In his 1911 Diary, Franz Kafka described “the grace and the baroque vitality” of Prague from his vista atop a staircase, “through a small triangular window” that overlooked the city (Zamora and Faris 82). In The Metamorphosis, Kafka describes Gregor Samsa’s absurd transformation into an insect from what seems a similarly distant viewpoint, as Gregor wakes one morning and finds himself changed into a cockroach. Gregor suffers the tragedy of rejection and untimely death when he is no longer able to conform to his father’s expectations of business success, and finds himself physically, emotionally and psychologically isolated from everyone he cares for.
Kafka’s tone for his narrative is, like Gregor’s tale, at times both amusing and anxiety-provoking. Gregor labors as a commercial traveler for the company to whom his father owes a burdensome debt. He labors under the crushing weight of this “indentured servancy” until his family’s blindness to his misery becomes so unbearable that only his transmutation into a verminous insect “sets him free from his odious job” (McCarty par. 1) and the relentless pressure of “maintaining his entire financial stability” and that of his thankless household (par. 2). As Mauro Nervi explains in “The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book,” Gregor, as Kafka had in the formative years of his own life, masks his unhappiness with a “meaningless and dull life” (par. 1) engineered by a distant father. Gregor glosses over his “total mental isolation” even as the demands of his “domineering, almost frightening father” (Nervi par. 1) to go to work penetrate his locked bedroom door:
…soon his father came knocking at one of the side doors, gently,
but with his fist. “Gregor! Gregor,” he called, “what’s wrong?”
And after a short while he called again with a warning deepness
in his voice: “Gregor! Gregor!”
Nervi notes that through Gregor’s eyes, “Kafka spends a disproportionate amount of space describing his father as a demanding, almost military figure” (par. 3). When he can not rouse his “well-meaning, misunderstood cockroach son” (par. 2) from his bedroom, Mr. Samsa remains detached in another room. He brings the company clerk to Gregor’s door to question why he did not “come round and…didn’t leave on the early train” (Kafka). Chronically oblivious to his adult son’s needs and right to a reasonable measure of autonomy, he projects his own failed business aspirations onto Gregor and rather than admit his son is in danger and distress, he makes excuses. He also exaggerates Gregor’s pride in his profession and minimizes the constant anxiety attendant in his daily travel to and from work:
“He isn’t well, please believe me. Why else would Gregor have
missed the train! The lad only ever thinks about the business…
He sits with us in the kitchen and just reads the paper or studies
The authors of “A Study of Kafka’s the Metamorphosis in the Light of Freudian Psychological Theory” theorize that “Gregor Samsa…represents Kafka himself” and that Gregor’s father is a reflection of Kafka’s own experience as “a son with a guilty conscience” for not measuring up to his father’s demands for business success. At first relieved that his bedroom door is locked, Gregor then laments his inability to let his family into his room cum terrarium, having “no proper teeth” to turn the key and unlock the door. Like a child willing to sacrifice self-expression for parental approval, Gregor nevertheless tries to open the lock and injures his mouth. When Gregor’s door is finally opened, his father remains deaf to his son’s suffering and acts violently on his revulsion. He becomes at once bully, boss and exterminator, seizing “the clerk’s stick” and picking up a newspaper, using them “to drive Gregor back into his room, stamping his foot at him as he went” (Kafka).
As if his family’s unhappiness is due to “some act of violence” on his part, Gregor feels obligated to “calm his father” and prove he has only “the best of intentions” (Kafka). Rejected and alone, through the distortion of his now compound eyes Gregor sees his father’s “smart blue uniform with gold buttons” and the distressingly large soles of his shoes hovering over him, which foreshadow his demise as a revolting pest. As if tallying the equally compound nature of his sins, Gregor even notices the “furniture full of notches” and a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, and feels the “incredible pain” of a barrage of apples, and with each blow his father’s full and final rejection:
Gregor froze in shock; there was no longer any point in running as his
father had decided to bombard him…An apple thrown without much
force glanced against Gregor’s back and slid off without doing any harm.
Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in
His family settles into silent toleration for Gregor’s ruined state, but his father’s punishing treatment leaves him “reduced to the condition of an ancient invalid” (Kafka), while Mr. Samsa himself “comes back to life” (McCarty par. 5). Gregor sympathizes with his now “tired and overworked family” (Kafka) even as he succumbs to his injuries and dies. Gregor’s metamorphosis and “tragic death by his father” (Barfi et al. 109) leave him not only invisible and forgotten, but like Kafka, accepting both the freedom and the shame resulting from his expulsion from the Samsa family’s fallen urban paradise.
Barfi, Zahra, Fatemeh Azizmohammadi, and Hamedraeza Kohzadi. “A Study of Kafka’s the
Metamorphosis in the Light of Freudian Psychological Theory.” Research Journal of
Recent Sciences 2.10 (2013): 107-09. International Science Congress Association.
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Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Gutenberg Project. Trans. David Wyllie. Gutenberg.org,
2002. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
McCarty, Elizabeth. “(SP): Dependence and Freedom of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis'” The Kafka
Project. Kafka.org, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Nervi, Mauro. “The Dependence and Freedom of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis'” The Kafka Project.
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Parkinson Zamora, Lois, and Wendy B. Faris. Magic Realism: Theory, History, Community.
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