Metamorphosis is a novella written by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. It has been cited as one of the seminal works of fiction of the twentieth century and is studied in colleges and universities across the western world. The actual conditions of Kafka’s life have influenced all his writings, including this one. The characters of Kafka’s story find origins in the play ‘Savage One’. In ‘Savage One’, a character explains that when one pursues material means, a savage awakens within us and forces us to oppose the laws of humanity, an idea Kafka takes quite literally in his own work. The style seems to ground the story in reality, cutting off the possibility of its having been a dream, and yet the story itself is of an impossible occurrence.
The main protagonist of the story is Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who works tirelessly to provide for his family. One morning, waking up from his troubled dreams, he realises that he has been transformed into a ‘horrible vermin’. He thinks it is just his mind playing tricks because he hasn’t had proper sleep and that if he slept some more, he could forget about all this nonsense. But he wasn’t able to do so because when he tried to come to his favourite position to sleep, his vermin body refused. He tells himself that he would have quit the job had his family not been dependent on him. Just then he realises that he has missed the alarm and also the train to work. When he doesn’t come out of his room at the usual time, his mother knocks on the door to remind him of the time. When he tries to respond to his mother, he realises that his voice has changed too, a painful squeaking now mixed with it.
After a while, he decides to get out of bed. That’s when he realises that he has grown multiple tiny legs which he barely knew how to control. If he managed to establish control over one of them, the others seemed to be set free and moved about painfully. While he is still struggling with control over his limbs, the chief clerk of his office comes over to his house to check why he hadn’t come to the office that day. Gregor’s parents try to explain to the chief that it’s possible for someone to call in sick once in a while, but he doesn’t listen. He keeps warning Gregor to open the door and give an explanation or bear the consequences. Given his insistence and to allay the concerns of his family, Gregor finally manages to unlock the door. While he tries to explain the ordeal to the chief in his squeaky voice, he runs away horrified by his appearance.
Even his family is terrified at the sight. His father who is a strict disciplinarian picks up the stick left behind by the chief and pushes Gregor back into his room with it. In the process, Gregor is injured, and being exhausted, he falls asleep. When he wakes up, he finds that someone has put bread crumbs dipped in sweetened milk for him. He discerns that since his sister, Grete, knew milk was his favourite drink, she must have left it for him. But when he tried to drink it, it did not taste good to him as his taste buds had changed too. The next morning, Grete comes to his room and he immediately hides behind a couch lest he should scare her. She finds that he has not had milk and thus brings some rotten food scraps and old cheese to replace it. Gregor likes that food as a vermin would do. This becomes a daily routine. Grete would drop old rotten food for him thrice a day and leave.
With each passing day, and with no income coming in, financial difficulties start mounting for the family and Gregor discovers this by listening through the wall. He begins to wonder if his elderly father would have to fend for the family, or if his mother who suffers from asthma would have to go to work, or if his sister who is only seventeen, would have to look for a job. Gregor also learns that his mother wants to visit him, but his sister and father will not let her. All this while, Gregor becomes more comfortable with his body and develops a new habit of hanging from the ceiling. But as soon as Grete would enter, he would quickly hide under the couch. Since she was the one who tidied up the room once in a while, she notices the traces of adhesive from Gregor’s feet all over the place. She, therefore, decides to move the furniture in his room to make space for him to move around freely. She calls her mother to help her move the furniture after ensuing that Gregor was hiding.
Gregor is very happy when he overhears that his mother would be coming to his room. Her mother is excited too. However, Gregor is very depressed about Grete’s decision to move the furniture. He feels that furniture is something that reminded him of his past when he still had been a human. While Grete and his mother go out to drop a piece of furniture, he climbs on to a picture in his room to save it from being taken out. His mother passes out when he sees him there. For the first time since his transformation, Grete calls out to him directly and he runs away from the room into the kitchen. Just then his father, who has got a job, returns from work and believes that Gregor had tried to attack his mother. He starts throwing apples at him, one of which hits hard and gets lodged in his body. In severe pain, Gregor manages to reach his room.
