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Literature / The Metamorphosis

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

The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) is a 1915 novelette by Franz Kafka, about the salesman Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day to find he has been inexplicably transformed into a gigantic cockroach-insect... thing, focusing primarily on his attempts to cope with this situation and his family's attempts to continue their life, of which Gregor was the breadwinner.

Not to be confused with The Metamorphoses, an epic poem by the Roman author Ovid.

The Metamorphosis provides examples of the following:

  • Abusive Parents: Though not outwardly abusive to Gregor, it's pretty obvious that Gregor's parents (and his sister to a lesser degree) are just exploiting him and his well-paying job. The way they treat Gregor after his transformation makes it clear to the reader that they probably didn't deserve the love and care that Gregor gave them.
    • The father is the main perpetrator, given how he beats up Gregor twice, bellows at his son for not going to work without looking to see if he is ill, claims everyone is tired despite sleeping in every day and keeps money from his collapsed company (Gregor is working to pay off the debts) as well as some of Gregor's income. When called out on the last point, he claims that he did the right thing, despite one of the main reasons for Gregor's state being the extreme pressure and working conditions.
    • The mother is initially less so than the father, as she at first sympathizes with his transformation and tries to protect him from his father despite being terrified of his post-transformation appearance. She also tries to clean up Gregor's room after his sister begins neglecting him, and is reprimanded by his father for doing so. Despite all this, she turns on Gregor all the same and agrees with Grete that they should try to get rid of him once they no longer begin to see or treat him as a living being that was once her son.
  • Animorphism: As noted in the description, the story begins with a character transformed into an insect.
  • Author Avatar: Literary critics note that "Samsa" and "Kafka" share strong phonetic similarities, with identical vowel sounds and identical placement of consonant sounds, and Kafka wrote the story out of his fears that his insomnia was a massive burden to his family. There are also critics who believe the metamorphosis into the vermin is him becoming a writer, instead of the more profitable and normal job he had.
  • Bad Bedroom, Bad Life: Gregor's bedroom gradually evolves to reflect his family's neglect of him. It starts out as a normal bedroom with a writing desk, a chest, and other old trinkets, and then becomes emptier as Grete and his mother move out his furniture halfway through the story. Grete eventually begins to neglect his room, allowing dust and decay to pile up. By the end of the story, it's no longer a bedroom at all and instead treated as a place to discard unwanted items despite Gregor still living in it.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Gregor is determined to save the money to send Grete to the conservatory to encourage her passion for the violin, despite their parents' constant rebukes.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: The poor Gregor turns into a gigantic insect.
  • Book Ends: The story opens with Gregor's transformation and ends with imagery lending Grete a transformation of her own.
  • Butt-Monkey: Gregor. Poor Gregor. And he was this even before the aforementioned transformation with a job he hated and was forced to work himself bloody at, a family that never showed him even the slightest bit of concern, and overall miserable existence.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: The charwoman, who isn't the slightest bit afraid to see a transformed Gregor, unlike everyone else in the story, and occasionally opens his door just to watch him and beckon him over to her as if he were a dog. She does appear to be taken aback when he approaches her threateningly at one point in the story and threatens him with a nearby chair. In the end, it's implied she does something to Gregor's dead body while performing her morning duties and is all too eager to share what happened to it with the disinterested Samsa family, but she leaves in a hurry before she can.
  • Creepy Cockroach: While Gregor's never stated to be a cockroach in the text proper, the descriptions point to that. His appearance makes people run away screaming, and as he deteriorates further, he becomes even dirtier and more unpleasant.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Gregor's transformation is similar to aging/disability, coupled with regretting not taking a chance in your life as well as the horrifically callous way people with mental illness are treated.
  • Downer Ending: Gregor dies, Grete will not become a musician, and their parents don't really care. Worse, literary critics note that Grete has become pregnant, implying the cycle of abuse will start anew for a different victim.
  • Driven to Suicide: Downplayed. Gregor welcomes death because his pain and misery will finally end, and his family can move on.
  • Empathic Shapeshifter: One of countless interpretations of the story is that Gregor turned into a bug because he'd been treated like a lowly, verminous insect by his family and employers for so long that his body eventually reflected his self-image.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Grete plays the violin and is rather attractive.
  • Extreme Doormat: Gregor is pushed around by his bosses and parents.
  • FaceĖHeel Turn: Grete starts out as the most sympathetic toward Gregor's situation, looking after him in place of their parents, bringing him food tailored to what he may like, cleaning his room, and moving furniture so that he may crawl around his room more freely. However, as the story progresses, she gradually becomes colder toward Gregor, neglecting his room so that dust and decay begin to pile up, stops bringing him food to the point of starving him, and is ultimately the one that suggests that the family no longer views him as the transformed Gregor as a living being, urging them to get rid of him.
    "He must go," cried Gregor's sister, "that's the only solution, Father. You must try to get rid of this idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we believe it for so long is the root of all of our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that humans cannot live with such a creature, and he'd have gone away on his own accord. Then we wouldn't have any brother, but we'd be able to go on living and keep his memory in honor. As it is, this creature persecutes us, drives away our lodgers, obviously wants to keep the whole apartment to itself, and would have us all sleep in the gutter."
  • Failed a Spot Check: Vladimir Nabokov, an amateur entomologist, studied the descriptions of Gregor and concluded that he's not a cockroach but a beetle - and as such, had wings and could have flown away at any time. Then again, he had nowhere to go.
    Vladimir Nabokov: This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.
  • Forced Transformation: Being involuntarily transformed into an insect causes problems for Gregor and his family.
  • Heroic Suicide: In his opinion. His family is grateful... that he's finally dying.
