By Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year
.......The Metamorphosisis a short absurdist novel seasoned with dark humor. The main character—a textile salesman—awakens one morning to discover that he has changed into a giant bug resembling a beetle or cockroach. One of his chief concerns after making
this discovery is that he will be late for work at an office run by unforgiving overseers.
.......The action takes place in the early years of the twentieth century in an apartment in which a textile salesman lives with his father, mother, and sister. The narrator does not say in what city or country the action takes place. But Kafka probably had in mind the city of of his birth, Prague, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, Prague is in the Czech Republic.
Gregor Samsa: Textile salesman who inexplicably changes into a giant bug.
.......The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view from Gregor's perspective, revealing his thoughts and feelings.
.......Upon awakening one morning, Gregor Samsa discovers that he has changed into a giant bug. His back is thick and hard. His belly is a layer of stiff, arch-like sections. He has many spindly legs. Everything else around him is the same as it was when he went to bed: the room, the picture on the wall, the
textile samples on the table that he carries with him as a traveling salesman.
By taking the furniture away, won't it seem like we're showing that we've given up all hope of improvement and we're abandoning him to cope for himself? I think it'd be best to leave the room exactly the way it was before so that when Gregor comes back to us again he'll find everything unchanged and he'll be able to forget the time in between all the easier........His mother's words make Gregor realize that he does, in fact, want to keep the furniture where it is. It will remind him that he was a human until recently. He does not want to forget that fact. But Grete insists on hauling the furniture out and persuades her mother to have another go at the chest of drawers. This time, they succeed in removing it. Next to go is the writing desk. Gregor now emerges from hiding to save a picture on the wall. When his mother catches sight of him and screams, she falls onto the couch in a faint. Grete shakes her fist at Gregor, then goes out for smelling salts to revive her mother. Gregor follows to help, but there is nothing for him to do. After she returns to the room, she closes the door, and refuses entry to Gregor.
.......Anxious, he starts roaming the dining room, crawling over everything in his way. Then he climbs the wall, crosses the ceiling, and falls onto the table. His father arrives home wearing a uniform with gold buttons, “the sort worn by the employees at the banking institute.” Apparently, he had started working again. Grete comes out and tells him, “Mother's fainted, but she's all right now. Gregor got out.” His father begins chasing Gregor, who is running from him on the floor. Then he begins bombarding him with apples from a bowl on the sideboard. Gregor's mother emerges and pleads with her husband to spare Gregor. Before her husband ceases, an apple lodges in Gregor's back.
.......More than a month later, while the apple remains lodged in Gregor's back, his father, mother, and sister realize that he is still a family member and begin treating him better. The injury from the apple and his cuts and scrapes turn him into something of an invalid. Every evening, the family opens the door of his room, enabling him to see everyone at the dinner table and hear the conversation. But there is little conversation to hear. After eating, his father falls asleep in a chair, his mother sews underwear for a shop, and his sister studies French and shorthand to enable her to get a better job than her present one as a saleswoman.
.......Tired from their jobs, Gregor's father, mother, and sister begin to ignore Gregor. And, to make their small budget go further, they sell jewelry, fire the maid, and hire a charwoman to come in the morning and evening to do the heavy work. Gregor's mother does the rest of the chores. They would like to move into a smaller apartment, but they say it would be too difficult to move Gregor. Gregor believes this is not the real reason for staying where they are. After all, it would be easy to move him “in any suitable crate with air holes in it.” The real reason is that they are simply in despair over a misfortune unlike any other they had ever encountered.
.......Gregor has difficulty sleeping. And, when he does sleep, he dreams about things he would rather forget: his boss, the chief clerk, salesmen, apprentices, “that stupid tea boy.” Sometimes he is torn between an urge to help his family members and anger at them for not paying attention to him. He seldom eats. Whenever Grete cleans his room, it is a hurry-up job that leaves parts of the room dirty.
.......Oddly, Gregor does not frighten the charwoman. In fact, every morning and evening, she opens his door to look in on him, addressing him as an “old dung beetle.” Gregor resents this appellation and one day moves toward her menacingly. But she stands her ground, raising a chair over her head as if to crash it down on him. Gregor backs down.
.......The family begins renting a room to three bearded gentlemen who bring their own furniture and various equipment. Clutter builds up after the family moves the old furniture out of the gentlemen's room. Piece by piece, it ends up in Gregor's room. These gentlemen eat in the dining room; the family dines in the kitchen. One evening, when Grete plays the violin for the gentlemen, Gregor—covered with dust, hair, and bits of food—creeps into the living room to listen. No one notices him. Gregor enjoys the music immensely, proving perhaps that he is not an animal. He crawls forward, hoping to persuade his sister to come to his room.
.......One of the three men notices him and points him out. The music stops. Gregor's father blocks their view and attempts to herd them back to their room. They ask for explanations and slowly move toward their room. The man who first noticed Gregor then announces that he is moving out because of “the repugnant conditions that prevail in this flat.” He declares that he will not pay any rent for the days he occupied the house and even says he is considering suing. The other two renters also decide to move out without paying rent.
.......After they return to their room, Grete says,
We can't carry on like this. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong........The giant bug is not Gregor she says. If it were, he would have left the apartment of his own accord. When Gregor begins to move, Grete—frightened—runs to her father. But they all realize in a few moments that Gregor is simply returning to his room. They observe him in silence. With great effort, he reaches his room and enters it. His sister then closes and bolts the door.
