Franz Kafka’s short-story Metamorphosis is a harrowing depiction of a bizarre physical and mental transformation. A salesman by the name of Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has inexplicably developed into an insect. No explanation is given as to why or how this process occurred, and despite the absurdity of the event, it is clear from Samsa’s exploration of his new insect-like body that the transformation is frighteningly literal. As if awaking from a nightmare, Samsa attempts to scratch an itch on his stomach but is revulsed to find that he now has the choice of multiple limbs to choose from. He tries rolling over onto his back, but this too proves difficult and painful due to his newly formed convex body.
From a literary perspective, Metamorphosis is bleak, irrational and claustrophobic- all hallmarks of Kafka’s ability to capture the futility of modern existence via the art of literature. It deals not only with the protagonist’s psychological response to his transformation but also with the dismissive and cruel way in which he is treated by his immediate family, with which he shares a house. Perturbed and disgusted by Gregor’s new condition, his family locks him away in his room where he appears destined to see out his days crawling on the walls as a cursed error of natural evolution. Confined to the status of a freak, the only small degree of kindness Gregor initially experiences is through his sister, who despite her natural shock and revulsion, supplies her brother with the necessary food needed for his survival. The situation is made more complex due to Gregor’s position as the families sole bread-winner. Dependent on him for their income, they must seek additional work for themselves to make ends meet. The narrative follows a complicated interplay of reactions toward this human-insect hybrid. The family remain disgusted, but this disgust is diminished by a residual love; Gregor is, after all, their son. He has taken a different form, but (presumably) his personality has remained the same. In time, Gregor accepts his transformation and is depicted as playfully climbing the walls and ceilings as an exercise in self-entertainment.
Interpretations of Metamorphosis are varied, as is befitting a writer as complex and brilliant as Kafka. The famous Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, for example, has suggested that Metamorphosis is best understood as a statement relating to the place of the artist in a mediocre world determined to extinguish the daring and creative fire of its truly exceptional innovators. Dismissing symbolic or transcendental interpretations of the narrative, Nabokov prefers instead to find meaning in Kafka’s depiction of a real-world struggle between the free spirit of art and the restrictive chains of societal convention. (1) Contrary to Nabokov, my interpretation is far more simplistic- perhaps even insultingly so for literary aficionados. It is, however, slightly more positive and hopeful in its reframing of the transformation process depicted in Metamorphosis. I locate meaning in Kafka’s text via the gradual adaption of both Gregor and his family to what initially appears an event of such grotesque horror that any reconciliation amongst them is out of the question. Aside from the families response to their son’s perverted new form, we might assume also that Gregor himself would inevitably abandon all hope for himself; suicide must have presented itself as the logical way out.
The revulsive insect form, as I interpret it, is representative of the status of individuals who remain outcasts from society. It depicts with appalling accuracy the status of one condemned by the masses- for whatever reason- to a life of obscurity. Yet it is also the instantaneous nature of the transformation that makes this story so challenging. In becoming an insect, Gregor faces a tragedy that instantly threatens to ostracise him from everything and everyone he has ever known. In renders any kind of fulfilling future impossible, and yet in spite of this finality, we find subtle signs of adaption to a new way of being in the world. This is evident in the family eventually allowing Gregor’s bedroom door to remain slightly open so that he may catch glimpses of them. I find myself clinging to this minor aspect of the story as a positive sign of the human spirits ability to cope with even the most brutal of calamities. It is also a reminder that reconciliation- in whatever form this may take- is always a possibility.
Metamorphosis is a narrative marked by horror and bleakness, both of which are characteristic of Kafka’s prose. Nevertheless, it is possible to find traces of hope if one looks hard enough. In refusing to let tragedy be the final word, Metamorphosis captures a sense of the profound ability of humanity to adapt to that which at first appears to consign us to ruin and oblivion. Kafka never allows his readers the superficial illusion of a happy conclusion- to do so would be a fundamental betrayal of the often harsh realities of existence. What matters here is the art of survival: how can we find ways to accept that which befalls us irrespective of its seeming decisiveness for our fate? Although widely known for his depiction of the futility of life, Metamorphosis shows that Kafka was perfectly capable of attesting to the resilience of the human spirit in spite of the overwhelming temptation to abandon hope.