“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” With this startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first sentence, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetlelike insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing — though absurdly comic — meditation on human feelings of inadequecy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the mosst widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.” A novel about a man who finds himself transformed into a huge insect, and the effects of this change upon his life.
The character that Kafka created in Gregor is intriguing. While Gregor’s dilemma initially brings up feelings of pity and sadness in the reader, upon closer examination, one realizes that Gregor is not to be pitied at all, as his situation is a direct result of his own actions.
Prior to his transformation into an insect, Gregor had lived his life not for himself, but for his family. He worked at a job that he hated so that he could provide for his family. Even after the metamorphosis, Gregor felt guilt and shame that he could no longer provide for his family, although they showed no major concern for his condition. They were more concerned with how they were going to survive without Gregor’s income than with the loss of a family member.
The reactions of Gregor’s family members to his metamorphosis were diverse. Gregor’s sister, Grette, was initially the most sympathetic to Gregor’s situation. The evening following the transformation, she was thoughtful enough to supply Gregor with food, and when he rejected the first meal, she offered him spoiled foods that she thought he might enjoy. Grette continued to feed and clean up after Gregor even though she found the sight of him repulsive. Eventually, she did turn against him though, deciding that “human beings can’t live with such a creature.” She gave up hope and believed that she no longer had a brother.
Gregor’s mother had much difficulty dealing with Gregor’s condition. In between her fainting spells, Mrs. Samsa showed love and concern for her son. Throughout most of the story, Mrs. Samsa does not give up hope for her son’s return.
Mr. Samsa reacted quite violently to the sudden change in his household. He, more than any other member of the family, was more concerned with the inconvenience Gregor’s metamorphosis would cause than with the loss of his son. When he first glimpsed his son’s new form, he attacked him with newspaper and later threw apples at him which caused Gregor serious injury. At no point in the story, did the father show any concern for his son. Rather, each time he was confronted by Gregor, he reacted violently, almost with fear.
Gregor’s contributions were not appreciated by his family. His family did not care about his metamorphosis. They only cared about the effect that it would have on them. They did not feel sorry for him. He did not even feel sorry for himself. He, too, was more concerned with his family’s well-being than with his own. He hid himself from their eyes so as not to make them uncomfortable, despite the great discomfort he himself had to suffer by such confinement.
Kafka’s book carries a strong existentialist theme. Gregor Samsa was a weak and pitiful human who allowed himself to be used by his family. As a result of his own actions, he became this “spineless and stupid” creature. Gregor lived selflessly to a fault. Perhaps in other stories this quality would seem noble, but here it is a quality that enhances the pitifulness of Gregor’s condition and lends itself to the existential nature of the story’s theme… that the world is cold and indifferent, and that ultimately, one is responsible for one’s own situation.
This is a short story, but one that is thoroughly enjoyable. It is an intriguing, philosophical masterpiece.