While the young businessman Georg Bendemann is condemned to death in Kafka’s metaphorical world, the young commercial traveler Gregor Samsa in “Die Verwandlung” ( “The Metamorphosis”) must live out the last months of his life in the same world changed as a giant bug, which resembles a cockroach.
Compared with “Die Verwandlung,” the little prose piece “Grosser Larm” appears like a first sketch for the larger story. The characterization of father and son is the same: the father is the mighty master of the family, and the son, living helplessly in their midst, frightens them in his monstrous shape. “Grosser Larm” appeared in October, 1912, in a Prague magazine; and on November 11 Kafka sent a copy to Felice. The little prose piece was fresh in his mind when, six days later, waiting in bed for a letter from her, the idea for “Die Verwandlung” came to him in his “wretchedness.” As in “Das Urteil,” which preceded it, the inspiration for “Die Verwandlung” was his unhappy family life, which was only eased somewhat by his sister Ottla, who also defied the father and tried to help her unfortunate brother.
“Die Verwandlung” opens with the sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The dependent clause tells us of the real world, and—such is Kafka’s subtle style—something important about the hero’s previous life. The main clause shifts immediately to Gregor’s metaphorical state. During the last night, in which he had fallen asleep in bed as a man, Gregor had ”uneasy dreams,” the result of an inner unrest; and his thoughts upon awakening reveal what caused them. He complains about the physical discomfort of the commercial traveler, but also about something much more important, about the dehumanizing effect of his job due to the always changing human contacts, which never lead to close personal relations. Worst of all, he feels humiliated by the head of the firm, who has the disgusting habit of sitting on a high desk, so he can talk down to his employees. Although by ordinary literary and human standards a miserable creature, this man shares with many another authoritative character the divine honors bestowed upon him by an allegorizer: “The description of Gregor’s boss has breadth enough to apply not just to a petty office tyrant, but even to an [ sic ] Old Testament God. Indeed, the reference to the high desk echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the God ‘most high’ who yet can ‘hear’ us.” This “petty office tyrant” would fulminate against Gregor should he be late for work. Since, as Gregor firmly believes, his parents owe his employer money he has to stay with the despised job for five or six more years.
Such reflections have occupied Gregor’s mind for some while before the catastrophe and have made him lose faith in himself and in the Tightness of his life, as had also happened to Georg Bendemann. In the author’s fictitious world, Gregor has become what he had metaphorically been for a long time: an insect.
As if to ward off subsequent critical misinterpretation of the events described in this story as nightmares of a neurotic, the narrator explains in the second sentence: “It was no dream: his room, a regular bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls.” Gregor had his breakthrough to self-recognition, and the implied metaphor—something like “I am really a spineless bug”—is at once fused with the realistically described life he leads between the four walls of his room.
On one of these hangs Gregor’s “pinup,” a testimony to his sense of inferiority. It is a cutout from some illustrated magazine, representing a lady of wealth, high above his rank, wearing a fur stole and “holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff, in which the whole of her forearm had vanished.” Fur stoles, it should be noted, were considered by some in prewar Europe to be ostentatious status symbols, and Kafka detested them. He once informed Grete Bloch: “One has some convictions that are so deep-seated and true that one doesn’t have to worry about a detailed justification. .. . I don’t have many convictions of this kind,” and then he mentions two of them: “the abomination of contemporary medicine, and .. . the ugliness of the fur stole.”
Gregor’s fur-clad idol is enclosed in a gilded frame which the young commercial traveler has cut out with a fretsaw, fretwork, a hobby usually associated with boys rather than grown-up men, being the only luxury he allows himself. Otherwise his arid life consists of sitting at home every evening, reading the paper, or studying timetables, so that he may beat the competition by taking earlier trains.
His metamorphosis, of course, makes him miss all the trains on this fateful morning, and the manager, informed by the firm’s porter, who spies on the salesmen, arrives at the home of the Samsas. In vain Mrs. Samsa attempts to pacify him. Suspecting that Gregor might be a malingerer, or, still worse, that he was about to make off with some company funds, he displays his art of humiliating his inferiors before the embarrassed family of his employee.
