Franz Kafka`s The Metamorphosis Essay
Franz Kafka`s The Metamorphosis
Nothing in the ample literature on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis can change the fact that the central event in Kafka’s story is the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a hideous insect. The transformation is inescapable for any reader, no matter what philosophical thoughts are involved. How or even whether this metamorphosis can be understood is part of the mystery of Kafka’s story, but there is no doubt about the finality, the irrevocability of Gregor’s transformation. Everything begins with that: in the beginning was the metamorphosis. Kafka insisted that the insect cannot be depicted.
That metamorphosis constitutes the central and generative question of The Metamorphosis, a question posed soon after the beginning of the story: “What has happened to me?” This apparently simple question has the force of consciousness undergoing upheaval. “What has happened to me?” is never answered in Kafka’s story; the “real” Gregor is unchanged. His circumstances have altered. Others have changed. If Gregor has been transformed, others have been blasted to their roots.
Still, the idea of a “key” to the story persists. The dialectic of ideas is replaced by the force of language. It leaves the reader grateful, but with the impression. The readers are left where they were: in search of a key. The search has been concluded for a number of Kafka critics in the “metaphor.” Kafka is reported to have said: “To be a poet means to be strong in metaphors” (Urzidil 51). How this statement is to be interpreted remains a problem; what is unproblematic is the inevitable battle of the metaphors. One target which can hardly be ignored in The Metamorphosis is the metaphor of the newspaper illustration of the woman with the muff, which Gregor has cut out of a magazine. It comes in the second paragraph of the story, soon after Gregor thinks, “What has happened to me?” Kafka writes:
Above the table on which a collection of cloth samples was unpacked and spread out—Samsa was a commercial traveler—hung the picture which he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put into a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished! (67)
Not much later we learn through Gregor’s mother (in defense of her son): “The only amusement he gets is doing fretwork. For instance, he spent two or three evenings cutting out a little picture frame; you would be surprised to see how pretty it is; it’s hanging in his room.” (76)
Later, the metaphor is deepened. Gregor’s sister and mother remove furniture from his room. Gregor is greatly agitated: “he was struck by the picture of the lady muffled in so much fur and quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly. This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody.” (105) Had Gregor cut out the illustration because of its erotic aspect or had he discovered or deciphered its erotic meaning after his transformation? Or is the metaphor to be interpreted in some other way?
It has also been suggested that the newspaper on which the picture is printed (as well as newspapers throughout the story) is metaphorically important to the meaning of The Metamorphosis (Corngold 58-59). The smallest unit of the word—the individual letter of the alphabet—would be metaphoric material—the metaphor within. Late in his life, Kafka studied Hebrew. There was talk of going to Palestine. Perhaps it was the number-laden Hebrew alphabet that beckoned him.
Perhaps another historical note might be of help. From 1911 through 1913, in one way or another, Kafka took a most serious interest in a troupe of Yiddish actors playing in Prague. In his book Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work, Evelyn Torton Beck stressed that Kafka was profoundly influenced by Yiddish theater. Why? Because in its primitive way, the actors in this minor troupe tore open the wound of what was Jewish in Kafka’s being. “Primitive” because the most basal characteristics of theater were exposed in the performance of these artists—above all, gesture. The body itself became theatrical. For Gregor, Gregor as insect, there is an “immediacy of ‘human gesture.’” Left with language which cannot communicate, Gregor’s bridge to the world is his body, its movement, its whereabouts. In his portentous “interview” with the chief clerk, Gregor asks, “Will you give a true account of all this?” (82) In his metaphorical being, Gregor is already dying.
It is difficult to “know” or even hypothesize what Gregor’s future might have been had he not undergone transformation. Metamorphosis is not so much his destiny as his mode of existence. In Sartrean terms, Gregor is real in the unreality of the world. His “gesture” is himself. Gregor is the irreality within Kafka’s fiction (Schutz 90).
It is the paramount reality of daily life in which Gregor undergoes metamorphosis—the world of working. And this holds true for Gregor’s sense of that world: “Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I’ve picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. It’s much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the office, and on top of that there’s the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bad and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends.” (68) The elements of the world of working as they affect Gregor go far beyond traveling and making train connections.
There is his salary which supports his family and helps toward paying back his father’s loan; there are Gregor’s plans to pay for his sister’s musical education; there is Gregor’s concentrated effort to do his job. And there are the “fringes” of meaning associated with his occupation: the other commercials who “live like harem women,” the hard-of-hearing chief in the office, who sits at a high desk and talks down to employees (68-69). All of these factors are part of Gregor’s world of working. But leaving that world, even in a temporary way, is not accomplished by going home. In that somnolent abode of “home” Gregor is the awake insect; the others in the family are in a strange kind of Sartrean “Bad Faith”; altogether, the Samsa household is locked in a familial stupor. It is the metamorphosis of Gregor which “shows forth” the family, arouses them from their mediocrity long enough to crucify their son and brother.
Was Gregor an exception to the life of the commercial, the traveling salesman, the drummer? So many shady stories begin with the traveling salesman, but Gregor finds the life unsatisfactory. Is his libido his trouble, his guilt? Were his uneasy dreams of his sister? And is his metamorphosis a punishment for unsanctioned love? Obviously, the psychoanalytic approach to The Metamorphosis is one way of interpreting its central metaphor. There are other approaches. The loneliness of the writer, the anguish of being blocked in one’s art, perhaps the interior paradox of the metaphor being itself a metamorphosis, as Stanley Corngold has suggested, are alternative ways of trying to understand the story. The muff overlaps its representational sense when Gregor covers it with his insect-body. At the same time, Gregor announces his intentions: the lady with the muff is his and he will not allow its removal from his room. The metaphor of the muff is itself “foreign territory.” It is Gregor Samsa’s “shady story.”
According to custom, each morning on awakening people take up their old selves again, unchanged. However, there is no doubt that the body and all that people are have been transformed a little, even during the short space of their sleep. The most modern psychological science is now discovering the truth of the most ancient superstitions. Conditions during the sleep fix the disposition of the being, which in turn influences the character of each one of days. In truth, everyone who has learned self-observation well knows that every morning it is by means of a certain and peculiar process that people take up their body and soul again and readjust themselves to the surrounding world. When someone has gone to bed the night before in unfamiliar surroundings, it is with a certain difficulty that he realizes this fact as he finds himself once more in the middle of “reality.”
Each morning people are a little like travelers who are coming back from far away; each morning people set out once more “in quest of lost time.” In this unconscious or subconscious negligence of the transformation, however slight, of our selves and our world during sleep, there is a tendency to stabilize coherence and identity. According to the habits of the world, and according to the laws which science has discovered, it would be quite impossible to awake one morning and find ourselves transformed into repulsive insects. But in customary certainty of the identity of being and world in general, there is just enough of artificiality, enough will, enough fragility so that Kafka’s fiction touches an unacknowledged but anguishing reality. This is the only way in which such an incident could be validly introduced. It is on awakening “from a troubled dream” that the person in question would discover himself transformed. He would discover his metamorphosis in the miscarrying of his daily expectations and the shattering of his effort to re-achieve customary but unconscious continuity.
Corngold, Stanley. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers. Vol. 1: The Problem of Social Reality, edited with an introduction by Maurice Natanson and with a preface by H. L. Van Breda. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962. Vol. 2: Studies in Social Theory, edited with an introduction by Arvid Brodersen. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964. Vol. 3: Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy, edited by I. Schutz with an introduction by Aron Gurwitsch. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966.
Urzidil, John [Johannes]. “Recollections,” in The Kafka Problem, edited by Angel Flores, pp. 20–24. New York: New Directions, 1946.