An unfortunate feature of literature is its tendency to become diluted over time. In minds and sometimes even in bookshops, major literary works far too often appear as abridged versions of themselves: Moby-Dick as a maritime chase (rather than a 900-page metaphysical exploration), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a rollicking raft ride (instead of an investigation into race and 19th century American society), or Frankenstein as a sci-fi thriller (rather than a lyrical meditation on scientific ethics, consciousness, and free will).
Sadly but predictably, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is aging and therefore falls susceptible to such a trap. The novella, arguably one of the most pioneering works in all of 20th century fiction, turns 100 this month, and although it is regularly studied by university students, its themes and relevance to modern society are often unknown to the general public. It may be true that most people, if given the famous title, could recount the story’s gist—man turns into a giant bug and all hell breaks loose—but it’s likely that their knowledge of the story doesn’t surpass such a one-line summary. To celebrate the novella’s centennial, let’s take a look at its origins, implications, and influence.
The Metamorphosis Takes Shape
Very few opening lines are as surprising as the one Kafka employs in The Metamorphosis: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” If the man-to-bug metamorphosis (or transformation, according to some translations) has already happened before the story even begins, then to which metamorphosis does the title refer? Readers will be aware that throughout the novella various metamorphoses abound: Gregor Samsa loses his identity and freedom, his status in society, his relationship with his family and especially his father, his ability to communicate, his professional ambitions and connections, his capacity to stay afloat in the face of crushing debt, and more. Scholars aplenty point to Kafka’s own life as the fodder fueling the story’s premise.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 to a well-off Jewish family trying to dampen their Jewishness in a land of Gentiles. The family spoke German, but, being neither German nor Czech nor strictly Jewish, Kafka was born into an immediate identity crisis. This only worsened as he grew into an adult, as his domineering and business-obsessed father disparaged and trivialized (and allegedly beat) Franz, who from an early age expressed his literary aspirations and his disdain for the materialism his father so adored. This paternal neglect and disappointment—combined with a loss of ethnic heritage and formative years spent in an usually empty house—spawned the isolation, alienation, and psychological turmoil that would infuse Kafka’s work throughout his short life.
In this context, The Metamorphosis quickly turns from fantastical to tragic (warning: spoilers ahead). Mr. Samsa, forced to return to work when his son-turned-bug can no longer support the family, is disgusted with Gregor and eventually tries to kill him with an apple (an event that, while unsuccessful, soon leads to Gregor’s downfall). After her son’s transformation, Mrs. Samsa cannot be in the same room with him without fainting. And Greta, Gregor’s sister, systematically turns from a kind-hearted caretaker to a spiteful sibling and ultimately decides that Gregor can no longer stay in the house, a decision which serves as the final, proverbial nail in the slowly assembling coffin around Gregor’s life.
Throughout the novella, the cause of Gregor’s transformation is never mentioned, and the characters don’t dwell on the reasons why Gregor may have morphed into such a hideous being. However, readers with knowledge of Kafka’s life can be sure that the horror of The Metamorphosis lies not with the act of mutating into a giant insect but, rather, stems from the rippling consequences of the all-too-human feelings of estrangement, failure, and loneliness.
The Metamorphosis Endures
While Kafka left the literary scene at a young age—he died of tuberculosis in 1924 just shy of his 41st birthday—his influence began soon after his death and continues to this day. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the titans of 20th century literature, claimed after reading The Metamorphosis that “…I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.” Marquez went on to become the father of magical realism, a form of literature that extended Kafka’s infusion of the surreal into a seemingly realistic world. Other magical realists, most notably Jose Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie, have also tipped their hats to Kafka’s vision and its effect on their work.
Various literary movements (along with other art forms) drew heavily on The Metamorphosis and Kafka’s oeuvre. One would hope that even without Kafka, the world would still have the absurdist works of Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter, but who can know? One would hope that Jose Saramago’s Blindness or Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would have still been penned even if Gregor Samsa’s fateful tale had never existed, but this is far from certain.
Modern literature is indebted to Kafka the way modern cinema is indebted to Orson Welles; that is, both Kafka and Welles broke boundaries set by their predecessors and laid a new, visionary foundation for works to come. For this reason alone (although there are many more reasons), we must resist allowing The Metamorphosis to be abridged in our consciousness, to be merely a story of a man transformed into a beast. Kafka used this grotesque scenario as a springboard to explore the confusion and turmoil he experienced as a human living in an uncontrollable modern world. As our world is just as disorderly and unruly as Kafka’s, if not more so, we would be wise to keep The Metamorphosis in mind and to take its implications to heart.