The Metamorphosis Themes

The main themes in The Metamorphosis are the burden of responsibility, isolation and alienation, and sacrifice.

  • The burden of responsibility: Before his transformation, Gregor supports his family as a traveling salesman. Once freed of that responsibility, Gregor starts to feel like a burden to his family.
  • Isolation and alienation: Gregor's physical transformation isolates him completely, stripping him of his humanity in the eyes of his family. Gregor's inability to communicate further isolates him.
  • Sacrifice: After his transformation, Gregor's family is repulsed by him. He thinks of his death as a kind of sacrifice that will allow them to move on with their lives.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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...

(The entire section contains 1477 words.)

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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 for his 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.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183

Kafka develops the theme of alienation against the notion of the parasitical, and it is all done with a subtle irony of transforming the least parasitical member of the family, Gregor, into the literal parasite, the insect. The family and the society both feed off of Gregor—literally because he works for the economic system and supports his family on his meager earnings, and symbolically because it is Gregor's sensitivity, his “artistic” nature, which makes him vulnerable to exploitation. Gregor is economically and emotionally sacrificed to the better good of the state and the family, thereby placing corporate needs before individual desires.

The theme of the place of the artist in society is also prominent in The Metamorphosis, as Gregor, the repository of artistic sensibility and intellectual introspection, is shown to have no place in a world dominated by material concerns and lacking in emotional truthfulness. Gregor, with his awareness of the truth of life and its beauty, is an unnecessary encumbrance to the lives of his family and is shut away from them until he dies, in part at least, from neglect.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Alienation at Work

One of the themes of the story is the unpleasantness of work. Gregor Samsa hates his job as a traveling salesman but must continue doing it to pay off his parents’ debts. There is no suggestion that he gets any job satisfaction; all he talks about is how exhausting the job is, how irritating it is to be always traveling: making train connections, sleeping in strange beds, always dealing with new people and thus never getting the chance to make good friends, and so forth. Moreover, it turns out that Gregor works for a firm that does not trust its employees at all: because he is late this one day, the chief clerk shows up to check on him and begins hinting that he is suspected of embezzling funds and may very well be fired. It also seems that Gregor’s coworkers dislike him because he is on the road so often; they gossip about him and the other traveling salesmen, making unfounded complaints such as that they make lots of money and just enjoy themselves. Work is hell, the story seems to suggest.

Father-Son Antagonism

Life at home, according to the story, is no paradise either. In particular, Gregor seems to have a difficult relationship with his father. The very first time Gregor’s father is seen he is making a fist, albeit just to knock on Gregor’s door. Soon after, however, he makes a fist more in earnest: when he first sees Gregor in his insect form, he shakes his fist at him and glares at him fiercely. Later he attacks him with a newspaper and a walking stick, and, later still, he bombards him with apples, causing him serious injury. He is also not above making sarcastic comments, suggesting, for instance, that Gregor’s room is untidy. And it turns out that he has deceived Gregor about the family finances, thus needlessly extending the length of Gregor’s employment at the hateful traveling salesman’s job. Finally, he does not seem particularly appreciative of the money Gregor has been bringing in; he is content to live off his son's labor, but Gregor feels there was “a special uprush of warm feeling” about it.

Gregor’s disappointment over the lack of appreciation is one of the few critical thoughts he thinks about his father. He also thinks briefly that the money his father hid from him could have been used to free him from his job sooner, but he quickly dismisses the thought by saying that no doubt his father knew best. In short, the antagonism as portrayed in the story is mostly one-way: the father abuses the son, but the son suppresses his angry responses and accepts his downtrodden state.

Betrayal

The one person Gregor feels close to is his sister, and she at first seems like the one most attentive to his needs. She brings him his food and cleans his room, and even her plan to remove Gregor’s furniture, which he objects to, seems well-meant: she thinks he needs more room in his insect state to crawl around. After a while, she begins neglecting Gregor. When he tries to approach her one last time, she turns on him viciously, falsely accusing him of wanting to kick the rest of the family out of the house, saying that he is not really Gregor but a creature that must be got rid of. The story seems to be suggesting that no one is to be trusted.

Isolation and Self-Sacrifice

Gregor seems to have no close friends at work or elsewhere, and no romantic attachments; he is not very close with his family, except for his sister, who it turns out cannot be trusted; he seems to lead a lonely, isolated life even before his transformation, and the transformation reinforces his situation. As an insect, he cannot communicate at all, and he is forced to stay in his room; he is cut off almost entirely from the rest of humanity.

As an insect, he can still hear, however, so he knows what others want, but they cannot know what he wants. This seems an apt situation for Gregor to end up in, because his life even before his transformation seems to have been one of catering to others’ needs while suppressing his own.

Escaping

Although in some ways the transformation reinforces Gregor’s situation, in other ways becoming an insect is a way for him to escape his unhappy life. No longer will he have to work at his burdensome job; instead, he can spend his days scurrying around his room, something he seems to enjoy. One of the themes is the joy of escaping from one’s responsibilities.

Seizing Power

Although this is not a route Gregor is able to pursue successfully, the story does indicate that some people are able to reverse the power relations in their lives. Gregor seems able only to remain downtrodden or to escape to insectdom; but his father is able to overthrow the domination of the three lodgers and recapture the authority in his house.

Interestingly, he can only do this after Gregor himself, the self-sacrificing, downtrodden one, is dead, perhaps suggesting that the presence of a self-sacrificing person drains those around him.

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