Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Kafka, The Metamorphosis
In one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, Franz Kafka confronts us with the premise, or “thesis” even, of The Metamorphosis:
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. (3)
From this point onwards, any reader who is not brain-dead will be on the lookout for clues as to the true meaning of this statement. How are we to take this? What does it “mean” that the protagonist has woken up as an insect? Is it a dream? (We’re told no after a few more lines.) A delusion? A wish-fulfilment fantasy? Is it metaphoric? A manifestation of how he feels for some reason or a set of reasons? A dehumanizing regression? In any case, how is this opening statement and its implications a good introduction into 20th-century arts and literature?
The rest of the first paragraph offers material of interest to those taxonomically inclined to determine what type of insect Gregor has become.
The second paragraph begins with the noticeably passive, “What’s happened to me?” — a question we’re apt to take in a larger sense once we’ve learned more about Gregor’s life. Among the potentially relevant details is the fact that Gregor considers his room — his surroundings — “a little on the small side” (3). The “fabric samples” tell us what kind of traveling salesman he is; and, because the description is so vivid, we wonder what the significance is of this item:
the picture which he had recently cut out of a glossy magazine and lodged in a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared. (3)
The image of wealth and high fashion stands in sharp contrast to the Samsa apartment we’ll be introduced to soon. The woman is wrapped in the skin of something she isn’t, but this is considered beauty and wealth. Insects are a sign of poverty. Freudian psychoanalytic critics have their own interpretation of this image.
The weather is “overcast” (3), so dreary at least and perhaps oppressive. Gregor tries to get back to sleep, his hope of “forgetting all this nonsense” (3) suggesting escapism, but his insect form prevents him from attaining a comfortable position. “He must have tried it a hundred times, closing his eyes so as not to have to see his squirming legs” (3); Gregor is reluctant truly to see himself.
Most of his ruminations concern his job: “the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate” (4). One could take his cliché job complaints as an avoidance mechanism, perhaps, but we also learn that he tolerates his crappy job only because his parents are in debt to his employer, and paying it off “will probably take another five or six years” of breadwinning (4). “He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (5). Gregor should have caught the five o’clock train but he seems to have slept though the alarm and is considerably late now. Gregor frets about making the seven o’clock train but he’ll “have to hurry like a madman, and the line of samples wasn’t packed yet” (5) — really an issue at this point? Interesting is the extent to which Gregor operates in denial of his insect state. “In fact, Gregor felt fine, with the exception of his drowsiness” (5). When his mother calls to him about catching the next train,
Gregor was shocked to hear his own voice answering, unmistakably his own voice, true, but in which, as if from below, an insistent distressed chirping intruded, which left the clarity of his words intact only for a moment really, before so badly garbling them as they carried that no one could be sure if he had heard right. (5)
Both his parents call to him in friendly concerned harassment, and responding is difficult for him: he “made an effort, by meticulous pronunciation and by inserting long pauses between individual words, to eliminate everything from his voice that might betray him” (6). Because Kafka had tuberculosis, these descriptions of Gregor’s failing voice are interesting. His sister wants to see him, but fortunately, he thinks, he has taken a “precaution he had adopted from his business trips, of locking all the doors during the night even at home” (6). He tells himself that the insect form is “imaginary,” and “he was eager to see how today’s fantasy would gradually fade away” (6). Gregor tries to get out of bed but finds “he could not control” his many constantly moving legs (7). “‘Just don’t stay in bed being useless,’ Gregor said to himself” (7).
His biggest misgiving came from his concern about the loud crash that was bound to occur and would probably create, if not terror, at least anxiety behind all the doors. (8)
Yet we soon find out the room is carpeted (9)! So what a misery of constant monitoring from his family. After 7:00 the doorbell rings and Gregor knows immediately that the prying manager from the office has come to check up on him.
