Themes and Meanings
Kafka’s art is so profoundly ambiguous and multivalent that no single analysis can completely comprehend it. This evaluation will stress a psychoanalytic, expressionistic interpretation.
Gregor’s metamorphosis accomplishes several of his aims: First, it frees him from his hated job with an odious employer by disabling him from working; second, it relieves him of the requirement to make an agonizing choice between his filial duty to his parents—particularly his father—and his desperate yearning to emancipate himself from such obligations and dependence. It thus enables him to “bug out” of his loathsome constraints yet do so on a level of conscious innocence, with Gregor merely a victim of an uncontrollable calamity. Moreover, Gregor’s fantasies include aggressive and retaliatory action against the oppressive firm. He accomplishes this by terrorizing the pitiless, arrogant office manager, who tells him, “I am speaking here in the name of your parents and of your chief.” On the conscious level, Gregor pursues the clerk to appease him and secure his advocacy for Gregor’s cause at the office; subconsciously, his threatening appearance and apparently hostile gestures humiliate his hated superiors.
Gregor’s change also expresses his sense of guilt at having betrayed his work and his parents, at having broken the familial circle. It is a treacherous appeasement of this guilt complex, inviting his isolation, punishment, and death. His loss of human speech prevents him from communicating his humanity. His enormous size, though an insect (he is at least two feet wide), his ugly features, and his malodorous stench invite fear and revulsion. Yet his pacific temperament and lack of claws, teeth, or wings make him far more vulnerable than when his body was human. His metamorphosis therefore gives him the worst of both worlds: He is offensive in appearance but defenseless in fact, exposed to the merciless attack of anyone—such as his furious father—ready to exploit his vulnerability.
“The Metamorphosis,” then, can be seen as a punishment fantasy with Gregor Samsa feeling triply guilty of having displaced his father as leading breadwinner for the family, for his hatred of his job, and resentment of his family’s expectations of him. He turns himself into a detestable insect, thereby both rebelling against the authority of his firm and father and punishing himself for this rebellion by seeking estrangement, rejection, and death. Insofar as Gregor’s physical manifestation constitutes a translation of the interior self to the external world, “The Metamorphosis” is a stellar achievement of expressionism.