“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Go back and read that opening line. Try, if you can, to de-familiarize yourself with it. Picture it in your head. Allow yourself to be surprised by the imagery. Wake up, in your bed, after a dream you wish to never revisit, only to discover that something is very wrong.
Make the realization that you are now, and without explanation, a massive crawling creature reminiscent of a cockroach, a beetle or a bed bug. Let the truth of this realization sink in: the confusion, the panic, the powerlessness, the utter abject terror. The knowledge that when your nearest and dearest see you they will now recoil in disgust and potentially try to destroy you. That you are now decisively outside of humanity.
It is for good reason that this line, and those in the pages that follow, have become some of the most iconic in 20th century Western literature. There are worthy debates about how accurate a translation this is, but those final two words — whether they read as “gigantic insect” or “monstrous vermin” — are at once profoundly unsettling and irresistibly magnetic.
It has been almost exactly one hundred years since The Metamorphosis first appeared in print. Franz Kafka originally had written it in 1912 as a diversion from a tormentive case of writers’ block while working on another novel. Countless revisions and the onset of World War I delayed publication for almost three years until October of 1915.
Nine years later, Kafka was dead and still relatively unknown. His best friend Max Brod had been left with instructions to burn his late confidant’s papers, which included most of the works we identify with Kafka. Brod thankfully disobeyed his friend’s dying wishes (and some insist that they were never intended to be taken seriously anyway). Along with the rest of the author’s work, The Metamorphosis was banned in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. During the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, Kafka’s stories experienced a resurgence of interest before the Russian tanks rolled in and crushed the city’s radical and democratic aspirations. For the next twenty years, Kafka was banned in his home country too.
There is an endless amount to say about Franz Kafka and The Metamorphosis in particular. But the peculiar and troubled history of its author illustrates why it is such an important story that remains transfixed in the popular imagination. It is a unique, emotive and particularly effective portrayal of a modern world spun well beyond our control and the toll it takes on the human psyche.
Kafka’s Politics and the Stumbling Block of Allegory
It is tempting to view The Metamorphosis as a work of political allegory. Kafka’s own radical beliefs add to this pull, and have led some to see Gregor as a stand-in for the proletariat, his family as the masses, so on and so forth. There are plenty of well-meaning radicals and Marxists who have insisted it is just that. But this kind of analysis is extremely limited in scope, and potentially blocks us from appreciating the full artistic reach of a writer like Kafka and a story like The Metamorphosis.
This is not to say that Kafka’s politics had nothing to do with the story. They most surely did. By the time he wrote The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka had enthusiastically embraced far left, anarcho-communist beliefs. He had attended anti-militarist and anti-statist meetings, and his journals were filled with declarations such as “always remember Kropotkin.”
These politics — what Michael Lowy identified in Kafka as “romantic libertarian socialist” — set the author well enough apart from the kind of crude mechanics that might yield an analysis of his work as being some kind of rote parallel. To be blunt, Kafka was far too imaginative for that. It’s significant that Soviet and Eastern Bloc regimes, having long since abandoned any kind of genuine and supple dialectical materialism central to real Marxism, were intimidated by Kafka and labeled his works “decadent.” His central themes — that alienation was very real, that it did horrible and terrifying things to the human condition, not to mention his scathing indictments of all things bureaucratic — couldn’t have reflected well on the vast shortcomings of “actually existing socialism.”
As Marxist literary critic Ernst Fischer said during his speech at a conference on Kafka held in Czechoslovakia in 1963 (five years before the latter would be officially banned):
Kafka is a poet who concerns all of us. The alienation of man that he depicted with maximum intensity, assumes horrifying proportions in the capitalistic world. However, it is by no means surmounted in the socialist world. To overcome [this phenomenon] step by step, by fighting against dogmatism and bureaucracy and for socialistic democracy, initiative and responsibility, is a long process and a great task... The socialist reader will find traits of his own problems within [his works], and the socialist functionary will be coerced into reasoning certain questions in a more thoroughly and differentiated manner.
