Kafka wrote "The Metamorphosis" at the end of 1912, soon after he finished "The judgment," and it is worth noting that the two stories have much in common: a businessman and bachelor like Georg Bendemann of "The judgment," Gregor Samsa is confronted with an absurd fate in the form of a "gigantic insect," while Georg is confronted by absurdity in the person of his father. Also both men are guilty: like Georg in "The judgment," Gregor Samsa (note the similarity of first names) is guilty of having cut himself off from his true self — long before his actual metamorphosis — and, to the extent he has done so, he is excluded from his family. His situation of intensifying anxiety, already an unalterable fact at his awakening, corresponds to Georg's after his sentence. More so than Georg, however, who comes to accept his judgment, out of proportion though it may be, Gregor is a puzzled victim brought before the Absolute — here in the form of the chief clerk — which forever recedes into the background. This element of receding, an important theme in Kafka's works, intensifies the gap between the hero and the unknown source of his condemnation. Thus the reader finds himself confronted with Gregor's horrible fate and is left in doubt about the source of Gregor's doom and the existence of enough personal guilt to warrant such a harsh verdict. The selection of an ordinary individual as victim heightens the impact of the absurd. Gregor is not an enchanted prince in a fairy tale, yearning for deliverance from his animal state; instead, he is a rather average salesman who awakens and finds himself transformed into an insect.
In a sense, Gregor is the archetype of many of Kafka's male characters: he is a man reluctant to act, fearful of possible mishaps, rather prone to exaggerated contemplation, and given to juvenile, surrogate dealings with sex. For example, he uses his whole body to anxiously guard the magazine clipping of a lady in a fur cape; this is a good illustration of his pitiful preoccupation with sex. Though it would be unfair to blame him for procrastinating, for not getting out of bed on the first morning of his metamorphosis, we have every reason to assume that he has procrastinated long before this — especially in regard to a decision about his unbearable situation at work. Gregor has also put off sending his sister to the conservatory, although he promised to do so. He craves love and understanding, but his prolonged inactivity gradually leads him to feel ever more indifferent about everything. It is through all his failures to act, then, rather than from specific irresponsible actions he commits, that Gregor is guilty. The price his guilt exacts is that of agonizing loneliness.
Plays on words and obvious similarities of names point to the story's highly autobiographical character. The arrangement of the vowels in Samsa is the same as in Kafka. More significantly yet, samsja means "being alone" in Czech. (In this connection, it is noteworthy that in "Wedding Preparations in the Country," an earlier use of the metamorphosis motif, the hero's name is Raban. The same arrangement of the vowel a prevails, and there is also another play on words: Rabe is German for raven, the Czech word for which is kavka; the raven, by the way, was the business emblem of Kafka's father.)
It is easy to view Gregor as an autobiographical study of Kafka himself. Gregor's father, his mother, and his sister also have their parallels with Kafka's family. Gregor feels that he has to appease his father, who "approaches with a grim face" toward him, and it is his father's bombardment with apples that causes his death. The two women, on the other hand, have the best of intentions — his mother pleading for her son's life, believing that Gregor's state is only some sort of temporary sickness; she even wants to leave the furniture in his room the way it is "so that when he comes back to us he will find everything as it was and will be able to forget what has happened all the more easily." And Grete, so eager to understand and help her brother at first, soon changes; she does not want to forgo her "normal" life and is the first one to demand the insect's removal. These people simply do not understand, and the reason they do not understand is that they are habitually too "preoccupied with their immediate troubles."
Gregor's situation in his family is that of Kafka within his own family: he had a tyrannical father who hated or, at best, ignored his son's writing; a well-meaning mother, who was not strong enough to cope with her husband's brutality; and a sister, Ottla, whom Kafka felt very close to. Shortly after completing "The Metamorphosis," Kafka wrote in his diary: "I am living with my family, the dearest people, and yet I am more estranged from them than from a stranger."
Returning to the subject of Gregor, what strikes one most immediately is the fact that although he is outwardly equipped with all the features of an insect, he reacts like a human being. Gregor never identifies himself with an insect. It is important to realize, therefore, that Gregor's metamorphosis actually takes place in his "uneasy dreams," which is something altogether different than saying it is the result of the lingering impact of these dreams. An interpretation often advanced categorizes Gregor's metamorphosis as an attempt at escaping his deep-seated conflict between his true self and the untenable situation at the company. He begs the chief clerk for precisely that situation which has caused him to be so unhappy; he implores him to help him maintain his position and, while doing so, completely forgets that he is a grotesquerie standing in front of the chief clerk.