Gregor, still struggling to get out of bed and open the door, is incapable of making himself understood with his beetle mouth, but has kept his human understanding and feeling. At last he succeeds in dropping down on the floor. Lying there for a while helplessly on his back, he has a humorous thought:
“Gregor tried to suppose to himself that something like what had happened to him today might someday happen to the chief clerk; one really could not deny that it was possible. But as if in brusque reply to his supposition the chief clerk took a couple of firm steps in the next-door room and made his patent leather boots creak.”
The ”crude answer” is clear. A man who walks on patent-leather shoes during a work day walks on status symbols and is in no danger of ever losing confidence in himself.
The assertion that “one really had to admit that possibility” that the manager would some day awaken as a bug is typical of Kafka’s wry humor; at the same time, it hints at the possibility that a human being may awaken to the insight that he is a ”bug,” a person without character and, consequently, without human dignity. The manager is a malicious, conceited man who, without any knowledge of himself, derives the firmness of his steps solely from the awareness of his patent-leather shoes and all they stand for in his world of spurious values. But Kafka knew that there were people who walked through life with firm steps, and justifiably so. Less than a year after he wrote “Die Verwandlung,” the metaphor of such “authentic” firm steps appears in his diary, where, as in his letters, he used metaphors occurring in his literary works. The entry reads: “The unimaginable sadness in the morning. In the evening read Jacobsohn’s Der Fall Jacobsohn. [Siegfried Jacobsohn was a publicist of about Kafka’s age.] This strength to live, to make decisions, joyfully to set one’s foot in the right place. He sits in himself the way a practiced rower sits in his boat and would sit in any boat…. “On the same day he reread “Die Verwandlung.”
Kafka admired men like the author Jacobsohn of the firm steps who is, of course, in firmness and decision the opposite of Gregor and his author. There was, however, a time when Gregor took firm steps like the manager, and though he never wore patent-leather shoes and fine clothes, he wore then something incomparably nobler, a lieutenant’s uniform. The beetleman’s first excursion out of his room ends in the living room, and there on the wall just opposite him “hung a photograph of himself in military service, as a lieutenant, hand on sword, a carefree smile on his face, inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing.”
After the “fur uniform” of the proud lady, and lieutenant Gregor Samsa’s uniform, a third one appears in this story. As long as Gregor was working, the father had enjoyed a premature dotage, but since Gregor’s misfortune he has shaken off his senility and has become the porter of a bank, clad in a uniform with golden buttons, which soon looks soiled since he never takes it off before bedtime. This “servant-uniform” strengthens the old man to such a degree that he would have killed the metamorphosed son in a fit of rage by trampling upon him or bombarding him with apples if the mother had not intervened.
“Die Verwandlung” offers the worst example of the disagreement among Kafka’s critics as to the moral qualities of his characters. Strangely enough, nobody mentions the patent fact that the people surrounding the metamorphosed Gregor are the real vermin while he begins to rise even before his misfortune. His “uneasy dreams” are the beginning of his development from a timid nothing of a man believing in spurious values to a true human being. There is a gathering of vermin in Gregor’s firm: the boss’s way of humiliating the employees has been mentioned. The porter, the lowliest creature in the firm, watches at the railroad station, so that he can report to him whether the commercial travelers took the earliest possible train or not. Samsa thinks about him as of an insect: “He was a creature of the chiefs, spineless and stupid.” The manager well represents the firm, driving Gregor and his family to despair with his false concern and vicious innuendoes. The Italian insurance company had provided Kafka with models for that kind of bug.
The worst insect among the vermin in the story is, however, the parasitical father. Although he knew how his son loathed his employment with the firm to whose principal old Samsa owed money, he never told him that he had saved enough from his bankruptcy and from Gregor’s earnings, so that Gregor might have ended his debtor’s slave work years earlier than would have been possible under the present conditions.
