© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Franz Kafka (1883–1924) was one of the greatest writers of literary modernism, one of the rare modern writers whose name has entered the general vocabulary of the modern world. It is quite common, even among those who have not read Kafka’s work, to refer to frustratingly absurd situations, especially if they are caused by excessive bureaucracy or devotion to rules that make no sense, as “Kafkaesque.” Yet Kafka (like James Joyce) was born and grew up on the outskirts of modernity. In particular, he was born in Prague, then the most important city in the Kingdom of Bohemia, itself a somewhat secondary region in an Austro-Hungarian Empire that was dominated by the twin kingdoms of Austria and Hungary. This empire itself was an anachronism that was increasingly out of step with history; it still employed a number of medieval practices, especially in its governmental structure, though it was also gradually moving into the capitalist world. This empire would be destroyed in World War I, after which the areas that formerly constituted the empire would be freed to move more thoroughly into modernity, with Prague becoming the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Kafka, within his short lifetime, thus saw the kingdom and the empire within which he was born and grew up be swept out of existence. He thus experienced in a particularly direct way the dramatic historical changes that drove modernism.
If Kafka lived in a world that was on the margins of modernity, he was also marginal to his own world. His principal language was German, and that was the language in which he wrote all of his stories and novels. Yet the principal language of Prague (and Bohemia) was Czech. In addition, while Kafka came from a reasonably affluent family, he was something of an outsider within that family, having especially strained relations with his stern father. He had difficult relations with women and never married. Moreover, he was a Jew in a majority Catholic city where (as elsewhere in the empire) Jews were often treated with suspicion and contempt. Kafka’s status as an outsider is surely central to his work; it has, among other things, caused the prominent French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to see him as crucial practitioner of what they call “minor literature,” which exists on the margins of mainstream canonical literature and would ultimately be epitomized by postcolonial literature.
In this form of literature, a writer employs a major language from a marginalized perspective, subverting the authority of that language from within. Kafka’s fiction, as a whole, brilliantly captures his sense of alienation from the world around him, as well as his sense of living in a world that was itself unmoored in time. In keeping with his outsider status, very little of his work was published during his lifetime, though he did write three novels and numerous stories. Dying from tuberculosis, he asked to have his remaining manuscripts burned after his death, but his friend literary executor, Max Brod (who also wrote an early biography that helped to popularize Kafka’s work), instead published most of them, producing the novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927), the latter of which was unfinished upon Kafka’s death. The first two of these are among the most important novels of the twentieth century, though it might well be as a writer of short stories that Kafka was at its best. “The Metamorphosis,” probably completed in 1912 but not published until 1915, is the best-known of his stories, but stories such as “The Penal Colony” (written in 1914 and published in 1919) and “A Hunger Artist” (1924) are also among the greatest short stories of all time.
Existentialism in “The Metamorphosis”
Kafka is widely recognized as one of the most important writers whose worldview can be considered to be “existentialist,” though this term can mean different things to different people. What all existentialists tend to have in common is their emphasis on the plight of the individual adrift in a world that makes no sense to them. However, whereas later existentialists who are often linked with Kafka (such as the French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre) sought ways that this situation could lead to a positive outcome, Kafka—despite the absurdist comedy that pervades his work—seems to be the darkest of all. For many existentialists, especially Sartre, the fundamental meaninglessness of life ultimate frees individuals to make their own meaning. For Kafka, however, the world is so fundamentally absurd that there is simply no way to make sense of it.
Read within a Sartrean framework, it is clear that Gregor has lived his life trapped within his “facticity,” his every move dictated by what others expect of him. However, Kafka is unable to envision any route through which Gregor might throw off these expectations and chart his own independent course. Thus, whether one reads his transformation as the ultimate entrapment within the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him or as a disavowal of those responsibilities, “The Metamorphosis” is ultimately a pessimistic text that offers no real alternative to its description of Gregor’s meaningless life. On this reading, this story might derive its remarkable power simply from the fact that all of us feel, at least at times, that we are ultimately in the same situation as Gregor and can thus greatly empathize with him.
The Literalization of Metaphor
The basic plot of “The Metamorphosis” is simple and easily summarized. One morning, Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with his parents and sister, awakens to find that he has been transformed during the night into a “horrible vermin.” He then struggles to co-exist with his still-human family, worried that he will no longer be able to support them with his labor. For their part, the family members provide Gregor with a minimal amount of care but are largely disgusted by him in his new condition. Eventually, he declines and dies, to which his family responds with celebratory relief.
