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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History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Publication History: The first draft of The Metamorphosis was finished in three weeks in 1912. Kafka was pleased with the result but uncertain about its ending. With encouragement from Max Brod, also an author, Kafka published the story in the German journal Die Weißen Blätter (The White Pages) in 1915. Having already published a well-received short story that year, “The Judgment,” the initial reception to The Metamorphosis was warm. It even won the Theodor Fontane prize, a German-language literary award. The first translation into English was released in 1933. Since then, at least ten other English translations have attempted to render Kafka’s nuanced diction. 

  • Note: Each translation has its own idiosyncrasies and goals, so this guide references scenes rather than direct quotations to remain applicable to all translations. 

Philosophical Landscape: At the time of The Metamorphosis’s publication, Sigmund Freud, Austrian founder of modern psychoanalysis, was disseminating his theories regarding the unconscious mind, dream interpretation, and the Oedipus complex. Also, Karl Marx’s political thought regarding the consequences of capitalism had been available for several decades. Furthermore, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1883, popularized the concept of the Übermensch as a goal toward which humanity ought to strive. Critics have argued that these philosophies had a the range of influences on the text. 

  • Freud’s Influence: Proponents of Freud’s influence cite the dreamlike quality of the narrative, specifically its nightmarish premise of transformation. Also, Gregor’s frequent, violent conflict with his father some have read as a manifestation of an Oedipus complex. Note that the women in the story—Grete to the greater extent, but Gregor’s mother also pleads for his life—are initially most sympathetic to Gregor. 
  • Marx’s Influence: Some read the text through the lens of Marx, seeing Gregor’s transformation into a grotesque, non-human insect as a result of—and perhaps Gregor’s unconscious reaction against—a dehumanizing workforce. They point to Gregor’s continued concerns of comparatively mundane work matters as evidence of the all-encompassing, unhealthy mindset he suffers from. Furthermore, it has also been argued that Gregor’s unemployment and refusal to leave his family throughout the story is a reaction against the need to constantly be productive and useful. 
  • Nietzsche’s Influence: As a large, weak insect, Gregor is almost the exact opposite of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. While the Übermensch is able to impose his own values on the world, rather than having morals and goals thrust upon him, Gregor is unable to exert any influence whatsoever, even within his own family. Gregor’s powerlessness is not only reflected in his insect-like form. Prior to transforming, Gregor was unable to pursue personal fulfillment beyond that of assisting his family. Consequently, he had no romantic relationships, a choice which he regrets. 

Kafka’s Legacy: The adjective “kafkaesque,” derived from Kafka himself, was coined sometime in the 1940s. In reference to the surreal, often oppressive and horrific nature of his stories, “kafkaesque” means something is nightmarishly complex or illogical, especially in regard to bureaucratic matters. 

  • Hallmarks of Kafka’s distinct style and thematic concerns are present in The Metamorphosis. Gregor’s working life is needlessly complex and brutal—it’s mentioned that he has worked as a traveling salesman for five years and never taken a sick day, leading to aggressive suspicion when Gregor doesn’t show up to work. The superior tasked with checking up on him is unsympathetic, manipulative, and attempts to draw out Gregor by passively accusing him of various work indiscretions in front of his family.

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