The Metamorphosis Analysis

  • Gregor's metamorphosis happens in his sleep, during “uneasy dreams.” His transformation has been interpreted as the result of a subconscious desire to escape the pressure of being the breadwinner in his family. 
  • The framed photograph of the woman with the feather boa may symbolize Gregor’s repressed desires. Prior to his transformation, his obligations to his family prevented him from pursuing romantic relationships.
  • Gregor becomes a Christlike figure when he decides to sacrifice himself so that his family can have a better life. The Metamorphosis could be read as a religious allegory that likens Gregor’s death to the death of Jesus Christ.

Literary Style

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Point of View

The story is told in the third person but is for the most part limited to Gregor's point of view. Only his thoughts and feelings are presented, and most of the events are seen through his eyes. The point seems to be to present a picture of...

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Point of View

The story is told in the third person but is for the most part limited to Gregor's point of view. Only his thoughts and feelings are presented, and most of the events are seen through his eyes. The point seems to be to present a picture of Gregor and the world as he understands it, both before and after his metamorphosis. This does not necessarily mean that all of Gregor’s judgments are to be accepted; on the contrary, Kafka uses irony and black comedy to indicate that Gregor is at times misled, for instance in thinking he can still go to the office even after becoming an insect and, more sadly, in thinking his family is putting his interests first.

Of course, after Gregor’s death, the point of view has to shift; it becomes simply impersonal third-person narration, remaining on the outside of the surviving characters, not revealing their thoughts and feelings the way Gregor’s were revealed earlier. Interestingly, Gregor’s parents are now referred to impersonally as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa; earlier, when the story was being told from Gregor’s point of view, they were invariably referred to as Gregor’s father and Gregor’s mother. The point of this shift seems to be to emphasize that Gregor is not just gone but forgotten.

Setting

The story has a very constricted setting; almost all the events take place within the Samsa house, mostly in Gregor’s room, reflecting the fact that Gregor is essentially a prisoner. The room itself is small and, by the end, unclean. Gregor can see outside, but mostly what he sees is an overcast sky, rain, fog, and a gray hospital building; when his eyesight fades, he cannot even see the hospital, and the world beyond his room appears to him to be a gray desert.

The gloominess of this setting begins to change near the end. There is heavy rain, but the narrator suggests it might be a sign of spring. This is when Gregor is still alive. However, the truly decisive change in the setting occurs only after Gregor’s death. For the first time, the story leaves the house, following the surviving Samsas into the countryside, where the sun shines on them as they cheerfully plan their future.

Structure

The story is divided into three parts, each one culminating in a foray by Gregor outside his room. The first two parts end when Gregor is forced back into his room. In part three, Gregor is again forced to return to his room; however, this part differs from the other two in that it does not end with Gregor’s return, but contains a coda describing events of the next day.

Flashbacks and other Narrative Devices

Most of the story consists of extended scenes. All of part 1 is the scene that unfolds when Gregor awakes to find himself an insect; the last section of part 2 is the extended scene that begins when Gregor’s sister and mother enter Gregor’s room to remove his furniture; and the bulk of part 3 consists of two linked scenes: the violin concert that leads to Gregor’s death and the scene that begins the next day with the discovery of his body and that ends with the excursion to the countryside.

Only a small part of the story consists of summaries: most notably the passages near the beginning of each of the last two parts, which recount Gregor’s typical activities, explain how he gets fed and informed, and report on how the family copes with the loss of Gregor’s income.

Kafka also uses brief flashbacks to explain how Gregor came to be supporting his family and to contrast the current behavior of Gregor’s father with how he behaved in the past.

Symbols

Kafka uses some obvious and not-so-obvious symbols in the story. Some symbols even the characters recognize as such: for instance, the furniture in Gregor’s room, which his mother is reluctant to remove because of its association with Gregor’s human past; to remove the furniture is to declare symbolically that Gregor is no longer human and will never be human again.

Other symbols are less easy to understand. The recurrent use of the number three, for instance (three parts to the story, three doors to Gregor’s room, three lodgers, three other family members), seems significant, but of what it is not clear. The fact that Gregor’s father insists on wearing his uniform so long that it becomes greasy also seems significant but unclear; to wear a smart uniform instead of a bathrobe seems at first an indication of the father’s increasing strength, but to wear it so long that it becomes greasy seems to indicate weakness again. It is also not entirely clear what the significance is of the picture of a carefree Gregor in a lieutenant’s uniform: does it suggest that he once had a more satisfying existence, before becoming stuck in his boring job?

