A Bug's Life
Notes Towards an Understanding of 'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka
One thing is certain. After reading any story by Franz Kafka for the first time, all readers, despite their differing perspectives, means of analysis, and various conclusions and conjectures will all be of the same opinion. This story doesn’t make sense. In fact, the first line of the introduction in the Barnes and Noble classic version of The Metamorphosis states frankly in mostly bold lettering, “FRANZ KAFKA’S FICTION DOESN’T make sense.” Perhaps the writer of the introduction thought it courteous to spare from frustration all those seeking to apply logic to a story in which a traveling salesman turns into a bug and dies. And by inviting the reader to suspend her sense of logic, he invites her to experience the story, not as a spectator, but as a participant. And thus, truly immerse oneself into the genius of Kafka and his ability to convey the complexity of human emotions in the most bizarre and alternately mundane situations.
One of the most striking things about The Metamorphosis is how well the reader can empathize with the emotions that each of the characters is feeling. This empathy is so strong however, that the reader is also sensitive to the emotions that seem to be missing. In the opening paragraph of the story, Gregor Samsa awakens after a night of bad dreams to the realization that he has become a giant bug. While Gregor does seem to feel the sense of surprise one might expect from having one’s entire physical state changed, one emotion is missing—horror.
In fact, Gregor’s solution to life as a bug is rather apathetic. He wants to return to sleep, but not because he believes that he is presently immersed in a dream. Kafka makes it clear that Gregor is well aware of the fact that he is awake. Yet, he is neither thoroughly disgusted nor frightened by the fact that he has been turned into one of the most despised creatures on the planet. All the reader learns is that the weather is dreary and Gregor isn’t in the mood to deal with the absurdity of his current form.
“How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense?"
While the circumstances of this situation are certainly absurd, the apathy that Gregor feels in some sense is realistic and, in fact, normal. Most people can relate to waking up from nightmares too early in the morning to a sky filled with clouds and/or some problem that one would rather not deal with. And in most cases, if one can help it, she usually decides to return to sleep.
These emotions are usually magnified when one has a job that she hates. And many bad jobs do have a way of making one feel as though she is merely a worker ant, gathering things for the colony, without ever benefitting directly from one’s own work.
In fact, Gregor even calls himself his boss’s “creature, mindless and spineless” and notes that his boss often stands on top of his desk when speaking to his employees. What’s more, due to the boss’s deafness, which is probably exacerbated by his standing so high above everyone, all the employees must stand close to the desk; hence, forcing the employees to look directly up into their boss’s face—his nostrils in particular. If one were to carefully consider it, this would be the exact position one would have to engage in if one were a child or even a bug trying to engage with a human.
It is safe to say that most people were forced to deal with this kind of working environment, they would either quit, become enraged or disillusioned—that would be the only way in which they could survive such a strange working environment. Thus, in the most absurd way possible, Kafka shows the reader the escapism that sleep offers when one is either a metaphorical or an actual bug.
However, the same situation can be interpreted in complete opposition. Gregor’s apathy could be symbolic of how little pleasure Gregor has in his life. As the reader was told that Gregor was having bad dreams before he awoke, Kafka may be trying to convey how miserable every aspect Gregor’s life truly is. Usually, when one has been plagued with nightmares, waking reveals the fallacy of the unconscious illusions and the dreamer can easily dismiss them.
Furthermore, the promise of the upcoming day may further reduce the impact of the nightmares in one’s mind as pleasant experiences push them further and further to the corner. Thus, life offers a reprieve from bad dreams. On the other hand, sleep usually has great restorative powers that one often looks forward to after a hard days work. And as aforementioned, Gregor does choose sleep over life as a bug. But it is worth noting that Gregor wakes up from a nightmare to a horrible reality.
“'What's happened to me,' he thought. It was no dream.”
It is as if Kafka is trying to say that all aspects of Gregor’s life are so miserable that in neither his experiences in the day nor in the night bring him a strong sense of fulfillment or pleasure. His life is such a vicious cycle of wretchedness that he has had to detach himself emotionally from the reality of his life in order to cope with its incessant misery. Thus, waking up as a bug isn’t really that big of a deal.
