel close. He has no friends or lovers or social life; in the evenings he stays home, and during the day he is off to his alienating job.

As an insect, Gregor is free of his job and his family responsibilities. Instead of rushing off to work, he can stay home and play. Instead of taking care of his family, they take care of him. In some ways, his life as a bug is the life of the carefree child. He even heals faster than he used to, as a child would.

Still, there is something repulsive about being a bug. Even Gregor realizes this, and tries to hide his repulsiveness from his mother and his sister when they enter his room. He spends hours arranging a sheet to cover himself so they will not have to see him. And Gregor also realizes at one point, even after he has discovered the joys of climbing the walls, that he does not want to stay a bug forever. When his mother and sister start removing his furniture, his mother's second thoughts provoke him to resist: he does not want to give up his human past and the possibility of returning to it.

Now, perhaps Gregor is simply mistaken to fight for his human past; perhaps Kafka means for the reader to see his life as a bug as something so superior to his human past that he should want to stay a bug forever. But if Kafka were creating an ideal escape from adult responsibilities, surely he would have...

(The entire section is 6,961 words.)