The Metamorphosis Themes
The main themes in The Metamorphosis are capitalism, work, and drudgery; metamorphosis; and identity and voice.
- Capitalism, work, and drudgery: Gregor’s transformation into a giant insect illustrates the way in which capitalism dehumanizes workers.
- Metamorphosis: Gregor’s family members undergo their own transformation, not only in the way they treat Gregor but in their economic status.
- Identity and voice: Gregor has lost his identity as both a worker and a human being and is no longer able to communicate with his family.
Capitalism, Work, and Drudgery
The Metamorphosis implies that individuals lose their humanity under a capitalist economic structure that asks them to see themselves as workers first and humans second. Kafka’s choice to depict Gregor as an insect highlights the way in which the drudgery of work can dehumanize workers. Absurdly, the first thought Gregor has when he awakens to find he is now, inexplicably, an insect is that he must get out of bed and get to work. He reflects on his “strenuous profession” as he hesitates to get up, but then he realizes he will likely be late and imagines “the Director’s wrath” at his absence or tardiness. Gregor does not think he can call in sick because he has never called in sick, so his actions would seem suspicious to his boss. Even after he gains more control over his new form and his family reacts with horror, Gregor insists that he can simply rise and get dressed, get on the train, and go to work. The Deputy Director shows up to find out why Gregor is not at work yet, which implies that the overseers of the corporate hierarchy are relentless in their domination of workers’ lives.
Several days into his transformation, Gregor thinks back on how he gained status at his workplace. He remembers feeling “pronounced fervor” for work when he realized he could provide for his family. Gregor’s job allowed him to feel a sense of satisfaction because “he could lay [cash] on the table at home” soon after completing his tasks. Now that Gregor is unable to fulfill the breadwinner role, his father must find a job. Once his father returns to work at a bank, he adopts a mindset similar to Gregor’s. Gregor observes how his father “dozed at his place fully clothed, as if he were always on duty and awaited the call of his superiors.” Mr. Samsa’s actions imply that work is the central activity in his life—even when he is resting at home, in his free time. Similarly, he sees rest as only a means to an end, serving his ability to do his job well. The narrator comments that “good sleep was absolutely essential, since he had to be at work by six.” The only purpose of his rest is to prepare him to work again the next day. Both Gregor’s and Mr. Samsa’s relationships to their jobs suggest that in this capitalist society, work is the defining activity of an individual’s life.
The novella’s title refers to Gregor’s transformation from man to insect; however, the text also highlights how one significant change has a domino effect that leads to other developments in turn. When Gregor becomes an insect, he is unable to go to work, so the entire family structure and household routine are upended. The family’s treatment of Gregor completely changes; he goes from provider to pariah literally overnight. While they were once grateful for and dependent on Gregor’s leadership of the family, his parents and sister now shrink from him in fear. His father even becomes abusive toward him. The space of the house must transform to accommodate Gregor’s new shape and movements. He must adapt his own sense of self and learn to control his new body. The routines of his family members and their household staff must be reimagined. The family is isolated from the outside world and trapped inside their house, unsure how to explain Gregor’s evolution to themselves, let alone to outsiders.
Gregor’s transformation seriously damages the family’s financial security. Not only does Gregor’s father have to return to work after...
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years of leisurely downtime, his mother and sister also must channel their skills into work. Grete basically spends all of her time either working or training to do a different kind of work that will eventually pay a bit more. The family must sell off valuable jewelry and take on a set of lodgers, basically ceding control of their house to outsiders. These unfortunate circumstances do, however, instigate a change in Mr. Samsa, who reclaims his position as head of household and becomes more assertive.
Finally, the novella ends with Gregor’s death and the transformation of his family from a sorrowful trio enslaved by work and oppressed in their own home. The final lines of the story emphasize the positive evolution of Grete, who “had blossomed into a pretty and well-developed young woman.” The word “blossomed” suggests that Grete is entering a prosperous new phase of her life. Her change also impacts her parents; instead of being beaten down by the stress and exhaustion of Gregor’s presence, Mr. and Mrs. Samsa ponder Grete’s future and their next task of “look[ing] for a good husband for her.” When Grete “rose first and stretched her young body,” it almost seems like she is a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, ready to start a newer, more beautiful life.
Identity and Voice
Gregor’s titular transformation symbolizes an existential identity crisis. Gregor has apparently reached a turning point in his life, where he is dissatisfied with his work but feels compelled to continue. He has lost his sense of self due to his job, which prioritizes his productivity over his humanity. When Gregor is no longer able to help his company or provide for his family, he becomes anathema, an outcast, looked upon as the worst form of pest. What’s even worse for Gregor is that he cannot express himself effectively to his family. When he tries to speak, “It was unmistakably his old voice, but had mixed in, as if from down deep, an irrepressible, painful, squeaking noise.” Though he thinks he is communicating clearly, his words are “distorted.”
Eventually, his father decides that they cannot verbally communicate with Gregor, but he doesn’t realize that Gregor can hear everything they say. He listens as they discuss their financial woes and witnesses his sister’s prayers and grief. Gregor is subject to his family’s pain but unable to do anything to mitigate it. He cannot explain that he is still conscious of their actions and conversations. When the family reaches their breaking point, Mr. Samsa desperately reflects, “If he understood us . . . then we might be able to arrive at some sort of arrangement with him.” Tragically, Gregor can understand everything but cannot respond in a way that they can understand. His transformation has resulted in his lack of voice, which then inevitably leads him to be considered no longer human, no longer himself.