«The Metamorphosis of the Samsa Family: A Counter-Reading of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis The Metamorphosis is probably the best-known short ...»
The Metamorphosis of the Samsa Family:
A Counter-Reading of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
The Metamorphosis is probably the best-known short story written by GermanJewish author Franz Kafka. The story was originally published in Germany in 1915 under the
title, Die Verwandlung, and was not translated into English until 1936. Since its English
publication, numerous critics have been attracted to the haunting story of a man transformed
into a monstrous vermin. Although several critical views of the novella have been proposed, most critics focus on the metamorphosis of Kafka’s central character Gregor Samsa;
however, Gregor’s reality insignificantly changes in spite of his drastic physical change.
Thus, Gregor’s new insect state is not the central transformation in the novella. Kafka uses Gregor’s transformation as a means for the more significant metamorphosis of the Samsa family. It is Gregor who remains largely unchanged as the rest of the family undergoes drastic changes from dependent and sympathetic to independent and hostile and eventually to dependent and hopeful. Focusing on the family’s metamorphosis rather than Gregor’s allows readers to view Kafka’s famous story in a new light. Most critics believe “The Metamorphosis” depicts the human condition as one of humiliation, isolation, and despair;
however, by focusing on the family, it is evident that Kafka also depicts the human condition as one of hope, perseverance, and rebirth.
The Metamorphosis has been structurally divided into three sections, Gregor’s initial transformation and reaction, the immediate aftermath during which his family tries to accommodate him, and the final portion where they simply ignore his existence until he dies.
Each section climaxes with a description of Gregor emerging from his bedroom into the Samsa’s dining room and then retreating once again into the bedroom. Although this same scenario occurs in every section, the family’s reaction changes significantly, where as Zago 2 Gregor’s remains remotely the same. Therefore, each section provides unique evidence that a more significant metamorphosis is occurring in Gregor’s father, mother, and sister Grete.
As the story opens, Gregor has already turned into a gigantic insect and does not seem to find it horrifying or unusual, but merely an inconvenience or delusion. His main concern is how his new physical state will affect his ability to perform as a traveling salesman. Gregor’s existence prior to the metamorphosis is isolated and solely revolves around providing financial support for his family. Literary critic John Hibberd claims that, Gregor’s “duty to his family has apparently been defined almost exclusively in economic terms.” He further claims, “Gregor certainly felt that his work as a traveling salesman was a denial of his freedom and dignity” (2). Although Gregor’s life is completely consumed by work and any of his family’s demands, one can hardly agree with Hibberd that this is a complete denial of freedom and dignity. It is Gregor himself who places the well-being of his family above his own throughout the entire story. After his initial reaction to his insect state where Gregor shows remarkably little self-pity, he chooses to think only of his duty to his family. Kafka writes, “His duty was to remain docile and to try to make things bearable for his family” (2765). Thus, regardless of his physical state, Gregor’s intentions, consideration, and love for his family remain unwavering. His family views him as a financial provider rather than as a family member, thus he is not appreciated. When the Samsa family becomes aware of Gregor’s physical state, and realizes he can no longer provide for their financial needs, their feelings towards him change, and their metamorphosis begins to occur.
The initial change experienced by Gregor’s family begins when Gregor fails to emerge from his room and promptly report to work. At the realization that something is
Grete for a doctor, and his father sends the servant girl for a locksmith. However, this concern is superficial and stems from the fear of losing their financial stability. Upon discovering Gregor’s insect state, each member of the family reacts and deals differently with the change. Though shocked by the appearance of Gregor, the mother and father realize almost immediately that the insect is in fact their son. Gregor’s mother faints while his father clenches his fists in anger, ready to hurl Gregor back into his room. In just one morning, the complacent relationship between Gregor and his family is shattered, and their roles are basically reversed. No longer can his family lazily depend on him but is forced into the workplace; thus the family members begin their metamorphosis because of Gregor’s physical change.
In section two, Kafka brings the metamorphosis of the family to the forefront, which is most evident in Grete. As Gregor becomes more insect-like, the family becomes increasingly more disgusted at his physical appearance and lack of usefulness. Eventually, Grete is the only Samsa with whom the metamorphosed Gregor has any rapport. Richard Lawson, author of Franz Kafka: Austrian Writer, claims Grete’s warm feelings for her brother, although genuine, cannot survive the disparity between their personal situations nor her emergence from adolescence (7). This is true and is clearly displayed in section two as Grete’s feelings for Gregor slowly begin to transform. Initially, Grete is the only Samsa to have any contact with Gregor. The father and mother, who are at first both terrified and ashamed of the vermin, take no initiative to care for him. Their minor sympathy for their once human son is the only reason Gregor is permitted to remain in the house; however this is the extent of their assistance. Therefore, Grete takes on the responsibility to feed Gregor
of Gregor, Grete begins to enjoy her status as the expert on Gregor’s needs. She even develops a strategic method of discovering foods he prefers. “To find out his likes and dislikes, she brought him a wide assortment of things all spread out on an old newspaper” (Kafka 2762). However, as Lawson claims, this genuine concern for her brother cannot withstand the family’s changing circumstances. What began as genuine concern and compassion for her brother Gregor transforms into a self-gratifying ambition of superiority over her mother in regards to caring for Gregor and leaves her evolving into a more selfactualized and authoritative individual. Although such changes do not result positively for Gregor, these changes do promote positive results for Grete. She is becoming more independent, authoritative, and confidant, which will eventually lead to a more fulfilling and successful life.
