Kafka's The Metamorphosis

A Freaktown Paper, by Zach Tomaszewski

for LLEA 270, Spring 2005, taught by Dr. Kathryn Hoffmann

What strikes me most when I read The Metamorphosis is Gregor's alienation and estrangement from others. He has no intimate connection with another human being, nor does he have any passion in his life. His transformation into an insect only seems to highlight this.

Gregor has no friends and no real interests or hobbies. He spends his evenings at home reading the newspaper, the train timetables, or doing fretwork.

He is a traveling salesman, and so spends most of his days and evenings away from home. But he does not seem to have had any adventures or excitement during these travels; they have only reduced his chances for meaningful relationships with those around him. As he tries to tell the chief clerk, traveling salesmen don't experience the fortune and glamour that those in the office believe they do, nor do they have a chance to correct any office gossip about themselves. Gregor seems to be a cog in a large, faceless system--a job that anyone would shirk with the smallest excuse. Indeed, the clerk comes to see Gregor when he is only a couple hours late, in order to verify that Gregor is truly ill.

Besides having no close friends and a soul-sucking job, Gregor's family seems to feed off of him. Though we learn that his father, mother, and sister are all capable of working--indeed, they all get jobs after Gregor's transformation--they instead rely on Gregor to pay the family bills. At first they were grateful for Gregor's support, but they quickly came to take him for granted. Interestingly, the reason Gregor has the odious job he does is because the family is indebted to Gregor's boss. Although Gregor is counting the years until he can quit and work elsewhere, we learn that Gregor's family has been hoarding any extra money rather than paying off the debts so Gregor would be free to change jobs.

Gregor's father, in particular, seems to demand sacrifices from those around him. He has grown quite fat, and he walks slowly so that others will have to slow down to accompany him or talk to him. Even after he gets a job, he falls asleep at the dinner table until his wife and daughter stop what they are doing to get him off to bed. I get the feeling that all of these are subtle, almost-unconscious ploys for attention.

Gregor's sister seems to be his closest relationship. It is she who takes care of him the most after his transformation. Yet, after the scene in which Gregor reveals himself to the boarders, his sister is the family member who calls most stridently to remove Gregor from the house.

This pervasive lack of intimacy or passion is only highlighted by Gregor's metamorphosis. Upon waking up as a bug, his first thought is that he will be late for work. Gregor's tedious life has left him so soul-dead and aweless that he only worries that his new physical state will cause trouble at work. His family does not try to talk to him about it, but locks him in his room. Where before they took him for granted as a dull provider, now they take him for granted as a disgusting drain. Though his father later laments that things would be different if they could communicate with Gregor, they never in fact attempt to communicate with him--not even something as simple as "one tap for yes, two taps for no."

It seems that a giant cockroach, especially one capable of complex human thought, would be a marvel, a star, a lucrative monstrous attraction. But, besides his family, only the charwoman sees him regularly. And she does not seem particularly impressed. She seems only to be passing the time, as if gazing at Gregor is only slightly more interesting than housework or sitting in the kitchen. And so Gregor spends his time in his room while his family and the rest of the world largely ignore him. After becoming a giant insect, Gregor's life is still much as it is described before his transformation.

Gregor's transformation is not only physical, but also partly mental. He finds that he prefers garbage to fresh food and enjoys running over the walls and ceiling. Yet he does try to hang on to those things that make him human. Though having the furniture removed from his room would leave him more space for scurrying, he decides that he needs to keep his furniture in order to maintain what little connection he has to his humanity. His humanity does not return, however; not even in the eyes of his family.

The Metamorphosis is not an example of a marvelous or horrific tale of possibilities and change. It an example of the crushing, deadening effects of a life without passion or intimacy. Gregor's life is even more dull after his startling metamorphosis. He does not escape the mundane. Indeed, it is the most common and banal of fruits--the apple--festering in his back, coupled with a long, slow starvation, that brings Gregor to his end. As a final blow, we see that his family is happier with him dead than they ever seemed when he was alive. It is only after Gregor's death that a transformation occurs--when his family realizes they have a healthy young daughter and a bright future ahead of them.