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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Discussion Topic

The deeper meaning, moral, and underlying message of The Metamorphosis

Summary:

The deeper meaning of The Metamorphosis revolves around themes of alienation and dehumanization. The moral highlights the harsh realities of societal and familial rejection when one becomes different or unable to fulfill expected roles. The underlying message challenges readers to reflect on human empathy and the often cruel nature of human relationships.

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What is the deeper meaning behind The Metamorphosis?

The Metamorphosis brings out the interior life of Gregor Samsa. For some time, he has felt like nothing more than an insect, a creature toiling away at a dehumanizing job he hates.

Gregor is a traveling salesman, and as the story opens, he awakens and contemplates his day. He describes all that he dislikes about his job: he has to be up very early and never feels rested. He dislikes the food on the road and the fact that he can never get to know a specific set of people. He dislikes his boss, and he only took the job to help his parents pay off a debt to this boss.

Gregor's feelings of being little more than an insect manifest themselves in his body as he discovers he is a giant insect. Suddenly, he is wearing his feelings about himself on the outside, just as an insect's hard carapace is like a human bone structure turned inside out.

The feelings of dehumanization and alienation that Gregor experiences increase now that he is in insect form. He is liberated from his job, but he is also alienated from his family, forced to stay in his room, and increasingly resented by them as he is no longer bringing home an income. His death and his acceptance of it show his feelings of worthlessness.

Kakfa's message is that modern society, with its emphasis on work and money, alienates people and turns them into little more than insects like Gregor.

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What is the deeper meaning behind The Metamorphosis?

There are numerous layers of meaning in The Metamorphosis. Since this is not a text which provides answers or makes clear statements, these are perhaps best expressed in the form of questions raised by the text. First, there are questions about the nature of love, natural affection, and family relationships. What does it mean to say that you love someone? Can this love disappear if that person alters? Is the same true of the bonds of family? What would it take for you to stop loving your son or brother and to see him as a hideous obstacle to happiness?

The questions above are clearly raised by the attitude of Gregor's family towards his transformation. Are these people unusually shallow and hypocritical, or are all relationships like this to some extent? Is love inevitably conditional, and, if so, what are the conditions? Apart from questions of love and family, the story explores issues of identity and society. What makes a human being valuable? How far is this value dependent on appearances and abilities? Is a person's value innate and inalienable, or is it socially constructed? These are some of the deeper meanings behind the text, but there are many more, and each reader will view them somewhat differently. Apart from love, family, identity, and society, The Metamorphosis raises powerful existential issues of meaning, purpose, and what makes like worth living, if it is.

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What is the deeper meaning behind The Metamorphosis?

The Metamorphosis is a novella about a man named Gregor Samsa, who works a modest but exhausting job as a traveling salesman and provides for his family. One day, Gregor wakes up and realizes that he's been turned into a giant bug. This absurd shift in narrative reveals the monotony and loneliness of Gregor's life, although upon first read, the change is seemingly meaningless. However, the reader soon realizes that changing into a bug says more about the human condition and the meaning of happiness than meets the eye.

While Gregor’s relentless work schedule allows his family a comfortable lifestyle, it has left Gregor himself unable to pursue anything that might make him happy. Already dehumanized and isolated by his job, Gregor is at first hardly surprised or bothered by his transformation into an insect. Yet the feelings of loneliness, rejection, and worry he experiences in his new form, as well as the love he continues to feel toward his neglectful family, reveals that the core of Gregor’s humanity remains intact—even when his sister refers to him as “it.” It is human connection, the text suggests, that makes life bearable; denied this, Gregor resolves to fade away.

As readers peel back the layers of the text, starting with the grotesque spectacle Gregor becomes, they begin to realize that in a way, we are all Gregor. Gregor becomes a cockroach-like bug, but his mind is still much the same. Deep down, he still identifies with his old life, and while he may look different (and terrifying), he's still Gregor.

