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Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in its continuously dissected and heavily studied narrative, details a transformation from man to creature but hides the true meaning of what it means to change form, both in mind and body. From the onset, it is made clear that something deeper exists beyond that of a strict tale of man becomes beast, cared for from surrounding environment, neglected by said environment, and eventually dying. Gregor Samsa, the would-be protagonist, exists as an anti-human, challenging the roles of family life and fulfilling some latent desire to reverse the role he inhabits. For the duration of the reading and eventual completion of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it is important to negate absolutes. Too much time is spent on the end result of an established piece and not enough on the methods, ideas, symbolic features, etc. that make the piece understandable. The reader tends to place too much stock in the author’s ultimate intention rather than the conclusions that can be drawn throughout the reading. Through Kafka’s inclusion of a nonhuman narrator capable of human thought and existing in a world of only upper and lower class, The Metamorphosis succeeds in the narration of a man subconsciously trying to overcome his current position in life, working to amount to a respected man in society, and altogether shaping the other aspects of the story.
First and foremost, it is important to look at the creature, both ambiguous in nature, yet universally understood as a nonhuman entity possessing numerous human qualities. From the first line, “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug,” the reader is immediately made aware of the protagonist’s condition. Kafka goes on to describe the details of the insect-like creature, complete with a hard-shelled body and spindle-like legs, but leaves the classification up to the reader, which may reveal something about the lack of importance in Gregor’s physical transformation. Instead, it works at a catalyst for the rest of Gregor’s life, resulting in the loss of his job, alienation from his family, and a death unbecoming of a man who worked his entire life to support the living conditions of his family. The event, in itself, produces a certain level of skepticism in the reader, detailing an absurd reality separated from any sense of normalcy.
Gregor Samsa’s condition, under any interpretation of the laws of physics, nature, or science, cannot and should not exist. He seemingly goes to bed human and wakes up as something different, but the reasons for his transformation are unclear. For instance, there is no sign of excessive pain other than a mild twinge of his lower half or slight inconvenience of trying to roll out of bed with his newfound body, ruling out the possibility of punishment. Gregor’s insect-like attributes cannot result from a natural force as he is the embodiment of a care-giving hard worker, who puts the well-being of his family in front of his own. He is neither deserving nor is he responsible for his current position in life. It is in this detail of Kafka’s narrative that an alternative reality may be a necessity. Since the event cannot take place in the real world, nor can Gregor’s transformation be explained through natural occurrence. Furthermore, the transformation is merely discovered to have happened, whereupon the reader lacks any definition of the actual happenings of the events, the details of the transformation, or incidents leading up to his ultimate downward spiral. It is as though one day Gregor’s physical appearance happened to change regardless of any significant motives or outside forces, separated from the surrounding world. The reader, faced with the impossible, should then conclude either one of two things. The first conclusion would be that Kafka is working in a fictitious world where commonplace occurrences are thrown aside for fantastical ideas and characters. While this may answer everything following Gregor’s change from man to creature, it lacks motive. The second conclusion asserts that the events both preceding and following the change happen for some reason, whether true to the author’s ultimate goal or not. It is in this conclusion that the reader is faced with the task of unearthing the characters, ideas, and events that explain the transformation and subsequent downfall of Gregor Samsa.
This idea manifests in the first two paragraphs of the narrative and covers the dream-like instances of the story. The first sentence includes the lines “as Gregor Samsa was waking up,” which lacks any definite state of consciousness, alluding to the fact that the protagonist’s present state lay somewhere between sleep and full consciousness. There is no definite realm to which he inhabits. In the second paragraph, Gregor asks himself, ‘“What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream” (Kafka), further clouding the reader’s judgment as to whether the following events could be taking place in reality or a peculiar dream. In so doing, Gregor alienates himself from the reader in a very important manner. When faced with the impossible, the unimaginably grotesque, or a confrontation with the unexplainable, one tells oneself that everything surrounding is operating inside of a dream. It is a defense mechanism to which the human mind can successfully explicate and refute any event or occurrence that cannot be explained. As a child, I did the same with particularly scary movies, telling myself that it is all fictitious in order to maintain some level of sanity. Gregor does not offer the same level of clarity, immediately writing his transformation off as anything other than reality. Upon reading further, the reader is faced with yet another instance of separation between dream and reality.
Gregor, reduced to the acceptance of his appearance and lack of human coordination, continues in his pursuit of making it to work, regardless of his current condition. It is not in the protagonist’s ability to miss something that is required of him day in and day out. His family is dependent solely on the money that he brings in, for which they are grateful. Consequently, his inability to answer the door provides much need character insight into both of his parent’s role in the household. In his explanation of why he is late to work, his alarm clock comes into question, saying, “Could the alarm have failed to ring? One saw from the bed that it was properly set for four o’clock. Certainly it had rung. Yes, but was it possible to sleep peacefully through that noise which made the furniture shake?” (Kafka). As a hardworking individual, who is respected for his punctuality and lack of personal life, waking up at the same time every day for five years, one grows accustomed to waking up on time. The idea that Gregor, on an ordinary day some five years into his working career, could all of the sudden neglect his opportunity at providing for his family, is absurd. There is nothing extraordinary about Gregor, his family, his lifestyle, his work, or this particular day. So why now does everything change?
