(from knowledge I've gathered regarding this, one of my favourite novels . . .)


Originally published in German as Die Verwandlung1, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is the longest, and perhaps the most famous of his novels.2 Written in twenty days, between November 17th and December 7th of 1912 (Kafka was then 29 years old), it was first presented by Kafka in a reading to his friends on December 24th, a reading that provoked laughter due to the macabre, cold narrative style.

As with almost all of Kafka's work, the gap between manuscript and publication was a long and difficult one. Ideas were floated about to publish it coupled with The Verdict and the first chapter of the novel America, then known as Der Heizer. This compilation was to be titled Sons (Söhne). Later, another idea was raised: to publish it with The Verdict and The Penal Colony, as a compilation titled Punishments(Strafen) Finally, nearly three years after being written, Metamorphosis was published by Kurt Wolff's magazine Die weissen Blätter(The White Pages). The common "misunderstood genius recognized only by posterity" situation was only partly true in Kafka's case, as he won the Fontane Literature Prize that year.

The Book

When reading Kafka's Metamorphosis, it is too easy to focus only on the immediately obvious - the man-into-insect transformation, the cruelty the family demonstrates towards Gregor Samsa once he has been transformed - while ignoring Kafka's art, his construction of the story, and the subtle humor that permeates the story. The beginning of the story is shocking: (translation may vary)

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect3.

Still, Kafka doesn't take the easy road out by plunging into "imagination" or "dreams": It was no dream.

The rest of the story follows a similar thread - Kafka presents us this absurd situation as fact and, more often than not, the reader simply accepts this fact and moves on.

Kafka's criticism was of capitalism and its dreary routine; Gregor is burdened throughout his life by the pressures of money and work. He works not for himself or by his own choice, but to pay off his father's debts (Kafka's tense relationship with his father is well-documented, his father never recognizing Kafka's career as author as a valid one, his destructive influence something like Brian Wilson's father's). His first thoughts on realizing his terrible transformation are not of himself, but of how he will get to his job; his mother's concern at first is not for him, but for the fact that he will be late to that job. And among the few who visit the house? A representative from that job

Kafka writes in long phrases, punctuated often by dialogue. The characters are all a bit larger-than-life, which is to be expected in this Expressionistic work. The scene, for example, of Gregor's father finally taking a stand and kicking out the tenants could just as well be accompanied by fast-paced classical music and a sped-up film reel.

The crucial moment, and the closest this novel comes to a climax4 is the violin scene, where at the tenants' request, Gregor's sister comes out to play violin for them. Gregor, in his human form, had been a strong supporter of his sister's music playing:

With his sister alone had he remained intimate, and it was a secret plan of his that she, who, unlike himself, loved music and could play the violin movingly, should be sent next year to study at the Conservatory, despite the great expense that would entail and which would have to be made up in some other way.

One evening, while Gregor's sister is playing violin in the kitchen, Gregor's parents hear noises from the living room:

"Is the violin playing disturbing you, gentlemen? It can be stopped at once." "On the contrary," said the middle boarder, "wouldn't the young lady like to join us here and play where it is much more pleasant and comfortable?"

She does come out and, enticed by this music, Gregor slowly crawls out of his room, where he has remained since his transformation. This is the most human we find him in the novel, and it is at this precise moment that we could perhaps contemplate a de-metamorphosis, a return to his previous form. However, disaster strikes:

"Mr. Samsa!" cried the middle boarder to Gregor's father, and pointed, without wasting any more words, at Gregor, now working himself slowly forward. The violin fell silent, the middle boarder first smiled to his friends with a shake of the head and then looked at Gregor again. Instead of driving Gregor out, his father seemed to think it more important to begin by soothing down the boarders, although they were not at all agitated and apparently found Gregor more entertaining than the violin playing. He hurried toward them and, spreading out his arms, tried to urge them back into their own room and at the same time to block their view of Gregor. They now began to be really a little angry, one could not tell whether because of the old man's behavior or because it had just dawned on them that without knowing it they had such a neighbor as Gregor in the next room. They demanded explanations of his father, they waved their arms like him, tugged uneasily at their beards, and only with reluctance backed toward their room.

Thus, the chain of events leading up to Gregor's death and the family's taking back control of their household is set off.

Metamorphosis is, in short, a tour de force of human cruelty, Kafka's narrative strength carrying the novel's grotesque, incongruous elements with grace. The end of the book manages to heighten the book's despairing atmosphere even further:

They[Mr. and Mrs. Samsa]grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having both come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for [their daughter]. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their ride their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

In other words, Grete Samsa is about to undergo the terrible process of alienation that led to her brother's metamorphosis.


[1] A title with double meaning in its original language, as it means both metamorphosis and also (or so I am told) is used in theatre to describe a change of scenery.

[2] The Trial, although somewhat incomplete, surpasses it artistically, in my opinion.

[3] Kafka was adamant that the insect in question would remain unclassified, and that under no circumstance would the cover depict the "monstrous vermin" in question.

[4] Gregor's death is highly anticlimatic and reported by Kafka with the kind of calm, passive tone that is present throughout the novel:

The first broadening of light in the world outside the window just entered his consciousness. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath.

No dramatic, blazing death here; Gregor goes out with a whimper.


[1] Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, originally Die Verwanderlung, translator unknown. 

        The Kafka Project (http://www.kafka.org) accessed 01/01/03.
[2] Carone, Modesto. "A mais célebre novela de Kafka". Companhia das Letras, 1997.