Why was only Gregor condemned to work for a firm where at the slightest omission they immediately suspected the worst? Were all employees louts without exception, wasn’t there a single loyal, dedicated worker among them who, when he had not fully utilized a few hours of the morning for the firm, was driven half-mad by pangs of conscience and was actually unable to get out of bed? (9)
Gregor manages to fall to the floor. His sister and father inform him that the manager is waiting for him. The manager and his mother also call to him. He hears his father telling the manager there must be something wrong with Gregor since he is always so focused on his work “that he never goes out nights” (10). Gregor of course cannot let anyone into his room, considering what he calls euphemistically his “condition” (11). The manager begins officiously chiding Gregor, hinting that his tardiness could be taken as a questionable matter of “cash payments recently entrusted to [him]” (11). Gregor blurts out at length an anxious plea for patience and tries to prop himself up so as to open the door. “‘Did you understand a word?’ the manager was asking his parents. ‘He isn’t trying to make fools of us, is he? … That was the voice of an animal'” (13). Gregor’s mother starts panicking, calling for his sister to fetch a doctor, and his father calls for a locksmith. “It was true that they no longer understood his words” (13), but Gregor is encouraged by this show of attention:
He felt integrated into human society once again and hoped for marvelous, amazing feats from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing sharply between them. (13)
Exuding yicky insect substances, Gregor is able to turn the key in the lock with his jaws. The manager lets out a startled “Oh” (15) and Gregor’s mother seems nonplussed. “With a hostile expression his father clenched his fist, as if to drive Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly around the living room” (15). Gregor remains at the doorway.
In the meantime it had grown much lighter; across the street one could see clearly a section of the endless, grayish-black building opposite — it was a hospital — with its regular windows starkly piercing the façade. (15)
It’s an interesting architectural feature that a hospital, an institution representing health care, faces opposite the Samsa apartment. Its visibility — its accessibility — will later fade. We learn that Gregor’s father “would prolong [breakfast] for hours while reading various newspapers” (15), and that a photo of Gregor “from his army days, in a lieutenant’s uniform, … a carefree smile on his lips, demanding respect for his bearing and his rank” (15) hangs on the wall. Gregor tries to address the manager, proving here that he is not shirking his work responsibilities.
A man might find for a moment that he was unable to work, but that’s exactly the right time to remember his past accomplishments and to consider that later on, when the obstacle has been removed, he’s bound to work all the harder and more efficiently. (16)
He tries to rectify the mistaken stereotype of the traveling salesman and elicit some understanding. But the whole time, the manager has been backing towards the foyer. Gregor’s mother is also freaking out; “on the other hand at the sight of the spilling coffee he could not resist snapping his jaws several times in the air” (18). The manager runs off, but Gregor’s father takes the cane the manager has left, and a newspaper, and, stamping his feet, tries to drive Gregor back into his bedroom (18-19). Gregor is still accustoming himself to his uncertain mobility and gets stuck in the doorway. “If only his father did not keep making this intolerable hissing sound! It made Gregor lose his head completely” (19). In trying to get back into his room, “one of his flanks was scraped raw, ugly blotches / marred the white door” (19-20). The chapter ends:
from behind his father gave him a hard shove, which was truly his salvation, and bleeding profusely, he flew far into his room. The door was slammed shut with the cane, then at last everything was quiet. (20)
Further quotations for discussion:
“Certainly they did not want him to starve either, but perhaps they would not have been able to stand knowing any more about his meals than from hearsay, or perhaps his sister wanted to spare them even what was possibly only a minor torment, for really, they were suffering enough as it was” (25).
“Of course he actually could have paid off more of his father’s debt to the boss with this extra money, and the day on which he could have gotten rid of his job would have been much closer, but now things were undoubtedly better the way his father had arranged them” (28).
“the hospital opposite, which he used to curse because he saw so much of it, was now completely beyond his range of vision” (29).
Of course his sister tried to ease the embarrassment of the whole situation as much as possible, and as time went on, she naturally managed it better and better” (29).
“often he heard them say how much they appreciated his sister’s work, whereas until now they had frequently been annoyed with her because she had struck them as being a little useless” (31).
“With his last glance he saw the door of his room burst open as his mother rushed out ahead of his screaming sister, in her chemise, for his sister had partly undressed her while she was unconscious in order to let her breathe more freely; saw his mother run up to his father and on the way her unfastened petticoats slide to the floor one by one; and saw as, stumbling over the skirts, she forced herself onto his father, and embracing him, in complete union with him–but now Gregor’s sight went dim” (39).
