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Kafka, “The metamorphosis”: summary and comment

Introduction

Metamorphosis is a long story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), written in 1912 but published in 1915. It is one of the best known and most famous texts by the Bohemian writer in which the events of a man, Gregor Samsa, are described. one morning he wakes up and discovers he has assumed the features of a cockroach. Generally, the metamorphosis is interpreted as an allegory of the alienation of modern man within the family and society, which results in the isolation of the “different” and in the inability to communicate with one’s fellow men. The story is also an excellent example of Kafka’s poetics and worldview, in which the destiny of individual existence is in the hands of dark and unknowable forces, which operate in an absurd and inscrutable way on the life of men (as can also be seen in the novel The Trial).

Summary

The metamorphosis is divided into three parts and opens, in an unexpected and fulminating way, on the surprising mutation of the protagonist:

One morning, upon awakening from restless dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself transformed into a huge insect 1.

Gregor Samsa is a simple traveling salesman, precise and methodical, who one morning, wakes up later than usual, realizes that he has assumed the appearance of a giant cockroach. Gregor’s thought, however, is not initially turned to his monstrous aspect, but to the considerable delay that he is accumulating: his profession in fact forces him to strictly respect railway connections and, in the conditions in which he finds himself, Gregor will certainly lose his morning train. Gregor lives with his parents and a beloved sixteen-year-old sister, named Grete, who one after the other go knocking on his door, worried about his unusual delay and therefore convinced that Gregor is ill. The protagonist, as he struggles to get out of bed (he has in fact woken up on his back, which is now his curved armor), reassures them that all is well, although his voice is already modified by his new condition. Gregor finally arrives at the door, just when the attorney, his employer, annoyed by the absence of his subordinate, enters the apartment to get news of him. The prosecutor, from behind the door, overwhelms him with the most varied accusations, including that of working badly for some time and that of dismissal for his incomprehensible behavior. Gregor would like to retort, but once again he only manages to emit indefinite verses. Finally, clinging to the handle with his jaw, the protagonist manages to open the door: the prosecutor, at the sight of the repulsive insect, runs away in a panic, while Gregor tries to chase him to try to justify himself. Gregor’s mother, shocked at the sight of her son, collapses as the father attacks the cockroach with a stick, slightly injuring Gregor and then locking the door to his son’s bedroom. Gregor falls asleep.

In the second part of the story, when we are now at sunset, Gregor wakes up and finds some bread and milk that Grete, in a gesture of compassion, left there for him, pity for Gregor and convinced that there is still a part human in him. Gregor, however, as a result of the metamorphosis, has also changed food tastes and no longer has an appetite for human food. His sister, understanding his needs, the next day makes him find some leftovers taken from the garbage, which Gregor finally manages to eat. The habits of the Samsa family are thus revolutionized: Grete, every day, goes to Gregor’s room for daily cleaning, while the brother-cockroach, in order not to scare her, takes refuge under the sofa. Gregor in the long hours of solitude in the room listens through the wall what is happening in the house and discovers that, due to his condition that prevents him from working, the old and tired parents will have to start working again and Grete will have to abandon violin lessons. Meanwhile, Gregor gains awareness of his new body by climbing the walls and ceiling. Grete, caring, decides to remove the furniture from her room to give him more space, although these are one of the last tangible proofs of his previous condition as a human being. However, when the mother and sister are clearing out the protagonist’s room, a serious accident occurs: Gregor, realizing that a painting that is very dear to him, depicting a woman, is about to be taken away, comes out of his hiding place, causing him to faint. with horror at her mother and causing Grete’s anger to explode. Gregor, frightened and confused, feels himself responsible for what happened and frantically wanders around the house. When his father, just back from his new job as a delivery boy, finds out what has happened, he attacks him by throwing apples at him. One of these sticks in his armor, seriously injuring him and preventing him, from here on, in all his movements.

In the third section of the Metamorphosis, Gregor is now confined to a closet and is essentially ignored by the family: the apartment has been sublet to three tenants and the family has hired a maid, who, far from being afraid of the monster, openly mocks him. . One evening, while Grete is playing in the living room for her parents and new guests, Gregor leaves the room and arrives at the threshold of the room, fascinated by his sister’s musical ability. The sight of the insect, however, startles the three tenants who immediately leave the apartment. The economic situation of the family then has a new collapse and Grete decides to work as a saleswoman. Even the sister, therefore, stops taking care of her brother more and more convinced by recent events that there is no longer any trace of her beloved brother in that beast, whom she accuses of not having left home long ago. The father openly claims that the time has now come to get rid of Gregor.

The latter, humiliated and abandoned by everyone, after listening to these speeches, allows himself to die of starvation. Gregor’s end is actually the beginning of a new chapter for the family, who, taking a day off, takes a trip to the countryside. Here the Samsa family, which thanks to work enjoys a certain economic independence, decides to move to a smaller house more suited to their needs. Grete, despite the past period of suffering, has become a beautiful girl of marriageable age.

Comment

The pages of Kafka’s Metamorphosis are presented as a long, articulated metaphor that develops in two different but closely related directions. On the one hand, the story is a denunciation of the oppression of social rules on the individual, who is crushed and depersonalized by external impositions. On the other hand, Metamorphosis is an apologue on the impossibility of communication between human beings, especially in family environments 2, symbolized by the closed and asphyxiated places in which the whole story takes place.

Gregor Samsa, in which we can see a “double” of its author, is crushed by the rules of bourgeois life. His work as a traveling salesman, repetitive and tiring, is however the source of sustenance for the whole family, a circumstance that obliges him to scrupulously comply with obligations, hours, and office duties. Not surprisingly, when as soon as he wakes up he realizes he has turned into a disgusting cockroach, Gregor’s first thought is of the delay accumulated already in the early morning; when the prosecutor orders him to open the door of the room threatening him with dismissal, Samsa does not pay attention to the reaction that his new bestial aspect may arouse but tries in every way to justify his actions and his own behavior. In short, the metamorphosis into an insect is the concrete form of Gregor’s alienation, stuck in mechanisms that deprive him of his identity.

At the same time, the family context of the Samsa is also the basis of the allegory built by Kafka: Gregor is the pillar on which their well-being is based, exemplified by the lessons at the Grete Conservatory. The relationships of affection and love are soon overturned when Gregor can no longer ensure any form of sustenance due to his mutation; in a short time, he becomes an unbearable burden and, after a series of accidents not wanted by Gregor, even his beloved sister sees him as a nuisance to get rid of. In this situation, all the latent tensions easily emerge, such as the difficult relationship between the son and the father, up to the episode of Gregor’s wounding with an apple, or the circumstance, which is a prelude to the death of the protagonist, in which the young man listens to the speeches of family members about all the problems he caused the family.

All this – which also has precise biographical evidence in the existence of Kafka, son of a family of merchants but led to a literary career – can make us interpret The Metamorphosis as the allegory of the impossible reconciliation between individual aspirations and the constraints of bourgeois life. Gregor’s “diversity” is thus charged with meanings and readings that, in part, remain deliberately ambiguous and enigmatic, as is typical of Kafkaesque fiction. The causes of the metamorphosis are neither explained nor investigated and it is accepted by Gregor as a fact; the other members of the family, who represent the high “normal” of life and society, are disgusted by it, but not even they question the causes of the mutation. The resulting estrangement effect surrounds the whole story with an aura of “magical realism”: in an apparently real and everyday context (the existence of a normal bourgeois family at the turn of the century) a magical or supernatural element is dropped ( the “metamorphosis”), without giving rational explanations. Metamorphosis thus becomes for Kafka the key to interpreting the evils of contemporary man.

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