An Analysis of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Franz Kafka’s work demonstrates that the attributes conventional society mistakes for life’s meaning—success, social position, political or corporate power—are ultimately meaningless in the great scheme of things. Also, he saw tremendous irony in the fact that our human lives are so transitory and our fortunes so subject to the whims of fate, and yet most people act as if we will live forever with ultimate control over the progress of their existence. In his story “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka presents a conventional, respectable protagonist whose life is suddenly and permanently changed by a physical disability -- a “metamorphosis,” or transformation—which catapults him out of his efficacious complacency into a sudden confrontation with the greater questions of existence. This transformation, because it affects the way society looks at the protagonist, also has a telling effect upon his self-image and spiritual identity.
“The Metamorphosis” opens with the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, discovering that he has turned into a giant insect, presumably a cockroach. This metamorphosis makes all his previous activities impossible. He previously held down a job as a salesman; he can no longer do this because his boss finds him horrifying, and undoubtedly the customers would too. (In addition, there is the additional drawback that his giant insect’s body tends to get stuck in doorways.) Gregor assures his boss that “One can be temporarily incapacitated … [but] when the incapacity has been got over, one will certainly work with all the more industry and concentration.” But there is no possibility that Gregor will be able to return to work. His disability is permanent.
Because Gregor has contributed heavily to the family’s comfortable lifestyle, this new development causes them to turn on him. His beloved sister concludes that he should be disposed of, because he isn’t really Gregor. His father heaves an apple at him with such force that the apple lodges in his back and becomes infected. The use of an apple is significant because of its association with the Biblical story of Original Sin. In this case, Gregor’s sin was his very existence, as Kafka felt his own to be. Eventually Gregor deteriorates and dies.
Gregor’s metamorphosis, which of course symbolizes any sort of physical abnormality, calls into question all the assumptions of our daily lives: that success and appearance and social position matter; that a productive life was characterized by a steadily improving standard of living and a socially-acceptable appearance. These considerations produce even further questions: if we once appeared socially acceptable and now have ceased to do so, are we still in fact ourselves? Was the socially-acceptable persona in fact ourselves, or is there more essential self-ness in the being we have now become? Or were we, in fact, nobody in the first place, and are we nobody still?
Obviously there is much more to life than mere appearance. When Gregor woke up as an insect, his essential identity had not changed; he did not begin to change in his heart until other people’s attitudes toward him changed as a result of the metamorphosis of his appearance. What ultimately killed Gregor Samsa was not the physical experience of becoming an insect; it was people’s cruelty to him as a result. And what has historically caused Jews to suffer hardship and pain is not the fact that they are Jewish; it is anti-Semitism.
In ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Kafka shows us that the values of conventional society are warped due to our inability to look beyond the surface to the human being inside. His use of a surrealistic literary approach shocks us into a new appreciation of a basic human truth.
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