If the reader is to accept the idea that Gregor is, in fact, still dreaming and the world in which he now inhabits is all a product of his mind, than a few details can be made apparent to strengthen this conclusion. The narration is told from outside Gregor’s point of view, capable of experiencing the protagonist’s inner thoughts, but there are a few inconsistencies with its telling. For instance, the narrative has a sense of immediacy in its straightforward introduction, beginning directly in the middle of the main character’s stream of consciousness and leaving out any previous action or background information. This same attribute is typical of dreams simply due to the chaotic nature of the human mind. Dreams occur randomly and not in successive order, whereas reality is linear, occurring from one point to the next. Besides his impossible physical appearance, it is imperative that the reader recognize Gregor’s seemingly unfaltering description of the other character’s thoughts and motives. He is aware of the conversations, thoughts, and actions of those outside of his door, even when they are muffled through the many walls of the house. As a dream-state has been established, the next question is that of motivation.
Gregor, in his monotonous life, complete with the mundane cycle of work and sleep, is operating on a purely subconscious level, where his motives are not readily demonstrated but inwardly experienced. It is in his dream-like state of existence and the idea that everything is operating according to the product of Gregor’s own mind, that the conclusion of the protagonist’s dream parallels his desire to escape from reality, is made available. Though he is not outwardly unhappy with the role he occupies in the Samsa household, Gregor exemplifies a downtrodden, overworked individual seeking a way out. His dream serves as just that; a catalyst for removing himself from the malevolent situation he is faced with, whereupon his family, parents included, relies on him, and not the other way around, as in the traditional manner of the family dynamic. The insect-like form that Gregor occupies can be seen as a refutation of his own responsibility, throwing aside his ability to take charge of the family’s income and instead subjecting himself to be cared for. In the beginning of the narrative, his distaste for his job coupled with the restrictive force of his parents is made clear when Kafka writes, “If I didn’t hold back for my parent’s sake, I’d have quit ages ago. I would’ve gone to the boss and told him just what I think from the bottom of my heart” (Kafka par. 4). Gregor is stuck in the never-ending cycle of living for someone else regardless of his own selfish emotions.
The bug/creature can therefore, hold some significant symbolic value. If the reader is to take the whole narrative as a dream, fueled only by Gregor’s inner thoughts, than the ability to become any creature exists. He has chosen his own fate, at some deeper level. The insect, as presented throughout literary history, is symbolic of a grotesque, inhuman being, incapable of human rationality. It is unable to maintain its own life, as Gregor comes to find out as he relies heavily on his sister to provide meals for him. Why then, is this not a punishment for the protagonist? He seems to enjoy the hand he has been dealt, conforming to the wants and needs of an insect, especially in his diet, when the narrator says, “There were old half-rotten vegetables, bones from the evening meal, covered with a white sauce which had almost solidified, some raisins and almonds, cheese which Gregor had declared inedible two days earlier,” to which, “Gregor’s small limbs buzzed now that the time for eating had come” (Kafka). The main character demonstrates a significant disconnect between body and mind; in that, he is unable to reconcile his insect features for his human thought. Early on in the narrative, he still operates as would a human but does not possess the physical attributes to complete his daily tasks. It is not until the story progresses that Gregor is finally able to put aside his human thought processes and become both inwardly and outwardly the creature. By becoming the insect, he pushes aside all of his responsibility, instead becoming part of the house and allowing the rest of his family to transform from their dormant selves into productive members of the working class.
Gregor’s subconscious and conscious come into play when discussing the fulfillment of his desire to break free from his previously restrictive working life. He works unquestioningly, striving to accomplish the heavy task supporting his entire family, and is unwilling to act selfishly. His outer insect form draws comparisons with the ego, primarily because he is outwardly demonstrating his frustration with his working and living conditions. He becomes that which is directly opposed to his previous self, acting upon his unconscious desire to be cared for rather than provide said care. His instinctual habits still lie intact for the majority of the narrative, working as his human emotion and thought processes desperately trying to maintain the convictions of his human life but failing to do so in the end. This is represented in the desire to become his own polar opposite, something he cannot rightfully express directly to his outside world, but still in existence. The insect works as a governing body controlling Gregor’s inner thought in the best way he knows how, passively. Subsequently, his transformation to an inept creature is fueled only by his unconscious severing of moral standards set forth to him by his parents and the surrounding environment. Gregor operates his life as does a machine, repeating the same process over and over again, day after day, until the machine stops working. Though the day his transformation takes place lacks any significance other that the metamorphosis from human to bug, it is the day the machine breaks down, causing those around it to become their own embodiment of productivity.
