Book review of the week: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka’s ominous short story Metamorphosis is one of those weird semi-fables that keeps cropping up in your mind for the week after you’ve read it. 

It also contains what is considered to be the best first line ever written for a short story: 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” 

Metamorphosis is probably Kafka's most famous short story

 

Gregor, another of Kafka’s literary victims, loses his travelling sales job after turning into some sort of cockroach or beetle – we’re never told specifically. His family neglect him and he is forced to live under the sofa in the spare room, partly through shame but also for fear of being assaulted. We track him through the year as he eventually meets his sad demise. The reader never finds out why he turned into a giant bug, and this change is never reconciled. 

This theme of becoming something other than yourself – and unrecognisable to your peers, your family and society at large – has been played out in other stories to suggest a whole range of human fears. 

There are several films that focus on the fear of aging. These films don’t just suggest the human dread of mortality, they also play out a fear of a loss of innocence or a loss of young feminine sexuality – because there’s no way you can be sexy once you’re 30, right? The 1988 hit film Big, sees Tom Hanks play an American 13-year-old who wishes he was older and then wakes up to find he’s suddenly a fully grown adult, quickly beginning to wish he was younger. 13 Going on 30 has a similar theme of suddenly realising you’ve become, literally, your parent and desperately wanting to roll back the clock. 

Added to these examples there’s a great superhero tradition (Superman, Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman) of characters gaining superhuman powers – making them different – and preventing them from ever fitting in with the society they grew up in. 

These films, comics and books all share the idea that once you have transgressed – not necessarily by committing a conscious crime, but often simply by wandering into a different demographic, species or social group – you will be rejected by the loving people you thought you were close to. Metamorphosis paints a bleak picture of the human race and the family as a disloyal group of unsympathetic creatures. 

The weird thing about Kafka’s stories, I find, is that as a reader you’re very tempted, when you first read about the flawed main character, to assume he’s done something wrong to end up in the sorry predicament he finds himself in. In this particular story Gregor is a bit of a wet sop. He’s gone into a tiresome and uninspiring job for a boss he can’t stand, he’s too much of a coward to tell his manager what he thinks of him and he’s prone to self-pity. However, just as in Kafka’s novel The Trial, there’s no suggestion in this story that Gregor has earned the persecution he faces. You can’t help thinking that the lead character has just been terribly unlucky and wondering why the author has inflicted his terrible situation upon him. 

While Gregor’s family are at first very concerned for his wellbeing, by the end of the story and Gregor’s short life they have already moved on to consider their own futures. So has the narrator – who is busy talking about a bright future for Gregor’s young sister Grete. Even I was bored of Gregor by the time I had read 60 pages of his bug’s life.  He was a bug…there’s a limited novelty to that plot. 

Metamorphosis…to change form…to move on…

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One Response to “Book review of the week: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka”

  1. Very nice write up 😀 Especially observations on narration… xx

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