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References to food are a recurring theme in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The food that Gregor eats to strengthen his physical body reflects the attention that he receives from his family to satiate his emotional appetite. As the story progresses, the family grows more distant, and Gregor’s eating habits decline until, at the story’s end, Gregor dies of physical – and perhaps emotional – starvation.
When Gregor discovers that he has been “transformed into a monstrous vermin” (1640), one of his first concerns is eating breakfast. Even before he discovers a way to crawl out of his bed, Gregor thinks about his hunger. Kafka describes Gregor as “ravenous” and says that he wants “above all [to] have breakfast” (1642), even before contemplating what to do about his condition. The emphasis that Kafka puts on Gregor’s appetite indicates that recurring references to food may have some symbolic meaning in the story.
The next time that Kafka mentions food in relation to Gregor is when his sister has left food for him while he was sleeping. Gregor is “hungrier now than in the morning” (1651) and is overjoyed to find that his sister had thoughtfully brought him a bowl of milk, his favorite thing to drink. The milk however, fails to satisfy him as it had before his transformation. The sister’s thoughtfulness in bringing Gregor milk reveals the family’s concern for Gregor and their willingness to offer assistance; Gregor’s change in taste reflects the change that has occurred in his relationship with his family. Though they still care for him and desire to help him, the dynamic of the relationship has been inevitably altered.
In spite of the drastic change that Gregor has undergone, he expresses a strong interest in being as small of a burden as possible to his family. He wants to “help the family endure the inconveniences that… he was forced to cause them in his present state” (1652). This attitude is further illustrated when his sister comes in later that evening to check on him. Although Gregor was quite hungry because the food he was accustomed to no longer satisfied him, “he would rather starve to death” (1652) than appear ungrateful by communicating to his sister that he did not enjoy the food she had provided for him. She notices, however, that Gregor didn’t drink the milk, and takes it away only to return with: a whole array of food, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables, some bones left over from supper and coated with a solidified white sauce, a few raisins and almonds, some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days ago, dry bread, bread and butter, and salted bread and butter. (1652)
The sister’s effort to determine what type of food Gregor enjoys most – by providing him with so many choices – is an indication of the family’s interest in Gregor’s welfare. Although the parents are content to hear the sister’s reports of Gregor’s behavior and apparent health, their concern is still evident. When, over time, it becomes “more and more frequent” (1653) for Gregor not to disturb his food, Kafka says that Gregor’s sister is sad when she sees that he hasn’t eaten. Her sorrow demonstrates yet again the concern that the family has for Gregor.
This family’s interest, however, fades as the monotony of caring for Gregor becomes more of a burden to the family as they try to carry on with their lives. As the story progresses, the sister’s meticulous care for Gregor turns into an apathetic and compulsory ritual:
No longer paying any heed to what might be a special treat for Gregor, the sister, before hurrying off to work in the morning and after lunch, would use her foot to shove some random food into Gregor’s room. Then, in the evening, indifferent as to whether the food had been merely tasted or – most often the case – left entirely untouched, she would sweep it out with a swing of the broom. (1663)
This lack of concern for Gregor is mirrored both by Gregor’s attitude toward the family and by his lack of interest in food. Gregor was “filled with sheer rage at being poorly looked after” and “unable to picture anything that might tempt his appetite” (1663). On the surface, it seems ironic that Gregor is angry because the sister does not care for him well enough even though he does not eat what she does provide for him. On closer examination, however, this paradox vanishes because what Gregor truly desires is not temporal food, but the intangible nourishment that could be derived from the love of his family. Although Gregor is not fully aware of it yet, he is not angry because his room isn’t kept clean or because he isn’t provided with proper food; rather, as he would later discover, he longs simply for the love and attention of his family.
The sister’s indifference toward Gregor continues to grow until she stops caring for him altogether. The household servant undertakes the task in the sister’s stead. The fact that Gregor’s care has been entirely entrusted to someone outside the family conveys an even greater insensitivity toward Gregor’s physical and emotional needs.
In keeping with the pattern, Gregor’s appetite continues to dwindle as the family’s concern for him lessens. After Gregor’s care is relegated to the servant, “Gregor was now eating next to nothing. It was only when he happened to pass the food left for him that he would playfully take a morsel in his mouth, keep it in for hours and hours, and then usually spit it out again” (1664). At this point in the story, Kafka mentions that Gregor ponders just what it is that is making him lose his appetite. “At first, he thought that his anguish about the condition of his room was what kept him from eating, but he soon came to terms with those very changes” (1664). If Gregor’s living conditions are not the primary reason for his disinterest in food, there must be another cause.
Kafka reveals the reason for Gregor’s disinterest in food when Gregor hears his sister playing her violin for the boarders. Gregor “felt as if he were being shown the path to the unknown food he was yearning for” (1666). Finally, Gregor realizes what it is that he truly desires. He covets the attention of those that used to love him. He wants his sister to come into his room, “sit next to him,” and “remain with him not by force, but of her own free will” (1667). Gregor longs to express to his family his love for his sister and his desire to provide for her by financing her education at the conservatory. More than for physical food, Gregor is starving for attention, the emotional nourishment vital to a happy life. He has reached the point where he no longer cares to live without the love of his family, and thus fails to take in the life-sustaining food provided for him by the servant.
Gregor’s neglect of his physical needs and the family’s insensitivity toward his emotional needs eventually lead to his death. The evening before Gregor’s death, the sister says that Gregor “has to go… that’s the only way” (1668). With that statement, any remaining feelings of concern that may have been present are lost. The family views Gregor as a burden and has no desire to have him in their house. Although Gregor still cherishes his family and longs for those feelings to be requited, his thoughts that evening reflect his sister’s statement. “He recalled his family with tenderness and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s” (1669).
After the servant discovers Gregor’s death the next morning, she informs the family of the news. Their reaction reinforces the attitude that the sister had expressed the night before: “‘Well,’ said Mr. Samsa, ‘now we can thank the Lord'” (1670). The family then went on an afternoon drive in the country to get away from the situation and to enjoy themselves for the first time since Gregor’s transformation (1672).
Gregor dies of starvation at the point when the family’s concern for him reaches an absolute minimum. Just as it is throughout the story, Gregor’s physical hunger is directly related to the unfulfilled desire for emotional sustenance from those he loves. Gregor’s sister, when describing Gregor’s corpse, states, “‘Just look how skinny he was. Well, he stopped eating such a long time ago. The food came back out exactly as it went in'” (1670). Although it is obvious that Gregor had been suffering from physical starvation, the family has no idea that Gregor has been wasting away from an entirely different form of starvation – one that they could have prevented if they had been more attentive to him.
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