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Although the story takes up less than 100 pages, Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations in terms of theme and meaning, there doesn’t seem to be all that much to the story itself upon first glance. The story follows the experiences of Gregor Samsa after he wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant bug in his own bed. As he reveals himself to his family and his employer, it becomes obvious that this change is not meant to be a figurative change on the part of the author, but is also a physical change. Although the family continues to care for him, providing him with food and water and cleaning his room once a day, Gregor becomes more and more detached from them, eventually finding it difficult to keep track of what has been happening around him.
His room becomes dirtier, his family becomes less attentive and he becomes less concerned with their welfare in connection with his own. As his sister and mother move his personal furniture out of his room, he leaves the room with a mind toward helping his sister, but is instead attacked by his father, becoming wounded in the process when an apple thrown at him becomes lodged in his back. Rather than tending to his wounds, the family locks him back in his room again where the apple is able to fester for months. The room becomes the general receptacle of household debris before Gregor’s final attempt to reconnect with his family results in such harsh and complete rejection that he simply crawls back in his room and dies. Through this general summary of events, then, it can be seen that one of the major themes of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is that of isolation and the devastating effects it can have on the individual.
It can be argued that Gregor’s transformation is a literal indication of his feelings of separation from humanity, including the members of his own family, as can be seen in from the very beginning of the story. Despite waking up to find himself in the form of a bug, Gregor’s primary concern remains to get to work in order to continue supporting the family who has been dependent upon him for the past five years. As he reflects upon his position, he reveals the level of disconnectedness that has already occurred between himself and his family, indeed the rest of humanity, since he took a job as a traveling salesman: “And apart from business itself, this plague of traveling: the anxieties of changing trains, the irregular, inferior meals, the ever changing faces, never to be seen again, people with whom one has no chance to be friendly” (13).
Even in his own home, he has taken up the habit of locking his bedroom doors “as if in a hotel” (16) and he continues to follow the rules and regulations set forth by his father even though he is the sole breadwinner of the family. As the family pleads with his manager to believe Gregor is sick, the picture of his life before the transformation becomes complete. “The boy thinks of nothing but his work! It makes me upset to see how he never goes out after supper; do you know he’s just spent a whole week here and been at home every evening! He sits down with us at the table and stays there, quietly reading the paper or studying his timetables” (21). Not only does Gregor not have any friends with whom to spend his evenings, but he apparently also spends little time actually interacting with his family even when he is home, choosing instead to engage himself in solitary activities.
In keeping with this theme of isolation, much of the story takes place within the confines of Gregor’s room, which itself symbolizes the state of his relationships with other people. Only his sister is brave enough to enter the room, and then only when he is hiding beneath the couch or under a sheet. Even his one activity of escape from his room, staring out the window, becomes meaningless as the world outside fades into a featureless expanse of grey before his dimming eyesight. Despite his terror at having someone enter his room as well as his feelings of fear regarding its emptiness, “his great room, in which he was obliged to remain flat on his stomach on the floor, frightened him in a way that he could not understand” (42), the room nevertheless seems to be confining, as he finds himself constantly running about the walls and ceiling as a means of filling the void. This activity leads to the removal of his personal furniture from the room, removing yet more of his individual identity and distancing him more from his former life and the relationships he once shared. As he listens to his mother explaining to his sister the need to keep the room as it was to remind Gregor of himself, he thinks, “Did he really wish to allow this warm, comfortable room with its genial furniture to be transformed into a cavern in which, in rapid and complete forgetfulness of his human past, he might exercise his right to crawl all over the walls? It seemed he was already so near to forgetting” (59). Coming to this thought, he makes a valiant attempt to preserve the portrait he had so carefully framed on his wall just before his transformation, just barely able to cover it with his body, but then ends up destroying it himself.
While much of the story is told from the point of view of Gregor himself, who retains the cognitive ability of a human, Gregor is unable to communicate in any meaningful way with his family. His sister brings him the food he likes to eat not because she understands what he likes, but instead because she clears away what he does not eat. When he stops eating, she does not seem to take notice of this, instead merely sweeping away the old stuff and bringing in new each day. When he tries to protect his picture as a sign that he does not want his room emptied of signs of human habitation, she instead becomes angry with him for frightening their mother. His few attempts to leave the room to become involved with the family are met with violence and physical harm. “Gregor had to find some way of pacifying his father, so he quickly crawled to the door of his room and pressed himself against it for his father to see, as he came in, how he had every intention of returning to his own room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him back with violence; one had only to open the door and he would quickly withdraw. But his father was in no mood to notice these fine points” (64). Even at the end, when he creeps out of his room in response to his sister’s open heart as she plays her music, he is misunderstood and completely rejected.
Writing against the view that Gregor Samsa’s experiences, whether they are considered to be isolation or something else, can be related to the modern public as a rule, Robbie Batson asserts that the brilliance of Kafka’s writing lies instead in his ability to write about the man as symbolic of only himself. “He uses a writing method that voids all aspects and elements of the story that defy interpretation … Kafka focuses the readers’ attention on a single character that symbolizes himself and his life” (Batson, 2004).
