Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192
Alienation as a Consequence of Difference as Theme: Because of his commitment to his work, Gregor is alienated not just from romantic relationships but also from his own family. For example, his family usually eats meals together after he leaves for work and before he comes home. He is the only member of the family who works; thus, he does not share in the same experiences that they do. A more obvious example of this theme is suggested at the family’s disgust in Gregor’s transformation. It’s clear that Grete and Gregor’s mother, at least, see him as their relative for the majority of the story, but his appearance necessitates his being hidden.
- For discussion: How was Gregor alienated when he was a human being? What sort of alienation does he experience as an insect?
Familial Obligations as Finite as Theme: The beginning of the story finds Gregor as the sole breadwinner of the family, having sacrificed his own happiness and relationships for their comfort. Gregor’s transformation can be read as a rebellion against his family having taken advantage of his work ethic for so long—now, they must sacrifice for him rather than the other way around. However, the family’s dedication to Gregor only extends so far; Grete is the only one who shows kindness to transformed Gregor, but even she reaches the limits of empathy, eventually calling for driving Gregor away.
- For discussion: How does each family member perform their work and familial obligations? When do they reach their breaking points?
Gregor and Grete’s Metamorphoses as Parallel: As Gregor’s condition deteriorates, so does his relationship with his sister, who was once his only ally in the house. It is Grete, in fact, who instigates a conversation about removing Gregor from their house, suggesting that the insect in the bedroom is no longer her brother. While Gregor is repeatedly wounded—and eventually dies—Grete’s transformation throughout the text is a positive one. She eventually joins the workforce, becoming a productive member of the family. Furthermore, the final lines of the story show a Grete who has matured, both physically and mentally—a feat that may not have happened without Gregor’s transformation necessitating her change.
- For discussion: When in the story does Grete transform from naive child to mature adult? Would Grete’s own metamorphosis be possible without Gregor’s?
Life’s Absurdity Is Inescapable as Theme: Throughout the whole story, there is no talk of anyone’s—Gregor or his family—trying to find some way to turn Gregor back into a human being. The family’s reactions range from aghast repulsion to irritated tolerance, but there’s no impetus to figure out what caused Gregor’s transformation or methods to reverse it. Instead, they simply adapt, with varying degrees of success, to the impossible. The characters do not acknowledge the inherent absurdity of a man’s waking up to discover he’s an insect; his transformation is regarded as the result of chance more than anything else. Because of this lack of explanation and exploration into Gregor’s condition, Kafka suggests that absurd events in life are unavoidable and must be dealt with rather than overcome or reversed.
- For discussion: How do each of the family members react to Gregor’s transformation at the beginning of the story? How do their reactions change throughout, and what do they suggest about their attitudes toward Gregor? What about Gregor himself—what are his main concerns regarding his transformation?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Is Gregor’s transformation literal or metaphorical? Both?
- Who or what is to blame for Gregor’s transformation?
- Why does Kafka leave the details of Gregor’s appearance to the imagination?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Why He Turns Into an Insect Is Never Explained: The inciting event of the novella is never given an overt explanation, which some students might find irritating.
- What to do: Though Kafka doesn’t overtly suggest reasons for Gregor’s transformation, there are several possibilities. Set up a debate between three positions: Gregor transformed because he was sick of working for an ungrateful family, Gregor’s transformation is symbolic rather than literal, and there’s no reason at all for his metamorphosis. Have students find evidence that support each reading of the text.
The Characters Are Unrelatable and Unrealistic: It’s hard to imagine acting as the Samsas do when they find a family member has transformed into a large insect. The family may seem too accepting of his transformation or too inhumane to Gregor for students to have sympathy for their situation.
- What to do: Remind students about the concept of suspension of disbelief, which allows the reader to attempt to access a story without worrying too much about realism or what they perceive as unrealistic actions. Remember, too, that the story begins with a transformation from a man into an insect; there’s no template on how to act in that situation.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Metamorphosis
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions are alternative readings of the text that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novella.
Focus on Gregor’s metamorphosis as an allegory for Jewish and other group alienation. Consider this quote by author Zadie Smith: “For there is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish Question (‘What have I in common with Jews?’) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. . . . These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer [the German word used to refer to Gregor’s insect form], now.” Smith alludes to one’s questioning of group identity in Gregor’s transformation, which makes him a marginalized family member. She reads The Metamorphosis as Gregor questioning his place in the world by juxtaposing his alienation from his family with the Jewish diaspora. By reading the novella through this lens, students may be able to relate better with its unusual premise and gain greater empathy for marginalized groups. Have students research the Jewish diaspora or other marginalized groups of people. How might Gregor’s transformation be read as a similar loss of identity or place within society?
Focus on the novella’s plot as a reflection of Kafka’s life. Gregor Samsa shares many traits—both literal and abstract—with his author. Kafka’s relationship with his authoritarian father was strained, and as a Jew without much personal conviction in Judaism and as a German speaker in a Czech-speaking area, he often felt isolated from the various groups that surrounded his family. By teaching Kafka’s life story side by side with the novella, students can gain a greater appreciation of writing as an autobiographical process and see how real-life events shape fiction. Have students create a timeline of Kafka’s life. What events may have inspired parts of The Metamorphosis? To what extent is the story somewhat autobiographical? Why?