For most of Kafka’s lifetime, his home town of Prague was a Czech city within a German-speaking empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only at the end of World War I did that Empire disappear, leading to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. But in 1912, when Kafka was writing ‘ The Metamorphosis,” the Czechs had not yet won their independence, and despite its Czech majority, Prague was dominated by a German-speaking elite. Recognizing where the power lay in the city, the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the German minority rather than with the Czech majority; the Czechs therefore considered the Jews to be part of the German community, but the Germans themselves did not. As a result, it was easy for the Jews to feel that they did not fit in anywhere.
In general, Prague was a city of ethnic tensions, primarily between Czechs and Germans and between Czechs and Jews. In 1897, when Kafka was fourteen, the tensions erupted into anti-Semitic riots started by the Czechs. Thus Kafka would have grown up knowing hatred and hostility as well as the difficulty of fitting in.
Economically, the late nineteenth century marked the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Industrial development was not as advanced in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as elsewhere in Europe, but within the Empire, Prague was one of the most advanced and prosperous cities. However, along with the prosperity created by the new industrialism came dislocation and disruption of the old ways, largely as a result of the shift of large numbers of people from the countryside to the city. Industrialization also meant the appearance of large numbers of jobs, for both factory and office workers, which were pure drudgery. And as if recognizing the need to train people for such jobs, the school system enforced a system of rote learning that seemed relentlessly joyless—at least it seemed joyless to young Kafka, who hated school, just as he hated his first full-time job.
Prague was a cultured city, full of newspapers, theatres, and coffeehouses where avant-garde literary types could discuss the latest intellectual fashions. Kafka was a regular at two of these coffeehouses, the Arco and the Louvre, and through the discussions there may have been introduced to new philosophical ideas. He was certainly familiar with the newly published works of Sigmund Freud, referring to Freud in his diary not long before writing The Metamorphosis. However, he was no Freudian disciple and wrote negatively of psychoanalytic theory. He was perhaps more in tune with the major nineteenth-century writers (such as Fyodor Dostoesvsky. Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard) who wrote pessimistically of life in a meaningless or hostile universe, anticipating twentieth-century existentialism, a movement with which Kafka is sometimes associated.
In the year before writing The Metamorphosis, Kafka became familiar with a Jewish theatre troupe that visited Prague and put on performances in Yiddish. He even became friendly with one of the troupe’s members and tried to promote the troupe by securing introductions for it and writing favorable reviews of its work. It has been suggested that both the tragicomic tone of the Yiddish plays Kafka saw at this time and also the story in one play of an outcast son may have influenced him in writing The Metamorphosis.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Franz Kafka, Published by Gale Group, 2001.