What bothers Gregor most about his situation at the company is that there is no human dimension in what he is doing: "All the casual acquaintances never become intimate friends." If it were not for his parents' debt to his chief, whom — typical of Kafka's predilection for the anonymity of top echelons — we never hear about in concrete terms, Gregor would have quit working long ago. As will be shown later, he would have had every reason to do so. As it turns out, he was, and still is, too weak. Even now in his helpless condition, he continues to think of his life as a salesman in "normal" terms; he plans the day ahead as if he could start it like every other day, and he is upset only because of his clumsiness.
Although one might expect such a horrible fate to cause a maximum of intellectual and emotional disturbance in a human being — and Gregor remains one inwardly until his death — he stays surprisingly calm. His father shows the same incongruous behavior when confronted with Gregor's fate; he acts as if this fate were something to be expected from his son. The maid treats him like a curious pet, and the three lodgers are amused, rather than appalled, by the sight of the insect. The reason for the astounding behavior of all these people is found in their incapacity to comprehend disaster. This incapacity, in turn, is a concomitant symptom of their limitless indifference toward everything happening to Gregor. Because they have maintained a higher degree of sensitivity, the women in Gregor's family respond differently at first, Gregor's mother even resorting to a fainting spell to escape having to identify the insect with her son.
Gregor's unbelievably stayed reaction to his horrible fate shows Kafka, the master painter of the grotesque, at his best. In paragraphs bristling with the most meticulous descriptions of the absurd, Kafka achieves the utmost in gallows humor and irony. Gregor's crawling up and down the wall, his delighting in dirt, and the fact that he "takes food only as a pastime" — all these are described in detail and presented as normal; at the same time, however, on the morning of his metamorphosis, Gregor "catches at some kind of irrational hope" that nobody will open the door. The comical effect of this reversal of the normal and the irrational is then further heightened by the servant girl's opening the door as usual.
Let us return to Gregor's conflict. His professional and social considerations are stronger than his desire to quit working for his company. In fact, he even toys with the idea of sleeping and forgetting "all this nonsense." This "nonsense" refers to his transformation, which he does not want to accept because he sees it only as something interfering with his daily routine. His insect appearance must not be real because it does not suit Gregor the businessman. By ignoring or negating his state, he can, of course, in no way eliminate it. The contrary seems to be the case: the more he wants to ignore it, the more horrible its features become; finally be has to shut his eyes "to keep from seeing his struggling legs."
As a representative of the run-of-the-mill mentality of modern man, Gregor is frustrated by his totally commercialized existence and yet does nothing about it, other than try to escape by new calculations along purely commercial lines. He vows that once he has sufficient money, he will quit, and yet he has no idea what he will do. He does not really know his innermost self, which is surrounded by an abyss of emptiness. This is why Kafka draws this "innermost self" as something strange and threatening to Gregor's commercialized existence.
The insect is Gregor's "innermost self" It refuses to be further subjected to the miserable life Gregor has led in his concern for money. At last it has intruded into Gregor's life and it is not going to be chased away like a ghost. Having emerged under the cover of night, as also happens in "A Country Doctor," this "self" seeks a confrontation with the other parts of Gregor Samsa. Time and time again, Kafka pictures the alienated "inner self" of his heroes in the form of animals — for instance, in "Investigations of a Dog," "The Burrow," and "A Report to an Academy." Sometimes, too, Kafka uses absurd authorities of law to represent man's suppressed and estranged "self," as in The Trial. In this connection, it is valuable to compare the opening scenes of this novel and our story: Joseph K. was taken by surprise immediately on awakening, just as Gregor is here. Both men were seized in the morning, during the short period of consciousness between sleep and the beginning of one's daily routine. Joseph, too, did not hear the alarm, and he, like Gregor, was taken prisoner. Both men try to shake off their fate by acting as if it did not really exist, but, in both instances, the apparent delusion turns out to be terrifying reality.
The insect represents all the dimensions of Gregor's existence which elude description because they transcend rational and empirical categories. This is why Kafka was so adamant about not having the insect reproduced in any conventional manner when the story was published. He wrote his publisher that it would be wrong to draw the likeness of the insect on the book cover because any literal representation would be meaningless. Gregor — after his metamorphosis — can be depicted only to the extent he can see and grasp himself — hence not at all or merely by implication. Here, as in The Trial, the world is commensurate with the hero's concept of it. The agreement which Kafka and his publisher finally reached permitted illustrating the scene at the beginning of the third part where Gregor, "lying in the darkness of his room, invisible to his family, could see them all at the lamp-lit table and listen to their talk" through the living room door.
