Probably the two most memorable images in ”The Metamorphosis” occur in its first section: first the picture of Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect, lying on his back in bed and unable to get up, with all his little legs fluttering helplessly in the air; and second the picture of Gregor the giant insect stuck on his side in his bedroom doorway, injured and bleeding and again helplessly unable to move until his father shoves him into the bedroom.
If this were all there were to the story, it would be easy to conclude, as some have done, that’ The Metamorphosis” is a depiction of the helplessness and disgusting nature of the human race; here is what people really are, these two images seem to say: revolting pieces of vermin unable to do anything.
But there are two problems with this interpretation: first, not everyone in the story becomes a piece of revolting vermin, only Gregor Samsa does; and second, there is more to Gregor Samsa’s life as a bug than being disgusting and helpless. That may be the dominant impression left by Part I of the story, when Gregor is first transformed, but in Part II the situation is different.
In fact, even near the end of Part I, when Gregor begins to adjust to life as a multi-legged insect, he has a sudden “sense of physical comfort”; once he is right side up, his legs become ”completely obedient,” as he noted with joy:
“they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand.”
In Part II, there is more of this sense of joy and escape from suffering. For “mere recreation,” Gregor begins crawling across the walls and ceiling, as only an insect could. Moreover:
“He especially enjoyed hanging suspended from the ceiling; it was much better than lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; one’s body swung and rocked lightly; and in the almost blissful absorption induced by this suspension it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and fell plump on the floor. Yet he now had his body much better under control than formerly, and even such a big fall did him no harm.”
Gregor the insect is having fun. Is it good after all to be a bug?
Certainly, Gregor’s life as a bug seems in some ways better than his life as a human being. As a human being, he is stuck in a job he immensely dislikes and has the burden of supporting a family to whom he does not even feel close. He has no friends or lovers or social life; in the evenings he stays home, and during the day he is off to his alienating job.
As an insect, Gregor is free of his job and his family responsibilities. Instead of rushing off to work, he can stay home and play. Instead of taking care of his family, they take care of him. In some ways, his life as a bug is the life of the carefree child. He even heals faster than he used to, as a child would.
Still, there is something repulsive about being a bug. Even Gregor realizes this, and tries to hide his repulsiveness from his mother and his sister when they enter his room. He spends hours arranging a sheet to cover himself so they will not have to see him. And Gregor also realizes at one point, even after he has discovered the joys of climbing the walls, that he does not want to stay a bug forever. When his mother and sister start removing his furniture, his mother’s second thoughts provoke him to resist: he does not want to give up his human past and the possibility of returning to it.
Now, perhaps Gregor is simply mistaken to fight for his human past; perhaps Kafka means for the reader to see his life as a bug as something so superior to his human past that he should want to stay a bug forever. But if Kafka were creating an ideal escape from adult responsibilities, surely he would have created a more appealing one than becoming a giant insect; he could have transformed Gregor into a cute little puppy or a young child instead of a repulsive vermin.
And there are distinct disadvantages to being a bug. For one thing, Gregor’s repulsive appearance means he has to remain in his room, a prisoner, completely isolated. His existence was always a fairly lonely one, but this is worse: as far as friendship and intimacy are concerned, Gregor’s transformation is not an escape from his past loneliness but an intensification of it.
Moreover, for all Gregor’s ability to climb walls, as an insect he is fairly helpless: he depends on others now for food and for keeping his room clean; and his inability to talk means he cannot express his needs clearly.
Not that Gregor seems to have expressed his needs clearly even before his transformation. He seems to have been a classic self-sacrificer and martyr, devoting his entire life to paying off his family’s debts, worrying about wasting even an hour of his employer’s time, spending very little time developing his own life.
It is true that there are hints in the story that he feels resentment over this situation: for instance, he allows himself to think for a moment that his father might have used some of the money he saved to help Gregor escape sooner from his oppressive job; he also seems to think there could have been more appreciation for his efforts to bring in the money his family needed. Then, when he is first transformed and is struggling to open the door, he thinks the family might be more encouraging. And when he hears his sister sobbing that first morning, he seems irritated with her.