Among the “real” vermin, Gregor’s sister is the only exception, at least during the first weeks after his metamorphosis, when she lovingly experiments with food until she knows what her unfortunate brother likes to eat; but then she begins to neglect him more and more. At the same time, Gregor loses his appetite and hardly touches his food any longer. To make his suffering worse, a maid has been hired, an uncouth, rawboned big female who embitters him by addressing him as “old crap beetle.” Finally the parents have taken three lodgers into the house, Chaplinesque characters whom he watches while they are eating. ‘”I’m hungry enough,’ said Gregor sadly to himself, ‘but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!'”
This is no longer the Gregor who admired status symbols, who clung to the cheap picture in his room, fearing it might be removed. The vulgarity of his former life has disappeared, and the food the three roomers are eating with such audible gusto is no longer just food but a symbol of all that pleases and nourishes them as human beings. Gregor can no longer be satisfied with the “grub” of their lives and the lives of those like them, as he had been before. The unbridgeable gap between him and people like these becomes clear when his sister plays the violin before them. Since the dullards cannot understand the serious music she has chosen, they boorishly show their contempt for this kind of entertainment, although the young girl reveals all her devotion to music in the way she plays.
This small example of the barbarian’s contempt for the language of the arts has provoked, through the ages, many protests like the following one by Goethe, which will help to explain what Gregor is hungering for: “The people do not appreciate us [the artists] if we increase their inner need [Kafka calls it hunger], give them a great ideal for their own selves, if we want to make them feel how glorious a true, noble existence is.”
Gregor’s inner needs are increased by her playing. His humiliation is approaching its end, his suffering has raised him to a truly human level, and, for the first time since his metamorphosis, he has good reason to doubt the justice of his frightful degradation. The question in which he expresses his doubt is essential to the understanding of the story: “War er ein Tier, da inn Musik so ergriff?” (“Could he really be an animal since music touched him so?”) The use of the conjunction da with adversative force is very rare, and most German, and almost all English, critics understood it in its usual causal function, many of them having to rely on the two English translations in which da is also rendered as a causal particle. Nevertheless the commentators succeeded to wrest a meaning from the sibylline rhetorical question: “Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?”
One of the four German scholars previously referred to calls Gregor’s question fittingly “the decisive sentence,” but, tricked by the da explains: “As an animal he is at the same time more than an animal.” Another German commentator, sensitive to the adversative meaning of da, wants nevertheless to save the causal meaning, explaining: “Gregor, about whom we learned earlier that he did not have so intimate a relation to music as his sister, now obtains it on the primitive-emotional basis of his animal organization and in so doing becomes more clearly conscious of being an animal as well.” That would make of Gregor, because of his all-encompassing inner life, a superman as well as a superbeetle. One lone commentator gives the correct translation, but then rules out the doubt in Gregor’s question and asserts, correcting him: “On the contrary, it is just when he is an animal that music moves him: The totem is the deeper and better self.” After these strange metamorphoses of metamorphosed Gregor, the resigned statement of one critic who interprets da in the common, in this case the wrong, way may conclude this strange list: “In Kafka’s unfathomable sentence: ‘Was he an animal that music could move him so?’ paradox echoes jarringly without end.” Strangely enough, this paradox, created by interpreters, does not exist in the French, Spanish, and Italian standard translations, where the decisive sentence is rendered correctly.
Gregor, listening, deeply moved, to his sister’s violin playing, is now an animal only in his outer form; his inner being reveals a sensitive man, something he was not before, when, as a lieutenant, “he could demand respect for his bearing and uniform,” and when later, as a commercial traveler, he stolidly accepted his soul-deadening job. He has reached the highest point in his life which, in its previous form, together with many other human qualities, lacked also interest in music. The violin playing of his sister gives him hope: “He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.”
No longer is the violin-playing sister the middle-class girl discussing with her mother the price of the nextdoor grocer’s eggs and the mores of his daughter. While playing the violin, she has left the banality and ugliness of her own and her family’s life; she is transfigured. Gregor feels how she is lifted out of this netherworld to which his firm, his parents, the three roomers, and the maid belong, and to which he, too, belonged until he awoke one morning from “uneasy dreams” as a beetle feeding on rotten food. Beginning with this moment of greatest humiliation, he began to rise until the “grub” with which those around him sustained their lives no longer sustained his own, since “his inner needs were increased,” as Goethe said.
