Summary of The Metamorphosis

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The Metamorphosis book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novella
  • Modernism

What It’s About

Though he lived and died in obscurity, Franz Kafka (1883– 1924) managed to become one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Capturing his own feelings and fears on the page, his intensely personalized stories prefigured the focus on the individual and his or her relationship to society, a sentiment that dominated the latter half of the 1900s. While The Metamorphosis predates the era when totalitarian ideologies attempted to harness the individual to the needs of the collective, Kafka clearly saw how modern life demanded a submission of the will to the demands of the group – both through the need to earn a living and to maintain social conventions. By the 1960s, his depiction of the crushing weight and ultimate futility of being a good son and brother became a banner for youth trying to create a better world based on individuality, creativity and spontaneity. While the mechanisms of conformity have changed, the story still resonates today among readers left empty by a substantially richer but ultimately oppressive existence.

Take-Aways

  • In The Metamorphosis, the alienating effects of modern society become tangible when Gregor Samsa wakes up with a new body.
  • One morning, traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up as a hideous bug. He continues in a state of denial and keeps worrying about how to support his family. At first, his sister brings him food, cleans the room and shows some concern for him. But soon his physical state deteriorates, and the family loses patience. After his father severely injures him, Gregor decides to stop burdening the family and dies.
  • The parable is in part based on Franz Kafka’s troubled relationship with his own father.
  • Yet the story touches on a much wider range of issues: debilitating depression, disgust with one’s own body, and the suffocating nature of social and family norms.
  • The story’s horror evolves from the tension between the absurdity of the situation and the narrator’s dispassionate tone.
  • As a German-speaking Jew in majority Czech-speaking Prague, Kafka was twice a stranger in the society in which he lived.
  • The Metamorphosis was a commercial flop when it was published in 1915.
  • In his will, Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod never to reprint The Metamorphosis and to burn the rest of Kafka’s manuscripts.
  • Brod ignored his friend’s wish. Today, Kafka is considered one of the most influential 20th century writers. His style gave birth to a new term: “Kafkaesque.”
  • “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
 

Summary

A Dutiful Bug

Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman of textiles, wakes one morning from a restless sleep to find himself transformed into a big, hideous bug. Utterly puzzled, he contemplates his metamorphosis: Rocking his domed body left and right, he looks at his many floundering legs and the strange, stiff arches on his chest.

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”

Yet it’s not his transformation into an insect that worries him, but another strange thing that happened this morning. He must have slept through the ringing of the alarm clock, which was set for four o’clock as always, and now he’s frightened that he’ll be late for work. This has never happened to him before. Instead of considering the consequences of his new body, Gregor pictures his boss’s anger at the delayed arrival in the office. Then, while still lying in bed, he gets agitated about his arduous job, which forces him to travel constantly, sleep in hotels, and maintain superficial and business-like relationships with his clients.

No Sympathy

Gregor’s parents and his sister Grete have no idea what’s happening behind the locked door. They call into his room, asking him why he hasn’t gone to work. After a short while, the chief clerk from Gregor’s firm shows up to meet his parents, expressing consternation that their son hasn’t left on the early train today. Gregor tries to get up several times, but in vain. It seems that he can’t will his bug body to do anything, as he’s not yet familiar with it. When he finally falls from his bed with a loud thump, he thinks he’s made it. Despite a nagging feeling of guilt, he wants to prove his loyalty to the chief clerk and reassure him that he’s willing to get back to work.

“‘You'll have to go for the doctor straight away. Gregor is ill. Quick, get the doctor. Did you hear the way Gregor spoke just now?’ ‘That was the voice of an animal,’ said the chief clerk, with a calmness that was in contrast with [Gregor’s] mother’s screams.”

So, with considerable pain and effort, he gets himself upright. It takes some time to open the door, but finally he steps in front of his family and the chief clerk. The sight causes panic. The chief clerk flees the apartment. Gregor’s mother is about to faint, and his father breaks into tears. But he soon gets a grip on himself again, driving his son back into the bedroom with the stick the chief clerk left behind.