This “differentiated manner” challenges our thinking processes to go beyond simple metaphor. Die Weißen Blätter, the first journal to publish the story, was one of the most important publications of German Expressionism. And much like the Marxism of Fischer and other dissident radical acolytes of Kafka, Expressionism was an outright revolt against the “official” rationalism of its era. It drew attention to the neglected, hidden gothic corners of human existence that called into question positivist notions of a free, happy and self-actualized society. With the madness of World War I only right around the corner, such a call to question would be well-suited.
And The Metamorphosis fits the bill of an Expressionist work of art. It tells its story from an extremely subjective viewpoint, plunging deeper and deeper into Gregor’s singular confusion, pain and sorrow. Rarely do we venture beyond what he sees or feels. Only at the very end of the story do we leave the confines of his family’s apartment at all. Descriptions of the characters and their surroundings are often detailed but never too detailed, as if they are just one component of a sweeping motion that cries to be dealt with.
What, however, is actually being expressed? It is frankly easy to leave it at “alienation” and move on. This is not so much untrue as unsatisfactory. Alienation can be a concept in and of itself but for the purpose of The Metamorphosis, there is far more going on, far more illustrated and captured. What more is Kafka telling us here?
Answering this question is also to answer why Kafka borrows from the supernatural. After all, he isn’t merely telling us about Gregor Samsa, the man who woke up one day with a bad case of ennui. He is telling us about Gregor Samsa, the former human being transformed into a filthy, nasty, giant bug. At its core, The Metamorphosis is a story about a monster. And, says China Mieville:
I think what’s going on here is that there’s something about modernity and capitalism that you simply can’t think about it in “realistic” ways. Instead it keeps coming back as the “return of the repressed” — you can’t conceive of it except in monstrous form.
Mieville’s specific mention of modernity is telling. Kafka’s world was one in which what we might call “the modern experience” had gained unprecedented steam and become near hegemonic on the European continent. His own father had been swept up from the stasis of the small and relatively homogenous towns of the Austro-Hungarian empire and dropped into the bewildering and exciting metropolitanism of Prague. This was a life in which the accepted logic of cause-and-effect could only hold on by an ever-thinner thread.
Kafka himself seems to have grappled with the slippery nature of identity in this context. Counter to his father’s assimilationist aspirations, Franz sought to recapture a kind of Jewish shtetl mysticism and integrate it into the cosmopolitan experience. Though we would be ill-advised to reduce his political radicalism to his attempt at forging identity, it seems plausible that both were rooted in a desire to reconcile and harness the contradictory potential of modern life. What is far more certain is that he was keenly aware of the Faustian bargain that this potential offered to its participants: in order to find this new identity, one must be willing to have it destroyed and perverted beyond all human recognition.
Monsters and Monstering
True to form, the Metamorphosis isn’t just a monster tale, but a tale about “monstering.” Prior to Kafka, plenty of authors had told all manner of tales where humans are literally transformed. The Eastern European literary canon in particular is full of stories of witchcraft and supernatural schemes exacted on people, robbing them of their human form and turning them into some filthy animal or grotesque creature.
But these stories normally doubled as morality tales or played some kind of cautionary role. If a person was transformed into a rat, it was because they had enacted some wrong against somebody else. Or if the transformed one was innocent, then there was likely some other actor in the story whose role it was to either ensure that they be changed back or that the one doing the transforming saw their comeuppance. There was normally a great sense of either justice or injustice that came with the transformation itself.
In The Metamorphosis, there is neither. We certainly feel sympathy with Gregor and fright with what he has become, but there isn’t any discussion about right or wrong. His metamorphosis is ultimately amoral in character. The only metric we have against which to measure the actions of the story for most of its duration is Gregor’s emotions.
The story certainly possesses a totality, however. At least, there is a totality that can be constructed from the experiences of Gregor and his family, though it is far beyond their grasp. And there is plenty of reason to believe that this same agglomeration of experiences is in fact behind Gregor’s plight.
