The Metamorphosis 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.
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.
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.