Now, I’m not an expert, nor even a pseudo-academic of literary devices that are used in this book – even if I ignore the loss in translation from its origins in German. Yet, the anguish in this story has not only touched the innermost of my soul, but compels me to read it again. This, in my humble opinion, is what makes it a masterpiece, which after all is a subjective label that is given to so many works of art.
The Metamorphosis was written in 1915 by the great writer Franz Kafka. It begins with a nightmarish scenario of an overworked travelling salesman (Gregor Samsa) who upon waking up, is transformed in to a giant hideous beetle-like creature (although this is open to translation). As frightening as it sounds, what follows is not really a straight forward horror story. In fact absurdly and darkly comically, Gregor is at first more concerned with the consequences of missing his train for work, and the dilemma of explaining this to his oppressive employer, who has gathered in the adjoining room with his parents.
On this level, the story is a critique of an oppressive materialistic society that transforms man into an alienated and disillusioned entity that is stripped of any individuality, and simply exists to be employed, and exploited as labour for money. However, what is much more tragic is what follows after this involuntary mutation is exposed to his family.
Gregor, now being an unintelligible as well as repulsive creature is withdrawn from public view. He is secluded into his room, only to be regularly fed by his sister – who at first appears to be sensitive to his plight. Through Gregor’s own sympathetic narrations, we are led to believe that this makes perfect practical sense for both him and his family. With the exception of his ruthless (and possibly jealous) father, clearly his mother and sister are in shock, and need time and space to come to terms with this sudden transformation. Sadly, this reality which I clung onto with desperate hope (along with Gregor) is not the one that is actually playing out in their minds.
There is actually a stark contrast between Gregor’s heartfelt and inherently hopeful outpourings and the shame and ill-feelings that are developing towards him. This was most painful to read. Gregor is no longer recognised as a son or a brother, but simply a creature of disgust. Duty requires them to provide for it, the same way it once did for them. Despite this, along with Gregor, we desperately hope that maybe his family will understand his emotional anguish, recognise his love for them, or maybe he will transform back to a human at the end.
Is it the loss of Gregor’s human speech that prevents his family from emotionally communicating with him? Or, did this relationship never really exist? Maybe, Gregor had already morphed into an emotionally detached creature long before, and this physical metamorphosis was simply a symptom of this.
Whatever it maybe, but it is this gulf in communication and emotional detachment that made the story so tragic and heart breaking for me. His family never recognise his feelings, or any attempts Gregor makes with his insect-like movements to convey them. He actually laments at his guilt of no longer being able to financially provide for them, while they oblivious to this, grow more embittered – not least because each of them is worn down by the menial jobs they are now forced to work due to his incapacity.
By the end, his family have lost any remaining patience and are oblivious to Gregor’s humanity- maybe they never did? They are now, not only disgusted by his horrific appearance and vermin-like secretions, but also resentful of his burdensome needs and diabolical presence. I felt the idea of something so hideous was created as a metaphor for that which is most reviled in society. It acts as a means for us to explore our own capacity for love, humanity, and sympathy, when we are confronted by ideas, actions or challenges that disturb our ‘perfect’ existence or ideals.
This story is a disillusioning critique not only of the impact the need for work and money has on the self but also how it disintegrates the relationships within a family. By the end, I was left with the thought that perhaps Gregor was stripped of his identity and emotional bonding as a son and brother long before his physical transformation. He had long existed simply as a breadwinner and a source of money, and when he no longer fulfilled this need, he was easily dehumanised into an ugly liability. The physical metamorphosis provided a convenient stimulus for his family to express a repulsion that possible had roots much deeper.
Perhaps, tragically that is why there is no emotion expressed at Gregor’s demise at the end, and we are left with an account of his family planning their own selfish future.