Name: The Metamorphosis
Author: Franz Kafka
Genre: Psychological Fiction, Novella, Horror
The Metamorphosis is the classic 1915 novella and horror story by Franz Kafka and is part of the series of short classic books that I planned to read in 2022. The story is about a travelling salesman named Gregor Samsa who inexplicably wakes up one day to find that he has been turned into an insect.
The book begins right in the middle of the action, when Gregor wakes up late and finds he cannot turn onto his front or get out of bed as he has turned into a fly. Gregor reflects on his job and life and panics that he will not be able to go to work as a travelling salesman – a job he has been doing for a number of years and has been required by his family to do in order to clear his father’s bad business debts. While trying to move, Gregor finds his office manager has turned up to find out why he hasn’t turned up for work. Upon seeing him, he flees in terror and Gregor’s family are horrified so his father drives him back into his room, injuring him in the process.
With Gregor’s transformation, the family are deprived of financial stability – they lock Gregor in his room where he begins to accept his transformation. His sister Grete brings him food but Gregor discovers he only likes to eat food now when it is rotten. He also spends much of his time crawling around the room.
One day, Grete decides to clear his room to free some space which her and her mother do but Gregor finds the actions distressing and tries to stop them moving a painting, which causes his mother (who has so far not seen him) to faint. Grete runs out of the room to get some medicine for her mother and Gregor follows but his father arrives and misunderstanding the situation and reacting out of anger he beings throwing apples at him, one of which lodges in a sensitive spot on Gregor’s back and wounds him.
In the final part, Gregor takes very little food due to his injuries and his family begin to take jobs and neglect him and his room begins to be used for storage. The family initially allow him to listen into their discussions by leaving the door open but when they get three lodgers to try to stay afloat this happens less frequently. They also hire a cleaner but one day she neglects to close Gregor’s door and when he hears Grete playing the violin the music attracts him to leave his room, where he is discovered by the lodgers who decide they will leave and not pay any of their rent. At this point Grete snaps and decides the fly is no longer Gregor – referring to him as “it” so Gregor returns to his room and dies of starvation in the night. In the final scenes Gregor is discovered and his family decide to downsize, whilst the parents realise how much Grete has grown into a lovely young woman and think about her next steps in life.
The book at face value is a very entertaining and creepy body horror story.
The imagery Kafka uses in the book is at times very grotesque with the story painting a picture of a giant fly with a man’s head and as the book is written from Gregor’s perspective there is also some horrifying parts as he loses bits of his identity e.g. he struggles to drink a bowl of milk but is happy to eat some cheese which two days before his transformation he wanted to throw away. He also crawls around the ceiling and leaves sticky residue behind a she does so and Kafka also describes how when Gregor is on the ceiling his stomach vibrates and it makes it easier for him to breathe.
I would also say given the books age the writing style has really aged quite well – though I was reading a version translated from the German language original many books of this age tend to have a writing style which is quite hard to follow (such as my last classic corner review which was Mrs. Dalloway). However this novel had a very simplistic, literal writing style which made it very easy to understand.
Though I took the book in quite a literal face value sense but in doing some research for this review I have found a number of writers and commentators have found deeper meaning in the novel which I find fascinating.
On one level Franz Kafka may have been influenced by his own life as an outsider – he was a Jewish German speaking man leaving on Czech-speaking Prague at the time of the books publication, when anti-Semitic views were rife so the bug that Gregor Samsa turns into in the novel could be a symbol of his outsider status.
Some people also read it from a psychological / political standpoint – for example Gregor’s inability to work due to his transformation could be a protest against the dehumanizing and self-alienating effects of working in a capitalist society – especially in the 1910’s when the book was written where jobs played a far greater part in people’s identities and positions.
Kafka also had a difficult relationship with his father and the book can be seen as a way of trying to put that into words and whether Gregor actually turned into a vermin or was just seen to be one by those around him and when his father in particular injures Gregor, was Kafka making a comment about how his own father did this by forcing him into law school instead of following his ambition to become a writer?
More modern commentary has also read a feminist viewpoint through the character of Grete. Throughout the novel Grete grows up from being a quite childish girl with dreams of being a violin player, into a woman and potentially a future wife. In the final chapter it is also Grete who stands forward and says Gregor must be gotten rid of as he was becoming a drain on the family and stopping them from moving on which is a very empowering comment from her and shows her growth as a character. Finally as the book draws to a close Kafka returns to focus on Grete with her parents realising just how much she has grown which can also be a way of reading the Metamorphosis.
After reading these comments I actually find the book is a very interesting piece of art with various different ways of reading it but at face value it is also a very entertaining horror story that I would recommend.
If you have read The Metamorphosis then I would love to know what you thought, let me know in the comments below!