The transformation is not only represented in one member of the Samsa family, but presents itself as an overarching catalyst to the productivity and changing of forms throughout the household. None are more so affected than Gregor’s sister, Grete. Throughout the beginning of the narrative, the family can be seen as completely reliant on Gregor’s work ethic, placing themselves solely in his care. His existence is only in stark contrast to the laziness of the family. Upon his transformation to insect, there is a progression of events that takes place leading to the eventual redemption and refusal of sloth-like qualities. His father is questioned by Gregor in the lines, “And yet, and yet, was that still his father? Was that the same man who had lain exhausted and buried in bed in earlier days when Gregor was setting out on a business trip, who had received him on the evenings of his return in a sleeping gown and arm chair, totally incapable of standing up, who had only lifted his arm as a sign of happiness [now] standing up really straight, dressed in a tight-fitting blue uniform with gold buttons” (Kafka). Gregor’s descent into deplorable living created a reaction in those around him, who realized that in order to survive they must take control of their life.
Grete is a peculiar case, however. Grete is seemingly closest with Gregor, unquestioningly caring for him in his insect state and providing for him when most others started to turn their back. Their relationship might indicate something much more than a mere close connection between brother and sister. Gregor, in his dream-like wish fulfillment has subjected himself to a life of no responsibility, in accordance with his unconscious desire to resist the impositions placed upon him by his family. Grete initially shows compassion for this change in her brother, primarily during her adolescent stage of development in the narrative. As the story progresses however, she begins to resent her brother for the situation she is placed in, and eventually frees herself from the attachment of caregiver. Her detachment is only rivaled by her search for her own consciousness. Gregor has voluntarily given up his humanly form, or freedom, so that each can search and experience the consciousness that each desires. Grete’s search ends in her eventual maturation into adulthood and improved family dynamic, while the protagonist, upon realizing his conscious self to be nothing more than a hindrance on those around him, ceases to exist.
The redemptive quality of this outcome is only found in the end result of the family, whereupon they, “Leaning back comfortably in their seats, talked to each other about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for the three of them had employment, about which they had not really questioned each other at all, which was extremely favourable and with especially promising future prospects. The greatest improvement in their situation at this point, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling” (Kafka). Upon Gregor’s death, none of the family members are where they were at the beginning of the narrative. In fact, the protagonist idea of the ultimate end result, manifested in the image of the fur wearing woman hanging on his wall, serves not as a goal for him but as a consequence of Gregor’s removal from society. It seems that the burden of the main character’s condition was only possessive of the emotions of the family for a short time and his nonhuman form greatly diminished the attachment or sympathy between the family and Gregor. By introducing this mindset, Kafka attempts to categorize the outer extremities of the family dynamic, challenging Gregor’s own capacity to handle the role that his parents should possess, and creating a separation between reality and fiction. Yes, the event may be occurring in a dream-like environment, a product of Gregor’s unconscious desires, but the results are tangible.
The title indicates transformation but only of the most specific kind. A metamorphosis is only experienced in certain species of amphibians and fish and is relegated to the transition from adolescent to adult. Gregor does not encompass the values of a normal adolescent. Through and through, he is portrayed as an adult, with the emotions, physical stature and drive, and level of maturity that only an adult can possess. The adolescents in this narrative are those surrounding Gregor, supporting him only for their own selfish needs, begging the question of who is going through the metamorphosis. I would argue that the protagonist does not experience a metamorphosis but is instead, himself the metamorphosis. He is the driving force behind all change in the story, and while his transformation is made clear from the onset, Gregor is not the sole motivation of the narrative’s story arc.
The Metamorphosis details a story that does not need to be complex in its interpretation yet possesses all the qualities of a deeply symbolic representation. The suppression of human emotion, as in Gregor’s refusal to abide by his strict responsibilities, is only made clear in his own representation of the self. By configuring his body to parallel his inner refusal of his parent’s lack of motivation, the protagonist allows himself to take the form of that which he aspires to be, while outwardly conforming to social and moral pressures. If the reader is to take the narrative as a dream, than Gregor’s insect form is not an actuality but rather a negation of human sociality, a desire to wish away the social obligations he is faced with. The dream serves as wish fulfillment, as all dreams do and the suppression of Gregor’s own reality may have caused his creation of this pseudo-world, wherein the protagonist is placed in the hands of those that he previously cared for. It is an outward portrayal of an inward idea. The idea that any sense of normalcy can be found in a fantastical world may seem like an arbitrary assignment, yet through Gregor’s impossible transformation, human emotion and social interaction among the family is again found.
Gregor’s insect self also contains all levels of human faculties relating to the mind. It comes as a shock that Gregor is unable to stomach his previously enjoyed beverage but his instinctual insect-like tendencies are seen when the protagonist is doing something other than thinking. His consciousness is only experienced in the voluntary subjection to his sister’s care. She, in turn will experience her own consciousness that of moral and physical maturation but not until Gregor is able to become too great a burden to handle. He offers stubborn opposition to Grete in the sense that she has become the primary caregiver for her brother unlike their previous situation. Gregor is only useful to his sister up until the point that she realizes her own consciousness, at which point, the main character is set aside and left to die. The Metamorphosis works as a purely symbolic text because the reader makes it possible, relegating his/her interpretation to be the correct one, when in fact, it is not possible to discern clearly.
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