  • Jerkass: The three boarders Gregor's family take in by the latter portion of the story are implied to muck up everyone's usual schedules out of sheer stubbornness. Scowling while they watch Grete play the violin for them because she apparently doesn't fit their standards (when they asked her to play the first place) doesn't get them any Nice Guy points either.
    • Also, Gregor's father from the beginning, though Gregor's sister and mother eventually join him in this when they decide to completely abandon him.
  • Just Woke Up That Way:
    One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible verminous bug.
  • Lack of Empathy: Gregor's father is staggeringly cold-hearted and callous towards him, never showing him even the slightest bit of genuine affection or concern and never treating him as anything but a workhorse and then a burden, who exists only for his benefit. The father doesn't even seem upset when he dies, acting relieved at no longer being burdened by him and about to repeat the cycle with Grete.
  • Lazy Bum: Gregor's parents putter around the house all day, every day, while he works himself to the bone all day, every day, to pay off his father's debt and provide for the whole family. Rather than seeing his transformation as an opportunity to pay him back for years of taking care of them, they're annoyed by what a burden it is to take care of him.
  • Life Embellished: What with the overbearing father and self-deprecating protagonist, the semi-autobiography angle is difficult to completely deny.
  • Lost in Translation: The German word was not technically "insect," but a term analogous to a child using the English word "bug."
  • Low-Speed Chase: The chase at the end of part II didn't look like an actual chase, with Gregor scurring away when the father just takes a few steps. It ends when the father decides to throw apples, one of which gets lodged in the back, injuring him.
  • Madman in the Attic: Gregor, after being turned into a bug, is kept locked in his room for the remainder of the novel.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Gregor is technically able to talk to his family at first, but begins to acquire more insect-like behaviors over time. He soon begins to eat rotten food and feels anxious in the open, so he hides under his sofa, especially when people enter his room. Later, he finds it comfortable to crawl on the ceiling and walls.
  • Mundane Fantastic: Gregor's family, not to mention himself, treat his transformation as bothersome and disgusting, but not as unnatural. Gregor is not at all surprised by it, and never thinks about why it happened.
  • Nice Guy: Gregor is nice to a fault. He cares deeply for his family and never shows even a hint of justified resentment at how they treat him. Even after his transformation, he is more concerned with being a burden to them and is wracked with guilt about it, even letting himself die so they can be happy without worrying about him.
  • No Name Given: Gregor's mother and father are never named. Subverted with his sister who's named Grete halfway through the story.
  • No Sympathy: Gregor's father never shows concern to his son and sees taking care of him as a horrible burden, even after all he's done for the family. Only Grete and Gregor's mother give him any sympathy as a bug, but never in his presence. Gradually, they, too, grow tired of him. At the end, when Gregor finally dies and they're no longer burdened by him, his father is annoyed with his wife and daughter grieving over Gregor.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Gregor dies while both of his parents are still alive. They aren't very broken up about it.
  • Pet the Dog: Gregor's family has a few moments that show they aren't all bad:
    • After Gregor's transformation, Grete is the one who takes on the burden of caring of him despite her fear - - bringing him food, cleaning his room, and moving furniture out of his room so that he would have an easier time crawling around. Eventually, the stress of trying to look after him and providing for the rest of the household weighs on her and she turns on and begins to neglect him.
    • After assailing Gregor with apples in an attempt to drive him back into his room, the father feels a brief moment of guilt when Gregor's mother begs for his life, as he remembers that Gregor is still a part of their family despite what he had become.
    • Gregor's mother was initially reluctant to move Gregor's things out of his bedroom, as she didn't want the transformed Gregor to get the impression that the family has completely given up on him getting better. It's Grete's insistence that it's what Gregor wants that changes her mind.
    • After Grete begins to neglect Gregor, Gregor's mother makes an effort to clean up Gregor's room for him despite her fear of him.
    • When discussing what to do with him, Gregor's father is the one to suggest that they could come to an agreement with the transformed Gregor, if only it were able to understand human speech. Grete is the one who dismisses the possibility, insisting that they get rid of him.
    • Gregor's mother and sister grieve after Gregor dies, but it's unclear whether they're grieving over his death or the fact that they're finally rid of him and can move on.
  • Poor Communication Kills: After he turns into a bug, Gregor loses the ability to talk. He can still understand human speech but his family believes he can't, so they almost never talk to him.
  • Prone to Tears: The sister tends to burst into tears over little things that even Gregor can't comprehend.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why did Gregor turn into an insect? The story gives no explanation, and the characters, including Gregor himself, don't even try to find one. This raises the question as to if he actually transformed at all or only believes he did.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Gregor dies as a giant insect, while his family moves on to a better life without him.
  • Take Our Word for It: Kafka was adamant about Gregor as a bug never actually being depicted visually.
  • That Thing Is Not My Child!: Gregor Samsa's family slowly stops believing the bug was ever their son to begin with, and eventually just leave him to die alone in his room.
  • Transformation Fiction: In the very first sentence, the main character inexplicably turns into a giant bug. The rest of the story deals with the consequences of this for him and his family, though the reason why it even happened is never addressed.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Gregor's family lives off the fruits of his hard work, do little else to help him, and the very second he turns into a bug, they're quick to discard him, though Grete does care of him for a while, and his mother is shaken when he finally dies.
  • Was Once a Man: Gregor was a normal guy until he randomly turned into a giant bug.
  • World of Symbolism: One theory (among many, many, many) is that turning into a bug represents mental disease — Gregor can't care for his family anymore because of his illness, no one understands him or shows him any sympathy or kindness, and his family must look after him because he is rejected by society, a fact which they are deeply and vocally resentful about.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Grete, the little sister who works as a salesgirl, moves on to a better life in the end. However, the final lines indicate that the parents are seeing how they can use her in the same way they did Gregor.