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.
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