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The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Part 1

Themes

The Absurdity of Life

Beginning with its first sentence, The Metamorphosis deals with an absurd, or wildly irrational, event, which in itself suggests that the story operates in a random, chaotic universe. The absurd event is Gregor’s waking up to discover he has turned into a giant insect, and since it’s so far beyond the boundaries of a natural occurrence—it’s not just unlikely to happen, it’s physically impossible—Gregor’s metamorphosis takes on a supernatural significance. Also notable is the fact that the story never explains Gregor’s transformation. It never implies, for instance, that Gregor’s change is the result of any particular cause, such as punishment for some misbehavior. On the contrary, by all evidence Gregor has been a good son and brother, taking a job he dislikes so that he can provide for them and planning to pay for his sister to study music at the conservatory. There is no indication that Gregor deserves his fate. Rather, the story and all the members of the Samsa family treat the event as a random occurrence, like catching an illness. All these elements together give the story a distinct overtone of absurdity and suggest a universe that functions without any governing system of order and justice.

The responses of the various characters add to this sense of absurdity, specifically because they seem almost as absurd as Gregor’s transformation itself. The characters are unusually calm and unquestioning, and most don’t act particularly surprised by the event. (The notable exception is the Samsas’ first maid, who begs to be fired.) Even Gregor panics only at the thought of getting in trouble at work, not at the realization that he is physically altered, and he makes no efforts to determine what caused the change or how to fix it. He worries instead about commonplace problems, like what makes him feel physically comfortable. In fact, the other characters in the story generally treat the metamorphosis as something unusual and disgusting, but not exceptionally horrifying or impossible, and they mostly focusing on adapting to it rather than fleeing from Gregor or trying to cure him. Gregor’s family, for example, doesn’t seek out any help or advice, and they appear to feel more ashamed and disgusted than shocked. Their second maid also shows no surprise when she discovers Gregor, and when the boarders staying with the family see Gregor they are mostly upset that Gregor is unclean and disturbs the sense of order they desire in the house. These unusual reactions contribute to the absurdity of the story, but they also imply that the characters to some degree expect, or at least are not surprised by, absurdity in their world.

The Disconnect Between Mind and Body

Gregor’s transformation completely alters his outward appearance, but it leaves his mind unchanged, creating a discord, or lack of harmony, between his mind and body. When he first gets out of his bed after waking, for instance, he tries to stand upright, even though his body is not suited to being upright. He also thinks of going to work, despite the fact that he can’t by any means do so, and when Grete leaves him the milk at the beginning of Part 2, he is surprised to find he doesn’t like it, even though milk was a favorite drink when he was human. In essence, he continues to think with a human mind, but because his body is no longer human, he is unable at first to reconcile these two parts of himself.

As Gregor becomes accustomed to his new body, his mind begins to change in accordance with his physical needs and desires. Yet he’s never able to fully bring his mind and body into harmony. Gregor gradually behaves more and more like an insect, not only craving different foods than he did when he was human, but also beginning to prefer tight, dark spaces, like the area under his sofa, and enjoying crawling on the walls and ceiling. (Through these details, the story suggests that our physical lives shape and direct our mental lives, not the other way around.) But Gregor’s humanity never disappears entirely, and he feels conflicted as a result. This conflict reaches its climax when Grete and the mother move the furniture out of Gregor’s room. Gregor initially approves of the idea because it will make his room more comfortable for him physically. Without furniture, he’ll be able to crawl anywhere he pleases. But realizing that his possessions, which represent to him his former life as a human, provide him emotional comfort, he suddenly faces a choice: he can be physically comfortable or emotionally comfortable, but not both. In other words, his mind and body remain opposed to one another. Gregor, unable to relinquish his humanity, chooses emotional comfort, leading him to desperately cling to the picture of the woman in furs.

The Limits of Sympathy

After Gregor’s metamorphosis, his family members struggle with feelings of both sympathy and revulsion toward him. Grete and the mother in particular feel a great deal of sympathy for Gregor after his change, apparently because they suspect some aspect of his humanity remains despite his appearance. This sympathy leads Grete initially to take on the role of Gregor’s caretaker—she even goes so far as to try to discover what food he likes after his change—and it leads the mother to fight with Grete over moving the furniture out of Gregor’s room since she holds out hope that he will return to his human form. Even the father, who shows the least sympathy of the family members toward Gregor and even attacks him twice, never suggests that they kill him or force him out of the house. Instead, he implicitly shows compassion for Gregor by allowing the family to care for him.

