The Metamorphosis: A book review

26 Jan 2013


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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