Still, in the mindset of a human trying to return to sleep, Gregor decides to turn over to his right side; a position that he has always found most comfortable. He attempts nearly one hundred times to turn over, but his rotund exoskeleton prevents all his attempts from ending victoriously. The only success he gains, however, is in making his right side very sore. This pain, which Kafka describes as one that “[Gregor] had never experienced before” lends him to lament, not his cumbersome new body, but his job as a traveling salesman.
Thus, in another abstract way, Kafka reveals how Gregor unconsciously associates pain and frustration with his job. Life as a traveling salesman, like many menial jobs, often requires one to continually attempt repetitive tasks that seem to either never end, or never end successfully. This type of work can be painful and frustrating for anyone, but especially, for those who are well in tuned to their emotions.
But it is obvious from Gregor’s odd dissociation from the reality of his life as a bug that he was not one of these people. It was not until a repetitive and ultimately unsuccessful task led him to feel actual physical pain that he realize how painfully frustrating his life is. He says, “’Oh God… what a grueling profession I picked! Traveling day in, day out. It is… aggravating work… the strain of constant travel… the worry over train connections, the bad irregular meals, the steady stream of faces who never become anything closer than acquaintances. The devil take it all!’” (Kafka, pg. 7-8)
Kafka again associates Gregor’s physical sensations with the frustration of his life. After failing to turn over, Gregor sits up, as best as he can, and tries to scratch an itchy spot surrounded by white dots on his belly. Once again, Kafka makes the reader aware of how ignorant Gregor is of his new body by describing the spots as “incomprehensible.” After his attempt to scratch himself leads to an “icy shiver [sent] through him,” Gregor once again begins to lament his life and job. He says, “This getting up so early... makes you totally stupid. A man needs sleep.”(Kafka, pg. 8)
But the next section of his rant reveals that Gregor’s problems aren’t merely due to the fact that he is a traveling salesman. There is something about his life in particular that makes him miserable. Gregor continues: “Other traveling salesmen live like harem women. For example, when I come back to the hotel late in the morning to write up the new orders, these men are still at breakfast. I should try that with my boss. I would be thrown out on the spot. Who knows, however, if that wouldn’t be for the best. If I were not holding back because of my parents, I would have quit long ago.” (Kafka, pg. 8) There, Kafka introduces the real cause of Gregor’s misery to the reader—his boss and his family.
“He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone.”
It is clear from Kafka’s characterization that Gregor is a hard worker. By mid-morning, he already has several orders placed while his colleagues have barely gotten out of bed. And yet, Gregor’s boss is none the happier about his strong work ethic. But further on in the story, Kafka reveals to the reader the primary reason as to why that is. Gregor’s family, his father, in particular, is heavily indebted to his boss after a failed business attempt. Furthermore, no one in the family is employed except for Gregor. So, it is up to Gregor to support his family and pay off his father’s debts.
It is possible that this is the reason why it would not be acceptable to the boss if Gregor behaved like all the other salesmen. But it is clear that deep down Gregor would not mind if he lost his job. He even goes on to say that he...
“[has] not entirely given up hope, as soon as I have saved up the money to pay the debt my parent’s owe him… I’ll definitely do it… I’ll cut myself free. For the time being, however, I must get up because my train leaves at five.” (Kafka, pg. 8)
Somehow, it seems to the reader Gregor hadn’t really thought much about leaving his job until after he had turned into a bug. But while it seems that Gregor has made peace with wanting a life outside his servitude to his boss and family, he has still yet to fully comprehend that his life and being have been radically altered and changed in the most hideous way possible. Thus, making it impossible to simply get on the next train and head to work.
Though in many ways The Metamorphosis is a story on and about Gregor, the reader also finds herself relating and empathizing with members of Gregor’s family. When Gregor finally manages to open his bedroom door, after causing some harm to himself by doing so, his family and the office clerk display the type of horror that one would expect Gregor to employ. Through the door, the clerk had begun to question Gregor’s work ethic and commitment to his responsibilities. Thoroughly offended, Gregor disregards all the fear he once held at the idea of his family seeing him in his new state and opens the door so that he can amply defend himself. But obviously, upon seeing a gigantic bug, Gregor’s parents and the clerk become distraught, angry and petrified. The mother falls to her knees and sinks her head into her own breasts, the father first appears as if he wants to hit Gregor, then begins to sob so deeply that “his great chest heaved.” The clerk, Kafka describes in the most elegant way, first lets out an "‘Oh’ [that]sounded like a great gust of wind… standing as he was nearest to the door, clapping one hand before his open mouth and slowly backing away as if driven by some invisible steady pressure.”
