My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is the sort of book that everyone tells you that you must read, very much like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Unlike Madame Bovary, however, I actually enjoyed The Metamorphosis, although, as a reader, I was left with the same sort of melancholia with both stories.
The Metamorphosis is well-known enough that most people could probably tell you a short blurb about it without ever having read it. Most people know that protagonist Gregor Samsa awakes one morning, transformed into an enormous insect. He’s described as beetle-like—a charwoman even calls him a dung-beetle—but I kept picturing him as a mix between a cockroach and a potato beetle. Honestly, his transformation into a giant bug was enough to keep me from reading this book for years. Growing up in Africa created in me a great distaste for insects of all kinds, especially of the large, hulking variety. Read a story about a man-sized bug? NO THANK YOU.
This brings me to this week, where The Metamorphosis was assigned reading in a class. Knowing that I would probably fail if I did not read the book, I reluctantly began it and quickly found myself absorbed.
Gregor Samsa lives at home with his parents and his younger sister. He is the sole breadwinner in the family and provides well for them through his hard work as a travelling salesman. Of course, when he becomes a giant insect, he cannot very well go in to work or catch a train to his next sales call.
At first, his family bemoans this sudden change. They are simultaneously grieved and horrified by Gregor’s alteration. They do not know what they will do. They still owe Gregor’s employer’s company a good deal of money, but now they no longer have Gregor to pay off the debt. Up until probably 60% of the way through this book, I felt genuinely sorry for Gregor. To me, it seemed as if the rest of his family was simply a burden to him, which is probably why his job –and his obligation to his family—weighed so heavily on him.
However, as I continued to read, I began to wonder if Gregor’s familial obligations were actually selfishly motivated. As his family begins to live life without him—his father returns to work, his mother takes in sewing, and his sister gets a job—Gregor resents them for being “forgotten.” He eats and sleeps less and less until eventually, he dies. It seems as if his initial resentment—of being needed by his family—was actually what fed his ego. When he loses that, he loses himself.
After Gregor’s death, his family collectively takes the day off work and goes for a stroll through the countryside. As they enjoy this rare day of freedom from responsibility, Mr. and Mrs. Samsa suddenly notice that their daughter is grown and that soon she shall be in need of a good husband. And that’s the end of the story. To me, this ending was surprisingly satisfactory as it was not so much an ending as the beginning of something else altogether.
Looking at the story overall, I think that the metamorphosis alluded to in Kafka’s title refers to much more than Gregor Samsa. Gregor’s transformation is merely a catalyst for the rest of his family’s transformation. Without his earnings from work, they are driven to find their own jobs. This makes them more self-reliant and tests them both individually and collectively. In this transformation, Gregor is no longer the obligated party but the obligation. He becomes a burden to his family. By the end of the story, after he dies, his sister Grete has emerged into womanhood, calling to mind the imagery of a butterfly exiting its cocoon.
(END OF SPOILERS)
I am sure there is much more to this story than meets the eye, but this is my initial impression. I would recommend this book to…I’m not sure who, exactly, but I think I will have to join in the voices that recommend it as a book that everyone “ought” to read.