A Metamorphosis Essay

~ an essay on Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915)

Bug As Signifier

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”

From before the beginning of Kafka’s story, our ‘hero,’ Gregor, has transformed. He awakens as a bug, whereas when he put his head down to the pillow during the preceding night, presumably he drifted to sleep as a human being. And outside of obscure reference to his metamorphosed physicalia, the lack of operable maneuvering in a new insectoid form with cumbersome shell and tiny legs, and the incommunicable chittering of his ‘voice’ to the outside world that only the audience (i.e. no one) can understand as fully articulate rationalizations— there is no full grapple with this inexplicable circumstance from the man. Fantasy meets reality, and life goes on. Taking stock of his new body, Gregor’s worries are purely tangible. He will be late to work, this lapse will reflect poorly upon his position at the company, he will be unable to provide for his family. Those anxieties from his dreams carry into his new form — that of the uncertainty of his daily existence as a young veteran, proletariat-class traveling salesman, sole breadwinner for a family of four from the position of first-born son, motivated and bright, distressed and isolated.

From outside his door, Gregor’s manager dispassionately proclaims to him  —  who is somehow there, in his house, at the first notice of a slight lapse in his working record, at the very existential nadir of the young man’s life — “indispositions must be overcome.” Though he seems to comprehend the perforce silliness of the manager’s presence (Why was Gregor the only one condemned to work in a firm where at the slightest lapse someone immediately attracted the greatest suspicion?), Gregor’s actions speak louder, they hearken within him like instincts to the remainder of his duty. The man is fast and desperate to try to make things right –

You see, Mr. Manager, I am not pig-headed, and I am happy to work…A person can be incapable of work momentarily, but that is precisely the best time to remember the earlier achievements and to consider that later, after the obstacles have been shoved aside, the person will work all the more keenly and intensely.

There is an erratic compulsion to explain himself before the forces of his employment and his precarious fate only he fully understands –

Gregor realized that he must not under any circumstances allow the manager to go away in this frame of mind, especially if his position in the firm was not to be placed in the greatest danger. His parents did not understand all this very well.

Immediately, Gregor is sacrificing any reasonable realization of personal horror at his traumatic transformed-self for the sake of the same abstract, inhumane ‘business reasons’ that his supervisor espouses as the prime directive. Like any neurotic, out of compulsion, fear, or some other unconscious drive within, Gregor both understands the absurdity of his predicament, and keeps on as if he does not. Life goes on / business is going on – with or without him.

The reality of his responsibilities and that of the survival of the people depending upon him seep beyond this terrifying threshold of transformation; everything from his life of before is still necessarily paramount within his consciousness. Unfortunately for him, concerning any real action towards those ends from this point onward, it is futile. Gregor’s commitment is as admirable as it is absurd. His new existence as a big bug is simply overlooked from the first-person, analysis of its origin and fathoms of its unreality are neglected unto its stark and instantaneous rapture before us. Thusly, the core of The Metamorphosis is this deft allowance for life going on foregrounding every event to come, sharply signifying all of the commentaries upon the worldly concerns of the man’s life becoming utterly petty in the face of this new base condition emerged. This fresh cardinal fact of the young man’s wretched material position in the world trumps all else only slowly, regressively, painfully. This monstrous metamorphosis, a great and random becoming, is something both worse than death for him and efficacious for his family in ways that could never be anticipated.

Any inner question of how or why being entertained is discarded before the anxious reality that he may not be able to work any longer as a traveling salesman… because he is now, in fact, a big bug. As in capitalist-realist modernia, now or then, we must weigh the two conditions primarily against one another, in the context of purely dispiriting, enterprising means and ends. Gregor, as man or bug, was a being borne of a world of exogenous, bewildering, and finally metastasizing, pressure.

Unconscious Unfolding

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”

Coming to the questions of metaphysical why’s and how’s, my interpretation for them concerning Gregor’s metamorphosis has everything to due with his personal unconscious coming into conflict with the material conditions of his reality. The resulting culmination creates a waywardly powerful, and self-fulfilling, tulpa for young Gregor to assume the shape of. Out of fear, unto escape, via some latent mysticism? The story provides no answers – only thoughts, actions, conditions.

From what little we learn of the young man’s life, it feels likely that Gregor was not well well before he ever became a ‘monstrous verminous bug’ — 

He is not well, believe me, Mr. Manager. Otherwise how would Gregor miss a train! The young man has nothing in his head except business. I’m almost angry that he never goes out at night. Right now he’s been in the city eight days, but he’s been at home every evening. He sits there with us at the table and reads the newspaper quietly or studies his travel schedules. It’s a quite a diversion for him if he busies himself with fretwork.

A rundown of Gregor’s short life: studiously schooled through adolescence, launched into an invariably violent and purposeless war, thrust into adulthood and instant careerist busyness in support of his parents. At every stage, busy, isolated, under pressure… presumably less than well.

