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Notes On The Metamorphosis

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Summary

Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. He has also slept late. His parents and his sister Grete try to rouse him so he can make it to his dreary job as a traveling salesman. The family depends on him for its livelihood. Gregor, however, is now a bug. When a clerk from his company comes to demand an explanation for his absence, Gregor makes a great effort to open the bedroom door and show himself. This sends the terrified clerk tearing down the stairwell and Gregor's family into shock.

Grete, more than his father or mother, handles the situation practically. Gregor is fed, and his room is cleaned. Before long, however, economic reality requires all three to find work, and less attention is paid to Gregor--except when he gets out of his room. No one in the family is fully able to reconcile him- or herself to the insect Gregor, and Gregor is unable to express himself to his family. The fear and disgust his presence inspires (the irrational fear of the mammoth cockroach) is a detriment to his mother's health and incites his father to brief fits of violence. One such fit, a bombardment of fruit, deals Gregor a deep and crippling wound.

Hobbled and neglected, Gregor begins to waste away in his room. The family takes in three carping lodgers, using Gregor's room to store excess furniture and other miscellanea--adding insult to injury. Yet the family does leave Gregor's door slightly open in the evenings, so that he may take part in the household in a small way. One evening, the lodgers hear Grete practicing her violin. They call her into the parlor for a concert. She obliges, and the music so moves Gregor that he creeps out into the parlor towards her, wanting to convey that he understands her gift and will help it to blossom. The lodgers see Gregor and immediately give notice. This is the breaking point for the family. Grete declares that they must abandon the notion that this hideous bug is their dear Gregor. All sadly agree. Gregor slinks back into his room. He dies that night.

A great weight has been lifted from the family. After a moment of mourning, the father demands that the lodgers leave immediately. The family takes a trolley out of the city and into the countryside. It is a beautiful, sunny day, and as Grete stretches out her limbs in the trolley car, her parents' thoughts turn to finding her a husband.

Commentary

As some commentators have noted, The Metamorphosis begins with what should be its climax. The protagonist's great transformation, often the pivotal moment in a work of fiction, gets plopped unceremoniously on our lap in the story's first sentence. No buildup, no tension, just boom: Gregor Samsa is now a bug, and we must all deal with the consequences of this fact. The remainder of the story marks his ineluctable drift into oblivion, with very few surprises along the way.

But no other surprises are necessary. That first simple, declarative sentence and the clear prose that follows it have unleashed a truly staggering torrent of criticism. To attempt to wade through the secondary literature is more than likely to drown in it. The interpretations seem endless, and endlessly possible (if variously plausible). The psychoanalysts, the Marxists, the Symbolists, the New Critics, the biographers--all have thrown their well-worn hats into the ring. The ability of the story to support so many divergent formulations of its "meaning" is clearly one of The Metamorphosis's most salient features.

Some hold Gregor's transformation to be symbolic, which is to say that his metamorphosis into an insect is a symbolic, not actual, event. It may symbolize the empty, insignificant, and outcast life that Gregor leads as a traveling sales lackey. Or perhaps it symbolizes the degraded nature of modern existence in general, or bourgeois life in particular, or merely Gregor's failure in the business world. Or Kafka's low opinion of himself as imagined through his father's eyes. A Freudian reader can find many a symbol throughout and, with the wave of a magic cigar, trace each back to Kafka's subconscious, and eventually to his strained relationship with his father.

On the other hand, the story has been read as an allegory, a literal transformation and subsequent demise that stands in for, say, a description of the writing act itself--the isolation, the ultimate failure. Others claim that all interpretations of The Metamorphosis inevitably diminish and do injustice to what is an irreducible whole, which is resonant with the interplay of many meanings.

The sheer straightforwardness of the narrative has challenged generations of readers to search for something else lurking beneath its surface. But there is no reason to read the story in just one way, to the exclusion of all others. Despite the reams of analysis, one aspect of The Metamorphosis that is often overlooked is its humor. When Kafka read the story to his circle of companions in Prague, they laughed out loud--as did he. This is certainly a stark brand of comedy, but laughter has long been a way of coping with life's absurd afflictions.

Section 1

Summary

Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. He is not dreaming; he is clearly still in his own bedroom in his family's apartment, in his own bed. He is lying on his back and can see his numerous legs squirming uselessly in the air. Initially, he is unable to get out of bed.

Gregor's thoughts turn to his strenuous and thankless job as a traveling salesman for a company that is suspicious and over-vigilant toward its sales force. Gregor would have quit long ago, but his parents are in deep financial debt to his boss, so for the family's sake he continues. A quick glance at the alarm clock tells Gregor that he has slept late and missed his train. If he rushes he might still be able to catch the 7 a.m. train, but even this won't spare him a tongue-lashing from his boss. He considers calling in sick, which he has never done, but suspects that his boss would then send a health-insurance doctor to check on him.

Concerned, Gregor's parents and his sister Grete soon begin to knock on his door. In an altered voice, with brief and deliberate phrases, he tries to reassure them. He expends a quarter of an hour struggling with his air-beating limbs and unfamiliar body in an attempt to get out of bed. When Gregor, rocking back and forth, is on the verge of teetering off the bed and landing on his sturdy (he hopes) back, the doorbell rings.

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