Having reached this elevated point, his life ends. Dying he thinks “with love and compassion” of his family, just as Georg Bendemann thought of his parents. The maid announces to the older Samsas that the terrible nuisance has “croaked.” They all go to Gregor’s room, and Grete, as the speaker of this strange chorus surrounding the dead “hero,” laments: “Just see how thin he was. It’s such a long time since he’s eaten anything. The food came out [was taken out] again just as it went in.” The parents are too indifferent or too relieved to protect their son from a last ignominy. His body has been left to the maid, who sweeps “the stuff in the next room” away and drops it into the dust bin.
Just as for “Das Urteil,” Kafka has provided a Fortinbras end for “Die Verwandlung.” Such an end, following the death of the complex, suffering hero is an affirmation of simple life in its brutality, but also in its beauty, which continues unabated by all the tragedies among its “problem children.” In “Das Urteil,” a mighty stream of traffic across the bridge represents life, drowning out the plop with which unhappy Mr. Bendemann leaves it. In “Die Verwandlung,” the parents try to recuperate after Gregor’s death from the strains and horrors of the last weeks. Leaving the town by streetcar, they realize that Crete, in spite of the misfortune that had affected them all, has grown up to be a beautiful, nubile girl: “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”
Whereas Crete has words of compassion for the dead hero, most commentators who denigrate him dead and alive do not. Obviously misled by the ambiguous translation “The food came out again just as it went in” and without paying attention to Crete’s compassion, the best-known Kafka critic of the early sixties writing in English misquotes: “The food came out of him again just as it went in” and then reflects: “Crete likens him here to a pipe, a lifeless object. He has not really lived; existence, physical and metaphysical, has moved through him and left no trace. The metamorphosis has failed to change him.” Others call Gregor a parasite “that saps the father’s and the family’s life,” although as long as he could work he was the opposite. Gregor’s rather obvious rise to a level high above his previous state is interpreted by some as a regression to beastliness. His uninteresting pinup lady with the fur accessories is, according to psychoanalyzing critics, dressed in sex symbols and an object of the evil beetle’s lust, just as his imagined attempts to show his sister the tenderness he feels for her are considered an incestuous reverie.
We will have further occasion to note that Kafka critics cannot agree on the evaluation of his characters. It seems the misunderstood “decisive sentence” has caused many to overlook Gregor’s continuous rise toward the level of a truly “human” being even though his monstrous shape remains the same. That rise began before the metamorphosis took place, his uneasy dreams were caused by his inner unhappiness, which preceded his misfortune and gradually led him to crave the true food for his inner man. It is hard to see how the villains of the piece, the firm’s porter, its president, its manager, and, most of all, the egotistic father, could have been missed as the true vermin in the story; one critic even praises the vicious manager, for commenting on Gregor’s attempt to speak: “That was an animal’s voice.” The statement is, in that critic’s opinion, a word of profoundest wisdom: “The junior manager, who is in some respects the realist of the story, here utters in four words Kafka’s whole criticism both of himself and of mankind.” In defense of Gregor’s rise to human heights it should also be mentioned that Kafka’s stories, closely interrelated, usually have a redeeming end. If their heroes die, they do so on a level of being or insight higher than the one on which they lived.
When discussing critics writing before 1967 one should keep in mind that they could not benefit from studying Kafka’s letters to Felice, which appeared in that year. Directly and indirectly Kafka speaks repeatedly in these letters about his first publications, before they were written, while they were being written, and after they appeared in print. In his letter and his diaries, Kafka, more than other writers, anticipates the as yet unwritten work in metaphors dealing with its subject matter, mood, and sometimes even the small but revealing details destined to be used, although the author did not know it yet.
