Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Kafka's MetamorphosisFew 20th century writers are as unavoidable and, perhaps, as influential, as Franz Kafka. Born in Prague to a German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka published precious little in his lifetime. Posterity owes a great debt to his friend, Max Brod, who ignored Kafka’s wishes to have his manuscripts destroyed after his death, and without whose efforts we would not have the fragmentary novels The TrialThe Castle and Amerika, as well as many of his short stories.

This particular collection’s centerpieces are his “Metamorphosis,” as well as “In the Penal Colony” and “The Stoker,” which provides the genesis of Amerika‘s plot. To discuss each of these in any detail would place an impossible strain on the attentions of even an avid reader; his stories’ possess an opacity his prose belies – requiring constant attention to the myriad subtle shifts in tone – that goes a long way to explaining the diversity of interpretation and critical response they engender. For the purposes of this post, I will limit myself to the “Metamorphosis,” his most famous and familiar work.

In an interview about the writing craft, novelist Jonathan Franzen once said that it is autobiography that requires the most invention, and that “no one ever wrote a more autobiographical story than the ‘Metamorphosis.'”  In this story, Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman living at home and working to pay off debts incurred by his family, wakes up one morning to find himself transformed – metamorphosed – into a “monstrous vermin,” often interpreted to be an insect, particularly a cockroach, though Kafka himself was adamant that there be some ambiguity about what, exactly, Gregor becomes. Regardless, the focus of the story is not on his transformation – in itself a clue to Kafka’s intent – but on his family’s reaction to his change. There is no discussion of why Gregor has changed, or what can be done to reverse it; the concern of the family is instead on how they are going to survive without his income, or on how people will perceive them.

Gregor’s concerns, on the other hand, are for the well-being of his family. He has calculated that he will be forced to work in his job for “another five or six years” before his parents’ debts are paid off, and his most salient concern after his transformation is for how his family will pay the rent or buy groceries without his contribution. As it turns out, their father had saved up a non-insignificant sum of money, which allows them to subsist while he looks for work. Kafka is careful to plant the thought in his reader’s mind without giving Gregor the same recognition: why is it that his father has saved up this money that could be used to pay off his debts, debts that his son is burdened with? And, when the father ultimately returns to work and appears to be transformed for the better by his job, the reader is forced, once again, to ask why Gregor had to work unassisted in paying off his father’s debts.

The truth is that Gregor’s family’s affections for him are directly proportionate to his usefulness to them, and the tragedy of the story is in watching their attitudes towards him decline with his utility. Prior to his metamorphosis – incidentally, the only instance of a metamorphosis resulting in a regression rather than a progression of form – Gregor had been selfless with his income, spending almost nothing on himself and forgoing the habitual social life of a young man in favor of maximizing his contributions to his parents and secretly saving up money to send his sister to music school. The novella ends with Gregor’s death, and the juxtaposition of the reader’s grief with his family’s relief. Returning to Franzen’s comments, we can only speculate: Kafka, like Gregor, had a problematic relationship with his father, and struggled with insomnia and tuberculosis, forcing him into long periods of convalescence during which his sister would often act as his primary caretaker.

The Metamorphosis contains, in miniature, the themes and techniques that have made Kafka such an enduring figure in Western literature: the tight control of tone and atmosphere, the use of surrealist plot devices and his characters’ muted reaction to them, and an oppressive and alienating bureaucratic social order against which his protagonists struggle.