It has been said that the story draws its title not from Gregor's metamorphosis, which is already an established fact at the beginning, but from the change which the members of his family — especially Grete — undergo as his fate fulfills itself. Indeed, in contrast to Gregor's deterioration and ultimate death, Grete's fortunes and those of her family are steadily improving. In fact, it is through her eventually negative reaction to Gregor's misfortune that Grete finds a degree of self-assurance. Her father, also as a result of Gregor's incapacitating transformation, becomes active once more and seemingly younger after years of letting his son take care of the family.
Of all the members of the family, Grete plays perhaps the most significant role in Gregor's life because with her "alone had he remained intimate." He sleeps with his face toward her room, he once promised to send her to the conservatory, and he suffers more from the emotional wounds she inflicts upon him than from the apples which his father throws at him — fatal and symbolic bullets of perniciousness though they are. There is some evidence that his relationship with Grete has strong incestual overtones, as will be shown later. This aspect of the story is also highly autobiographical. Such lines as "he would never let her out of his room, at least not as long as he lived" and "he would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck" certainly appear in this light. Interestingly enough, Kafka wrote in his diary in 1912 that "the love between brother and sister is but a re-enactment of the love between father and mother." Be this as it may, as soon as Grete turns against Gregor, he deteriorates rapidly. Once she convinces her family that they must get rid of the "idea that this is Gregor," they ignore him completely and eventually consult about disposing of it, not him.
The most terrible insight which the story conveys is that even the most beautiful relationships between individuals are based on delusions. No one knows what he or anybody else really is: Gregor's parents, for instance, have no idea of their son's serious conflict, much less of the extent of his sacrifice for them. As Kafka puts it, "His parents did not understand this so well." They have no idea that one's nature can be deformed by the continued degradation it suffers, but now that this deformation has taken on such horrible proportions they are puzzled and look at Gregor as something alien. Typically enough, "the words he uttered were no longer understandable." The concern they should have shown for him finds a perverted outlet in their preoccupation with total strangers, the three lodgers who get an enormous amount of attention simply because of the rent they pay. Finally, it is only consistent with their way of thinking that Gregor's parents should do away with the insect: pretense alone makes the world go round. Put differently, truth and life are mutually exclusive.
Gregor, for example, is mistaken about his family. He has believed it was his duty to help them pay their debts and secure a financially carefree life, and he has done this by selling his soul to the company. The truth is that his father has far more money than Gregor knows about; also, he was not nearly as sick as he has made Gregor believe. Gregor's self-chosen sacrifice has been senseless. Worse than that, the more he has done for his family, the more "they had simply got used to it." Gregor's relationship with the members of his family, and also their dealings among each other, are determined solely by the contrived order they have set tip for themselves. Their lives are based on ever-new compromises and calculations. In Gregor's "uneasy dreams," the compromises and calculations finally rupture and, from them, truth rises in the form of a "gigantic insect."
As the maid sweeps out the dead insect, the Samsas have arrived at the threshold of what looks like a bright future. The harmony between them seems to be the result of their common fate of being drawn together by the misfortune that befell them. This return of the family to a life unfettered by a tragedy like Gregor's has often been seen as proof of their hypocrisy, possibly foreshadowing the emergence of another "inner insect" from one of them. The danger of this view is that it tends to see Gregor's transformation only as a sort of psychological mechanism, thus detracting from its uniqueness and absurdity. The basic question here is this: who is to call another person — in this case, the entire Samsa family — hypocritical simply because this other person has the strength (and perhaps brutality) necessary to overcome tragedy? Certainly not Kafka (See "A Hunger Artist").
It has been argued that the epilogue is poor because it stands as a cheerful counterpoint to the tragic and absurd metamorphosis of Gregor. No matter how natural and, therefore, justifiable the family's return to a "normal life" may be, so runs the argument, it cannot possibly make up for the horror of what has happened. We must ask ourselves, therefore, if Kafka intended this. Is it not exactly the naturalness of the family's reaction and their callousness accompanying this "healthy reaction" that emphasizes the absurdity of Gregor's fate?
