The Metamorphosis review: A Bug’s Strife

I’d tell more people to read Kafka, but I don’t have any Franz.

Plot

Gregor Samsa wakes up, having been transformed into a giant insect monster. Failing to revert to his human form for 2 hours, he becomes stuck as a bug creature, per the Animorphs rules.

In an affront to both the dairy lobby and white supremacy, Gregor rejects milk served to him by his sister, opting instead to eat rotting garbage. It’s revealed that, following the failure of his dad’s business, the entire family depended on Gregor’s remunerative salesman position. They discuss how to support themselves without his income.

Gregor, taking advantage of his newfound ability to climb shit, begins scaling the walls and ceiling. His sister, reasoning that bugs have no need for furniture, starts removing items from his room. She and her mother begin cleaning, but the sight of Gregor causes his mother to faint on the couch.

When his father returns home, he becomes angry at Gregor and chases him around the room with his boot. He decides that his son should eat healthier and begins throwing fruit at him. One apple connects particularly hard, becoming lodged in Gregor’s back, before his mother intervenes. The injury leaves Gregor in poor shape, making it difficult for him to move around. The three family members take various jobs to care for the household while Gregor is left in his room, mostly ignored.

To make some extra cash, the Samsas decide to list their apartment on whatever the 20th century German equivalent of AirBnB was (newspapers?). They take in 3 tenants. One night, Gregor’s sister tries to entertain everyone by playing her violin. Gregor hears this and begins crawling towards her, presumably to tell her to shut the fuck up since he’s trying to sleep. The tenants notice Gregor, react about how you’d expect someone to after seeing a human-sized cockroach, leave a 2-star review, and refuse to pay for their lodgings. The Samsas hold a family roast of Gregor, with his father and sister expressing that they’d be better off without him. Gregor goes into his room, lays on the floor, and dies.

Gregor’s corpse is discovered the next morning by the cleaning lady. Examining the body, the family seems grateful, and Gregor’s sister observes that he hadn’t eaten for some time. Relieved, Gregor’s father kicks the tenants out. The family takes a train into the city, where the three optimistically describe their financial prospects. Gregor’s parents observe that their daughter is hot. Le fin.

 

Analysis

Interpretation 1: Real Sadboi Hours

I’m gonna quickly re-summarize the plot of this book, removing all supernatural elements (Kafka’s spellbinding prose excluded). You get something like: “The Metamorphosis tells the story of a young man who, following the development of an unusual medical condition, becomes confined to his room. His family, initially supportive, eventually become tired of taking care for him, and are generally relieved by his death.”

So not very spooky— mostly just bleak, cynical, and depressing. Seen in this light, The Metamorphosis can sort of be extended to an analogy for any type of disability or illness, physical or mental. Gregor’s condition erodes his self-worth, leaving him in a prolonged state of misery. The sympathy of his family wanes, and eventually he’s left feeling worthless with no real support. I feel like you could adapt the structure of the novel into a story about someone with, say, severe depression, and none of the major plot points would really change.

Further parallels exist in Gregor’s behavior:

There he remained the entire night, which he spent partly in a state of semi-sleep, out of which his hunger constantly woke him with a start, but partly in a state of worry and murky hopes, which all led to the conclusion that for the time being he would have to keep calm and with patience and the greatest consideration for his family tolerate the troubles which in his present condition he was now forced to cause them. (29-30)

Notice how the focus stays on Gregor’s relationship to his environment; his concern for his future and that of his family’s holds paramount over his immediate circumstances. Almost the entirety of the novel not covering events or interactions remains set on Gregor’s mental state. “Murky hopes” characterizes most of his internal friction, at least for the first half of the book.