In one regard, these reactions are quite satisfactory to the reader. It seems that the clerk and the parents are getting some just desserts in being so frightened—just like the antagonists in a horror film. Kafka plainly makes it clear that Gregor is an extremely hard worker who has never been late or in any way shirked on his responsibilities, yet, his family and the office clerk give him nothing but grief about sleeping in a little bit for one day in his entire working life. Thus, when they all become so thoroughly frightened, the reader can’t help but feel some sense of gratification. However, when one takes Gregor’s feelings into consideration, the reader can feel extremely saddened for Gregor for having anyone react to him in such a way, regardless of his new form or not.
While the clerk and the mother deal with the horror of Gregor’s new state rather passively, the father is another story. After seeing Gregor, the clerk merely backs his way out of the house—never engaging Gregor in any way. In fact, in an exchange in roles, it is Gregor, albeit, unintentionally, who seems to be antagonizing the clerk. Gregor believes that the clerk should not be allowed to leave the house until he has agreed to retract his former negative statements about Gregor’s work performance.
Furthermore, Gregor wants the clerk to “give a true account of all this” to all those at the office. In effect, Gregor wants the clerk to defend his tardiness and to reassure the boss that Gregor will continue to try his best to complete his obligations despite being “temporarily incapacitated.” The clerk, however, gives no indication that he has any idea what Gregor is saying. Instead, he slowly makes his way out of their house, until Gregor, desperate to make him understand, charges towards him in an attempting to grab him before he leaves. As a result, the clerk turns and runs screaming out of the door.
“He was lying on his back as hard as armor plate, and when he lifted his head a little, he saw his vaulted brown belly, sectioned by arch-shaped ribs, to whose dome the cover, about to slide off completely, could barely cling. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes.” (1.1)
When Gregor tries to engage his mother, she leaps up off the ground out of her heap, stares, and Gregor screams for help and backs away. Then, she goes to the window, opens it and sticks out her head as if the fresh air will offer some salvation for this horrible situation. The father is the only one who engages Gregor directly. After he had finished sobbing, he shooed Gregor back to his room, in a scene that is reminiscent of a lion and a lion tamer. He shoves Gregor through his bedroom door. This, in turn, damages the legs on Gregor’s left side. At first, the father’s callousness seems almost quixotically cruel, after reading the story closely a few times the reader can begin to feel the horror that anyone might feel when being approached by a human-sized insect. If one were to respect Gregor’s humanity, it would seem difficult to believe that his father could treat him so cruelly.
Yet, if one were to truly consider things, she would realize that Gregor’s family had been dehumanizing him for years. To the father, Gregor was nothing but a meal ticket; a road to redemption for his own past failures—a way to renew himself without ever doing any of the work himself. Therefore, as a bug, Gregor no longer had any use to his father, so he had no qualms treating him in such a heartless manner. On the other hand, when one considers how one usually acts upon encountering a cockroach, it is not difficult to imagine one employing that type of cruelty. With the exception of some extreme animal rights activists and highly idealistic Buddhists, few can say that they have ever thought pensively about how to deal with a cockroach. Ants, one might try to lead outside. Mice, one might capture and set free, but roaches? Roaches are killed without much consideration for the sanctity of their lives. They are merely pests of the most despicable kind who represent uncleanliness and disorder in the home. Gregor’s metamorphosis personified his family’s own dysfunction and the loss of Gregor’s humanity. And the father’s pride would not allow for the truth of his home to be exposed, especially, to an outsider. Therefore, Gregor must be banished back into the darkness of his room.
If the story ever had any semblance of comprehension, realism, and rationality—it ends quickly not long after that scene. The sister alone is the only one who is kind to Gregor, at least initially. After his metamorphosis, the parents steer clear of Gregor, but the sister continues to clean his room daily. Moreover, she even takes the time to learn what kind of foods Gregor likes best now that he has changed. Every day, she sets out a smorgasbord of food that ranges from his old favorites to rotten leftovers from previous family meals and notes what he seems to like and what he doesn’t.