“‘Now, then,’ said Gregor, well aware that he was the only one to have kept calm, ‘I'll get dressed straight away now, pack up my samples and set off. Will you please just let me leave?’”

Shocked and exhausted from so much unexpected hostility, Gregor falls into a coma-like sleep. He doesn’t awake from it until it gets dark at night, when someone carefully closes the door to his room. There’s a dish with sweetened milk and bread sitting on the floor. Although he’s hungry, he turns away in disappointment. The milk doesn’t taste as good as he remembers.

Caring Grete

During the first night of his metamorphosis, Gregor wakes in pain. His legs were injured after the confrontation with his father. He scurries under the couch, feeling more at ease under its cover. He decides to treat his family with patience and to make the unpleasant situation his condition has caused them more bearable. He is convinced that this condition isn’t permanent though, and his primary concern is for his family. He hardly thinks about his own future. After all, he must not only feed the family, but also pay off the debt for his apprenticeship that his father still owes to his boss.

“‘What a quiet life it is the family lead,’ said Gregor to himself, and, gazing into the darkness, felt a great pride that he was able to provide a life like that in such a nice home for his sister and parents.”

The next morning, Grete brings more to eat, and this time it’s more to his taste: He can no longer stomach fresh foods. From this time on, Grete regularly provides him with food, and to his great joy, she often puts out his favorite dishes – old cheese, rotten vegetables and bones left over from the family’s dinner. Still, he’s sad that Grete never talks to him and sweeps up the food with a broom, even the bits he hasn’t touched. Apparently, his sister, too, is wholly disgusted with the body he has morphed into. Whenever Grete steps into Gregor’s room, her eyes start searching for him under the couch, where he tends to retire out of consideration for his family’s feelings. But as soon as she spots her brother under there, she is terrified.

A Bug’s Pleasure

Gregor’s father has been retired for five years, ever since his business collapsed. He now spends his days reading the newspapers. Gregor has always been close to Grete, and he loves listening to her play the violin. Gregor had even intended to pay for sending her to the conservatory. But much to his dismay, he realizes that she keeps shortening her visits to his room.

“But he needed great self-control to stay there even for the short time that his sister was in the room, as eating so much food had rounded out his body a little and he could hardly breathe in that narrow space.”

The room is getting dirtier, and Grete immediately pulls the window open as soon as she comes in. At some point, Gregor drags a bedsheet to cover himself under the couch, a move that seems to give her relief. Yet the better he feels, the more urgent becomes his need for some human closeness. He has gotten used to moving around like a bug does, and he enjoys crawling up and down the ceiling or just hanging from it, as well as climbing up and down the furniture. Sometimes he senses a strange kind of freedom. Those are the moments he feels happy.

The New Normal

Leaning against the door, Gregor tries to listen to his family’s muted conversations. As much as he’s happy to hear the familiar voices, what he hears depresses him: His existence as a repulsive insect seems to have become the new normal. One evening, Gregor learns that his father is in possession of a significant amount of cash – money that was left over from the bankruptcy – that Gregor didn’t even know existed. He stops short at thinking that his self-sacrifice was a pointless exercise. After all, the money isn’t enough to provide for a carefree existence. His father takes a job at a bank, his mother begins taking in small pieces of sewing and working as a seamstress from home. Grete finds a position as a shop assistant. It breaks Gregor’s heart. He always wanted to spare his family from having too little money to live on, and yet this is where they are at now.

Motherly Love

The information Grete passes on to his parents is limited to his eating habits. Hiding under his sheet, Gregor hopes that they’ll at least come into his room one day. But looking after Gregor seems to give Grete a sense of power she didn’t previously have over her parents. She acts as his representative, deciding who gets to visit Gregor and when. At one point, she keeps the mother from visiting her son, thinking that the shock would be too great. One day, Grete gets it into her head to remove the furniture from Gregor’s room, so he will have an easier time crawling about unimpeded. Since she doesn’t have the strength to do it alone, Grete ends up asking her mother for help. This means that she would see her son for the first time since his metamorphosis, because until this point her daughter and her husband have kept her from setting foot in the room. While regretting that to some extent, Gregor is also glad that she’s been spared the sight of him.