One passage that stood out to me describes the evolution of Gregor’s perception of his surroundings. Kafka writes:

Then he crept up on the window sill… to look out, obviously with some memory or other of the satisfaction which that used to bring him in earlier times. Actually from day to day he perceived things with less and less clarity, even those a short distance away: the hospital across the street… was not visible at all any more… he could have believed that from his window he was peering out at a featureless wasteland, in which the gray heaven and the gray earth had merged and were indistinguishable. (38)

As Gregor’s condition persists, his hopes dwindle until any semblance of brightness dissipates, leaving him a drab, murky landscape. The mundane structures formerly denoting his surroundings have lost all definition. Reading further into it, you could probably even argue that the specific choice of a hospital has significance of its own— a vital institution of humanity that Gregor no longer perceives with clarity. Maybe, at this point in the book, our mans no longer even lives in a society. This, truly, is the tragedy of The Metamorphosis.  

More depressingly, some literary scholars consider The Metamorphosis to be somewhat autobiographical. Not only was Kafka writing about real shit, he was writing about his own life. The confusion and alienation Gregor feels in the novel may have been similar to Kafka’s own experiences— we do know he was in poor health for much of his life, and he struggled with bouts of depression. The Metamorphosis, then, is an account of a man so dejected that he feels as if he might as well be a literal cockroach.

And people said classic literature wasn’t fun.

Interpretation 2: Das Kafkapital

It’s 2019, Bernie Sanders isn’t president (but he could still win guys), Slavoj Zizek is one of two philosophers anyone cares about, and something something orange man, so I guess we can play everyone’s favorite game: “Let’s try and find Marxist rhetoric in this miscellaneous piece of media.” Now, by and large, The Metamorphosis is (unfortunately) not a book about Economics. Given that Kafka was a depressed Jew living in early 20th century Europe, I’m guessing wage theft and commodity fetishism weren’t that high on his list of problems. But hey you know what they say, “when you’ve got the Communist Manifesto, everything looks like dialectical materialism.”

Some socio-economic commentary in The Metamorphosis comes in pretty much right away. Waking up and becoming cognizant of his condition, Gregor’s immediate concern is how his boss will feel about him coming in late. Kafka writes:

He was the boss’s minion, without backbone or intelligence. Well then, what if he reported in sick? But that would be extremely embarrassing and suspicious, because during his five years’ service Gregor hadn’t been sick even once. The boss would… reproach his parents for their lazy son and cut short all objections… for him everyone was completely healthy but really lazy about work. (6)

After his boss actually does show up to his house (for whatever reason), Gregor, in the strenuous process of trying to open his door, attempts to defend his position in the company, saying:

“I’m opening the door immediately, this very moment… Take it easy on my parents! There is really no basis for the criticisms which you are now making against me, and really nobody has said a word to me about that…  I will be at the office in person right away. Please have the goodness to say that and to convey my respects to the Chief.” (15)

In fact, the central conflict of Part I actually has more to do with Gregor’s job than his physical predicament. Whether the mental imagery of a man-turned-giant-cockroach trying to defend his employment status is a bit of dark Kafka humor, or a more direct criticism of people’s entire self-worth being tied up in labor value, is not entirely clear. But I guess it says a lot about our  society.

Later, this theme is expanded on; Gregor’s family begins to tire of caring for him, in large part due to the monetary strain. Not only does Gregor evaluate his own worth by how much money he can make, his family sees him that way as well. Following his death, they’re even in pretty good spirits:

They talked to each other, leaning back comfortably in their seats, about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for all three had employment… which was extremely favorable and with especially promising prospects. The greatest improvement… had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent an apartment smaller and cheaper… than the present one, which Gregor had found. (76-77)

So basically: “our son is dead, but hey at least our rent’s cheaper,” a surprisingly millennial sentiment for a book written over a hundred years ago.  

 

Writing

Like many of Kafka’s other works, The Metamorphosis can (sort of) be grouped into the category of horror literature. It does have a somewhat creepy premise, and I think depending on the tone you approach it with, it can certainly be thought of as a weird dark fantasy/folklore hybrid, like one of those creepy bedtime stories Germans have to scare kids.

Krampus

The reason that this categorization is tenuous and also why, had I left it at that, Nabokov’s ghost might come to me in a dream and slap me, is that stylistic elements of Franz’s work give it a pretty unique place within the genre.

