From the Franz Kafka Biography site: The cover illustration is a lithograph by Ottomar Starke. When Kafka learned that Starke was to do an illustration, he wrote: "The insect itself must not be illustrated by a drawing. It cannot be shown at all, not even from a distance".
Online resources for Franz Kafka and The Metamorphosis can be found at this post.
There has been much scholarly ink spilled on The Metamorphosis so I know I won’t be bringing anything new to the table. Instead I’ll focus on a few of the areas that interested me upon my first reading of this powerful story.
The narration of the story struck me immediately, with most of the narration through Gregor Samsa’s consciousness and an occasional shift to a third person narrator. When reading it is important to keep the perspective in mind in order to know what is fact and what is opinion. The motives of the family members are usually described through Gregor’s eyes and he is extremely generous when attributing the reasons for their actions. Because he is so charitable in his dealing with his family, he assumes their actions toward him spring from feelings similar to his. Is he right or wrong? Kafka is a master at ambiguity. The actions of the family members after Gregor’s death, narrated (necessarily) from an omniscient third person, help shed some light on what they might have really felt during Gregor’s transformative stage.
Even with those clues, it is still difficult to fully explain the reasons behind their actions. The title of the work could have easily been titled The Metamorphoses since all of the family members undergo dramatic changes. It is clear that selfish reasons drive much of their behavior, but at some point their behavior does change in order to plan for the future and help the family (or what is left of it in their eyes). Even then, the comparison with Gregor paints them in an unflattering light since he selflessly sacrificed in order to help the family versus their constant complaining “Why did this happen to us?” attitude. I don’t recall Gregor ever questioning events. Instead he tried to help the family and was relieved to see things improving for them. His feeble and ineffective attempts at communicating with them is in stark contrast to their thinking him incapable of understanding (and thus they stop trying).
Kafka’s writing connects on several levels and I think it is easy to read as much as you want to into his work. For example, I don’t think the relationship in the story between Gregor and his father is meant to represent the relationship between Kafka and his father. Yet it is part of a family dynamic that Kafka wants to highlight, that home is not always a warm and nourishing place. The marginalizing shame and impotence that the father feels after his business fails gradually transfers to Gregor after his metamorphosis. The mother is the one family member that still believes (or at least is open to the idea) that the insect is still Gregor, that he can understand what is being said and how they are treating him. Yet she is too weak, both in physical and character strength, to improve his treatment by the other family members. The distance between Gregor and his family seems to be represented by the ever-present doors between them.
Gregor’s physical transformation happens overnight, but it takes a while for him to lose his “humanness.” His family, on the other hand, seems to be the true insects (or parasites) during the story, rarely achieving human or humane status. Gregor’s gradual loss of senses and ability mirrors his shrinking as a human—speech, taste, sight, mobility all diminish over time. All of these losses also diminish his contact with other humans and his family—his alienation begins with the outside world, moves to his family, and ultimately lodges in himself. The marginalization of Gregor is a huge blow as he took pride in his accomplishments and contributions at work and at home. As the chance of his resuming that role in the family weakens, he initially feels relief that they will be all right, but that is gradually replaced by something akin to nihilism. There is no longer a reason for him to exist. The one feeling that remains for Gregor is pain, which started when he awakened in an insect state and he tried to move his body. His body is in constant pain after the apple is lodged in his back, and while that dulls somewhat over time, his mental pain increases. He had been able to justify the inconveniences and sacrifices he made, but now that is no longer possible.
The term “Kafkaesque” seems to be overused at times, often simply describing a situation that is puzzling or surreal. So what makes The Metamorphosis Kafkaesque? To answer that question, I would point to the strictly rational action that follows the improbable, grotesque transformation. Gregor wakes up as a giant insect, and instead of pondering the change, he plans to catch the next train to work. In order to accomplish that, he looks at the (ordinarily) minor hurdles he must now transcend—getting out of bed, opening the door, etc. Everything flows in a completely rational manner as long as you accept the enormous transformation premise in the first sentence. The change unmoors Gregor and his family, but it also reveals what is underneath the fragile surface. It is as if a grotesque and impossible presentation exposes the true nature of things. Another Kafkaesque treatment is the inability to identify how to solve the problem. Because the situation itself is inexplicable, there is no possible valid solution despite multiple attempts in a rational manner to find one.