The picture of the lady in furs, which Gregor presses against when his belongings are taken away, seems to be some sort of romantic or sexual symbol, representing the limited nature of Gregor’s romantic life. The music that draws Gregor seems to have a spiritual significance—or does it, on the contrary, suggest (as Gregor himself says) something animal-like? The appearance of the butcher’s boy at the end could be a symbol of returning life—or is it death? And the sunshine at the end also speaks of life, though it is a life dependent on Gregor’s death, a life open to the Samsas only because they have got rid of Gregor.

Of course, the central symbol of the story is Gregor’s insect form itself. What does it signify for a man to be turned into a giant bug? Is Kafka suggesting that this is the human condition? Is it the condition of only some humans? And what is that condition? Disgusting and ineffectual, or somehow positive?

Places Discussed

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The Samsa Apartment

The Samsa apartment is the dwelling, in no particular city, of Gregor Samsa and his family. Comfortable and spacious, the apartment signifies Gregor’s success in providing for his family, which fell on hard times after his father’s business failure. Gregor’s exhausting work as a traveling salesman keeps the family in respectable circumstances. After his metamorphosis, however, the apartment proves to be too big and expensive to maintain. In a sense, it has always been a burden. Gregor selected it, and his support of the family has stimulated a growing lethargy among them. His mother coughs incessantly, his sister is losing her youth to extreme fatigue, and his father has abandoned his role as the head of the family. All of this changes as Gregor changes, and after his death, the family is liberated from the apartment and from Gregor.

Gregor’s Bedroom

Gregor’s bedroom is the room in which the story begins, with Gregor’s metamorphosis into a giant insect already an accomplished fact. Though initially alarmed, he soon takes comfort in the familiarity of his bedroom. The room itself changes through the course of the story, in ways that mirror Gregor’s own decline. His furniture is removed to provide him with more space to crawl. After his sister neglects to clean the room, filth begins to accumulate. Eventually, the room becomes a storage space for useless household items—much like Gregor himself. Once a refuge from the toils of his job, the room becomes his cell and ultimately his tomb.

The Living/Dining Room

The living/dining room is the social center of the family, where Gregor’s father once read the newspaper aloud to the family and where Grete played her violin. Immediately after revealing his altered self to the family, Gregor is cut off from this space. Grete keeps the door to his room locked. Each time he ventures out among the family, his father drives him away. Late in the story, the family relents and allows his door to stand ajar in the evening, allowing Gregor a distant view of the family from which he has been excluded. Drawn by the music from Grete’s violin, Gregor enters the living room a final time, to the horror of the three boarders who have taken rooms with the Samsas. Amid the turmoil his presence creates, he finds that his sister, in whom he has placed the last hope of any understanding and future happiness, can no longer stand his presence in the apartment. Without needing to be forced, he retreats to his room, and Grete locks him in. His position within the family is irrecoverable, and his transformation is complete.

The Tram Car

The tram car is the conveyance on which members of Gregor’s family travel from the apartment to the country in the story’s final scene. They are the only passengers, and the car is filled with warm morning sunlight. The tram moves quietly into the peaceful countryside, and with it the Samsas discover that their prospects for the future are brighter than anticipated. Gregor’s death has lifted an enormous burden from them, and as his parents watch their young daughter, they see that, despite the recent hardships, she has blossomed into a beautiful woman. With Gregor gone, the family moves, like the tram, toward a peaceful future.

Style and Technique

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This novella is an extended literalization of the implications of the metaphor used in its initial sentence. Gregor is metamorphosed into an insectlike species of vermin, with Kafka careful not to identify the precise nature of Gregor’s bughood. German usage applies Kafka’s term, Ungeziefer, to contemptible, spineless, parasitic persons, akin to English connotations of the work “cockroach.” Gregor’s passivity and abjectness before authority link him with these meanings, as Kafka develops the fable by transforming the metaphor back into the imaginative reality of his fiction. After all, Gregor’s metamorphosis constitutes a revelation of the truth regarding his low self-esteem. It is a self-judgment by his repressed and continually defeated humanity.