Though to the external observing eye, the young man had ‘nothing in his head except business’, it is not really true. This cannot be true. Human beings are myriad; they are chock-full of dreams and possibility, every one a potential infinitude of thought and action unto any reality they might imagine for themselves. Whether it can be seen or not, every person has a whole world within them. The abstract domination of ‘business’ upon young Gregor’s current mindspace can be seen as reactionary; a returning survivor from the carnage of The Great War, he knows Death, and thus, he understands the vital significance and precariousness of Life. Survival, before a bloody rain of the meat-grinding bullets of Reality, is a continuously insecure proposition. In order to secure it not only for himself but for his family, Gregor shifted the focus of his post-military life into the concrete skills he would need for an economically viable career.

What are Gregor’s dreams and passions? What kind of man does he aspire to become? Succinctly summoned with apparent ease while struggling to free himself from bed, we do soon learn he does not at all enjoy his job:

‘O God,’ he thought, ‘what a demanding job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road. The stresses of trade are much greater than the work going on at head office, and, in addition to that, I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food, temporary and constantly changing human relationships which never come from the heart. To hell with it all!’

His drudgery is endured because it has collective purpose, for the sake of his family. However, the only sincere goal he has beyond indefinite, general support for his family’s future through his working, is saving enough to send his sister, Grete, who plays the violin, to the local city’s conservatory to advance her art. Though he holds this hope down for his beloved sister, this urging is still for a dream for someone beyond himself. She is younger and less capable than himself, and therefore, this aspiration is just another burden, higher stakes for the responsibility he carries. We don’t really know Gregor, no, but one can glean a story of repression (dreams) and horror (war) marked by the pressured responsibility of a whole household upon his shoulders. All of his dreams are unknown to us and maybe to himself; his passions are uninitiated, formless, uncharted. They are there, however, somewhere within. Rather, they were, before being repressed into the oblivion of his forgotten psyche. There Gregor’s dreams, hopes, fears, nightmares remained, lying inside his unconscious right up until the moment that they manifested into his physicality in the form of a sudden and dark transformation (To hell with it all!).

Gregor’s metamorphosis is a culmination of an unsustainable buildup of anxiety, isolation and worldly pressure finally overflowing into reality; becoming a ‘bug’ is the natural consequence of an unconscious perception he held for himself. All the mania and aversion he feels throughout the ordeal is not unlike a nightmare — which, of course, are spawned from the real, if unknown, characteristics and events of waking life. Though decidedly untrue — Gregor is a commendable young man, selfless, caring, ethical — some part of himself believed him to be a lowly, hopeless, monstrous verminous bug, or was well on his way to becoming as such. And so for some inexplicable reason still, this prophecy becomes self-fulfilling when he awakens to see his form changed into the persona that his subconscious dreamt. From out of this dark, unfolded inner thoughtform, the latent ramifications of his regrets toward his untapped potential are forced to the fore, for better or worse.

True to the theory, lowly Gregor 1) cannot imagine such a misfortune befalling his ‘superiors’ in class or disposition, while simultaneously accepting it for someone like himself (Gregor tried to imagine to himself whether anything similar to what was happening to him today could have also happened at some point to the manager.); 2) exhibits an instant adjustment to the miserly creature form, approaching playfulness and euphoria at different points in his journey to a full normalization of his new body’s lesser functionality (“He felt for the first time that morning a general physical well being. The small limbs had firm floor under them; they obeyed perfectly, as he noticed to his joy, and strove to carry him forward in the direction he wanted. Right away he believed that the final amelioration of all his suffering was immediately at hand.).

True to the nature of the unconscious aspect of the psyche, the origins of Gregor’s transformation remain obscured through to the end. Most tragically, Gregor’s lucidly imprisoned solitude provides for him, perhaps for the first moments in his life, the time to seriously contemplate his true purpose (Now it was certain that no one would come into Gregor any more until the morning. Thus, he had a long time to think undisturbed about how he should reorganize his life from scratch). It just comes too late.

The True Transformation

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”

Enlivening the story’s title, there are two major metamorphoses that take place. An alpha and an omega, one jumpstarts the tale’s progression, the other compounds as a result of the former and is only realizable at its end. Gregor’s is instant, mystifying, horrifying. Grete’s, on the other hand, is a journey. It is explicable, necessary, inspiring. One change causes the other. Grete’s transformation, borne of the light of kindred responsibility and personal growth, gives the tale a redemptive quality, despite the dark cruelties of fate inflicted upon Gregor to actualize it.

Beyond the threshold of his door, when Gregor’s transformation is revealed to the others in his life, their reactions are wholly unhelpful… save for one. His manager reacts with understandable shock, but then flees, immediately abandoning what little obligation he felt he had for the young man, his underling. His mother reacts with despair (He’s my unlucky son!), and tries to wish it away. His father reacts with anger, and he continuously tries to commit violence against his verminous form (For he knew from the first day of his new life that as far as he was concerned his father considered the greatest force the only appropriate response.). His sister, Grete, however, is the only to react kindly, valoriously — she is the only one who takes responsibility for him and charges herself with his care. It can be seen as a cognizant reciprocation for Gregor’s toils in life up to that point; even more than the parents, Grete well understands the sacrifices that he has made for them, always thinking more of the collective family than his sole self.