The questions pertaining to Gregor's identity are central to the story. The narrator brings up this problem of identity when he asks: "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" Since only humans respond to music in the way the insect responds to Grete's playing the violin, we realize that he is indeed part human. The violin playing is also a part of the countless allusions to Gregor's repressed sexual desires, particularly his longing for his sister. As Gregor lies in front of Grete and listens to her music, he has only her on his mind. The confusion of violin playing and player — and his inability to admit this to himself — are they part of Gregor's guilt? Did he originally want to send her to a conservatory as a kind of "messenger" to a spiritual realm? Does it mean that he, too, once wanted to become a musician? His utter loneliness illustrates the abyss into which all these questions lead. It is most clear that Gregor responds to the music only now that he is not the traveling salesman he used to be, even though he is, in part, an insect. Thus Gregor's "animal state" seems to be a precondition of his yearning for this "unknown food." This food may very well be physical — that is, sexual. The ambiguity about the nature of the food remains — as does the uncertainty about whether Gregor is experiencing only a relapse into the sphere of the animalistic or whether or not he has been lifted up to a higher plane. His identity cannot be established from his reactions because whenever Gregor is impaired as a human being, he reacts positively as an animal and vice versa. When the women in his family clean out his room, for instance, he resents this as a human being, not as an insect. By the same token, mention of his horrible appearance bothers the human element in him, whereas it is the animal in him that is hurt when he is ignored. The most plausible answer is that, although he is an insect, Gregor nevertheless transcends his animal condition, craving spiritual and sexual food. During his existence as a salesman, he certainly lacked both these aspects of life. ("A Hunger Artist" is the most haunting treatment of this theme of the spiritual nourishment which cannot be found on earth. Also, in "Investigations of a Dog," the central issue concerns making spiritual food available through music.) Man or animal: maybe the answer cannot be answered here or in any of Kafka's works. Despite their different interpretations, all of Kafka's animals the insect here, as well as the horses in "A Country Doctor," and the ape in "A Report to an Academy" — have one thing in common: like Kafka's human beings, they have lost the place which divine creation originally assigned to them. Like all creatures, man or animal, Gregor has lost his identity without, however, becoming a true insect. Perhaps Gregor is best identified as belonging to the vast realm of the in-between. His (or its) agonizing anxiety reflects his (or its) fate of belonging nowhere.
As an insect, Gregor cannot communicate with his family, but he does try "to return to the human circle." Through Grete's music, he seems to accomplish this to an extent which permits him to die at peace with himself, "thinking of his family with tenderness and love." The pretense is at an end when he finally takes his spiritual (and sexual) component into account and does justice to it (them) by permitting himself to become attuned to Grete's playing (and to Grete herself).
Concerning the story's formal aspects, a few observations should be made. It is divided into three parts, each dealing with a different aspect of Gregor's attempt to break out of his imprisonment. The first one deals with his professional conflict, the second deals primarily with his reaction to the increasingly tense alienation within his family, and the last deals with Gregor's death or, expressed positively, his liberation. Throughout the story, Gregor's deteriorating condition is in direct contrast to his family's slow but steady metamorphosis from sheer horror to self-satisfaction. In a sense, the three parts correspond to the dramatic pattern of exposition, conflict, and denouement.
Within the story's three-part construction, Kafka also deals with the concept of time. Awakening from his "uneasy dreams," Gregor is fully conscious throughout the first part — that is, for one hour, beginning at half past six. His consciousness sets in too late, however, for his train left at five. A frequently used device in Kafka's works, the discrepancy between the time shown on the clock and the time as experienced by the hero symbolizes his alienation. This is why Gregor's sense of time begins to vanish in the second part, when he wakes up "out of a deep sleep, more like a swoon than a sleep." Typically, time is expressed in rather general terms, such as "twilight" or "long evening." There is no longer the regular routine of the first day; Gregor spends his time crawling up and down and around his room. Vague indications of time are reflected in such terms as "soon," "later," and "often," blurring the boundary lines between what used to be precisely measurable units of time. At one point in the story, the narrator tells us that "about a month" probably has elapsed; on another occasion, Gregor mentions that "the lack of all direct human speech for the past two months" has confused his mind. The lonely quality of Gregor's bachelor existence assumes ever more self-destructive features, of which he is fully aware.
Time being so related to movement, Gregor's increasing lack of direction and continuous crawling around in circles finally result in his total loss of a sense of time. When his mother and sister remove the furniture from his room in the second part of the story, he loses his "last guideline of direction." Paradoxically, "The Metamorphosis" is enacted outside the context of time, and because of this, time is always frightfully present. As Kafka put it in an aphorism, "It is only our concept of time which permits us to use the term 'The Last judgment'; in reality, it is a permanent judgment."
Gregor is doomed without knowing the charges or the verdict, and all he can do is bow to a powerful Unknown. And this is all the reader can do. Following the narrator, he can view all angles of Gregor's torment. Not one person within the story can do that, Gregor included. They are all shut off from seeing any perspective other than their own. This is their curse. There is no textual evidence in the story which explicitly tells us the cause of Gregor's fate. But because we too suffer from the sense of aloneness that Gregor does and because Kafka calls on us to share Gregor's tribulations with him, we discover that his experiences are analogous to our own.