The Metamorphosis: A book review

Published Jan 26, 2013 08:37am

Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis is one of his most well-known works, along with his posthumously published novel, The Trial. The Metamorphosis is a story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning after having overslept and missed the early train that he was required to take for a business trip, and discovers that he had turned into a giant bug overnight, apparently a dung beetle. However, Kafka does not explicitly mention in the text that Samsa definitely turns into a cockroach or not. It is merely symbolically describes Samsa’s past life and his new life, and of course his ‘ailment’.

But the story of The Metamorphosis is much more than a somewhat dark, disturbing tale of a man who turns into a pitiful bug. It is a symbolic tale of a young man, the breadwinner of his family, who is unexpectedly afflicted by a disease (his turning into a bug), the subsequent reactions of his family (grief, resignation, endurance, repugnance and then explicit detestation) and his eventual death which brings a sense of ‘tranquility’ to Gregor’s family. It is a tale of an individual afflicted by a disease that he has no control over and neither does he have any idea of how it has and will continue to influence his and his family’s lives.

At first reading, it might seem that Gregor Samsa and his metamorphosis is probably a metaphor for an illness like cancer but actually, when you take into account the family’s aversion to his condition and the change in his appearance, it seems that Kafka has actually used it as a metaphor for illnesses such as AIDS. However, I found it easier to understand the novella’s symbolism without categorising it into a particular illness or disease. The more humane side of the issue, namely the reactions of Gregor’s manager, his parents, sister, their servants, and then their three lodgers is actually easier to understand and relate to for an average reader.

The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) First edition cover.
The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) first edition cover.

Nevertheless, the humane side of Kafka’s novella remains somewhat limited because of the absurd nature of the events in the book. Gregor turns into a huge bug for no clear reason at all. Kafka never talks about a punishment of any sort or whether Gregor had been a ‘bad boy’ before that fateful morning when he had turned into a bug. All characters in the book, including Gregor react to his metamorphosis in a rather illogical manner. The characters neither question why Gregor has changed physically, nor do they express any astonishment at the sight of Gregor’s new body – there is mainly fear at that point and maybe disappointment. Gregor’s office manager and Mr Samsa (Gregor’s father) are probably the only ones who express fear and maybe some shock but his mother simply faints, which by no means suggests that she was shocked because there is no hint of shock in her behaviour when she wakes up. Grete, Gregor’s sister, deals with the issue in a rather resigned manner. Their servant-girl implores her employers to let her go.

Gregor’s metamorphosis produces a curious effect in him, which may or may not be considered as symbolic as it depends on the individual’s interpretation. The process of metamorphosis completely breaks all connections between Gregor’s mind and his body. While his body is that of an insect, with all the bodily processes and requirements that a body of an insect would have, his mind remains that of a human with the same coherence in the thought processes that the reader sees throughout the book. One could take this further and speculate about how Kafka’s novella represents the disconnection of our minds and bodies in the modern times, about how this disconnection is actually how we all live today with our minds almost a separate entity in themselves while our bodies move differently and how each have different requirements. Of course, this can always be countered and criticised. Such is the nature of literature.

Despite all the absurdities in The Metamorphosis, the novella remains one of Kafka’s most well-known works. The combination of the absurd and symbolic is actually what makes the novella so complex and an interesting read. However, it is not everyone’s favourite, and that again can be explained by the same. Not everyone likes to read books like The Metamorphosis. Nevertheless, it is still worth a read. You never know when you might begin to enjoy a strange book.

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Comments (12) (Closed)

Jan 26, 2013 04:29pm
Good writeup. Gregor is a good metaphor for Pakistan - its people think they are still human while in reality the body politic has turned viscious, beast-like in its nature, devouring all virtues and sanity and rapacious in its diet of dead people. The head still thinks everything is hunky-dory, totally disconnected from reality.
Jan 26, 2013 04:46pm
It would be better if you provide the existentialism perspective in review.As is author's main field of concern unknowingly. Kafka tries to elaborate absurdity of life, of human, of "being" in all his novels. That is the point of novella. Others have nothing to do with your desires, sufferings, emotions. Man is solely responsible for his own condition as elaborated by Sir Jean Paul Sartre. Anyway I am happy at least there are some people at least who bother to elaborate the classics.
Jan 26, 2013 12:18pm
This is a very simplistic reading of the one of the 20th C classics. The disease Gregor Samsa suffers is not any physical ailment rather it should be explained in 'Existentialist' terms. Existentialist philosophers are of the view that human beings define themselves through pre-defined notions and work ethics imposed by social set up is one of them. Samsa has always defined himself in relation to his work. If one looks at the reactions of his employer and his family, it becomes clear that they consider him a machine, who is useful. His father used to work but now he does not as he completely relies on his son now. His essence( in this case his utility) is more important than his 'existence'. One day quite unconsciously Samsa refuses to live on these terms. There occurs a 'split' in his mind and body. Body that connotes existence refuses to be just an 'instrument'. This is the day when his family starts to look at him in a different manner. Now he is just a reprehensible insect for them. He is of no use to them at all. That is the reason that their attitude towards him changes. I am not saying that it is its only reading but the novella is not as simplistic as is described in this review.
Jan 26, 2013 11:16am
Really worthreading, well written and useful piece of writing. Keep it up.
Jan 26, 2013 11:12am
A well written review.
Cyrus Howell
Jan 26, 2013 07:43pm
One of the two novels that frightened me as a young man when reading late into the night. Don't read Steven King for that reason. The other was Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Jan 27, 2013 01:25pm
Intezar Hussain's "kaya kalap" was one of my most memorable reads of Urdu Literature in school....a translation of Kafka's metamorphosis. It is intersting that every reader can translate it to events, chages that have morphed your own life or have noticed in others or that of a society. I think it is a great philosophical read than a simplistic story of an event.
Jan 27, 2013 08:35am
MI read the blog with curiosity but unfortunately there iz nothing new in the blog....metamorphosis waz mmuch more than a mere dealing of absurd physical appearance of waz not only a man's metamorphosis but also a metamorphosis of a society, it waz a metamorphosis more on philosophical and psychological level rather than on a physical level...
Jan 28, 2013 07:27am
Awful review! I don't understand the affinity for adverbs and using the word "symbolic" over and over - I get that it's symbolic but please pick up a thesaurus! The alternate analysis is not bad and something to think about but one must remember at the time of his writing this work, Kafka was not aware of AIDS nor the rest of the world. So in that sense it is flawed. The major themes discussed in this short treatise are absurdity (you got that right) and existentialism as was mentioned Shehryar. Kafka, Hiedegger, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre etc. were all known as existentialists though they didn't probably coin that term. A parallel can be drawn with Camus' "The Stranger".
Jan 27, 2013 07:45am
A nice alternate narrative / explanation.
Jan 27, 2013 08:43pm
This is an awful review! You've reduced a seminal work to a "metaphor for aids".
Sana Khiani
Jan 27, 2013 09:12am
well written and descriptive review