Thus, over the course of The Metamorphosis’ narrative, there is an inverse arc of the two siblings becoming self-actualized, in the form of a regression in Gregor and progression in Grete. Gregor begins as the capable adult, a hardy worker beyond his years, no personal ambitions to speak of; Grete starts as the immature and unformed one, uninitiated to the troubles of the world around her, with all her dreams intact. Their action is henceforth mirrored: Each comes to the defining event with kind concern for the other, despite the difficulties inherent, true to their nature and their sibling relationship up to that point. From there, however, Gregor becomes weaker and more wretched, giving up different pieces of his humanity every day. Food becomes ash in his mouth. His spirits take on the same effective visage as his form. Grete, by comparison, becomes stronger and more able to responsibly respond in the family’s hour of need, keeping Gregor alive as he kept them, at the sacrifice of her own innocence and dream (On this very evening (Gregor didn’t remember hearing the violin all through this period) it sounded from the kitchen).

Truly, their dependence upon Gregor no longer being tenable, the whole Samsa family must revamp their old ways. The destitute, struggler-class family mold is displayed in full: The Washed Father, The Unwell Mother, The Dreamy Youngling, and The Core Workhorse. When the core falls away, the collective must scramble to pick up the pieces and rebuild. From Gregor, we learn the family has minimal ‘capital’, they “cannot live on interest payments alone. …the money to live on must be earned.” This is the proletariat work ethic he lived by — an existence defined by what he could earn. It is passed on by necessity. With the sole breadwinner down, without some kind of radical transformation in the family dynamic, a clan of this class position is destined for destitution. And so, Gregor’s metamorphosis has the dual effect of edging the family closer to economic oblivion and strengthening their resolve to battle back against such a fate.

The father gets back in the game of work, carrying the earnings load in the absence of Gregor’s productivity / the mother becomes more active in sustaining the household, helping Grete at every turn, she welcomes new tenants to their building. Grete’s performance shines most of all. Ironically, by passionately undertaking the task of caring for Gregor, now grotesque and useless, she unveils herself as beautiful and ‘useful’ to their parents:

In the first two weeks his parents could not bring themselves to visit him, and he often heard how they fully acknowledged his sister’s present work; whereas, earlier they had often got annoyed at his sister because she had seemed to them a somewhat useless young woman.” / …it struck Mr. and Mrs. Samsa almost at the same moment how their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman.

In the end, at the denouement of each siblings’ transformations, a breaking point is reached. Grete’s reciprocating well of kindness finally turns to rational self-interest (‘things cannot go on any longer in this way…’), while the parents concur with resigned despair. Increasingly neglected and resented by his caretakers, and no longer wishing to cause them any pains, Gregor realizes the best thing he can do for his family is to die, consummating their unspoken wish. In completing his unconsciously-willed disintegration, finally succumbing to starvation, Gregor disproves his descriptor “Ungeziefer” and self-sacrifices to complete Grete’s own reciprocal change.

Translation ~ English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as “insect”, but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle High German, Ungeziefer literally means “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice” and is sometimes used colloquially to mean “bug” — a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding “insect”. Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor’s disgust at his transformation. //

Gregor, understanding that he is no longer wanted, dies of starvation before the next sunrise.

‘If only he understood us…” is the tragic refrain from the father. The situation was reversed, and much worse than the family imagines for Gregor. It is he who understands and cannot be understood; once changed, everything is cut off from Gregor, he still desires like a Man but can no longer participate with any efficacy in the world of Men. His voice, his productivity, his love, even his mere presence, do nothing but inspire revulsion. All he can do is bear witness, hoping for a change to his existence, ever in vain. Death is Gregor’s parting gift to his family — now better able to thrive without him (as human), yet because of him (as bug). Sacrifice is the final stage of his strange metamorphosis, a romantic end to an absurd beginning.

By some interpretations, Gregor and Grete can be seen as the two aspects of a single person’s soul — the yin / yang of Kafka’s own, even — that of, the masculine (order) and the feminine (chaos) personas. Despite Gregor’s cursed incommunicability as a sentient, voiceless bug, there does seem to be an unspoken language and understanding between him and Grete. They each start from the standpoint of trying to ameliorate the other’s lives in whatever way they can, struggling to make the most of an impossible situation. In the end, before the extraordinary, order sacrifices itself for the greater good so that the whole can go on, handing off the reigns to the chaos-self better suited for the new world. The metamorphosis complete, she goes forth. Chaotic yet clarifying, Grete’s is the true transformation to counterpart Gregor’s annihilation, proving out the infinite adaptability of Man whatever the conditions of their environment, their community, their soul. ~

“And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.”