Eventually, however, the stresses caused by Gregor’s presence wear down the family members’ sympathy, and even the most caring of them find that their sympathy has a limit. One of those sources of stress is Gregor’s appearance. Grete is so upset and revolted by the way he looks that she can hardly stand to be in the room with him, and his mother is so horrified when she sees him as she and Grete are moving his furniture that she faints. In addition, Gregor’s presence is never forgotten in the house, causing the family members to feel constantly uncomfortable and leading them to speak to each other mostly in whispers. Moreover, the fact that Gregor cannot communicate his thoughts and feelings to them leaves them without any connection to his human side, and consequently, they come to see him more and more as an actual insect. All these factors combined steadily work against their sympathy, and the family reaches a point where Gregor’s presence is too much to bear. Significantly, it is Grete, the character to show the most sympathy toward Gregor, who decides they must get rid of him.

Alienation

Perhaps the greatest consequence of Gregor’s metamorphosis is the psychological distance it creates between Gregor and those around him. Gregor’s change makes him literally and emotionally separate from his family members—indeed, from humanity in general—and he even refers to it as his “imprisonment.” After his transformation he stays almost exclusively in his room with his door closed and has almost no contact with other people. At most, Grete spends a few minutes in the room with him, and during this time Gregor always hides under the couch and has no interaction with her. Furthermore, he is unable to speak, and consequently he has no way of communicating with other people. Lastly, Gregor’s metamorphosis literally separates him from the human race as it makes him no longer human. Essentially he has become totally isolated from everyone around him, including those people he cares for like Grete and his mother.

But as we learn over the course of the story, this feeling of estrangement actually preceded his transformation. Shortly after waking and discovering that he has become a bug, for example, Gregor reflects on his life as a traveling salesman, noting how superficial and transitory his relationships have become as a result of his constant traveling. Later, Gregor recalls how his initial pride at being able to support his family faded once his parents began to expect that support, and how he felt emotionally distant from them as a result. There is also no mention in the story of any close friends or intimate relationships outside his family. In fact, the alienation caused by Gregor’s metamorphosis can be viewed as an extension of the alienation he already felt as a person.

Motifs

Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis depicts multiple transformations, with the most significant and obvious example being Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect. Though Gregor’s physical change is complete when the story begins, he also undergoes a related change, a psychological transformation as he adapts to his new body. Grete experiences her own transformation in the story as she develops from a child into an adult. (In fact, in zoology the word metamorphosis refers to a stage in insect and amphibian development during which an immature form of the animal undergoes a physical transformation to become an adult.) At the beginning of the work, she is essentially still a girl, but as she begins to take on adult duties, such as caring for Gregor and then getting a job to help support her family, she steadily matures. In the story’s closing scene, her parents realize she has grown into a pretty young woman and think of finding her a husband. The scene signals that she is now an adult emotionally and also physically, as it describes the change her body has undergone and echoes Gregor’s own physical change.

The family as a whole also undergoes a metamorphosis as well. Initially, the members of the Samsa family appear hopeless and static, owing to the difficulties resulting from Gregor’s transformation as well as their financial predicament. But over time they are able to overcome their money problems, and when Gregor finally dies and the family no longer has to deal with his presence, all the family members are reinvigorated. As the story closes, they have completed an emotional transformation and their hope is revitalized.

Sleep and Rest

References to sleep and rest, as well as the lack of sleep and rest, recur throughout The Metamorphosis. The story opens, for instance, with Gregor waking from sleep to discover his transformation, and Part 2 of the story begins with Gregor waking a second time, in this instance late in the day after the incident in which his father drove him back into his room. He quickly crawls under the sofa in his room to rest, and he spends a great deal of the story beneath the sofa either resting quietly or anxious and unable to rest. Moreover, Gregor describes how his father used to while away the day in bed or dozing in his armchair, and after the father resumes working, he often refuses to go to bed in the evenings and instead falls asleep in uniform in his chair. Toward the end of the work, as Gregor’s health declines he stops sleeping almost entirely until finally he dies.

