Imagine having a dull, dismal life in which you must work as a traveling salesman in order to pay off your family’s debt. In addition to this life, you wake one morning to find that you have transformed into a monstrous insect. This is the story of Gregor Samsa, as told in the novel The Metamorphosis. This short novel, written by German-speaking author Franz Kafka, was written in 1912, but not published until 1915; most likely this delay was due to the interruption caused by World War I. It is said that Kafka wrote this story after he, himself awoke from a frightening dream of being turned into an insect and the idea haunted him so much that he felt compelled to write it down as soon as possible. Kafka wrote other books beside The Metamorphosis, but not all of his work has been translated into English or other languages.
The Metamorphosis is a story of coping with change, albeit a change we will never see in reality. It is a story of a young man, Gregor Samsa, who lives with his parents and sister, whom he financially supports through his job as a traveling salesman. One morning, he awakes from “troubled dreams” to find that he has transformed into an insect-like creature. Lying on his back, which had turned into a shell, he tries to roll off his bed, unable to get up. Gregor contemplates how gloomy his life is, as his family members knock on his bedroom door to make sure he wakes for work. But all attempts to get out of bed are failed, and soon Gregor’s manager arrives at his apartment to find out why Gregor has not reported for work. Eventually, Gregor finds a way to roll out of bed, crawl to his bedroom door, and reveals his hideous new self to his family and his boss. His family and manager are horrified at Gregor’s presence as an insect. But his family deals with the situation somewhat, and leaves him in his room so that they cannot see him. Gregor’s sister takes care of him by bringing him food and cleaning his room. However, the situation gets worse, and the family begins to pull away from Gregor. Finding themselves in financial hardship, every member of the family takes on jobs with menial tasks. They must even take in lodgers to stay in their home for rent money. Eventually the lodgers see Gregor in his hideous state and complain. The family defends Gregor, but the strain proves too much for him, and that evening, he dies.
We are never told why Gregor was turned into the insect-like creature, and we are never told how he was transformed. We only find out how he and his family deal with his situation. It is perhaps the story of how we cope that Kafka wished his readers to concentrate on. Gregor had to deal with this situation he was given, even though it was not one that he created. Much like Gregor Samsa, we are often given situations that may seem unbearable, but we must handle the burden despite the unfairness of it. For a while, Gregor’s family remained somewhat tolerable of his condition, but after time, they grew to resent him for what had happened. The burden of his condition became intolerable. Throughout life, we have situations that require the support of others, and those in our life have situations in which they require support. We never know when those situations will lead to resentment.
The transformation that takes place in The Metamorphosis is about more than just the physical appearance of Gregor. It is an allegorical story about how a family can change because of the condition of one member, as well as how that family member can change as an individual. We will all incur change throughout our lives; some of it will be good, and some of it will not be. Whether or not the change was brought on by ourselves, or brought on by circumstances beyond our control, what is most important is how we deal with this change. How we handle change is our own decision, but it can affect those around us in many ways. We are all capable of surviving a metamorphosis of our own, and while we won’t go through the kind of change Gregor Samsa went through, we must handle the challenge of change regardless.
By Teresa Boyer/Adjunct Instructor, Lourdes University
Toledo Reads Contributor