Yet another of the 100 Essential Novels according to www.popchartlab.com, albeit a novella really.
The Metamorphosis is one those books that I would have preferred to read in a literature class. I am sure I missed much in subtext and symbolism and would have greatly benefited from classroom discussion.
The story begins with an overworked young man waking up to himself transformed into a “monstrous vermin” although he thinks despite the six legs and hard shell, he may just have a traveler’s malady. Gregor assumed care for the family as a traveling salesman, always scurrying here and there, barely taking time to eat or sleep. It is a job his father’s debts have enslaved him to.
He is trapped under the weight of these responsibilities and run-ragged by a boss who knocks on his door when he fails to show up for work, not out of concern, but to ensure he gets on his way immediately.
Locked away by his new physical state, his sister Grete assumes his place as the family lead, his mother takes in piece-work and laundry, and his father takes demeaning work at a bank. Grete endeavors to find scraps Gregor will eat and slowly removes the furnishings from his room. Gregor’s mother is so distraught by the change in him that she takes to the sofa in horror. They rent out part of their home to borders to make ends meet and keep Gregor out of their sight.
Grete begins to feel put upon by having to care for Gregor and leaves it to a servant. His ever decreasing role in the family angers him and yet he empathizes with Grete’s anger at being thrust in his former role. He thinks of being able to somehow ease her life.
His father takes out his anger at being forced to work on Gregor and heaves an apple at him causing a debilitating wound. In another burst of anger his father threatens to stomp him. He sinks further and further into depression, hiding under the bed and leaving the scraps of food to rot. His family should not have to suffer for his existence so he slowly commits suicide in order to free them.
With Gregor finally gone, the parents immediately move on and turn to Grete, noting her beauty and marriageable age and make plans to find her a rich husband thereby saving them from the need to work to keep from poverty.
It is difficult to feel any empathy for parents who seem to treat their children as simply a means to their livelihood. The reader can feel some empathy for Grete who at least displays a modicum of compassion towards Gregor before turning on him. And what of Gregor? It would be hard not be repulsed by his new physical state and yet as a reader you feel empathy for his still-human thoughts and feelings. What did Kafka want us to take away from his novella? That family love can only be stretched so far? That workaholism only leads to illness and early death?
Published in Germany in October of 1915, the novella is now a little over 100 years old. A whole literary style has been named from it –“Kafkaesque” – the style and messages in it are still being taught and his work has stood the test of time as required reading for many students of literature. I wish it had been for me.