That this strange, but simple, story should have achieved such canonical status is a tribute to the remarkable manner in which it is written and to the sheer audacity of its central conceit. For one thing, Kafka pulls off the difficult task of relating this fundamentally tragic story in a mostly comic mode. Other than Gregor himself, essentially all of the other characters in the story are comic grotesques (almost like characters from a Dickens novel) whose exaggeratedly nonsensical behavior is almost as odd as Gregor’s transformation. Indeed, it is well known that Kafka was an admirer of Dickens and began his writing career with Dickens in mind as a model, though he would ultimately move far away from that model. In this sense, it is worth noting that Dickens’s characters, no matter what hardships they might encounter, tend to wind up by successfully integrating themselves into British society, a motif that suggests the relative stability of Victorian Britain. Kafka, though, lived in a disintegrating (and then a post-disintegration) society that was anything but stable. There is thus little chance of a successful outcome, with the fates of Gregor and of the title character of “A Hunger Artist,” both of whom simply waste away and starve to death, being typical of the lack of nourishment available to them from the society in which they live.
Of course, the most striking thing about “The Metamorphosis” is Gregor’s transformation. In this sense, it is worth noting that characters undergo dramatic metamorphoses in a number of modernist works, such as the the transformation of Leopold Bloom into a pig in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses or the transformation of the young man Orlando into a young woman (subsequently living for hundreds of years) in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). Nevertheless, there is something distinctive about the mode in which Kafka presents Gregor’s transformation. Bloom’s transformation into a pig is essentially presented as a nightmare, while Orlando’s gender-shift is a fairly straightforward allegory that allows Woolf to make specific points about the ways in which women have been treated differently than men throughout history. Gregor’s transformation, while it clearly begs for interpretation of its ultimate “meaning,” is neither a dream nor a mere allegory. It is presented as “real,” however remarkable, in a mode that has been commonly described by Kafka critics as the “literalization of metaphor.” Gregor is an alienated outsider who is despised even by himself, so it makes sense that his plight would be allegorized as a transformation into a disgusting vermin, but the detail with which Kafka presents this transformation as literal gives the story a texture that is far different from that of most allegories. As a result, it seems to open itself to an almost limitless range of interpretations, leading Jennifer Geddes to note “the inexhaustibility of meaning” in this and other of Kafka’s “parables” (Geddes 19).
Kafka’s story, by presenting Gregor’s transformation in such an off-hand way that makes it seem not all that surprising, is somewhat of a forerunner to the postmodern mode of magical realism, through which writers such as Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) and the Indian-born Salman Rushdie (1947– ) have attempted to capture the strangeness of contemporary life, especially in parts of the world that have long been marginal to the historical phenomenon of modernization. In magical realism, marvelous or supernatural events are presented as if they are simply ordinary, coming as no surprise to anyone. Thus, motifs such as the telepathic abilities of Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, apparently linked to the fact that he was born at the moment of India’s independence from Britain, have no logical explanation but are simply taken as given within the text by a group of characters who have become quite accustomed to strange goings-on.
One additional complication in reading the meaning of Gregor’s transformation is the clear way in which this shocking change can be taken, not as a marker of Gregor’s situation within his family and his company, but as a sign of his ultimate refusal of that situation. After all, once he has become a hideous insect-like monster, he is freed of all responsibility to do his taxing job or to support his seemingly parasitic family. It is simply no longer possible for him to do these things, and so he obviously cannot be blamed for not doing them. From this point of view, it is worth noting the exact description of his status after the transformation in Kafka’s original German text. The word used in the original to describe what Gregor becomes is Ungeziefer, which does not mean insect but is a less specific term for some sort of vermin. Moreover, as Benjamin Lewis Robinson notes, “As a juridical term, Ungeziefer, like the English “vermin,” refers to a living being that has no inherent worth as an independent existence, and cannot, like domestic animals or even ‘wild’ game, count as the lawful property of a person or corporation.” In short, by becoming such a vermin, Gregor has, in a sense, escaped his responsibilities. Robinson, in fact, even goes so far as to suggest that a close reading of the text leaves open the possibility that he doesn’t even die in the end, but escapes—perhaps into the sewers, as would befit his status as a vermin.
In any case, the literalness with which Gregor’s transformation is presented complicates any simple interpretation of its meaning, though it is clear that his plight can be largely encompassed within two of the most quintessential modernist experiences: alienation and routinization. In addition, many aspects of “The Metamorphosis” can be illuminated by reading the story within the context of existentialism—one of the contexts within which Kafka is, in fact, most often read.
Alienation in “The Metamorphosis”
Much modernist literature focuses on the motif of alienation, on the feeling of many individuals in the modern world that they are somehow estranged from other people, from the world in general, and even from themselves. Karl Marx was the first modern theorist of alienation, which he saw as a natural consequence of the capitalist system, under which the specialized division of labor implies that each individual will have only a partial, individualized experience of reality, while the emphasis on individualism itself implies that each individual is encouraged to think of themselves as different from all others. But this emphasis also creates a false sense that anyone should be able to achieve anything under capitalism, leading to a situation in which most individuals feel that they have not accomplished as much as they should have.
