Saturday, July 3, 2010

Franz Kafka: July 3, 1883--June 3, 1924

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide of completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Thus opens one of the most famous short stories in Western Literature. If millions have read it, I suspect that many more millions know about the story--about a man who wakes one morning and finds he's been turned into a gigantic insect. Aside from the obvious questions about its meaning and themes, I have a minor one.

At the beginning of the story, Gregor Samsa is the sole support of his family, which includes his parents and sister. His father went bankrupt, and Gregor has been working long and hard to not only support his family but also to pay off his father's debts. His father, crushed by his failure, does little except sit around and read the newspaper, sometimes out loud to Gregor's mother and sister. They seldom leave the house and entertain rarely.

The family's financial status has now become very serious. Gregor can no longer support them. There are sufficient funds available to keep them for about a year, but after that, some source of income must be arranged.

At the end of the story, Gregor has died. The father has thrown off his lethargy and found a job, as has also Gregor's mother and sister. All three now are working. They have found a smaller apartment, one more suitable for the three of them. They even take a trip into the countryside together, something they haven't done in a long time.

And Gregor's sister? The parents noticed--

their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of the recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had blossomed into a pretty girl with a good figure . . . 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.

Considering the behavior of Gregor's family at the beginning of the story, when they relied on him as their sole support, and their new enthusiasm and energy at the end of the story, when he has died, I keep asking myself the following question:

Is Gregor Samsa the victim or the villain of the story?


  1. I read this great work recently also-I was surprised how much it was about family-your question at the end is a very good one-

  2. mel u,

    I agree. Most commentary that I've read focuses on Gregor's change and the significance of that, whatever it may be. I haven't seen much about the family, which is surprising, since as you say, much of the story is about the family and the effects of Gregor's change upon them.

    I wonder if this is the same problem that came up with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The stoning of Tessie at the end and Gregor's metamorphosis seem to grab the reader so strongly that the rest of the story goes unnoticed by most readers.

  3. I don't think I like the "victim" label, but I will say this about Kafka's novella: I think Kafka was zeroing in on the problem of being different in a society that rewards conformity; Samsa's transformation is merely symbolic of a person's isolation when he or she does not measure up to expectations imposed by family, friends, employers, society, etc. Of course, that is not a profound reading/interpretation, but it serves as an entry point into more complicated discussions of "The Metamorphosis," a tale--by the way--that is always a "hit" in my literature courses, though many students tend to miss the ironies and subtleties as they get hung up on the grotesque elements.

  4. R. T.,

    Well, Gregor does wake up transformed and is now no longer acceptable to human society. He dies alone. I think that might be some justification for seeing him as a victim, perhaps of an uncaring universe or fate.

    His isolation, as you say, can be an interesting way to get into a discussion about the work.