Kafka’s The Metamorphosis critiques aspects of the society of the early twentieth century. These include the overattachment to career and financial success, and the assimilation or destruction of differing ideal systems.
He addresses these by creating a ridiculous, yet very metaphorical situation. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, “found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” That is, one day he simply woke up to find that he had become a big bug. This displays Gregor’s disassociation with the rest of his society, and maybe more importantly, with himself.
The first part of the novella supports this well by almost sarcastically showing the demands that his job places on him and the returned vigor he has always put into it. He generally wakes up at four o’clock in the morning, but turning into a bug has made him late. “Heavenly Father! He thought. It was half-past six o’clock and the hands were quietly moving on…” After realizing how late he is, Gregor considers the possibility of feigning sickness. However, “…during his five years’ employment he had not been ill once.” Obviously, Gregor is a person very much concerned with his work. He is actually characterized this way directly when his boss comes to investigate his delinquency. Here, his mother says, “he’s not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks of nothing but his work.” This is how society views, and expects to view Gregor and his attitude towards work.
Despite this, Gregor’s personal view towards work is quite different. Almost in complaint against having to wake up, he thinks, “If I didn’t have to hold my hand because of my parents I’d have given notice long ago, I’d have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him. That would knock him endways from his desk.” He views his occupation and the other employees with contempt and disgust. “The porter was a creature of the chief’s, spineless and stupid.” His attitude towards his own job is one of being “condemned.” Feeling this way about his work, Gregor is already in conflict with the views of society.
In this way, Gregor’s transformation into a bug can be viewed as an extension of his true feelings. Just as he feels downtrodden and oppressed by his work, insects are stepped upon and crushed. Gregor identifies with the insects under his feet, because he knows how it feels to be stepped on. So, Gregor the insect, can be seen as a symbol for his own real views.
After Gregor is transformed into a bug, and his true feelings come out, he becomes clearly unsuited for work. His only entertainment comes from running and climbing about the walls and ceiling, and doing other very “bug-like” things. In attempting to continue his human activities, such as getting out of bed, turning a key, or even getting through a door, Gregor managed mostly to damage his insect body. In turning a key to unlock a door, Gregor’s bug jaws “manage to set the key in motion, heedless of the fact that he must be damaging them somewhere, since a brown fluid issued from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped on the floor.” He now exists with his real views unleashed, and he is unable to interact with his previous world.
Just as Gregor cannot find a way to communicate with his family, his family, upon seeing his insect form and his true attitude towards work, has a completely different view of him. The reaction of his father, who, “knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept till his great chest heaved” was especially interesting. At first, they see his transformation as something terrible. They think he has become something less than human. Upon hearing Gregor speak, the chief clerk says, “That was no human voice.” They are at once angry, ashamed, terrified and sad because of the transformation, which they view as a death rather than a metamorphosis.
Using this as a base, Kafka constructs his social criticism.
During Gregor’s metamorphosis and the days after, his mother held up the belief that he might somehow, “get better”, or improve in his condition. When his sister wants to move all of his furniture out of his room as an attempt to better accommodate his insect form, his mother replies, “doesn’t it look as if we were showing him, by taking away his furniture, that we have given up hope of his ever getting better and are just leaving him coldly to himself? I think it would be best to leave his room exactly as it has always been, so that when he comes back to us he will find everything unchanged and be able all the more easily to forget what has happened in between.” However, she abandons this belief to her daughter’s resolve, and begins to move furniture out anyway. Through this circumstance, we see that the person who most wanted Gregor’s recovery has abandoned him to his insect body, and the disassociation it closely resembles. Kafka uses this to show how, much like Gregor’s mother abandoned him, society disregards those that are not in touch with it. Those that do not fit in, the bugs, are cast out and left for dead, no matter how much someone might wish for their recovery.
Gregor’s new insect shape is disgusting even to himself. He agrees with society in that he should get up early, work hard, and live for his company and family. He is disturbed by this to the point that, “…whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor let go is hold on the door and threw himself down on the cool leather sofa beside it, he felt so hot with shame and grief.” Finding that he doesn’t fit in with that makes him feel horrible, like a big bug. Kafka uses this story to show that this a self destructive value. Believing that one should work as hard as possible every day and those that do not are disgusting bugs caused Gregor some very serious problems. For instance, believing that he is an insect, and slowly dying. The abandonment of Gregor by his father shows that society does not grasp this idea, that a negative, strained, relationship with work is destructive. When Gregor undergoes his metamorphosis and no longer supports the family, his father shuns him, and begins to work in a similar job himself, just as vigorously as Gregor had. “…he slept fully dressed where he sat, as if he were ready for service at any moment and even here only at the beck and call of his superior.” This might very well lead him down a similar path.
The last person to truly abandon Gregor is his sister. This is represented by a series of changes in her character. At the start of Gregor’s transformation, she is very close to him, and he plans to send her to the Conservatorium to play the violin. She is related, in all her early aspects, to the ideals that Gregor might hold, such as individualism and a focus on art rather than work. As the story progresses, she changes to become more able to support the family now that Gregor cannot. She takes on responsibility first by caring for Gregor, and later by getting a job and working daily. Her earlier individualistic and aesthetic principles are lost. This is displayed in the scene where she plays the violin for several lodgers, but no one appreciates the music except for Gregor. The lodgers, “…were making it more than ovious that they had been disappointed in their expectation of the performance and only out of courtesy suffered a continued disturbance of their peace.” It is made clear to Gregor’s sister that a career in violin playing is an impossibility. At the end of the story, her character has changed almost completely. Her parents quickly, “come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her.” Here, she is shown in stark contrast to the values put forward by Gregor, who would have sent her to the Conservatorium. Kafka uses this to illustrate how society, in a way, defeats or assimilates those who stand in opposition. Gregor’s sister shows how culture can absorb and force people into its own value system using a basic need like money.
In The Metamorphosis, Kafka creates the very metaphorical situation of Gregor Samsa, who finds himself transformed into a giant bug as he wakes up one morning. Through this transformation, he critiques such aspects of society as work ethics, and the way differing ideals and values are treated.