Meanwhile, if Marx saw alienation as a natural and inevitable consequence of capitalism, Sigmund Freud, though employing somewhat different terminology, saw an experience of inadequacy and loss as a central to the human condition itself, at least within the bourgeois model of the nuclear family. For Freud, infants feel all-powerful. They can only mature and begin to function as adults when they learn to accept limitations and come to understand that their desires must go mostly unfulfilled. This situation is epitomized in Freud’s (now dated and clearly masculinist) description of the Oedipal triangle, in which the male infant must forego his desire to possess the mother by recognizing the prior claim of the father. This process is crucial to the development of individual identity, which means that human identity is itself rooted in loss and failure.
The notion of alienation well describes the situation of Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis.” He certainly feels estranged from others, even his own family, something that is emphasized in the course of the story by the fact that he loses the ability to speak intelligibly and thus cannot communicate with others at all. It is also significant that, except for his younger sister Grete, no one in the story other than Gregor even has a name, suggesting their distance from Gregor, who resides firmly at the center of the story. Moreover, as a traveling salesman, Gregor is often on the road, suggesting his sense of not feeling at home in the world. And his transformation into a monstrous insect suggests the final stage of alienation, in which he feels estranged even from himself.
Gregor’s alienation is perhaps best described via a combination of the Marxian and Freudian models. After all, he has reached the state of being transformed into a giant, loathsome insect as the result of both economic and familial oppression. In the story, we learn that Gregor has been working as a traveling salesman for the past five years in order both to help support his family and to help pay off the debts that his father owes to the boss of the firm for which Gregor works. Thus, though Gregor seems to have had some success as a salesman, he profits little from that success, given that he turns most of his income over to his father for the support of his family. Meanwhile, Gregor’s constant travels not only keep him away from home but also, at this time, would have been quite grueling, given the level of transportation technology that was available at the time. Gregor himself describes the difficult situation well:
“Oh, God”, he thought, “what a strenuous career it is that I’ve chosen! Travelling day in and day out. Doing business like this takes much more effort than doing your own business at home, and on top of that there’s the curse of travelling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them. It can all go to Hell!”
These circumstances are especially burdensome for someone like Gregor, who appears to have bad lungs and to be in generally poor health. Granted, we learn that he has not missed a single day of work since taking his current job five years earlier, but that appears to be more out of fear of retribution from his demanding boss and/or father than out of vigorous good health. We even learn that, when Gregor is a home and off of work, he spends much of his time studying train timetables, presumably trying to plan his business trips as efficiently as possible. Thus, this work seems to dominate every aspect of his life. Meanwhile, it appears that he gets little appreciation from either his company or his family for the work that he does, furthering his sense of alienation.
It has also often been pointed out in commentaries on this story that work such as Gregor’s would have been particularly unrewarding within the backward and ill-functioning capitalism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which an extreme and exaggerated emphasis on bureaucratic record-keeping was combined with the fact that there was relatively little money actually to be made. Compared with the more robust capitalism of the West, there was more work to be done in a job like Gregor’s and less profit to be made from that work.
To make matters worse, Gregor’s sacrifice for his family seems to be little appreciated. Marx often noted the tendency of capitalism to reduce human relationships to purely economic ones. Thus, we learn that Gregor has, for some time, “earned so much that he was in a position to bear the costs of the whole family, and did bear them. They had even got used to it, both Gregor and the family, they took the money with gratitude and he was glad to provide it, although there was no longer much warm affection given in return.” In seems, then, that the family is glad to have the income provided by Gregor, but that they have come to take it for granted as their due. This financial arrangement might even have estranged them from Gregor, rather than endearing him to them. Then, this whole situation becomes even more problematic when we learn that the family actually has substantial savings and that Gregor is being exploited more than is actually necessary.
It might also be noted that some critics have argued that Grete, the one family member who at times still seems to show some connection to Gregor, may actually be the one who treats him the worst. For example, Vladimir Nabokov, a writer greatly influenced by Kafka, argues that Grete constantly betrays Gregor, a dynamic that he interprets as suggesting the way in which ordinary citizens in the world, represented here by almost everyone except Gregor, have no appreciation for the struggles and suffering of artists (represented for Nabokov by Gregor) and for what those artists bring to the world. For Nabokov, in particular, “the Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing less than mediocrity surrounding genius” (260). In this sense, Gregor and Grete are essentially opposites, an interpretation that is supported by the fact that Grete seems to blossom as Gregor fades, mediocrity feeding on genius, undergoing a transformation in the wake of her brother’s death almost like that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, thus reversing the insectile transformation of her brother at the beginning of the story and making her the mirror image of her brother.
