The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka

Cover of The Metamorphosis

Rank: A
No. Times Read: 3
Last Read: Spring, 2009

Author Name: Franz Kafka

Review: Two things which I recently discovered led to my reviewing Franz Kafka’s most famous work The Metamorphosis: (1) I learned that The Metamorphosis is technically a novel (i.e. it gets underlined, not quotation marks); and (2) you can read it via e-mail thanks to DailyLit.com. I needed no other motivation to read this one a third time and give it a proper review.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, The Metamorphosis is Kafka’s most famous work. If you look up “Franz Kafka” in the dictionary, the definition is, “The Metamorphosis”. As a result, everyone has read The Metamorphosis. Not only that, but people everywhere will pretend to have read The Metamorphosis. The Metamorphosis has become a kind of coffee-shop buzz word, or even a threat. Consequently, there’s been a backlash by literariacs everywhere, who turn up their noses at people who praise The Metamorphosis. Claiming to never have read The Metamorphosis is something they wear like a trophy. In fact, if you don’t roll your eyes if The Metamorphosis is mentioned around these people, they’ll take their lattés and go elsewhere. The price of fame, perhaps?

So, let’s dispense with this nonsense once and for all. Yes, everyone has read the The Metamorphosis because it’s short (the shortest of Kafka’s longer works [which are all short, anyway]), and is still “Kafka-esque” (sometimes these folks pick up his short stories—especially the early ones—and are all like, “wut….i dont get it…….. i thouhgt he wuz sposed 2 b a bug r sumthin…….”). Does this make it bad? No, of course not. Imagine if it did work that way, though. Books would be heavily guarded so that they could never be read by people those in the know disapproved of. There would be great wars fought over who had access to what literature. Heh, heh…

Another issue is that many readers will read The Metamorphosis and nothing else Kafka has written, and will claim to know everything there is to know about him. Well, let me establish my credentials right here and now. I’ve read everything Kafka has ever written. All the novels, all the short stuff—I even read that whiny letter he wrote to his father justifying his existence (it was a side-by-side bilingual text in English and German. That was pretty cool!). In other words, I get to talk about Kafka, so step off!

Here’s what I found pleasantly surprising upon returning to The Metamorphosis after several years. Kafka is known for his dream logic, and his bizarre, nightmarish scenarios. The Metamorphosis is interesting because it doesn’t do this. Sure, Gregor Samsa turns into a bug (oh, and in case you don’t know the plot of this thing, Gregor Samsa wakes up one day and discovers he’s a bug [a big one]. He can still think, but can’t talk, etc. The rest of the story is about his family trying to deal with his transformation. It doesn’t go all that well for him), which is something that would only happen in a nightmare. That’s fine. But thereafter—basically, after sentence one—Kafka deals with the situation in a realistic way. It’s fascinating! He really tries to imagine how exactly one’s life would change if one were changed into a bug but retained human consciousness. The level of realism in The Metamorphosis is rather uncharacteristic of Kafka’s longer works.

Consider, by way of contrast, this small section from The Castle. K. gets a job as a janitor at a school, and is told he can sleep in the classroom after hours. On his first night there, he has sex with his wife, and falls asleep, basically, on a desk somewhere. He’s awakened the next morning by the schoolmaster who is standing at the head of the class trying to teach class (all the children are already inside and at their desks). K. and his wife have to get up, covering themselves, and kind of hide and get dressed so they can get ready to do their work for the day. That’s something straight out of a nightmare, and, if you think about it, not very realistic (wouldn’t the teacher at least have tried to wake them up before he let the students in?). Gregor Samsa, on the other hand, is portrayed very realistically, and the family’s reactions to him are realistic as well. If anything, The Metamorphosis is marked by the absence of the dream logic Kafka is so famous for.

Another thing one frequently overhears during discussion of The Metamorphosis is this question: “What does it mean?” The answer usually has something to do with symbolism. (“The bug is a symbol! It symbolizes something bad that nobody wants! That’s, like, what Kafka thought about life!” etc.) Of course, it is rather illuminating the first time you realize that if you treat the protagonist (Gregor) as an antagonist everyone else’s behavior starts to make sense, but I think treating this story like a puzzle that needs to be figured out is the wrong way to go about it. As I was reading the novella this time, it occurred to me how similar Gregor is to an elderly, perhaps terminally ill family member. But that, of course, isn’t the answer; Gregor being a bug doesn’t symbolize terminal illness, or anything like that. The idea is that the realm of Gregor’s experiences as a “vermin” strike us, the readers, as familiar. We can go and find things that the experience is most similar to, but no single one of those things is the answer.

It seems that the value of this work and its artistry is that Kafka was able to take an impossible occurrence and make it real. If one sees something in it, then there’s personal value in that; it doesn’t matter whether it’s “wrong” or “right”. I think The Metamorphosis should be judged by its artistry, its realism, and its sincerity (after all, in what other of his books are the characters so lifelike? So vulnerable?). For Kafka, I think it was something rather different, and the results are fantastic. It’s not his best, but no one should roll their eyes at it.

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