The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

December 26, 2017
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What a strange, absurd, and bizarre novella by Franz Kafka. Its surreal milieu, combined with an apparently inescapable complication, makes it one of the wildest products of imagination I’ve ever read about. Yet this very unorthodox absurdity, no part of which could remotely take place in real life, sparks contemplation on existential problems. The irony doesn’t stop there.

On a certain morning, a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa awakes to find his human self to have taken the form of a bug. He struggles to even maintain his balance to lift himself off the bed, yet all he can think of is how this metamorphosis has resulted in a delay that might lead to his belated arrival at work. At this point, it can be seen that Gregor hasn’t fully processed what this drastic change in appearance denotes. One might suspect that he, temporarily incapable of seeing himself head to toe, is yet to feel the utter monstrosity he’s become. Yet as his family repeatedly persuades him to open the door and eventually lay eyes on what has become a giant beetle, they too adopt a strangely passive attitude. Facing this turn of events, it seems intuitive and logical to seek help in pinning the source of the problem and trying to fix it. The Samsas simultaneously settle on the complete opposite—Gregor remains in his room for most of the remaining time in the book, and his sister and parents continuously try to isolate him from their new lives. This is not to say other people also react so nonchalantly—the maid begs to be dismissed and flees the scene. But in the apartment, a growing sense of shame erects a wall between Gregor and his family. Moreover, we see how the rest of the Samsas proceed with their lives while reproaching Gregor in the meantime for not being able to provide for them. Their sole concentration—money—is negligible compared to the complete transformation of a family member, which heightens the sense of isolation and desperation on Gregor’s side.

The novella’s title, The Metamorphosis, denotes not only Gregor’s literal mutation into a bug but also the figurative change his family experiences. For his parents, they are forced to stop taking Gregor’s financial support for granted. His father even goes back to work while his mother eagerly attends to the boarders they’ve taken in to relieve their financial pressure. Most significantly, Gregor’s sister takes on the responsibility that’d previously belong to her brother. She matures from a young girl living on her brother’s salary to a young woman whom her parents expect to marry soon. Disappointingly, she also loses the tenderness and considerate caring for her brother she displayed in the very beginning. A sharp change in her attitude is apparent when she finally decides that Gregor, or the bug that has taken his place, should be permanently removed from their lives.

What I’ve begun to ponder is what determines our existence. When we undergo a series of changes, at what point are we no longer ourselves? Apparently, our physical changes have much more say on how we are perceived and treated by others, especially when these physical changes inevitably lead to psychological changes. When Gregor took the form of a bug, his role in the family completely altered regardless of his unchanged inner belief that he was a human. At the final climax where these two conflicting sides of Gregor collided head-on, he fails to hang on the last remaining spark of humanity symbolized by a painting of a woman dressed in fur—a representation of the monetarily and sexually driven human he had been. Does this mean our appearances dictate our inner worlds?

Though I’ve read close to nothing by German writers, I’m almost certain this particular style doesn’t represent typical German literature. The coining of the term “Kafkaesque” signifies how the sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness that lies in human existence has become a well-known trademark of Kafka. His delivery of this theme of existential futility has resulted in peculiar stories like The Trial and The Metamorphosis, which have close to no concluding reflections. While as the reader we anticipate a didactic or at least distinctly analytical ending, Kafka draws an end to the story by leaving us in the story. This only adds to the sense of desperation of this labyrinthine setting.

Taking a step back, all the thoughts I’ve written down are futile and meaningless in their very existence, because they are all based on a story that is so utterly eccentric it could never take place. How strange, absurd, and bizarre. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this.

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