Her continued generosity towards her brother may be due to the fact that she was the only one who hadn’t seen Gregor in his entirety. When Gregor had first appeared to his family after his change, the sister had gone out to seek a locksmith to open his door. While it is likely that upon her return her parents had told her about the new Gregor, she had yet to see fully for herself. The first time she catches a glimpse of the new Gregor as a whole, she runs from the room. Kafka notes that every time she entered the room thereafter, there was a sense of uneasiness about her. In a show of consideration of his own, Gregor decides to spare his sister from the sickening sight of him by covering himself with a sheet and hiding under the coach.
The second time she sees his full form, they are engaged in a battle of wills. In order to give Gregor more space in which to roam around, his mother and sister decide to remove all the furniture from the room. At first, Gregor is delighted by the idea. But as more and more of his things are being removed, the more he feels as though he is being robbed, not only of his possessions but also of his identity and place within the family. Kafka says, “Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he could certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at a price of shedding simultaneously all recollections of his human background?” Gregor decides not. And he runs out from under the coach and plasters himself against a picture of the woman in a fur muff that he has cut out from a magazine. His sudden appearance causes the mother to faint. And with the mother’s sensibilities, the sister’s sense of compassion for Gregor also seems to dissipate.
But the sister wasn’t the only one who had had a change in emotion in their emotional state. After the attempt to remove his furniture, Gregor and his family seem to run out of patience for one another. In his thoughts, Gregor seems to become more and more agitated and resentful of his family in a way that seems to the reader to be selfish and entitled.
“[H]e felt very proud that he had been able to provide such a life in so nice an apartment for his parents and his sister. But what now if all the peace, the comfort, the contentment were to come to a horrible end?”
However, when one considers how hard Gregor had worked to support his family, it seems that he is unleashing all the resentment that he had built up for them over the years. In turn, everyone in his family has to begin working in order to support themselves. Furthermore, they have had to fire their maid, cook and take in borders just to make ends meet. It seems that they are finally getting a taste of how hard Gregor had to work to support them. The sister, in particular, has had to take a job as a salesgirl, therefore, is too tired to care for Gregor with the care she once had. She no longer cares about which food he likes best, she just leaves out anything for him with no consideration for what he likes. Furthermore, she hastily cleans his room without much care. As a result, a thick layer of dust begins to cover everything in the room—including Gregor. Gregor is understandably irritated by this. However, when his mother gives his room a thorough cleaning, he laments the dampness that fills the room as a result. In many regards, it seems that Gregor can simply no longer be pleased.
This frustration that Gregor feels may be due to the fact that he is thoroughly trapped. Obviously, since he has turned into a bug, he has not been able to venture outside. Moreover, it is interesting that in all the interactions that the family has with him they always open a window first. This could be due to several causes, but it is interesting that the window is the only way for him to engage in the outside world.
Ironically, Gregor laments that he hates it when his sister opens the window because the air outside is rather cold. But the open window also represents a passage to the world outside, a world in which he cannot enter. Though Gregor had been a traveling salesman, he never traveled for pleasure. Thus, he was never able to enjoy the restorative powers that come from taking in and enjoying the world around him. At the end of the story, after Gregor has died, the first thing the family does is journey out to the countryside. His sister even “jumped to her feet and stretched her young body,” this was something that Gregor was never able to do as a human. And though he did learn to enjoy and appreciate his new body as a bug, he was never able to venture outside of his home even for a moment.
Again, it is interesting to note that Kafka chose a cockroach an indoor/urban dwelling creature, instead of an insect or critter that can live in the outside or natural world in addition to an urban and/or domestic setting like an ant. Interestingly enough cockroaches are scavengers that live off the waste of others. Unlike ants, they do not eat plants or live food. Furthermore, the charwoman often referred to Gregor as a dung beetle, which in itself is self-explanatory. Thus, Gregor’s change is metaphorical of hard work, dehumanization, filth, burdens, and ultimately, entrapment.
Initially, when the reader engages the story, she feels a dense feeling of sympathy for Gregor as no one in the family seems to care about his opinions anymore. He has become a giant nuisance that is responsible for all their problems. Yet, after the reader begins her deep analysis of the story, it becomes clear that no one ever fully cared for Gregor.
Furthermore, the hard his family to work to support themselves, the more resentful they became of Gregor’s uselessness; the same way that they had been useless to Gregor before his metamorphosis. Hence, the reader can be in turns sympathetic and disgusted by the actions of both Gregor and his family, and she can easily understand how she would feel if she were to switch places with anyone in the family. Thus, she has become a fully integrated participant in the story and the lives of the characters—just the way Kafka would have wanted.