Gregor’s Heart Is Set on It

When Grete starts to move the furniture out of the room, Gregor dutifully remains under his sheet. He contents himself with only feeling close to his mother and listening to her voice. But he’s also wary of it. What if the women take the couch that makes him feel so safe? There are many things in the room that he feels strongly about, that are part of who he is – or at least who he was, like a picture he has hanging on the wall of a lady wearing a fur coat.

“He was especially fond of hanging from the ceiling; it was quite different from lying on the floor; he could breathe more freely; his body had a light swing to it; and up there, relaxed and almost happy, it might happen that he would surprise even himself by letting go of the ceiling and landing on the floor with a crash.”

When his mother briefly leaves the room, Gregor decides to act before it’s too late. He hurries from under the couch, climbs up the wall and presses himself against the glass of the picture. At that very moment his mother walks back into the room.

The Apple in His Flesh

His mother screams hysterically and falls onto the couch, unconscious. “Gregor,” Grete shouts, angrily shaking her fist at him. She then runs out to fetch some smelling salts to bring her mother back from her faint. Gregor follows Grete into the next room, wanting to help. But his presence is unwelcome. Soon his father returns from work, cursing the women’s supposed imprudence and trying to drive Gregor back. Since he doesn’t have anything else at hand, the father starts to bombard him with apples from a fruit bowl. One of them lodges into his back. The pain is unbearable; Gregor feels as if he’s nailed to the ground. Yet he manages to crawl back into his room, before even more projectiles end up hitting him. His last sight is of his mother, having recovered, racing to her husband to beg that he spares Gregor’s life.

Agonies

In the weeks after the incident, nobody dares to remove the apple from Gregor’s flesh. He loses all his mobility and suffers great physical and emotional pain. Of all things, the long-desired meeting with his mother has made his misfortune even more unbearable. Gregor is not only lonelier but has also become an invalid. Yet his wound seems to have prompted a change in the way his family thinks, or so Gregor believes. At night, they open the door to his room and allow him to listen to their dinner conversation.

“Mother’s fainted, but she’s better now. Gregor got out.” (Grete)

Gregor realizes that his father, mother and sister identify more and more with the jobs their challenging economic situation has forced them to take up. His father no longer takes off his uniform at home, his mother does sewing work late into the night, and his sister begins learning shorthand and French to move up the career ladder at her sales job. They sell some family jewelry, and Gregor overhears how the three talk about the prices they have obtained. In the meantime, his room becomes ever filthier, as Grete no longer seems to care one way or the other. She does throw a fit, though, when she realizes that her mother has cleaned the room while Grete was away.

Death and a Fresh Start

Gregor hardly sleeps or eats any more. The family has rented a room in the flat to three gentlemen. They only learn about Gregor when the father invites them one night to listen to Grete play the violin. Gregor yearns for the music and what it represents to him, so he slowly crawls into the sitting room.

“An apple thrown without much force glanced against Gregor’s back and slid off without doing any harm. Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in his back.”

Now, for the first time since his metamorphosis, he feels indifferent toward other people’s feelings and reactions. It’s clear to him that he appreciates the music more than anyone else in the room. How, then, could he be an animal? Suddenly one of the gentlemen spots him. Gregor’s father tries to mitigate the damage by blocking their view of Gregor but only makes matters worse. Disgusted, the tenants give notice.

“You’ve got to get rid of the idea that that’s Gregor. We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long.” (Grete)

Gregor doesn’t even go back to his room when the family openly discusses getting rid of him. Grete maintains that they just have to stop thinking of the bug as Gregor. And yes, Gregor has come to share her opinion that he must disappear. He can’t stand being so utterly useless and a source of horror for his family. The sister only said out loud what he has already concluded. Back in his room, a feeling of calm spreads through his tortured, by now completely immobile body. In the early morning hours of the following day, Gregor dies. The old cleaning lady finds his lifeless body and later gets rid of it without much further ado.