Grete begins to exercise her authoritative decisions without considering Gregor’s needs and desires regarding his confined environment and his emotional well being. This is
demonstrated through Grete’s decision to remove all the furniture in Gregor’s room:
Although, Grete claims she is acting on her brother’s behalf, she actually separates Gregor from all his remaining attachments. Thus, as Gregor’s physical needs and abilities shift from
resistance to give up his human past and the possibility of returning to it. Her inconsideration illustrates a much different Grete than the one portrayed at the beginning of the section when she exhibits genuine concern for her brother’s dietary preference and needs. In addition, this is the first time Grete is no longer portrayed as a weak and meek individual.
Although Grete’s metamorphosis may be the most obvious, it is clearly evident that Mr. Samsa is also undergoing a metamorphosis of his own. Without Gregor providing financial sustainability, his father is forced to reenter the workplace. Thus, his father, after becoming basically an invalid through five years of inactivity, quickly becomes strong and capable through his new banking job and quickly reasserts himself as the head of the family (Hollan 146). Mr. Samsa continues to change the longer he maintains his bank position. His fancy uniform lends him an air of authority from which he continues to grow confidence
Prior to Gregor’s metamorphosis, Kafka creates the sense that Mr. Samsa looks to Mrs.
Samsa for any family decisions and is nearly a broken shell of a man. After the metamorphosis Mr. Samsa begins to gain an authoritative demeanor and to develop a sense of purpose and higher level of self-confidence. He no longer is portrayed as a weak and
newly defined role as head of the household, comes to the defense of his wife and daughter as they exhibit extreme negative emotions toward Gregor’s exposed appearance. In response, he expresses his authority and anger and forces Gregor to retreat by flinging apples at him until one finally pierces his flesh and becomes lodged in his back. This fit of rage is ultimately responsible for Gregor’s declining health, disablement, and eventual death. This clearly illustrates a change in the family’s attitude towards Gregor from tolerable to hostile; however it also illustrates a positive change in Mr. Samsa. His return to work and reaffirmed role as head of the household captures his determination to provide for his family and his effort to help them rise above their current situation.
The third and final section illustrates the final stages of the Samsa family’s metamorphosis. Immediately following the apple incident, the family becomes more patient and dutiful toward Gregor. Although only for a brief period, they permit him to share in the evening gatherings from a distance, at which time he observes their exhaustion, misery, and expressed concerned regarding their financial impoverishment. Soon the family concludes that Gregor is an obstacle and hindrance to their being able to move on both literally and emotionally. It is this ultimate detachment from Gregor that completes their metamorphosis.
Again, this detachment is most evident in Grete. From section one to section three, Grete has undergone a metamorphosis from a meek and compassionate teenager to a hardworking practical-minded young woman. She honors the memory of her lost brother, but she does not object to the notion of ridding her and her parents’ lives of the insect that now dwells in their home. She no longer continues to clean his room, and the little food she
she refers to Gregor as it and locks him in his room shortly before his death. Grete dehumanizes her brother and makes it possible to do treat him inhumanely. Near the end of
the story, Grete’s dehumanization is expressed to her parents through the following excerpt:
My dear parents…things can’t go on like this…I won’t utter my brother’s
When Grete insists to her parents that Gregor is not Gregor, but an it, the family agrees.
Through their change in attitude, Kafka captures the tendency in people to avoid, judge, or even retaliate against human behavior that disgusts them. The family’s metamorphosis is evident in their perception and dehumanization of Gregor.
Despite his family’s attitudes and behaviors towards him, Gregor is still most concerned with his family’s well-being over his own and concludes that his sister is right as he concedes to his final hours. Upon the acknowledgement of the monstrous vermin’s death, the family does not express remorse but simply relief. In the essay, Realism and Unrealism: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Norman Hollan claims, “Gregor’s sacrifice is a traditional analogue to Christ’s” (148). Although this is not entirely demonstrated, it is after Gregor’s death that the family experiences a total rebirth and beings to live a full and blissful life, as was the case of the Christian church after the death of Christ. The final stage of the family’s metamorphosis is now complete through
confirmed by the narrator’s giving the parents back their proper bourgeois titles as Herr and Frau Samsa rather than father and mother. They recognize that their daughter Grete has transformed into a young lady, shapely and marriageable. They all experience a sense of liberation. The family’s metamorphosis is experienced in each individual and as a familial unit. At the end of the novella, the father, mother, and sister take the day off from their consuming lives to ride the trolley into the country to discuss their future. They are finally united as a family. The family unit was transformed from being dependent to self-reliant, from lazy to ambitious, from divided to united. Once again indicating that Gregor’s metamorphosis and death led to the rebirth of the family.
Gregor is the catalyst for the metamorphosis, the family’s awakening. None of them realizes their full potential until they were forced to become self-sufficient in order to survive. In some ways, before Gregor’s metamorphosis, they are like the insect, turned on its back, impotently flailing its legs and gaining no ground. Gregor’s physical state changes, but his reality never does; only his family’s reality changes. Thus it is the family that undergoes the true metamorphosis. Viewing the novella in this light allows readers to focus on a positive metamorphosis instead of a negative one. Through the metamorphosis of the family, Kafka inspires humanity to persevere and remain hopeful
Hibberd, John. “The Metamorphosis: Overview.” Reference Guide to World Literature.
Ed. Lesley Henderson. 2nd ed. New York: St. James Press. 1995. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 April 2011.
Hollan, Norman. “Realism and Unrealism: Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Modern Fiction Studies 4.2 (1958): 143-50. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 April 2011.
Expanded Ed. Maynard Mack. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1997. 2746-2749. Print Lawson, Richard H. “Franz Kafka.” Austrian Fiction Writers, 1875-1913. Ed. James N.
Hardin and Donald G. Daviau. Detroit: Gale Research. 1998. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 81. Literature Resource Center. Web 15 April 2011.