But these are fleeting moments. It is more typical of him to think, concerning the money his father has held back, that his father must know best. It is also typical of him that the thing he worries about, if he crashes out of bed, is that the noise may alarm the others. And his laborious effort to hide himself with a sheet is done completely to serve others’ needs. Finally, when his mother makes a rare entrance into his room, to avoid upsetting her “he renounced the pleasure of seeing [her].” Gregor seems to have led a life of renouncing pleasures.
Now, it is true that as a bug he is finally able to have some pleasure; he also, as a bug, makes two attempts to fight for what he wants: first, when he resists the removal of his furniture, and second when he seeks to obtain the mysterious nourishment associated with his sister’s violin playing. He fails in both attempts, however, and thus to a certain extent being a bug is just like being a human being for Gregor: he cannot get his needs met in either form.
In short, Gregor’s transformation has a double meaning: it is both an escape from his oppressive life and a representation or even an intensification of it. But even as an escape, it is not very successful, for to maintain his life as a carefree, wall-climbing insect, he needs others to care for him: to bring him his food and to clean his room. Eventually, his sister, who has been doing this, loses interest; his room becomes dirty; and he becomes despondent and angry over being neglected.
And of course he is more than neglected; he is attacked. Attacked twice by his father, the second time seriously enough to cause a perhaps life-threatening wound. Gregor is unable to prevent this injury and also unable to obtain treatment for it; the family does not seem to care, and he is at their mercy.
There thus seems to be a problem with escaping as a response to an oppressive life: the escapist idyll cannot be maintained; it is too dependent on others. And perhaps, just like childhood, it cannot be expected to last forever.
Now, if Gregor Samsa were the only character in the story, one might still say that Kafka is painting a gloomy picture of the whole human condition. The only options open to Gregor Samsa seem to be life as a downtrodden martyr at work and at home or the purely temporary escape he finds as a bug.
It is true that there are two other options he seeks to pursue. One is associated with the music played by his sister. The music makes him think he can obtain some “unknown nourishment”—perhaps something spiritual, though that is unclear. It also makes him fantasize about his sister moving into his room with him and about kissing her on the neck, indicating perhaps a closer sort of relationship as a way out of his troubles.
However, he is repulsed when he tries to follow this option involving his sister and her music, just as he is repulsed when he pursues the option of resistance, of fighting back when his belongings are taken from him.
Not everyone in the story is similarly repulsed, however. Gregor’s father, in contrast to Gregor, is able to succeed by pursuing the path of resistance.
Much like Gregor, Gregor’s father finds himself in a downtrodden, self-sacrificing state in Part III of the story, with the arrival of the three lodgers, who somehow seize control in the household. Even before the arrival of the lodgers, the elder Samsa has seemed like a curiously weak figure, except when attacking Gregor. With Gregor as the breadwinner, Gregor’s father becomes the dependent one and spends his days lying almost comatose in a chair, wearing his bathrobe, almost unable to walk. After Gregor’s transformation, he goes back to work and regains some of his strength, but he and the rest of the family at first feel tired and overworked as a result of taking on jobs, and Gregor sees in them a sense of “complete hopelessness.”
When the lodgers arrive, things become even worse. Mr. Samsa and the others dote on them, Mr. Samsa with cap in hand; they yield the best seats at the dinner table to the lodgers, and in general are overly anxious to please, having “an exaggerated idea of the courtesy due to lodgers.”
But when Gregor dies, suddenly Mr. Samsa finds new strength and orders the lodgers out. He is also suddenly able to stand up to the intimidating charwoman, stopping her from talking “with a decisive hand.” The result of this newfound strength is that Mr. Samsa and his family are suddenly able to contemplate a happy and fulfilling life: their jobs will lead to better things, and their daughter will get married.
For some people, then, there is a way out. People may be living in a hostile universe, the story suggests, and some people are like Gregor: they cannot stand up to it; at best they can run away for some temporary respite. But others can rise up against the universe and seize control of their destiny.
This is perhaps a more optimistic message to take from the story than seeing it as portraying a universally gloomy existence—or perhaps not. Throughout the story the reader has been drawn to identify with Gregor; the story is told from his point of view, and he seems appealing in his self-sacrificing way. But he is defeated. And who is it that triumphs? His bullying father and the sister who betrayed him. Not everyone is doomed to be crushed like a bug, the story is saying; not everyone, just you and 1, while other people somehow get ahead at our expense. It is a despairing conclusion.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Franz Kafka, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on “The Metamorphosis,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.