By having Gregor become a bug, Kafka has also accomplished a bitterly parodistic inversion of a traditional motif in fairy tales. In folktales the prince is rescued from his froghood by the princess’s kiss; beauty redeems the beast with love. In Kafka’s version, however, the “beauty,” the sister Gregor loves, is horrified by her beastlike brother and condemns him to die rather than changing him back through affection. The most poignant aspect of the story is the inextinguishable beauty of Gregor’s soul, as he consents to his family’s rejection of his humanity and dies on their behalf.

Kafka illustrates Gregor’s subjection to his father by the implied parable of the episode involving the lodgers. This triad duplicates the Samsa triad that excludes Gregor, with the middle lodger, like Mr. Samsa, exerting authority over his supporters. Initially they intimidate and threaten the Samsas. After Gregor’s death, however, Mr. Samsa curtly orders these boarders out of the apartment, and they accede without a struggle—their apparently awesome power proves spurious. Equivalently, had Gregor found the self-confidence to revolt openly against both his firm and his father, had he walked out on his job and asserted his autonomy against his family’s clutches, he, too, could have matured into triumphant adulthood and would not have needed the disguised hostility of his metamorphosis.

Historical Context

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Socioeconomic Background

For most of Kafka's lifetime, his hometown of Prague was a Czech city within a German-speaking empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only at the end of World War I did that empire disappear, leading to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. But in 1912, when Kafka was writing The Metamorphosis, the Czechs had not yet won their independence, and despite its Czech majority, Prague was dominated by a German-speaking elite. Recognizing where the power lay in the city, the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the German minority rather than with the Czech majority; the Czechs therefore considered the Jews to be part of the German community, but the Germans themselves did not. As a result, it was easy for the Jews to feel that they did not fit in anywhere.

In general, Prague was a city of ethnic tensions, primarily between Czechs and Germans and between Czechs and Jews. In 1897, when Kafka was fourteen, the tensions erupted into anti-Semitic riots started by the Czechs. Thus Kafka would have grown up knowing hatred and hostility as well as the difficulty of fitting in.

Economically, the late nineteenth century marked the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Industrial development was not as advanced in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as elsewhere in Europe, but within the Empire, Prague was one of the most advanced and prosperous cities. However, along with the prosperity created by the new industrialism came dislocation and disruption of the old ways, largely as a result of the shift of large numbers of people from the countryside to the city.

Industrialization also meant the appearance of large numbers of jobs, for both factory and office workers, which were pure drudgery. And as if recognizing the need to train people for such jobs, the school system enforced a system of rote learning that seemed relentlessly joyless—at least it seemed joyless to young Kafka, who hated school, just as he hated his first full-time job.

Cultural Background

Prague was a cultured city, full of newspapers, theaters, and coffeehouses where avant-garde literary types could discuss the latest intellectual fashions. Kafka was a regular at two of these coffeehouses, the Arco and the Louvre, and through the discussions there may have been introduced to new philosophical ideas. He was certainly familiar with the newly published works of Sigmund Freud, referring to Freud in his diary not long before writing The Metamorphosis. However, he was no Freudian disciple and wrote negatively of psychoanalytic theory. He was perhaps more in tune with the major nineteenth-century writers (such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sören Kierkegaard) who wrote pessimistically of life in a meaningless or hostile universe, anticipating twentieth-century existentialism, a movement with which Kafka is sometimes associated.

In the year before writing The Metamorphosis, Kafka became familiar with a Jewish theater troupe that visited Prague and put on performances in Yiddish. He even became friendly with one of the troupe’s members and tried to promote the troupe by securing introductions for it and writing favorable reviews of its work. It has been suggested that both the tragicomic tone of the Yiddish plays Kafka saw at this time and also the story in one play of an outcast son may have influenced him in writing The Metamorphosis.

Literary Techniques

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It is so difficult to imagine someone being turned literally into an insect that many critics have read The Metamorphosis symbolically, with Gregor's transformation treated obliquely. Kafka does not treat the change in any way other than literal, however. Gregor’s story becomes a living nightmare, and readers are told at the outset that when he awakes it was from a restless night. It is as if one cannot escape one’s nightmare even by awakening the next morning. Kafka maintains this dreamlike state with the most matter-of-fact prose. Like his protagonist, who frantically seeks to live his life normally despite the obvious changes in it, Kafka, too, writes as though describing the most mundane of worlds: a world in which nightmares are the most common of events, a world in which a nightmare is perceived only by the isolated individual experiencing it.