Gregor’s family tries to care for him at first, but eventually even Grete's patience runs thin. There is simply no way for them to relate to Gregor anymore, they believe, and no way for Gregor to relate to the world around him anymore, either—even though he shares many of the same thoughts, feelings, and concerns as they do. This could be related to anyone attempting to fit into a hostile society. Whatever their differences, everyone experiences the need for connection and affection, and the pain of rejection and loneliness, that characterize the human condition.

Unfortunately for Gregor, his exterior, like many in this world, causes those around him to judge and close their hearts to his inner world. He is simply too different, and not only different, but repellent. In turn, Gregor becomes literally isolated in his room and existentially isolated in his mind.

One question remains during the early period after Gregor’s transformation: is Gregor happy in his new life? He hated his job and the lack of trust from his boss, and it seems now that Gregor enjoys his lack of obligation and care for an outside world that never really cared about him. Looking at the novella through an absurdist lens, one could say that Gregor's misfortune is actually a gift, as it allows Gregor to accept the fact that life has no meaning or purpose. This acceptance could perhaps allow Gregor to find peace, as he is finally free from society's shackles and no longer has to conform or play the role he so desperately wanted to escape. In the end, however, his family members’ rejection of him now that he can no longer work is too much to bear, and Gregor starves himself to death rather than continue on as an unwanted burden to them.

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What is the moral of The Metamorphosis?

The moral of The Metamorphosis is that being made to bear an outsize burden of obligation lead to alienation and dehumanization. Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman who works to support his parents and sister, and he has been worked so hard that he has essentially had to forego all of the things that make human life worth living. He works so much that his mother even feels angry that he does nothing much outside of work and sit at home, even though his work is all for his family’s benefit.

Gregor himself is aware that he has no real life. He is always traveling for his job, and so he eats bland and unsatisfying food on the road—food from which he reaps no enjoyment. He feels completely exhausted and is frustrated with the fact that he has no time or opportunity to cultivate real, intimate relationships. This is evidenced by the fact that the beautiful picture frame on his wall contains a photo of a woman that he clipped from a magazine; he does not actually have a real-life person whose picture he can put in the frame. His family, meanwhile, are free to enjoy luxurious meals, leisurely days, and the pleasure of each other’s company.

Gregor cannot even sleep enough to ever feel truly rested and has to wake up at a ridiculously early hour just to be at work on time. The one day he doesn't make it in, the manager comes to his house to guilt him into emerging from his room when it is clear that there is something very wrong with him. Gregor’s only purpose comes from working on his family’s behalf, and once he can no longer do so, he completely loses relevance and importance in his own home.

After his transformation, Gregor loses more and more of his humanity as his family treat him less and less like a relative or even a person. His transformation into a giant insect emphasizes how little he was able to enjoy ordinary human life even when he had a human form, as well as how little thought his family gave him beyond what he was able to provide for them. Where once he placed all his time and energy into fulfilling a perceived obligation to his family, Gregor now becomes an unwanted burden to them. Rather than bear that burden, however, Gregor’s parents and sister ultimately leave him behind in pursuit of their own happiness.

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What is the underlying meaning or motto in The Metamorphosis?

There are many different themes related to this story, but I think the most developed one is that of alienation.  Gregor's transformation into a bug is a symbol of how he feels as a human - alienated and separated from society.  He has a job he doesn't like, a boss he doesn't like, a family he doesn't bond with, and no social life at all. 

His relationship with his father is one of subservience.  As a bug, the few times that Gregor tries to escape the room, his father forces him back. 

  • With his left hand, his father picked up a large newspaper from the table and, stamping his feet on the floor, he set out to drive Gregor back into his room by waving the cane and the newspaper.

This is meant to be symbolic of how his father treats him as a human - with fierceness, pushing Gregor away.  Gregor's mother seems to care for him, but not so much that she can overcome her revulsion and care for him.  Only Greta will care for Gregor.  But even in this relationship, there is a lack of understanding.  Gregor thinks he is close to his sister, but he misunderstands her.  He believes music is her passion, but she is not very good and does not want to pursue it, as he assumes she does.

Being a bug is an outward manifestation of the situation that already existed, and it brings the situation to a close.  Gregor's alienation from his family and society is his downfall in the end.

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