The Metamorphosis by Kafka is seen by some as a portrayal of how Kafka himself felt in society. Being a German-speaking Bohemian Jew in Prague during an anti-Semitic time, Kafka may have felt himself like the insect Gregor turned into, being looked and treated as inferior because of his genetics. The themes and messages that Kafka tries to portray through Gregor’s transformation can be perceived as his own feelings. There are many possible interpretations for Gregor’s life as an insect. Many of which can be explained by Kafka’s experiences in society. There are a range of themes displayed in his work to explain Gregor’s life as an insect, such as, the idea of alienation, the influences of Freud and Marx in Kafka’s work, and the theory of existentialism. All of these will be further investigated in this essay.
Gregor was a very self-determined workaholic. Working as a travel salesman meant he had little time for much else. His life consisted of working in a job he disliked, in order to be able to provide his family with what they needed. His transformation into an insect could be a metaphor for the way he lived his life, lost in his roles and responsibilities in society. His obsession with his job dehumanized him, and he merely acted like a robot, set in his routines and timetables, ‘he sits there at the table and reads the newspaper quietly or studies his travel schedules.’Even in his spare time Gregor is seen to spend his time preparing for the next working day. It could be said that Gregor dehumanized himself even before his actual physical transformation. He may have felt that his family, as well, treated him as an animal before his transformation, since animals are seen as inferior and are exploited and abused by people, just as his family exploited his ability to work in order to pay off their debts. Gregor’s initial reaction to his transformation is evidence that his job consumed all aspects of his life, ‘I’m coming right away’and ‘I will be at the office in person right away.’Gregor attempts desperately to get the attention of his manager and try to get back to work, he does not worry about turning into a ‘monstrous vermin’, his only preoccupation is getting into work.
However, unlike before, when Gregor isolated himself in his work, he is now also alienated from the money driven economy he lives in. Morphing into an insect was the ultimate alienation. He had hoped that once his family were aware of the problem they would be ready to help, ‘but at least people now thought things were not alright with him and were prepared to help him.’But this was not the case. Gregor is now further seen as inferior and insignificant by society and by his family, as he is no longer able to work, just as an insect, seen as repulsive and insignificant. Where Gregor’s value before was a financial one, he now has no real purpose in his family, ‘stamping his feet on the floor, he set out to drive Gregor back into his room by waving the cane and the newspaper.’Gregor was being alienated from his own family, pushed away into his room into isolation, where none of them would have to interact with him. Prior to his transformation Gregor had been turning into a recluse, by not going out and socialising like other people his age were, but his family chose not to notice it, as he had a purpose for them, providing funds. But now that the situation has changed, and he no longer has the ability to go to work, his family force him to hide in his room.
Another interpretation of Gregor’s transformation into an insect is that it symbolises society and the enervated way of existence. The insect is a symbol of the human condition and the quintessence of human existence. Insects are small and irrelevant, and people are indifferent as to whether they live or die. Similarly, in humanity, as a species, death is not of a great significance, as one person can easily replace another person’s role in society. Here we can see the influences of Marx in Kafka’s work. According to Karl Marx, the structure of capitalism causes the individual worker to play a minor role in the capitalist system. The worker does not feel any true worth or attachment to his work, which is true in Gregor’s case, ‘If I didn’t hold back for my parents’ sake, I would’ve quit ages ago.’Gregor’s body is merely conforming to the capitalist system he is part of, his body is mimicking his role in the work place, a menial and limited role. In Gregor’s case, his role as a sole earner was easily dealt with, ‘the sister, who had taken on a job as a salesgirl’and his father went back to work, despite not working for five years. The problem faced by the family was easily dealt with, Gregor’s transformation was of small inconvenience.
According to Freud, our minds are made up of two parts, the conscious and the unconscious. Our unconscious is said to hold our suppressed feelings, horrors and conflicts. In the opening part of the story, we are introduced into Gregor’s unconscious world. The book begins saying ‘waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug’.One interpretation of this is that Gregor wakes up, but into the unconscious world, where all his fears and conflicts become reality. Through the book, these fears are shown. One of these being part of the Oedipus complex, the phallic stage. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the size of his legs, ‘on the contrary, it struck as unnatural that he had really been able to move around with these thin little legs.’In Freudian psychology the phallus is a symbol of power, but in Gregor’s case ‘thin’ and ‘little’ show weakness in comparison to his father, who has the authority. There is a fear of castration by his father, and according to Freud, it is this fear that stops boys from having the desire for sexual relationship with their mother. Later in the story, there is evidence of this, ‘assuming that Gregor had committed some violent crime.’This ‘violent crime’ is referring symbolically to this ‘desire’, in which his father reacts by attacking Gregor.
