illustration of a giant insect with the outline of a man in a suit standing within the confines of the insect

The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

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Student Question

Is Gregor actually a bug in The Metamorphosis?

Quick answer:

Readers cannot know for sure whether Gregor has actually turned into a giant insect in The Metamorphosis or whether it has happened only in his mind. The third-person limited narrator tells us Gregor's thoughts and feelings, so it is difficult to ascertain whether the information that the narrator reveals is objectively observable to anyone or whether it is only Gregor's perception. Either way, however, Gregor believes that he is a bug, and his life is forever changed.

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Gregor himself certainly believes that he has really turned into a giant bug. The narrator describes things—such as the brown liquid that comes out of Gregor's mouth, the sticky substance that his body leaves behind on the walls, his ability to crawl on the walls, and his tiny legs and barrel-shaped body—as though they are real and literal.

However, the narrator is also of the third-person limited variety, giving us insight into Gregor's thoughts and feelings; thus, Gregor perceives himself as an actual bug. This narrative perspective, then, could be skewed by Gregor's own ideas about his body and experiences. It is difficult to tell whether the narrator is stating what is objectively visible to anyone or what is subjectively happening in Gregor's own mind.

It is possible, of course, that Gregor only thinks that he has been transformed into a huge insect. To his family, then, he would continue look like his human self, but he would be acting as though he is a giant bug, scurrying around on all fours and making strange sounds with his mouth. This sight could be so grotesque that they would be utterly horrified. They would likely respond to this sight similarly to how they would respond to seeing an actual giant bug. Either way, however, whether he truly is a giant bug or not, he believes that he is, and his life is ruined by it.

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In The Metamorphosis, do you think Gregor was like a "bug" even before his metamorphosis?

I agree that that Gregor was like a "bug" before his metamorphosis. As a salesman, he was simply a cog in a larger bureaucratic machine, similar to being a part of an insect colony, with all or most members identical and interchangeable. Further, he is like a bug or cockroach in that he wears his internal organs on the outside and has nothing anyone finds of interest on the inside. His workplace and his family only value him for his externals: his workplace for what he can produce and his family for the money he earns. That he hates his job and finds it an alienating form of torture doesn't seem to register on anyone around him. Nobody appears, before his transformation or after, to have any real interest in who Gregor is as a unique individual with possible intrinsic worth as a human being. After he no longer is bringing in wages, his family simply regards him as a burden and a problem. They don't seem to care, either before or after his change, about what might animate him or make him happy or transform him into a fully actualized human being.

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In The Metamorphosis, do you think Gregor was like a "bug" even before his metamorphosis?

Gregor seems to unconsciously realize how his position as a salesman has stripped him of his humanity. He thinks that "'This getting up so early . . . makes anyone a complete idiot.'" Further, when he thinks about what his work has done to him, he considers "'the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate.'" His job has turned him into nothing more than a worker. He feels that the demands on him are inhumane, and he—quite tellingly—doesn't even have the time or opportunity to form any intimate relationships that might make him feel like a human being again. His life has been stripped of all the enjoyable things that make a human life worth living. In a sense, he has been treated like little better than vermin—even the manager who comes to his office talks down to him harshly, even cruelly—and he must plead for some semblance of respect.

Before his transformation, Gregor is valued only because he is a worker, not because he is a person. When he feels himself unable to get out of bed to go to work, he thinks of himself as "'useless.'" His only purpose is to work. Like an ant in a colony, he is easily replaceable by another of his kind when he becomes to weak or sick to continue. In this way, then, his figurative transformation occurred long before his literal one.

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In The Metamorphosis, do you think Gregor was like a "bug" even before his metamorphosis?

This is a really interesting question. Although we are only presented with Gregor when he has been transformed, and so we never see him before he experiences his metamorphosis, we can infer quite a bit through the text about his previous life.

Note how in the text it appears that Gregor had very little social life - he had no friends from work or elsewhere and he definitely did not have any lovers. Likewise, it is clear that, apart form his sister, he does not have close relationships with his mother and father. Even the relationship with his sister seems to be based on a false assumption, for it turns out that she betrays him. He clearly follows a life characterised by isolation and loneliness even before his transformation. The metamorphosis therefore only exacerbates these characteristics because he cannot communicate and he is kept in his room, locked away from the rest of humanity.

Another aspect that we can identify as being similar is the way that Gregor's life was all about working in a job that he hated for the benefit of his family. When he is transformed, Gregor can hear others and discover their wants, but they are unable to find out what he wants. This is ironic, for Gregor's life seems to have been all about meeting the needs of others whilst his own are forgotten.

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In what sense has Gregor in The Metamorphosis been a figurative insect long before he becomes one physically?

Gregor has been like a physical insect for a long time in that he has been toiling in a dehumanizing job that he hates and is ill-suited for.

Gregor is a traveling salesman. As he lies in bed the morning he turns into an insect, he thinks about all that he dislikes about his job: the endless traveling, the bad food, and his anxieties about train schedules. Further, because he travels so much, he never gets to put down roots and get to know a specific set of people. Because he has to get up so early in the morning, he is chronically exhausted. He life is consumed with work that brings him no satisfaction.

Gregor works for a demanding boss but is afraid to say anything to him, because he needs the job to pay off debts his parents owe to this boss.

Gregor's relationship with his family also highlights his dehumanization. Although he seems to love them, they see him as valuable not for himself, but for the paycheck he brings in. Once he can no longer work, they become more and more resentful of having to provide for him. His parents were also quite willing for him to work at a job he hated, because it served their own needs.

Being only valued for the money he earns either for his company or his family reduces Gregor to level of something like an insect, so it is fitting that he comes to resemble externally what he feels like internally.

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