Routinization in “The Metamorphosis”
One of the most influential non-Marxist descriptions of the historical impact of capitalism is the work of the eminent German sociologist Max Weber, who looked at the mutual involvement of religion and capitalism in the evolution of Western societies since the Renaissance. In particular, in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1904 and 1905 and first translated into English in 1930), Weber points out the crucial importance of the rise of Protestantism to the rise of capitalism (and vice versa). For Weber, Protestantism, much more than medieval Catholicism, tended to emphasize the value of secular action in the world, which ultimately helped to reinforce the gradual enlistment by capitalism of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. This process, for Weber, is part of the “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). Thus, for Weber, the parallel evolution of capitalism and Protestantism (especially the Calvinist form of Puritanism) brought about a fundamental change in the texture of Western reality. Whereas medieval and early modern Europeans lived in a world suffused with magic, the modern world has been stripped of the magical and reduced to the practical. Indeed, probably the best-known aspect of Weber’s analysis involves this elimination of magic from everyday experience, leading to the rationalization, routinization, and regimentation of every aspect of life and experience in the service of capitalist expansion.
The aspect of this process that has perhaps been focused on most by modernist artists has to do with the routinization of daily life, in which time becomes a resource to be deployed in the interest of making greater profits. This process leads to the scheduling of virtual every moment, making individuals the slaves of the clock, in a phenomenon that is well captured in Prufrock’s sense that his life has been measured out “with coffee spoons.” However, in “The Metamorphosis,” as elsewhere in Kafka’s work, the notion of routinization takes on a different, more absurd aspect because all of the regimentation involved in life in the notoriously bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian Empire does not lead to greater efficiency and higher profits, but actually bogs down the whole system, leading to less efficiency and lower profits. In Kafka’s world, time and freedom haven’t been sacrificed for money; they have merely been buried beneath a mountain of paperwork.
Kafka himself worked as a clerk (though a rather high-ranking one) at an insurance company, so he had considerable first-hand experience of the legendary bureaucracy of Austro-Hungary. This experience is reflected throughout his work—and is well represented in Steven Soderbergh’s (very interesting, but unfortunately obscure) 1991 film “Kafka,” featuring Jeremy Irons as a Kafka immersed in a morass of bureaucracy that might have come from one of his own stories. In the case of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor is represented as a slave to the clock from the very beginning of the story when he awakens to discover his shocking transformation, but seems more worried that he has overslept than about the fact that he has apparently become a gigantic bug. Indeed, one of his first reactions (even after noticing his transformation) is to check his alarm clock—that ultimate symbol of slavery to time—and then to start calculating in his head when he might be able to catch a train to get to work.
We soon learn that Gregor’s initial concern about being late for work is well placed. Having been slightly late for the first time in his five years on the job, Gregor is immediately visited by the firm’s chief clerk, who clearly suspects Gregor of malfeasance. After a largely comic interlude in which Gregor tries to convince the clerk that he’ll be returning to work soon, Gregor finally shows himself to the chief clerk, who flees as if for his life once he sees Gregor’s new appearance. Providing another reminder of the way in which Gregor’s job and family combine to oppress him, his father seizes the clerk’s cane (left behind in his panic) and attacks Gregor with it, driving him back into his room and leaving him with a painful injury.
Finally, lest we conclude that the Samsa family is uniquely dysfunctional, it should be noted that any intrusion into the home from the outside world—such as the arrival of the chief clerk or the antics of the three bearded lodgers—seems to follow an absurd logic similar to that which governs the family itself. The family, in this way, is suggested to be, not an aberration from the outside world, but a microcosm of it. That this fact can be taken either as a comment on life in Prague in 2015 or as a more general comment on the human condition is a testament to the ability of this story to operate simultaneously on so many different levels. The story, though, is not entirely universal. It is strongly linked to the phenomenon of modernity, and it is impossible to imagine this story being written at any time other than the early twentieth century.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan, University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Geddes, Jennifer L. Kafka’s Ethics of Interpretation. Between Tyranny and Despair. Northwestern University Press, 2016.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Mariner Books, 2017.
Robinson, Benjamin Lewis. Bureaucratic Fanatics: Modern Literature and the Passions of Rationalization. De Gruyter, 2019.
Sokel, Walter H. “From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function of Self-Alienation in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” The Literary Review, vol. 26, no. 4, 1983, pp. 485–95.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Translated by Talcott Parsons, 1930, Routledge, 1995.
 See Sokel for a discussion of the importance of self-alienation in “The Metamorphosis.”