Much of “Die Verwandlung” is anticipated in a letter to Felice, written on November 1, 1912, sixteen days before the story was begun. In answer to her question about his “way of life,” Kafka warns her that he would have to say some “scabrous things” about himself. Beginning with the confession that his life consists basically of attempts to write, he uses a strong metaphor which, in the story, was to describe Gregor’s burial: “But when I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin.” His general weakness, he continues, made it necessary for him to deprive himself severely to save his strength on all sides, so that he would keep enough strength for this main purpose—writing. “When I didn’t do so, … but tried to reach beyond my strength, I was automatically forced back, wounded, humbled, forever weakened.” He does not mention his father here, but every one of these verbs fits the treatment Kafka received from his father and, in a literary sense, Gregor from old Samsa, who had “forced back, wounded, and forever weakened” his monstrous son.
The next paragraph of the letter is an example of “Kafkaesque” style, of the smooth shift from reality to a metaphorical plane, applied, in this case to the metaphors of hunger and becoming thin: “Just as I am thin, and I am the thinnest person I know (and that’s saying something, for I am no stranger to sanatoria), there is also otherwise nothing to me which, in relation to writing, one could call superfluous, superfluous in the sense of overflowing.” He speaks, first, of his physical thinness and then immediately shifts the concept “thinness” to a metaphorical plane, the word “otherwise” indicating the shift. On the metaphorical plane, his thinness now means that there is no “superfluous” talent or energy or any other positive quality left in him. The double sense of “thinness” forms a parallel to the real and metaphorical sense of food in “Die Verwandlung.” First it meant the food Gregor could eat after he was changed, whereas later on it is the life food toward which the violin-playing sister has shown him the way.
And what does this story mean? Of course, like any true work of literary art, it means more than its abstract scheme, that is, the development of a human being from a subhuman level, which is acceptable to the people of his world, to a superior level in a form unacceptable to them and to him, and from which only death can free him. Its meaning is expressed in the words which the author, not the critic, has chosen. The commentator can only help the reader to a closer understanding of motives and images and can clear up philological difficulties. He may do the close reading the works of an author like Kafka require if intellectual obstacles threaten to hinder the understanding of mood and feeling which an older writer like Kafka offers.
The reader himself must feel the humor in the scene where the chief clerk fills the well of the staircase with his shout of fear, while the bug man, rushing toward him on his many thin legs, only wants to excuse his unavoidable tardiness before his superior. The skilled reader, and the one who wants moral edification, will enjoy, each in his own way, the paradox that the “normal” people around Gregor are the vermin while he increasingly becomes a true human being in spite of his monstrous shape. The senile and yet tyrannical father, the Chaplinesque lodgers, the tough maid, the slimy manager as well as the “invisible” characters—the employer at his high desk, the vicious porter, spying at the railroad station—all delight the reader who does not mind enjoying realistically but masterfully presented characters. Gregor’s dissatisfaction is indirectly, but for that reason very powerfully, expressed by Kafka. It is not a social or political accusation, but the realization that it is very difficult to find in life the ”food” which lifts the inner man above the banality of existence. The temptation is great to blame our modern times for being particularly hostile to the inner man and his hunger, but such cultural criticism is not Kafka’s intention, as he had said himself. Besides, laments about the increasing dehumanization of life, its degeneration due to the utilitarian spirit of the age, were heard as long ago as the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Germany, such protests were particularly passionate. There was a writer to whom not music but the Greeks had shown the way to the longed-for, unknown food which this poor Tantalus could never reach: Friedrich Holderlin, the author of a novel with the significant title: Hyperion, or The Solitary in Greece, expressed Samsa’s yearning, although in a totally different tone, in his poem Der Archipelagus: .
. . and much do these barbarians work
with powerful arms, restlessly, but again and again
Barren like the Furies are the endeavors of
Until awakened, the soul returns to men from their f
rightening dream Youthfully joyful. . .
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Franz Kafka, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Meno Spann, “Our Sons,” in Franz Kafka, Twayne, 1958; reprinted in Twayne’s World Authors Series Online, 1999