This even and calm prose style characterizes much of Kafka’s writing and does much toward giving his stories their spooky surrealism. The prose betrays a world of madness in which one of the conditions of the insanity is the central character’s inability to convey to anyone else his understanding of an environment they so clearly do not understand.

Social Concerns

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Franz Kafka’s fiction is curiously disengaged from its own time. That does not mean, however, that it lacks application to the modern world, for Kafka's primary theme, the one of most social relevance, is man’s alienation from contemporary life. The Metamorphosis is a tale about Gregor Samsa, who is transformed one night into a large insect. He becomes increasingly distanced from the world around him, his own family, and finally from himself, and while doing so he shrivels as a human being until at the story’s conclusion, his desiccated carcass is swept away with the dust from underneath his bed. Although Kafka never lived for long away from his birthplace in Prague, the city in its actuality does not figure in his fiction, nor does the historical epoch of the Hapsburg Empire before World War I, nevertheless the individual struggle to sustain oneself within a world of bureaucratic complexities and racial as well as individual persecution resonate throughout his fiction.

In The Metamorphosis the weight of history and the state, as Gregor experiences it through the pressures from his family (especially his father) and from his office manager, gradually unite with the more generalized horror with which his transformation is greeted by both his sister and mother and the Samsas’ lodgers, who humiliate the family, to reduce Gregor to behaving like the insect which he has become. The social pressure to conform, most particularly in outward ways to the social standards of the culture, reduce him as an individual to a mute witness to his own total destruction.

Compare and Contrast

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1840–1920s: Kafka writes at a time when the drudgery of work is becoming a serious issue. Long hours at boring jobs create alienation. And tyrannical employers like Gregor’s are the norm.

Twentieth century: Computers and other advances have allowed for more flexibility for employees, including flex time and telecommuting. Since computers can handle some of the more tedious and repetitious aspects of work, work for some may also be more intellectually stimulating. Also, the trend now is to promote friendlier employer-employee interactions. However, there are new employment problems today, and it is doubtful that the sort of work alienation depicted in Kafka’s story has been eliminated altogether.

1840–1920s: In Kafka’s day, it is common for reasonably well-off families to employ full-time live-in servants to cook and clean and do other menial chores.

Twentieth century: Full-time servants are almost unheard of now, replaced primarily by labor-saving devices.

1840–1920s: Kafka's The Metamorphosis depicts a troubled father-son relationship that seems to reflect Kafka’s own relationship with his father. Such troubled relationships may be widespread, inasmuch as during this time Sigmund Freud develops his theory of the Oedipus complex, which takes as its starting point the existence of a fundamental antagonism between fathers and sons.

Twentieth century: The theory of the Oedipus complex has come under criticism, and the relationship of fathers and sons is often celebrated today. However, it would be hard to argue that the antagonisms described by Freud and Kafka do not exist.

1840–1920s: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis assumes that the insect is repulsive, suggesting that in Kafka’s day it would be hard to have any positive feelings toward a bug.

Twentieth century: Perhaps in an era that produces movies that glamorize insects, like A Bug's Life, and which prides itself on ecological awareness and understanding of the importance of all orders of creatures, there is a more positive attitude toward bugs. However, it is hard to imagine that there would be much less horror today than a century ago at the idea of a man being changed into a cockroach.

Literary Precedents

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In many ways Kafka does not have any direct predecessors. He borrowed literary forms such as the parable from the trove of literary experiences in his own reading. His work has been likened to Dostoevsky and Kleist; in The Trial (1925), certainly one can see possible connections to the quester-hero of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1927) or to Andre Gide's young Bernard from The Counterfeiters (1926), which even has references to the law. When one examines Kafka’s work as a whole, however, one is left with the conclusion that despite whatever borrowings it contains, its vision and execution are unique.

In general, Kafka has long been linked to other German expressionist writers of the early years of the twentieth century even though such a connection appears only a tangential position, largely supported by what has been reported of Kafka’s reaction to other writers of his own time. Although he does exhibit some superficial characteristics with other expressionists, the realistic surface of his prose and lucidity of his style prevent any important comparison.

Perhaps to see him as a “modernist,” if that term has any usefulness, may be as specific as is possible with a writer of Kafka’s individuality. He does share certain characteristics of style and theme and cast of mind with other writers of his age, but those similarities are often far outweighed by his idiosyncrasies and may render such comparisons more harmful to an understanding of Kafka and his work than helpful. Perhaps it is best in the end to see Franz Kafka as a writer who created a truly unique body of work, one understandable largely only in its own terms.

