Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis explores the degradation and transformative power of alienation. As its protagonist, Gregor Samsa, experiences personal alienation from the people he has cared for and served, he is transformed, losing himself altogether. Simultaneously, in ironic contrast to his experience, his transformation enables those around him to grow. Their lives are renewed at the cost of his own.
In the novella’s inciting incident, Gregor, a traveling salesman, wakes to find himself transformed into an insect. The narrator recounts this bizarre change in a straightforward manner, at once setting the story’s absurdist tone and suggesting a universe that lacks order and justice. Gregor’s imprisoning transformation, symbolic of the conditions of his existence, separates him physically and emotionally from his family, his coworkers, and humanity in general. This theme concerning the effects of alienation is prevalent: Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect reflects the alienation he experienced in life. Even before his transformation, he had disliked his job and office manager, had few friends, spent evenings alone reading the paper or train schedules, and supported his family in an emotionally detached way.
Gregor struggles to reconcile his growing awareness of his condition with what he had believed his condition to be, forming his internal conflict and the central conflict of the story. Despite his hideous appearance, Gregor retains his inner life and strives to reconcile his humanity with the reality symbolized by his physical state. He does not appear to be fazed by his newfound body; that which is essential about him remains unchanged. Instead, he focuses on day-to-day concerns that define him. He worries about losing his job and about his family’s financial situation. His income supports his parents and sister, Grete, and he works to pay off his unmotivated father’s debts. His father remains unnamed throughout the story, underscoring his estrangement from Gregor, a biographical echo of Kafka’s relationship with his own father.
Events in the rising action emphasize Gregor’s tragic awareness of his alienation, yet they also reveal that his family has begun its own transformation, gaining independence to grow. Once Gregor manages to open the door to his bedroom, his family and the office manager are horrified by his appearance, foreshadowing the fact that Gregor’s isolation will become even more pronounced. However, Grete—the only other named character in the story—engages with him, discovering that he prefers to eat moldy scraps since he has lost his taste for milk.
As events unfold, Kafka emphasizes the growth of the family as Gregor declines. Gregor spends most of his time listening to his family, separated by the door, and discovers that he enjoys climbing around his room. His mother and sister, in response, remove the furniture so he has more physical space, although he remains emotionally disturbed. In a pivotal scene, Gregor clings to a picture of a woman in furs hanging on the wall—he does not want this association with the human world and his past to be removed. Gregor’s mother, seeing him on the wall, faints, and his father, newly clean and healthy since becoming a bank attendant, misunderstands. He acts, throwing fruit at Gregor, treating him like a wild animal, and the apple that lodges in Gregor’s back eventually ends his life. Even Grete’s initial concerns and gestures toward Gregor sour throughout the rising action as he becomes burdensome, suggesting her own growing independence.
At the story’s climax, Gregor’s struggle ends, concluding his tragic life. The life of his family, however, is on its way to renewal. Gregor has become further isolated. His sister’s sympathy for him has waned; she has delegated responsibility for his care to the cleaning lady. The family has relegated Gregor to his cluttered room; for extra money, they have taken in three boarders who value order and cleanliness. Then, in a desperate act to retain his humanity, Gregor creeps out to hear his sister playing the violin. He is spotted by one of the boarders, and they declare that they will move out and refuse to pay rent. Gregor, it is clear, has become a liability. Grete tells her parents that they must stop thinking of the insect as Gregor and find a way to get rid of it. Gregor, his alienation complete, retreats to his room, accepts his condition, metaphorically having disappeared altogether, and dies that night.
Although Gregor’s death represents a tragic failure to end his own alienation, the falling action suggests that the death is transformative and positive. In a set of surreally hopeful events, the family travels into the “warm sunshine” of the countryside, a stark contrast to their cramped apartment. Each member reflects on their respective job prospects, envisioning the move on to better things in a new, smaller, and more affordable home. Their feeling of relief is palpable.
The story concludes with yet another metamorphosis. Grete has transformed into a woman in her parents’ eyes. They ponder finding a husband for her, pointing to the next chapter of her life. In the final scene, she stretches her arms wide, suggesting her emergence from her youthful cocoon.