Many analyses have pointed to Gregor’s job as the culprit. There is surely something to this. The first several pages of the story describe two things in relative detail: his new insectoid form, and the physical and emotional demands of his employment as a traveling salesman. This was no doubt deliberate on Kafka’s part. One is reminded of the way in which work is described as a monstrous transformative elsewhere in literature. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example.
Kafka’s method here is markedly different from Sinclair’s in countless obvious ways. While Jurgis and his co-workers at the Union Stockyards are metaphorically monstered — their bodies broken and abused until they are reduced to something that less resembles human — Gregor’s transformation is literal. And, unlike the fairy tales that came before, Gregor’s transformation isn’t a plot twist coming later in the story. It is the plot. Gregor continues to feel himself change throughout the book. The discovery that he cannot talk, his realization that he now prefers rotting garbage as food, the fade in his ability to feel certain emotions even as he continues to struggle with a sense of isolation and loneliness. If the physical change comes before the book’s opening pages, then the titular metamorphosis is that of Gregor’s internal life.
The most salient difference here, however, is that in The Metamorphosis the connection between work and dehumanization is never made explicit. It is merely hinted at. From the first two pages of the story:
“Oh, God,” he thought, “what a strenuous career it is I’ve chosen! Travelling day in and day out. Doing business like this takes much more effort than doing your own business at home, and on top of that there’s the curse of travelling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them. It can all go to Hell!” He felt a slight itch up on his belly; pushed himself slowly up on his back towards the headboard so that he could lift his head better; found where the itch was, and saw that it was covered with little white spots which he didn’t know what to make of; and when he tried to feel the place with one of his legs he drew it quickly back because as soon as he touched it he was overcome by a cold shudder.
Insofar as there is a link, it is at best strongly hinted at. It is impersonal, detached and nondescript. Kafka’s employ of a narrative voice that we would today describe as “magical realist” or “slipstream” is instructive here: that which we call absurd is related with the same tone as the recognizable and everyday, the fantastical becomes mundane and vice versa. Displaying the kind of anti-positivism that characterized Expressionism, the causality between Gregor’s exhaustion and his transformation is ineffable. It is but it isn’t, and insofar as it is, there are broader forces animating it.
And in fact, it is stated outright that Gregor is only working such a demanding and exhausting job because his parents are in great financial debt. Throughout the book, we hear his family attempt to find ways to compensate for the loss of income: letting the maid go, renting out a room in their flat. In fact, it is these same renters who help precipitate Gregor’s death. When the three tenants come out of their room to hear his sister Grete play her violin, Gregor attempts to sneak through the door so that he might listen better leads to his being found out by one of them. They balk, panic and move out immediately after threatening legal action against Gregor’s father. His family, desperate and ashamed, despondently contemplate — in front of Gregor — how they will get rid of him. He has become an emotional burden and, finally, a financial liability.
Grete, who prior to this had been Gregor’s lone defender, the one who brought him his putrid food and pleaded with their father to spare her brother’s life, now refers to him as “it”: “It’s got to go… that’s the only way, Father. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it’s not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will.”
And yet, it is Gregor. He has maintained consciousness, though lost the ability to communicate it. He attempts to recapture just a sliver of his lost humanity, and in so doing, finally loses it. What follows his retreat back into his room is a melancholy and heartbreaking death scene:
“What now then?,” Gregor asked himself as he looked round in the darkness. He soon made the discovery that he could no longer move at all. This was no surprise to him, it seemed rather that being able to actually move around on those spindly little legs until then was unnatural. He also felt relatively comfortable. It is true that his entire body was aching, but the pain seemed to be slowly getting weaker and weaker and would finally disappear altogether… He thought back of his family with emotion and love. If it was possible, he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside his window, too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.