Media Adaptations

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In 1987, there was a British television adaptation of The Metamorphosis. Called Metamorphosis and starring Tim Roth as Gregor Samsa, it was written by Steven Berkoff and directed by Jim Goddard.

Steven Berkoff also wrote a stage adaptation of the story, which was first performed at the Round House in London in 1969 with him in the role of Gregor Samsa. Between 1969 and 1992, there were nine productions of Berkoff's adaptation, including ones in 1986 at the Mermaid in London with Tim Roth, in 1988 in Paris with Roman Polanski, in 1989 in New York with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and in 1992 in Tokyo. The text of the adaptation can be found in "The Trial"; "Metamorphosis"; "In the Penal Colony": Three Theatre Adaptations from Franz Kafka by Berkoff (Oxford, 1988). Berkoff discusses the various theatre productions in his book, Meditations on "Metamorphosis" (Faber, 1995).

In 1976, a Swedish film directed by Ivo Dvorák was made of The Metamorphosis under the title Förvandlingen. There have also been two short animated versions of the story, one a 1977 Canadian film directed by Caroline Leaf and called The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, and the other an eight-minute-long 1999 Spanish production directed by Charlie Ramos.

There is a 1993 British short film called Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. This odd production is not an adaptation of The Metamorphosis, but it does provide a fanciful, fictional account of how Kafka supposedly wrote the story, showing him as being constantly interrupted while he tries to decide what sort of creature Gregor Samsa will be transformed into. Written and directed by Peter Capaldi, it stars Richard E. Grant as Kafka and Crispin Letts as Gregor Samsa.

Another odd production is the 1989 film called Nabokov On Kafka: The Metamorphosis, directed by Peter Medak, in which Christopher Plummer plays the author Vladimir Nabokov giving a lecture on The Metamorphosis.

The Metamorphosis was recorded on audiocassette in 1994. Read by Alan Hewitt, the cassette version, on two tapes, is three hours long and is unabridged.

Bibliography

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Bouson, J. Brooks. “The Narcissistic Drama and Reader/Text Transaction in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” In Critical Essays on Franz Kafka, edited by Ruth V. Gross. Boston:

G. K. Hall, 1990. Heinz Kohut’s work on narcissistic disorders suggests a new reading of Gregor’s hostile world, arguing against the theory of depersonalization.

 

Eggenschwiler, David. “The Metamorphosis, Freud, and the Chains of Odysseus.” In Modern Critical Views: Franz Kafka, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. The author traces the psychological origins of the story in Kafka’s life and encourages a recognition of the tension between parable and interpretation.

Gray, Ronald. Franz Kafka. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. This is the best and most accessible short analysis of Kafka’s work, and it furnishes a literary context for the tale.

 

Hayman, Ronald K. A Biography of Kafka. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. This biography is a solid and readable account of Kafka’s life.

 

Karl, Frederick R. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. Karl’s exhaustive study of Kafka’s culture extends the possible interpretations of his work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Albérès, R.M. and Pierre De Boisdeffre. Kafka: The Torment of Man. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: The Citadel Press, 1968.

Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. Trans. G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston. New York: Schocken Books, 1963.

Carrouges, Michel. Kafka Versus Kafka. Trans. Emmett Parker. University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Corngold, Stanley, The Commentators' Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Kennikat, 1973.

Gray, Ronald, Franz Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Gray, Ronald. ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1962.

Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. New York: Schocken Books, 1954.

Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories and Parables, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1983.

Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: The Modern Library, 1936.

Taikeff, Stanley. The Hermit of Prague: A Dramatic Monologue. Middletown, N.Y.: Whitlock Press, Inc. 1985.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Franz Kafka's ‘‘The Metamorphosis,’’ Chelsea House, 1988. This text is a collection of essays analyzing the story.

Brod, Max, Franz Kafka: A Biography, translated by G. Humphreys Roberts, Schocken, 1947. This book of Kafka's life is told by his friend and literary executor.

Hayman, Ronald, Kafka: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1982. Hayman's work is a biographical study that relates Kafka's life to his works.

Pawel, Ernst, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984. This text is a biography of Kafka providing psychological analysis and social background.

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