After the incident, Gregor’s family begins leaving the bedroom door open for a few hours each evening so he can watch them. Gregor begins to sense that he is proving to be a burden for his family, especially Grete. He overhears his family talk about selling the big house, but they know they can’t because of him. The family replaces their maid with a cheap cleaning lady and also rents out Grete’s room to three boarders. When the boarders bring in their furniture into the room, the old furniture is shifted to Gregor’s room eventually reducing the space for him to roam around. Combined with this is Gregor’s loss of appetite because of the rotting apple still lodged in his body.
One evening, while the boarders are at the dinner table, Grete starts playing violin in the kitchen. Mesmerised by the melody, they ask her to play for them. While Grete is playing, Gregor peeks out of his room drawn by the music. One of the boarders spots Gregor and alarms the others. They become furious at once. Gregor’s father tries to appease them but the three men protest and announce that they will move out immediately without paying rent because of the disgusting conditions in the apartment. This is when Grete finally proposes that they will have to get rid of Gregor or their family would be devastated. Her father agrees while her mother is not in her senses to be able to protest. Gregor understands the situation and moves back to his room. There, determined to rid his family of his presence, Gregor dies.
In the morning, the cleaning lady informs the family of Gregor’s death. They heave a sigh of relief. Gregor’s father kicks out the boarders and fires the cleaning lady after she has disposed of Gregor’s body. The family then takes a ride out to the countryside by tram, and talk happily about their future plans, and finding a new apartment. Gregor’s mother and father realise that it is time to find a husband for Grete.
Major themes in the story:
1.The Disconnect Between Mind and Body
Gregor struggles to reconcile the mind of a human and the body of a vermin. While his transformation completely alters his body, it leaves his mind unchanged. In the beginning, he struggles to exercise control on his limbs and also realises that milk no longer tasted good because his taste buds had changed. Slowly he started adapting to the insect life but human emotions remained within him. He used to hide when Grete was to come so that he would not scare her. Similarly, he didn’t like the furniture being moved as it reminded him of his human past.
2. The limits of human sympathy
In the initial days after Gregor’s metamorphosis, his mother and sister feel a great deal of sympathy towards him. Perhaps they believe that there still a human part inside him. Grete becomes his caretaker and even tries to remove the furniture in his room to make more space for him. Eventually, however, the limits of sympathy and compassion are tested. One major reason is Gregor’s new appearance and another is his inability to communicate his emotions. His mother even collapses on seeing him. Towards the end, the family starts shifting old furniture to his room, not caring for his space. They also finally decide that they must get rid of him and after his death, they are actually relieved.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of Gregor’s metamorphosis is the mental effect that came with staying inside a room and also due to the inability to communicate with his family. After his transformation, he stays almost exclusively in his room with his door closed and has almost no contact with other people. Grete is one who spends a few minutes in his room, providing food to him or cleaning his room. But even during this time, he remains hidden under the couch. Added to this is the alienation that Gregor was facing due to his job, even before his transformation. His constant travelling had taken an emotional toll on his life. At some level, the alienation that the transformation brought to Gregor was an extension of the alienation he already felt as a person. The Metamorphosis, thus, is a powerful indictment of the alienation brought on by the modern social order.
4. Economic effects on human relationships
Gregor is the one who fends for his family. He has brought a certain degree of luxury to their lives working a job that was taking a toll on his personal life. But when Gregor is no longer able to earn, he is treated with revulsion and neglect. When Gregor sees his family go through financial difficulties he also gets upset. He is also upset about the fact that he is becoming a burden for the family. When the boarders threaten to vacate, the family sense a loss of income and they immediately decide that they will have to get rid of Gregor. Such is the kind of pressure that the lack of money can bring to human relationships.
5. Family duty and guilt
Guilt stems from family duty and is Gregor’s most powerful emotion. When he is transformed into an insect, Gregor is no longer able to work. Despite the fact that his metamorphosis is not his fault, he is racked by guilt every time that the family mentions money. He thinks about the pain that he has inadvertently inflicted on them by losing the ability to support them. Guilt, it turns out, is deadly, as Gregor realises at the end that his life is the only thing keeping the family from a better life. He dies for them just as he lived for them: out of guilt.
Sourav Kumar Sharma