“Gregor’s serious wound … seemed to have reminded even his father that Gregor was a member of the family, in spite of his present pathetic and repulsive shape, who could not be treated as an enemy; that, on the contrary, it was the commandment of family duty to swallow their disgust and endure him, endure him and nothing more” (40).
“And she broke out crying so bitterly that her tears poured down onto her mother’s face, which she wiped off with mechanical movements of her hand” (51).
“Growing quieter and communicating almost unconsciously through glances, they thought that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of the ride their daughter got up first and stretched her young body” (58).
“Art for the artist is only suffering through which he releases himself for further suffering” (xx).
“As political estrangement becomes more and more the norm of Western society, and as capitalism, as Kafka said, becomes ‘the condition of the world and the soul,’ Kafka’s late fears will more and more provide the frame in which we read his work” (xxi).
QUESTIONS & CONSIDERATIONS
In what ways is this a representative 20th-century work?
- Absurdity and Enigma.
- The nuclear family as oppressive enslaving structure.
- Employment as meaningless oppressive enslaving structure.
The work is most like what school of art?
- Expressionism — the cover illustration on the Bantam edition is of Max Beckmann’s Family Picture, 1920.
Consider the innovative and appropriate form of the narrative structure: “radically non-Aristotelian: it has its climax at the beginning and no dénoument or conclusion” (Corngold 101).
The transformation itself:
- Symbolic? — A metaphor for what? Alienation as son, writer, Jew, bachelor, TB sufferer…?
- Punishment? — For what? Usurpation? Hubris?
- Of the family too. — Consider the effects on the father, the mother, the sister.
Students note that Gregor’s room is called a “cave” at one point, and Webster notes the filth associated with his bug form. Much can be made of the father’s pelting Gregor with apples and their associations with sin and punishment. Webster includes details such as “the hospital across the street, symbolic of the therapeutic process,” disappearing from Gregor’s sight as time passes and he deteriorates (165), and the three gentlemen boarders who temporarily command the household representing the male genitalia (166). His approach overlaps with Freudian ones.
Despite all the disfavor into which Freudianism has fallen, sometimes it really does work convincingly. Kaiser makes a case for an oedipal complex that accounts for the father’s hostilities and the interpersonal power dynamics in the family. The father drives Gregor back often with phallic objects; Gregor witnesses a kind of primal scene (39) until “the typical ‘paralysis of sight’ which corresponds to the effects of repression” (Kaiser 154); and the masochistic tendencies seem even central to the premise of the story. On another tack, the relationship with his sister reminds me of the workings of a displaced incest taboo in The Wolf Man (the 1941 film, not the Freud text).
Gregor ruminates much in the first pages about the office situation for him, a traveling salesman, and of his assuming his parents’ debt. The seemingly unlikely visit by the manager to the Samsa household when Gregor is only a bit late allows for a scene in which he is driven off terrorized by the metamorphosed Gregor. Gregor is very conscious of the implications of the discovery that his father had had some money set aside secretly. Richter notes Kafka’s depiction of the “profound danger to humanity of the demands of bourgeois acquisitive life” (192). Notice Gregor’s reaction to and the implications of the removal of the furniture from his room.
Corngold, Stanley. Explanatory Notes. The Metamorphosis. By Franz Kafka. NY: Bantam Classics, 1972. 61-101.
Hawes, James. Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 1915. NY: Bantam Classics, 1972.
Kaiser, Hellmuth. “Kafka’s Fantasy of Punishment.” The Metamorphosis. By Franz Kafka. NY: Bantam Classics, 1972. 147-156.
Nowak, Jeff and Allen Ruch. “Das Schloss.” The Modern World.http://www.themodernword.com/scriptorium/kafka. 2004.
Richter, Helmut. “The Metamorphosis.” The Metamorphosis. By Franz Kafka. NY: Bantam Classics, 1972. 192-194.
Webster, Peter Dow. “Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as Death and Resurrection Fantasy.” The Metamorphosis. By Franz Kafka. NY: Bantam Classics, 1972. 157-168.