Point of View
The story is told in the third person but is for the most part limited to Gregor’s point of view. Only his thoughts and feelings are presented, and most of the events are seen through his eyes. The point seems to be to present a picture of Gregor and the world as he understands it, both before and after his metamorphosis. This does not necessarily mean that all of Gregor’s judgements are to be accepted; on the contrary, Kafka uses irony and black comedy to indicate that Gregor is at times misled, for instance in thinking he can still go to the office even after becoming an insect and, more sadly, in thinking his family is putting his interests first.
Of course, after Gregor’s death, the point of view has to shift; it becomes simply impersonal third-person narration, remaining on the outside of the surviving characters, not revealing their thoughts and feelings the way Gregor’s were revealed earlier. Interestingly, Gregor’s parents are now referred to impersonally as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa; earlier, when the story was being told from Gregor’s point of view, they were invariably referred to as Gregor’s father and Gregor’s mother. The point of this shift seems to be to emphasize that Gregor is not just gone but forgotten.
The story has a very constricted setting; almost all the events take place within the Samsa house, mostly in Gregor’s room, reflecting the fact that Gregor is essentially a prisoner. The room itself is small and, by the end, unclean. Gregor can see outside, but mostly what he sees is an overcast sky, rain, fog, and a gray hospital building; when his eyesight fades, he cannot even see the hospital, and the world beyond his room appears to him to be a gray desert.
The gloominess of this setting begins to change near the end. There is heavy rain, but the narrator suggests it might be a sign of spring. This is when Gregor is still alive. However, the truly decisive change in the setting occurs only after Gregor’s death. For the first time, the story leaves the house, following the surviving Samsas into the country side, where the sun shines on them as they cheerfully plan their future.
The story is divided into three parts, each one culminating in a foray by Gregor outside his room. The first two parts end when Gregor is forced back into his room. In part three, Gregor is again forced to return to his room; however, this part differs from the other two in that it does not end with Gregor’s return, but contains a coda describing events of the next day.
Flashbacks and other Narrative Devices
Most of the story consists of extended scenes. All of part one is the scene that unfolds when Gregor awakes to find himself an insect; the last section of part two is the extended scene that begins when Gregor’s sister and mother enter Gregor’s room to remove his furniture; and the bulk of part three consists of two linked scenes: the violin concert that leads to Gregor’s death and the scene that begins the next day with the discovery of his body, and that ends with the excursion to the countryside.
Only a small part of the story consists of summaries: most notably the passages near the beginning of each of the last two parts, which recount Gregor’s typical activities, explain how he gets fed and informed, and report on how the family copes with the loss of Gregor’s income.
Kafka also uses brief flashbacks to explain how Gregor came to be supporting his family and to contrast the current behavior of Gregor’s father with how he behaved in the past.
Kafka uses some obvious and not-so-obvious symbols in the story. Some symbols even the characters recognize as such: for instance, the furniture in Gregor’s room, which his mother is reluctant to remove because of its association with Gregor’s human past; to remove the furniture is to declare symbolically that Gregor is no longer human and will never be human again.
Other symbols are less easy to understand. The recurrent use of the number three, for instance (three parts to the story, three doors to Gregor’s room, three lodgers, three other family members), seems significant, but of what it is not clear. The fact that Gregor’s father insists on wearing his uniform so long that it becomes greasy also seems significant but unclear; to wear a smart uniform instead of a bathrobe seems at first an indication of the father’s increasing strength, but to wear it so long that it becomes greasy seems to indicate weakness again. It is also not entirely clear what the significance is of the picture of a carefree Gregor in a lieutenant’s uniform: does it suggest that he once had a more satisfying existence, before becoming stuck in his boring job?
The picture of the lady in furs, which Gregor presses against when his belongings are taken away, seems to be some sort of romantic or sexual symbol, representing the limited nature of Gregor’s romantic life. The music that draws Gregor seems to have a spiritual significance—or does it, on the contrary, suggest (as Gregor himself says) something animallike? The appearance of the butcher’s boy at the end could be a symbol of returning life—or is it death? And the sunshine at the end also speaks of life, though it is a life dependent on Gregor’s death, a life open to the Samsas only because they have got rid of Gregor.
Of course, the central symbol of the story is Gregor’s insect form itself. What does it signify for a man to be turned into a giant bug? Is Kafka suggesting that this is the human condition? Is it the condition of only some humans? And what is that condition? Disgusting and ineffectual, or somehow positive?
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Franz Kafka, Published by Gale Group, 2001.