The insect can constitute Kafka’s relationship with his father. The vermin represents how Kafka’s father made him feel when growing up. He felt small and trapped, just as Gregor, who was put into confinement in his room. Kafka had an extremely complex relationship with his father, which is portrayed through the relationship of Gregor and his father. Similarly, to Gregor, Kafka was pressured by his father into a job he hated and in which he believed he was wasting his time. In part two it says, ‘first day of his new life that, as far as he was concerned, his father considered the greatest force the only appropriate response’ . From this quote we can see that Gregor’s father had little respect for Gregor, and, although still family, no longer saw him as a person, despite Gregor internally still having the conscience of one. Gregor’s father had to show his power and threaten him with his tyrannical authority, this can also be interpreted through Freuds theories, and is another example of the threat of castration. An explanation for the father’s behaviour could be that he was ashamed that Gregor could no longer fulfil his role in society, not as a worker and now, no longer would be able to find a partner, in order to satisfy the stages everyone is expected to go through in life. This inability to find a wife could further be seen as a threat by the father as it would mean that the ‘desire’ for his mother would be ongoing, due to him never leaving the house.
The theme of existentialism is another possible meaning for Gregor’s life as an insect. Existentialism is a philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as free and responsible in determining their own development. Every person is responsible for their actions; no decision comes without consequence or stress. This is clear in ‘The Metamorphosis’, with Gregor’s physical struggle of transforming, ‘to continue was difficult, particularly because he was so unusually wide’.Gregor does not thrive in his job and yet persists; his transformation can be seen as a metaphoric symbol of his lack of humanity. Gregor became a victim by his own fault, being trapped in the body of a vermin as he used to isolate himself within himself. In his new absurd universe, Gregor is deprived of all metaphysical guidelines but still obligated to act ‘normal’. He is shut off from any communication from his family and the outside world, ‘an irrepressibly painful squeaking which left the words positively distinct only in the first moment and distorted them in the reverberation’ . Not only is he lost of his physical abilities, but he is now no longer able to communicate either. Kafka wanted Gregor to be in a position where his fight to seem normal was obvious. Prior to his transformation Gregor did not conform to the social ideals of ‘normal’. He never went out with friends or did much else outside of his work, apart from reading the paper. This further implies that Gregor was living his life no differently to an insect. This absurdity resulted in his estrangement. Now as an insect he has to fight harder to act like a human being, struggling to do every day human tasks, even such menial tasks like standing up, ‘But at last he gave himself a final swing and stood upright there’.Despite it causing him physical pain, he fought to try and keep his humanity. Gregor has to fight to maintain his humanity.
An additional meaning which we can find in Gregor’s life as an insect, is the theme of freedom and freewill. Ironically, Gregor’s transformation liberated him from his tedious life as a salesman, in his misfortune he is able to escape the responsibilities of having to choose between helping his parents and doing something, he would consider worthwhile, with his life. The metamorphosis allows him to break free but remain ‘innocent’, and just be the victim of an unexplainable tragedy. Gregor now has the ability to make decisions for himself, another liberation, as before he let other people, such as his family and his boss to control his life. He is able to rebuild his self-identity that had been lost by living for the needs of others. He is able to learn and immerse himself in self-pleasures, which he was not able to do before, ‘especially fond of hanging from the ceiling…the almost happy amusement which Gregor found up there’.He is able to finally find happiness in the smallest of gestures, such as hanging from the ceiling. He has to adapt to his new form but is able to have relief as no longer feels suffocated by his responsibilities. This freedom that Kafka tries to portray can be interpreted by the freedom he wishes he could have. Kafka was Jewish, and he resented this fact, but unlike Gregor, Kafka was unable to find solace.
In conclusion, there is a range of meanings which can be found in Gregor’s life as an insect in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’. It can be viewed through different angles, Freudian, Marxist, existentialism and relationships within society. Many of these points can be explained through Kafka’s experiences in life and the way he felt in society. Such as his relationship with his father, his relationship with his work and with society. Kafka is able to develop these thoughts and feelings through Gregor’s character and his metamorphosis.