If you’re a fan of horror, you’ll know that a lot of attention gets payed to description. In film, this takes the form of visual effects, sound design, and lighting; these work in tandem to create a tense atmosphere, from which the “horror” (of whatever particular brand of the film) usually presents itself, scaring the audience. Literature lacks this sensory arsenal (unless you count papercuts), so horror writing usually consists of detailed word choice. “Detailed” in this case including (but not limited to): tortured descriptions of characters and environments; imagery meant to invoke a sense of uneasiness, disgust, or fright; gore; freeform poetry, etc. Vividity is kind of a genre staple, from the early works of my boi Eddie Allen, to more modern stuff, like uh…. Stephen King? Goosebumps? I don’t know what you kids read anymore.

Not Franz tho.

Foregoing all of this, Kafka’s writing includes a lot of what I’m gonna call “deadpan horror.” He spends no time building tension or working up to literary jumpscares. Often whatever object, circumstance, transformation, or institution Kafka examines is presented in clear, unambiguous terms, given directly to the reader, and subsequently treated as an innate characteristic of the universe. The Metamorphosis is a particularly extreme example of this— the opening line literally being: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.”

Every further description we get of Gregor’s body is practical; Kafka described his anatomy insofar as it affects his day-to-day life. His little legs, hard shell, and slimy excretions are simply insights into Gregor’s new conditions. Rather than presenting horror in contrast, Kafka chooses to present it in accordance with mundanity. It’s kinda like finding a cockroach in your own bedroom— the “horror” stems, at least partially, from the juxtaposition of a normal thing with a less pleasant one.

But if there were no horror elements in Kafka’s works, there wouldn’t really be any conflict. Instead, he gives us incidental extremity; while Kafka’s reactions to his creations are fairly muted, the same cannot be said for other characters in his works. The real reason we know the severity of Gregor’s condition is from how others in his household respond. Gregor’s family serve as inserts, informing us of the significance of Gregor’s condition in the real world.

This style kind of parallels a popular debate about horror in film. A common sentiment expressed among fans is that certain movies would be better off not showing the central “monster,” instead just displaying the net repercussions in-universe. This technique makes things more grounded— rather than displaying some CGI abomination the viewers can immediately identify as fake, showing just the human angle makes things feel realer, more visceral. Kafka kinda pulls the literary equivalent of this— writing bluntly and letting characters do the work.  

Alright, that’s enough meta(-morphosis) analysis. For now. Maybe.

Unfortunately, two years of Middle School German wasn’t enough for me to read Die Verwandlung in original text, so I made do with a translation. Consequently, I can’t speak too much to Kafka’s composition. One thing I did find on the internet is that Kafka often liked to “twist” his sentences, leaving out a relevant detail until the very last word, so as to change the meaning completely. In doing so, he was able to write a sentence that seemed totally normal, until a reveal at the end put every preceding detail into a new, darker light.

 

Conclusion

The Metamorphosis is an intriguing, weird, dispassionate wonder. It blends together surrealist horror and comedy with socio-political commentary and a notably emotional foundation. The book’s inconsistent plot points, indiscriminate focus, and abrupt ending will probably leave you more confused upon completion than when you started, but I think it’s still an experience worth having. Plus, its brevity and straightforward translation make it a quick read. Would recommend.

Good for: Western literary canon

Bad for: Insects’ self-esteem

6.8/8

 

Sauce:

https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-metamorphosis.pdf (The Book)

http://www.kafka.org/index.php?aid=218

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Metamorphosis

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2639911/

Binion, R. (1961). What “the metamorphosis” means. Symposium, 15(3), 214. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1291661708?accountid=13158 (I couldn’t find the full article not behind a paywall, but if you have access to a university library database you can probably get it there)

 

One comment

  1. Great analysis and review! I do believe that Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is not something for people who want to read an engaging story with dramaticism. After finishing it, I found it to be a storied commentary on the society, but it still has that disturbing narrative that keeps me reading until the very end instead of being bored with it.

    Like

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