Money

Because of the failure of the father’s business and the debts that resulted, money is a chief concern for the Samsa family, and consequently it appears as a frequent topic in Gregor’s thoughts and in the conversations of the family members. Gregor’s chief concern after discovering he’s become an insect is that he’ll lose his job, which we quickly learn he took solely as a means of earning money for his family. The office manager also implies while checking on Gregor that Gregor’s boss suspects him of stealing money from the firm. Then, shortly after Gregor awakes at the beginning of Part 2, he overhears the father explaining the family’s financial situation in detail to the mother and Grete. Later, the father and Grete both take jobs to make up for the loss of Gregor’s income, and the family even takes in a few borders as a means of bringing in extra money, which results in an argument about money after the borders discover Gregor.

Symbols

The Picture of the Woman in Furs

Mentioned right at the outset of the story, the picture of the woman in furs serves as a symbol of Gregor’s former humanity. Exactly why the picture, which shows a woman wearing a fur hat, a fur boa, and a thick fur muff that covers her arms, originally attracted Gregor is never made clear (though it could be that it embodied Gregor’s desires—the presumably attractive woman may be sexually alluring while the furs she wears could signal wealth to Gregor). But Gregor’s strong attachment to it does not derive from the content of the picture so much as from the fact that he put it on his wall when he was still human. He clings to it in panic when Grete and the mother are clearing out his room because, as he looks around the room in desperation, he sees it as one object from his former life that he can save. The content of the picture is irrelevant at that moment. It acts foremost as a reminder that a human lived there and chose that object to frame and display.

The Father’s Uniform

The uniform the father wears for his job symbolizes the father’s dignity, as well as Gregor’s shifting feelings of pity and respect for him. Throughout the story, we see the father primarily from Gregor’s point of view. We learn about the failure of the father’s business, for example, from Gregor’s thoughts as he overhears the father explaining the family’s financial situation, and through Gregor we gain a picture of the father as a shiftless and depressed man whom Gregor appears to feel sorry for but not necessarily respect. But when Gregor runs out of his room in Part 2 and sees the father for the first time in weeks, Gregor’s opinion of the father changes. This shift is most evident through Gregor’s description of the father’s uniform, which gives the father an air of dignity: Gregor notices the “smart blue uniform with gold buttons,” and thinks the father looks to be “in fine shape,” suggesting the father’s self-respect has been restored, and with it Gregor’s respect for him.

As the story continues, however, the father again declines—apparently from the pressure of living with Gregor—and in the evenings Gregor watches him sleep in his uniform, now dirty and covered with grease spots. As a result, the dignity the uniform conveyed to the father deteriorates, and Gregor again looks at him with pity. (Notably, there is also a picture in the house of Gregor in uniform. It is an army uniform, and in the picture Gregor smiles, “inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing.”)

Food

Food represents the way the members of the Samsa family feel toward Gregor. Notably, it is Grete, the family member Gregor feels closest to, who feeds Gregor for most of the story. At the beginning of Part 2, she leaves milk and bread for him, showing sympathy and consideration for him after his transformation, particularly as milk was one of his favorite foods when he was human. When she sees he hasn’t drank the milk, she goes so far as to leave a tray of various foods out in order to discover what he now likes. Eventually, however, the work suggests that the family loses interest in feeding Gregor. One night, after the borders have moved in, the charwoman leaves his door open, and able to see everyone gathered, he watches as his mother feeds the borders. The scene causes Gregor to feel a great deal of resentment, and he thinks that he is starving while the borders stuff themselves, suggesting that as the members of the Samsa family have lost their sympathy for Gregor, they have stopped taking the same interest in feeding him. Significantly, the father inflicts the injury in Gregor’s back with an apple, and this wound appears to weaken Gregor and contribute to his death.

More Help

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Typo

by mjindra5, July 15, 2012

Under Money Motif:

Borders should be spelled boarders.

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14 out of 16 people found this helpful

Quote Issues

by unwrittendesign, September 09, 2012

Don't use these quotes directly from the site. They are not the same as they are in the book.

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47 out of 93 people found this helpful

Metamorphosis analysis

by j4444mes, July 06, 2014

If your interested, there are some ideas regarding Metamorphosis written up here:

http://eternalnonrecurrence.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/kafkaesque-an-analysis-of-metamorphosis/

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8 out of 8 people found this helpful

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