The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka is perhaps one of the most well known and respected authors there is, and reading him was a wonderful experience. I am glad that I started with The Metamorphosis, a very short novella and perhaps one his most well known works.

This story is full of metamorphoses. The central metamorphosis is that of Gregor Samsa, the central character of this story. Gregor awakes one morning after disturbing dreams to find that he has transformed into a giant insect of some unspecified form. He finds that he barely has any control over his body can can longer communicate with anyone else. The story then details his demise from this event.

Before his transformation, Gregor was the soul financial support to his family, working horrendous hours as a travelling salesman to repay his fathers debts. In fact, it is intimated that prior to his transformation no one in Gregor's family paid him any significant attention; he was simply the bread winner that came and went according to his work schedule. Once it becomes clear that in his transformed state, Gregor will no longer be able to work, his family begin to see him as hindrance rather than a help. They must find other ways of gaining income. As it turns out there is still some money that his father had not spent and his parents and siblings find work in their own different ways. His family, however, resent their change in station from the supported to the supporters and it becomes clear that in some ways they have in fact been taking advantage of Gregor's hardworking and kind nature.

Whilst I felt for Gregor's family after they experienced the initial shock and loss upon discovering his new nature, I quickly recognised just how heartless they truly were. Gregor is always thinking of them and they are always thinking of themselves. For example, realising how uncomfortable his sister feels around him, he begins to cover himself with a sheet so that she cannot see his body. He says of her reaction:
One day, in order to spare her even this sight, he spent four hours carrying the bed sheet over to the couch in his back and arranged it so that he was completely covered and his sister would not be able to see him even if she bent down. If she did not think this sheet was necessary then all she has to do was take it off again, as it was clear enough that it was no pleasure for Gregor to cut himself off so completely. She left the sheet where it was. Gregor even though he glimpsed a look of gratitude one time when he carefully looked out from under the sheet to see how his sister liked the new arrangement".
Spoiler in the following section: You might think that this is only a natural reaction to discovering your brother has turned into a giant insect, but she slowly makes it clear that her feelings are more hurtful than that.  I was extremely distressed for Gregor when his family found him after his death:
"'That's what I said', replied the cleaner, and to prove it she gave Gregor's body another shove with the broom, sending it sideways across the floor. Mrs Samsa made a movement as if she wanted to hold back the broom, but did not complete it. 'Now then', said Mr Samsa, 'lets give thanks to God for that'. He crossed himself, and the three women followed his example."
After everything he had done for them, they were unable to show him any respect in death. End of spoilers.

In the end Gregor's family saw him as the burden and the parasite, when in fact it had been them living off him for the last significant period of their lives. What they resented him for, they were just as guilty of.

In a way, I also thought that Gregor's metamorphosis was in a way a social comment on the balance between our working and our personal lives. In becoming the insect that he does, Gregor is in a way relieved to be escaping the life of drudgery and control he was experiencing as a worker. He becomes a true individual, a truer version of himself. He has time to reflect on his life, time that he has never really had before. It is so true that work can overrun our personal lives and our sense of individuality. I don't think it was a coincidence that Gregor was transformed into an insect. Workers are often compared to some type of insect, ants usually. As workers, we often get lost in the multitudes of other people, all working for other people as we are told with little variations to our schedules. What Gregor was able to do was to step outside of this and reflect on who and what he really was.

The more that I think about it, the more I wonder at the density of such a small book. There are so many themes and messages in this book that it is almost overwhelming; workers, capitalism, individuality, isolation, family, money. I even considered whether the metamorphosis was literal or symbolic? Does it even matter?Although I don't like to say this (it sounds a bit cliche), this is truly a work of art. Kafka's style is so formal yet simple. The tragic events are not masked by endless description, in fact the simplicity of the writing only serves to emphasis the tragedy of the events that unfold.

The lesson that I most took from The Metamorphosis was how important it is to have some perspective on your life.

Summary

What kind of read is this?
I was surprised at how easy it to read. For some reason I had in my mind that Kafka must be a difficult author to read and understand, but this was written in a very simple and stark style and was therefore easy and quick to read.

Do I recommend this story?
Yes, it really is something that makes you think about so many different things. And you can't help but feel terribly sorry for Gregor.

Do I recommend that you buy this story?
I just printed it off the internet to be honest. You could buy, you could borrow it from the library; I don't think that it really matters. It will be a story that deserves re-reading.


Star Rating

6 / 8

Really enjoyable and well written. I would recommend it.


11 comments

  1. Thanks for the review -- my classics book group is reading this in September so it looks like it will be a good one for discussion.

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  2. I read this a few years ago and, like you said, it is very easy to read, but it took me about two weeks to be able to pick another book afterwards because I was still analysing it in my head (I probably still am, after all these years).

    It really has a great depth that would seem impossible in such a short story.

    And yours was a great review.

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  3. Vladimir Nabokov called the Metamorphoses the most purely autobiographical novel ever written. That sort of gives it a new slant, huh?

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  4. This is such a strange book, but it's so good too. I just remember being so mad at his family by the end of it.

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  5. This book's always sounded a tad too strange for me! I know, I know - it is incredibly deep and thought-provoking, but, I've just avoided reading it.

    I will read it someday soon, and your review does make me want to read it as well - which is a good thing! Thanks!

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  6. Avid Reader - I was too. At one stage I actually got a pencil and underlined a sentence and wrote "angry" in the margin because I was so angry at this family! Ive never actually written a margin before, I suppose that is saying something.

    I am pleased that other people found the depth so incredible as well. I feel like its not one of the stories that you absolutely love, because it just too thoughtful in its content. You can't really fall for it, because all you can do is wonder about it.

    Does that make sense?

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  7. This was one of the stories on my "Top 25" that I reviewed last Friday, and I like it, but I've never been crazy about it somehow. I appreciate it well-enough, I suppose, and it's certainly worth reading, but for whatever reason I've never loved it. I like "The Trial" better. Still, above all else, this is a very interesting story, and will certainly make you think.

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