WARNING: If you don't already know the plot-line of this book and have any intention of reading it, I have included spoilers in this review!
"That was the voice of an animal."
-Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (p. 8)
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” So commences Franz Kafka’s entirely too famous story—The Metamorphosis.
Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman who, upon realizing his hideous transformation seems a little less than disturbed, dispassionate even. He doesn’t seem to wonder why, he asks no questions. Instead, he seems worried about what a horrible job he has and hopes that he can haul his bug-self out of bed, get dressed and get to work on time.
The entire story takes place in the Samsas’ apartment, which I assume is located in 1915 Prague. Over the next several months we see Gregor’s family—a mother, father, and sister, Grete—cope with his metamorphosis and the problems that this transformation creates.
Each member of the Samsa family reacts differently to the change in Gregor. Mr. Samsa seems angered by the event and treats his son like a senseless animal, locking him in his bedroom and chucking fruit at him when he escapes. His mother, who is a very sick old woman, holds a deep affection for her son and wishes to see him very much, but the other two keep her away from him (she does get the chance to see Gregor once, and promptly faints dead away). Grete is a very complex character, who is at first the only member of the family who bothers to care for Gregor; she brings him food and cleans his room. She feels a melodramatic sense of possession of him, and in wishing to spare the rest of her family the horror of seeing her brother she assumes all responsibility for his welfare.
Gregor was the sole provider for his family, but now that he has been forced to quit his job, his family has had to take over. His mother begins sewing underwear, his father takes a job at a bank, Grete gets employment at a shop, and the family takes in three men as boarders.
All of this work causes the Samsas to draw even further away from poor Gregor. Grete is now so overworked that she doesn’t bother to clean her brother’s room. The passion she once infused into her work has faded away in the light of true responsibility. The entire family grows hopeless, just living day to day, believing that they are some of the most unfortunate people on earth.
Things come to a head one night when the three boarders ask Grete to play the violin for them. She is something of a prodigy, and as Gregor listens to her through his bedroom door, he is moved by a hunger for he-knows-not-what. Beauty? The love of his sister? The boarders now seem disinterested in her music, but Gregor crawls out of his room to approach Grete, to let her know that, even if no one else does, he appreciates her music. However, things come to a sudden halt when the boarders see the massive insect and are struck with terror. They cause an awful commotion and immediately give notice.
By this time Grete has had enough. She is much changed from the little girl of a few months ago who cried in her room at the thought of her brother losing his job. She is now a confident leader and demands that they “must get rid of this thing.” She convinces her father that this insect is not Gregor or it would have had pity on them and left long ago.
Gregor, huddled in the darkness of his filthy bedroom, understands his sister’s wish. He loves his family and decides that he will disappear as soon as possible, for their sakes.
The charwoman comes into the apartment early the next morning to find Gregor’s lifeless insect-body, then rushes to tell the family that he has died. They are at first shocked, then relieved. The boarders come out of their room demanding breakfast, and one imagines that their threats of leaving the night before and the consequences of those threats were probably meaningless and unnecessary.
The story ends with the Samsa family, or what’s left of it, taking a tram into the countryside. They all realize that they actually enjoy the independence they have found in working jobs of their own, and begin making plans for the future.
The Metamorphosis is a story of despair. We know, almost from the very beginning, that Gregor has very little chance of changing back into his human self. He is doomed, as is the happy tranquility of his family.
Is there a purpose to this story? A secret symbolism that unlocks some deep meaning? One person said, “Kafka is sending a message of hidden worth. It's great to have people to depend on, but never give up on your own dreams to do something wonderful with your life.” Another wrote, “The story has been interpreted as everything from religious allegory to psychoanalytic case history, but works because, though written nearly a century ago, Kafka's fantastic imaginings convey a reality of their own. We surrender to Gregor's experience, which in a way becomes ours.”
Excuse me, but his experience becomes ours? Call me a philistine, but I’m afraid that I don’t appreciate Kafka’s masterpiece in quite this way. It seems to me exactly what Kafka himself said about it, “It’s only my own personal spectre of horror. It oughtn’t to be printed at all…It is without meaning.” Also, “No one, through his own lack of hope should make the condition of the patient worse. For that reason, all my scribbling is to be destroyed.” But it wasn’t destroyed. And today we read the Metamorphosis, and wonder about the meaning.
Has anyone else here read this? Please leave comments!