“He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window, too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.”

After a brief pause, the family decide to take a well-deserved break from their work, go out and take the tram to the countryside. The further away they get, the livelier they feel. Right before they reach their destination, the parents realize what a beautiful young lady Grete has become. It’ll soon be time to marry her off handsomely.

About the Text

Structure and Style

It would be misguided to draw simple parallels between Kafka’s narrative art and his drama; those similarities exist on a formal level but are distorted in every other way. The novella is divided into three parts, and it has its fair share of opening and slamming bedroom doors – as do many a situation comedy. Yet none of it is remotely funny. In fact, by relating the most horrifying dream images in the most precise, emotionless voice, Kafka creates a realistic, claustrophobic and emotionally suffocating atmosphere that assails all the senses – like a nightmare that never ends because it turns out to be reality. The whole story comes from Gregor’s point-of-view, and is presented using the stream-of-consciousness technique. It’s the perspective of a human mind trapped in a body of a mostly low-lying bug that understands everything people say about it but which others believe to be the antithesis of human. Gregor is perfectly self-aware; he analyzes his own state and that of his surroundings but can’t communicate his feelings to others. He drags the reader down with him: As the story develops, it becomes impossible to empathize with anyone else.

Interpretation

  • It’s a common literary trope that the metamorphosis of a human into an animal is an act of rebellion that liberates the individual from family and social dependencies. Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a bug that’s unable to leave its own room can be read as an unconscious revolt against modern economic constraints.
  • The metamorphosis into an animal is a popular fairy-tale motif of the Romantic period, often leading the person in question to a higher level of consciousness. With Kafka, the opposite is true: He radicalizes the fairy-tale model by telling it as a bitterly realistic story and thwarting Gregor’s search for his lost identity. 
  • Gregor has internalized the norms of wage slavery and starts to feel like an utter parasite. He dutifully starves himself to death to lift the burden from his family.
  • Gregor’s family represents the petty bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century, which was facing increasing economic pressure in its despair as well as in its hypocrisy.
  • For Kafka, the human condition in the modern era is such that it alienates, deforms and destroys the individual through personal and social pressure. The family offers no protection from it, as it is deeply infected by the same power mechanisms. In The Metamorphosis, it is the father and chief clerk who crush the individual with their overbearing authority.
  • The feeling of being a useless bug, unable to communicate or do anything constructive, has been likened to what a debilitating depression feels like. Kafka’s long history of physical and mental illnesses suggests that he put his own experience with depression into writing. He felt extremely alienated from his own body and came close to suicide sometime in 1912.

Historical Background

Kafkaesque Prague

On the eve of the 20th century, Prague was a melting pot boasting a large Jewish population and a society in which language defined social status: The working-class majority spoke Czech, and the upper-class minority spoke German – the language of the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Culturally, German Jews constituted about half of the German minority living in Prague, and they were fairly integrated in that community. However, a growing Czech-Jewish movement and the Zionists challenged them. Many were caught up in the culture wars between German and Czech speakers as well as a rising tide of anti-Semitism and nationalism. After the first decade into the new century, around the time when Franz Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, the drumbeats of an imminent war intensified. The pacifists rightly feared that the “animal in man” would awaken, and political caricaturists drew the European nations as wild beasts based on modified fairy-tale motifs.

There wasn’t a name for the narrative style Kafka used. It didn’t fully fit any category of the literary movements at the time: There are echoes of existentialism (angst being its basic emotion), of expressionism (focus on subjectivity and the loss of identity) and surrealism (the unconscious and irrational). But none of those terms gets fully to the heart of it. Hence the need for framing an entirely new concept: “Kafkaesque” describes an eerie feeling of disorientation, helplessness and foreboding of something that can’t be named.