In his analysis of the book, Batson indicates that Metamorphosis is little more than a loosely disguised autobiography for Kafka, pointing out such similarities as professions (both were traveling salesmen of some sort) and names (Kafka and Samsa have strikingly similar consonant/vowel constructions and similar sounds). In making his argument, Batson indicates that Gregor’s transformation into a vermin, becoming dependent upon the family he had previously supported and finally finding the best solution to the problem is simply and only death marks a direct parallel with Kafka’s own battle with tuberculosis. “With his illness and isolation, Kafka felt like vermin, unwanted, reviled. Kafka demonstrates this in his unpublished ‘Letter to His Father,’ where he refers to himself as ‘Ungeziefer,’ that is translated specifically as vermin” (Batson, 2004). Other similarities Batson notes between the story and the real man include the family makeup, including an almost abusive father, a weak mother and a devoted sister and the dependency of the family upon the oldest son for their sustenance.
Looking at the story from a feminist perspective, Nina Straus (1989) indicates the story is mostly about invalidations. “Metamorphosis is about invalidation, our self-invalidations and our invalidations of others; and it does nothing – offers us nothing morally – but this vision of how we do it. The narration focuses on how Gregor invalidates his family, how his family invalidates and destroys Gregor, how his sister, Grete, learns to invalidate her brother” (Straus, 1989: 652). In her analysis of the story, Straus indicates the metamorphosis of Grete is typically overshadowed completely by the metamorphosis of Gregor. Since Grete does not fade into the woodwork, leaving behind a shell that is not even accounted for completely, instead maturing into a confident young woman, Straus indicates the story could not be about isolation, at least not entirely. While she goes into detail regarding some of the other interpretations of the story, Straus indicates it is the exchange of son for daughter, the transposing of male and female gender roles, that lies at the heart of the story.
Despite these alternative viewpoints, other writers have seen the same sense of isolation within Kafka’s story discussed above. F.D. Luke (1983) points out that the difference between Kafka’s interpretation of isolation and that of other writers is not so much the theme, but the way in which is told. Instead of writing about how an individual finds himself in unusual circumstances and begins to question how he fits into this situation, Janis Kenderdine says “Metamorphosis is about the individual’s plight from within a prison imposed upon him within society” (2006).
When Gregor finds himself transformed, it is not because of decisions he himself has made regarding his life. He works as a traveling salesman because he must support his family and he must repay the debts owed by his father to the company he works for. He becomes isolated not because he decided to become an insect, but because he woke up one day to find himself drastically altered. “At first his family (neighbors, fellow citizens) comes to his aid, but as time goes on, they are less sympathetic, and Gregor finds he is dependent on the help of the very people who would be revolted by his very existence. The family feels only a mild tinge of guilt at the fact that they treat this family member in such a way, but they secretly wish the ‘vermin’ to die and leave them be, so they can live their life free of him” (Kenderdine, 2006). Of course, in the end, it is Grete who actually gives voice to these thoughts within Gregor’s hearing, leaving him with the only option left to him. He crawls in his room and dies, leaving them to find a new and happy life without him.
The idea that Kafka’s story deals to a great extent with the concept of isolation is emphasized strongly in “The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book” (D, 1999). In this article, the author looks at various aspects of the story to illustrate how it is permeated with the sense of loneliness and isolation. “Kafka ends each chapter with Gregor escaping from his prison-like room into the freedom and love of the living room, but being quickly and immediately driven back by his family. The third time he comes out of his bedroom he concludes that he is not worthy to stay in there, and of his own accord turns around and re-enters his cell” (D, 1999). Even the picture on the wall of the woman in furs is as close as Gregor gets to a relationship with a woman outside the family. Referring to the scene in which his mother and sister begin clearing out his room, this author points out that the one item Gregor seeks to save is the image of the woman, which, to him, symbolizes love. Ironically enough, though, this author points out that it is Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect that allows him the time necessary to become a true man. “As the story progresses, Gregor apparently becomes more human, and less of a machine built for society” (D, 1999). The author supports this by pointing to the attraction music held for him in his final scene as well as his conscious realization that he does not belong with his family anymore and, of his own volition, returns to his room to die.
Throughout Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it can be seen in tone, point of view, plot, setting and symbolism how isolation permeates the book and drives the course of events that eventually lead to Gregor’s death. Before his transformation, he is isolated by the burdens placed upon him by his family and is given no room in which to discover his own wings. After the change occurs, he is kept locked up within his own room, slowly losing pieces of his identity to the whims and desires of the same family who now no longer have time or taste for him. As a result of his inability to connect with others, especially the sister he so dearly loved, Gregor is unable to resume his human state or to survive in his insect form.
Batson, Robbie. “Kafka-Samsa: Reality Through Symbolism.” The Kafka Project. Mauro Nervi (Ed.). 2004.
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D, Matthew. “The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book.” The Kafka Project. Mauro Nervi (Ed.). November 1999.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. New York: Vanguard Press, 1946.
Kenderdine, Janice. “Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Fifer’s Web Site. 2008. Web.
Luke, F.D. “Explain to Me Some Stories of Kafka.” New York: Gordian Press, 1983.
Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Transforming Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Signs. Vol. 14, N. 3, (Spring 1989), pp. 651-667.