There is a risk that comments on this work would exceed the length of the story. So to avoid that fate, I’ll simply note a few other items that interested me:
- Names: I believe the only given names in the story are Gregor and his sister Grete. Even more telling is that his parents are “mother” and “father” when he is alive, but after his death they are referred to as Mr. Samsa and Mrs. Samsa.
- Hunger: apparently a theme used often in Kafka. Even though Gregor’s sense of taste is affected early (or rather he prefers rotten food), he still experiences hunger. Only as he feels less needed and loses purpose does his desire for food diminish.
- Comparison to other authors: having read D. H. Lawrence lately, it struck me that there are some similarities in their outlooks. Both writers demonstrate that there are feelings or desires that lie beneath the surface which can be extremely troubling—Lawrence more in man’s relations to others, Kafka in man’s basic nature. In both writers, family is not always a warm, nourishing place. Connections with others can be a difficult, tortured affair. Lawrence seems to imply that the connections can ultimately be worth the effort, Kafka is a little more ambiguous. Again, this is based on limited readings of both writers, but it will be interesting to see if I still see a similarity after reading more of both authors.
- Threes: the number three is present throughout the work. While it may have a deeper meaning, the simple aesthetics of there being so many occurrences happening in threes yields a consistent pattern and feel to the story. After a while the reader begins to frame everything that happens in threes.
- Bureaucracy: bureaucracy as an unrelenting nightmare is present with the chief clerk coming to check on Gregor’s lateness. This is apparently the first time he has showed up late to work and he is automatically suspected of laziness.
- The outer form reflecting the inner life: I’ve often heard Kafka described, and this story in particular, as an example of the outer appearance reflecting the inner feelings of characters. I don’t see that description fitting this story, at least when it comes to Gregor. He seemed to have a fairly healthy view of himself and his family. Whether or not his view is accurate is another matter, but he took pride in what he contributed to his family and the company. He retains a humanness after he is transformed, the self-loathing starting after he is unable to assist or connect with his family. Maybe I’m mischaracterizing or misunderstanding the argument (or maybe The Metamorphosis isn’t meant to fit that description).
- Music: as Gregor has become more insect-like, the music his sister plays connects with him. While part of it is his lover for her and his dream to send her to a Conservatorium, the music itself moves him despite his growing indifference to everything else. “Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?” The ability of music to connect with Gregor so deeply, even after he had descended so deeply into his insect state, characterizes its power to move on a basic level.
- Comedy: I can only imagine Kafka reading this to his friends and their laughter hinders him from continuing. It is easy to forget or overlook the comedy within the action. The scene of the charwoman poking Gregor’s body with a broomstick can move the reader to tears and giggles simultaneously.
- Style: perfectly described in this section of Nabakov’s lecture—“Its clarity, its precise and formal intonation in such striking contrast to the nightmare matter of his tale. No poetical metaphors ornament his stark black-and-white story. The limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy. Contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.”
- Irony: the entire work brims with irony. At the very heart of the story is the mutual need between Gregor and his family. They need him in order to avoid dreary requirements (providing money, shelter, etc.), while he needs them in order to fulfill his own life. They are the parasites, but he needs them nonetheless. Even though his love for them does not seem to diminish, it is when the family pronounces it no longer needs Gregor that his life no longer has meaning and death is an acceptable option.
That Kafka’s ambiguity and uncertainty can resonate within the reader on multiple levels is a testament to his achievement. I have avoided reading his work since college because I found much of it troubling and exasperating. If my enjoyment of The Metamorphosis is an indication, I intend to read the beauty, troubling and comic, within more of his works.