Gregor’s final thoughts and sensations are the last phase in his metamorphosis. He has come to view himself externally, is comfortable with losing any bodily control. He tellingly views himself as a commodity that has lost all social value. He is better to simply be discarded. Again, the convergence between the fantastical and the unremarkable makes for a strange kind of mixture of the maudlin and the macabre. The best English translations effectively allow us to experience this uncomfortable combination ourselves. In the last moment of Gregor’s life, we sympathize with him concomitantly to the horror at what he has become and how he is treated.
In a jarring about-face, however, we also find it difficult to resist identifying with the relief felt by Gregor’s family after his passing. For as much as we identify with Gregor, we cannot help but also feel their sense of freedom from the burden he has become. It is an unsettling denouement: to realize that we are also partaking in the protagonist’s objectification. If someone’s humanity can be measured by how it is remembered, then Gregor Samsa’s has been thoroughly erased. Even in death, he has been absolutely and completely monstered. The cause is never determined, and is indeed secondary to the machinations that swirl around it.
A Modern Metamorphosis
On October 17th, a long article appeared in The New York Times entitled “The Lonely Death of George Bell.” Its eponymous subject was an old man whose dead body was discovered about a week after his death in his squalid Queens apartment. Bell had been a hoarder, having accumulated over his 72 years enough possessions he couldn’t part with as to practically overflow his living quarters. But since he had no known kin or friends, the article focuses on the long and laborious process of identifying his body, even though most of those involved “knew” that the decomposing heap of withered flesh and bones was, in all likelihood, that of George Bell.
A bevy of questions are automatically thrown up by this article. Many of them quite unnerving. How is it, in one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, nobody can really “know” a person? If modern society determines our worth by how much we own, why is it that a man who almost literally drowned in his possessions can be forgotten, his death greeted with cold indifference? Disturbing as they are, these questions about how society can so effortlessly discard a human life also reflect how the material and spiritual contradictions that fired Kafka’s imagination are still very much with us.
It is also true that these same discomforts and anxieties find themselves transferred into our popular culture by way of the grotesque. Body horror films — be they the earlier work of David Cronenberg or the more crudely drawn immediacy of the Human Centipede series — are only the most immediate examples that come to mind. Significantly, neither one present contemporary metamorphoses as supernatural in nature. Though some of Cronenberg’s films are of a more ghostly type, others like The Fly and Videodrome portray the corruption of the human form as springing from science or technology. Entities that are supposed to make our lives better are misappropriated by those who believe in the two-dimensional forward march of progress. The same wooden positivism against which Kafka and his contemporaries rebelled is still frequently critiqued today.
What places these kinds of films so firmly in the shadow of The Metamorphosis and less in that of, say, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that while the latter ruminates on how modernity redefines our notion of what makes us human, Kafka’s tale existentially pulls back and hones in on how that same humanity is twisted and quite bluntly perverted. It is a logical distinction. Though Kafka and Shelley were both political radicals of their time and place, Kafka was writing with almost a hundred more years of the modern experience in society’s rearview mirror. Though the manufactured and casually commodified carnage of World War I would have been well beyond Shelley’s pale, the technological capacities for mustard gas, Mark V tanks and barbed wire were very much woven into Kakfa’s time and place.
One doesn’t automatically need to incorporate considerations about capital or empire or the repressive state apparatus to engage this this kind of critique of alienation and estrangement. None of them are quite so overt in The Metamorphosis. But if these concerns aren’t out in the open, they are also ever-present. They are siphoned through the terror and shame of Gregor’s family, the crushing weight of debt, the exhaustion of his job, and the inexplicability with which all of it combines to turn him into a literal pariah.
The grotesque is, much like Gregor himself, instrumentalized in The Metamorphosis. It provides a kind of slipstream between what Bertolt Brecht would distinguish as the lyrical and epic, the intimately personal and the grandly historical. The forces that can transform us may be far beyond our individual reach, but they are also ultimately banal.
This may be the most relevant legacy of Franz Kafka’s tale. It is a reminder that in a world dominated by capital, terror is so commonplace as to be almost hidden in plain sight. And in so being, it is capable of turning the human condition into something unspeakable.