.......Gregor discovers that he can no longer move at all. But the pain he feels from the days past begins to subside. Even the decaying apple in his back causes him less pain. That night, he does not sleep. At dawn, he can no longer hold up his head—and no longer breathe. He dies.
.......When the charwoman comes in at her appointed time and sees Gregor motionless on the floor, she thinks he is pretending to be a martyr. She attempts to tickle him with her broom, then pokes at him. He does not respond. After further investigation, she realizes what has happened and shouts, “Come and 'ave a look at this, it's dead, just lying there, stone dead!"
.......Grete and her mother and father respond. When they see Gregor, Mr. Samsa thanks God and makes the sign of the cross. Grete and her mother also make the sign of the cross.
.......When the three renters emerge from their rooms asking for breakfast, the charwoman points them to Gregor's room. They go in and observe the corpse. Mr. Samsa then orders the men out of the house with a firm command: “Leave my home!” They go.
.......Grete and her parents decide to take the day off and go out for a walk. After all, they had been through a lot. While they are writing excuses for their employers, the charwoman comes in and says, “That thing in there, you needn't worry about how you're going to get rid of it. That's all been sorted out.” But the Samsas are not interested in hearing her report, and she leaves. Mr. Samsa says, “Tonight she gets sacked.”
.......The Samsas then take a tram into the country and consider their future. They will move to another home. Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, observing the fine specimen of young womanhood that Grete has become, realize that it is time to find a good man for her.
.......The climax occurs after the three men give notice and Greta says, "Father, Mother, we can't carry on like this. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong." This outburst signals that the family has given up on Gregor. In turn, he gives up on himself. By the next morning, he is dead.
.......The tone of the novel is objective and serious. But the attentive reader will notice that dark, subtle humor creeps into the narrative like a clown tiptoeing into a funeral.
.......Life sometimes confers on a human being an absurd destiny that he is powerless to escape. Kafka makes this point with a fantasy about a man who wakes up one morning with the body of a gigantic bug. Preposterous? Of course. But, as Kafka seems to suggest, many men and women do wake up without knowing their purpose in life and without any sense of control over the course of their life.
.......Gregor's “condition” alienates him from his family and the rest of the world. So, too—in many cases—do the particulars of a person in ordinary life: his religion, his race, his social status, his personality, his stand on political issues, his mental or physical condition, and so on. When one becomes different from others, he often becomes isolated from them. Consider the plight of the deformed, the mentally ill, the leprous.
The Plight of the Workingman
.......After Gregor discovers that he has become a giant bug, one would expect him to exhibit sheer fright at his condition and to devote all his energies to finding a way to restore himself. Instead, he worries about being late for work. When the chief clerk arrives at the Samsa apartment, Gregor—who is locked in his room—wonders why he has to be
condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts . . . ? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries—assuming enquiries were even necessary? Did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it?.......Gregor's parents tell the chief clerk that their son is apparently unwell. But instead of exhibiting sympathy, the clerk says (through the door), "I must say that if we
people in commerce ever become slightly unwell then, fortunately or unfortunately as you like, we simply have to overcome it because of business considerations." He also tells Gregor that his job is not secure. Kafka here seems to be calling attention to unjust treatment of the workingman.
Inherited Sin and Suffering
.......After Adam and Eve fell, they passed to their progeny sin, suffering, and death. Kafka may be alluding to this religious tenet when he mysteriously "inherits" the body of an ugly creature (sin) and when his father (an Adam figure) throws apples at Gregor. One of them lodges in his body and causes painful festering and ulceration. Eventually, Gregor dies.
Generosity of Spirit
.......Gregor suffers indignities from the chief clerk and his family. Yet he returns only goodwill. For example, he treats the chief clerk courteously even though the clerk implies that Gregor has misused company money and hints that Gregor's job may be in jeopardy. Moreover, Gregor remains faithful to his family members and even feels guilty that he can no longer provide for them. He does not complain. And he does not give up on his father, mother, and sister until they give up on him.
Taking People for Granted
.......In a job he did not like, Gregor supported himself, his parents, and his sister. Not until he turns into vermin do his parents and Grete lift a hand to support themselves. They had taken Gregor for granted. After a time, they neglect Gregor. When he dies, they are relieved.
.......Gregor is ugly on the outside. But the other characters are just as ugly—in fact, more ugly—on the inside. One can argue that they are the real vermin in the story.
.......The Metamorphosis is at times hilarious in its absurdity. But the humor is subtle and disciplined, never calling attention to itself. In fact, the story maintains a deadly serious tone throughout. The humor relies in part on Gregor's unexpected reaction reaction to his situation. One would expect him to go into a panic when he wakes up and finds out that he is a giant bug. Instead, he calmly thinks about going back to sleep.
"How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense", he thought, but that was something he was unable to do because he was used to sleeping on his right, and in his present state couldn't get into that position. However hard he threw himself onto his right, he always rolled back to where he was. He must have tried it a hundred times, shut his eyes so that he wouldn't have to look at the floundering legs, and only stopped when he began to feel a mild, dull pain there that he had never felt before........Then, after realizing that he had overslept, Gregor starts thinking about getting to work as fast as possible to avoid problems with his boss.
What should he do now? The next train went at seven; if he were to catch that he would have to rush like mad and the collection of samples was still not packed, and he did not at all feel particularly fresh and lively. And even if he did catch the train he would not avoid his boss's anger as the office assistant would have been there to see the five o'clock train go, he would have put in his report about Gregor's not being there a long time ago.At no time does Gregor seem to be concerned about boarding a train—or showing up at work—as a gigantic bug.
What Is the Creature?