Development

Franz Kafka experienced his own childhood and youth as bleak and humiliating. His authoritative and overbearing father, Hermann Kafka – a shopkeeper and subsequent owner of a small asbestos factory – expected his son to raise the social status of the family. Hermann drove Franz to study law – a subject Franz wasn’t even remotely interested in – and despised the fact that the son was writing literature. Hermann, eager to assimilate into gentile German culture, also disapproved of Franz’s interest in his Jewish origins. Their relationship was particularly strained in the fall of 1912, when the father urged his son to take up a position in Hermann’s factory.

In November and December 1912, Franz wrote The Metamorphosis in just a few days. It was first printed in the October 1915 issue of Die Weißen Blätter, a monthly magazine of expressionist literature, which the German-French writer René Schickele edited. The publisher was affiliated with the Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig, and the latter was quick to want to publish Kafka’s novella in book form. In November 1915, Kafka slightly reworked the text, and the story appeared 1916 in the series Der jüngste Tag.

Reviews and Legacy

The novella didn’t make much of an impression on a wider audience. When it was published during World War I, it went largely unnoticed beyond intellectual circles. In the postwar period, most of the humiliated and disillusioned people in defeated Germany and Austria weren’t in the mood for Kafka’s disconcerting prose. This gave him much reason for self-doubt, and he asked his friend Max Brod never to reissue the books that had already been published and to destroy the rest of Kafka’s manuscripts. Today, Brod’s decision to ignore his friend’s last wish is considered one of the most fortunate in literary history. In 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, Brod published the unfinished novel Der Prozess (The Trial) and, one year later, Das Schloss (The Castle).

In 1937, the Nazis banned Kafka’s works in Germany. By 1940, however, they were available in French and English, attracting a growing readership all over the world. In the 1950s, Franz Kafka was finally reintroduced to Germany. Today, the works are available in more than 40 languages, and many famous writers have professed to be greatly indebted to Kafka. W.H. Auden called him “the Dante of the 20th century,” and magical realist Gabriel García Márquez once said that The Metamorphosis proved to him “that it was possible to write in a different way.”

Still, since 1969, it has been staged many times as the British playwright Steven Berkoff’s theater version, the most famous of which is the 1988 Paris production that starred director and actor Roman Polanski as Gregor Samsa, the cockroach. Moreover, it has been filmed numerous times and made great strides into popular culture. In Mel Brooks’s film The Producers, the character Max Bialystok, looking for a “sure-fire flop” to produce on Broadway, discards a script that begins with Metamorphosis’s world-famous first line, shrugging it off by saying, “It’s too good!”

About the Author

Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a German-speaking Jew living in a mostly Czech-speaking society, he was a member of a minority of an even smaller minority. His father, Hermann Kafka, was a shopkeeper and businessman, and his mother helped with the family business; as a child, Franz grew up with a series of governesses and servants. Franz’s relationship with his father was strained: The choleric and business-minded Hermann had no patience for his sickly and artistically gifted son, who in turn lacked the self-confidence to stand up to his father – a conflict that affected his entire life and writing career. After Franz finished his secondary education, he aspired to study philosophy yet switched to law due to his father wishes. He received a Doctor of Law degree in 1906 and later took a job at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, an occupation he considered dreary and burdensome. He would have liked to work as a writer but didn’t have enough time and energy to do so after his regular job. He vacillated between short, productive writing sprees and periods when he suffered from total writer’s block. Continuing to live with his parents well into his career didn’t make things any easier. At age 31, he moved into his first apartment. His relationships with women, too, were problematic. In 1912, he met Felice Bauer from Berlin, a relative of his friend Max Brod, and got engaged twice but broke up both times. His other relationships with women went nowhere. Kafka started writing at an early age but destroyed many of his manuscripts. After publishing Betrachtung (Contemplation) in 1913, he published a collection of short texts and the novellas Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) and Das Urteil (The Judgment) in 1916. Soon afterward, Franz Kafka came down with tuberculosis and died on June 3, 1924. Against Kafka’s wishes, Max Brod published the other surviving manuscripts posthumously, including the novels Der Prozess (The Trial) and Das Schloss (The Castle).


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