Review: The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)

Just for variety, I’m going to try something new
and integrate into this blog a book review.
For my inaugural, cutting-edge literary post
I chose a novella that I expect most
of my readers have probably heard
even if they’ve never read it word for word.

‘The Metamorphosis’ was originally published in 1915,
all across the Western world it’s subsequently been
acclaimed as a seminal work – influential beyond a doubt.
But what is this novella actually about?

It’s deceptively simple, the plot’s central conceit
that a man is transformed into a beast with many feet,
an armoured carapace and feelers on his head
when he wakes up one morning in his warm, familiar bed.
The change in his circumstances, appearance and behaviour
take him from being in the position of his family’s financial saviour
to a giant insect barely tolerated by those who surround him
and through this change we learn more about the circumstances in which we originally found him.
He slowly loses hope and his family come to consider him a pest
until, approaching the books dénouement, he decides it would be best
if his family didn’t have him in the house acting as a constant burden
and having surrendered to his fate he dies quietly like the vermin
he has metamorphosed into and his family, now free,
rather than mourn him see this as a golden opportunity
to live their lives and each to exploit the new prospect
they were forced to develop when Gregor became an insect.

Obviously this story has a whole host of themes.
One of them is that Gregor had no wants or dreams.
As a man he lived purely for others and filled their every demand,
never thought for or about himself or ever took a stand
and having lost his identity figuratively to his family and employer,
is it so surprising when he loses it to an ungeziefer?

Another interesting facet of the plot that we should consider other
than identity, is that Gregor supports his sister, father and mother
when later in the plot things become clearer and we finally discover
that they could comfortably support themselves with only a minimum of bother.
Gregor’s huge sacrifice (made literal in his final fate)
had in actuality allowed his family to stagnate.
Although they dehumanise their son after his transformation
they transform themselves too with an all round elevation
in confidence, ability, and prospects (as noted at the end).
It is only by the removal of a prop that the family is allowed to mend.

Rationality vs. irrationality also plays a part in the character’s interactions
Gregor’s purposeless wandering, garbage eating, insectile actions
are portrayed through the prose as been understandable and sensible.
By contrast, his family is often implied to be reprehensible
for simply expressing a natural mixture of fear and disgust
at seeing a human-sized cockroach that the average person must
necessarily react to in this manner. Hence we see an inversion
where the rational response is portrayed as a perversion,
while the more animalistic, instinctive beetle’s irrationality
is shown, at least superficially, as being devised logically and intelligently.

Another view which I have heard critics promulgate
is that Kafka’s goal in this book was simply to satiate
a need to tell the story of his own situation
with Gregor’s en-roach-ment merely a fictional representation
of his own, frequent tuberculous convalescence which he maligned
as leaving him mentally and physically repulsive while he was confined
to his room and reliant on family support and his sister’s care.
Parallels with the course of the novella are clearly there.

But even if the book is nothing more than a thinly veiled reflection
of the author’s own life, I think his intention,
while certainly worth knowing, doesn’t really matter when all’s said and done.
The message taken from it by millions of readers is the important one.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DG MARYOGA
    Feb 17, 2011 @ 00:31:17

    Very uplifting indeed! Actually, we are talking about Kafka’s autobiography as you have mentioned.However,his allegorical writing style and the words he uses,which have many different meanings,make his novella more perplexed,a real headache for the translators,I suppose.
    The biological process and the change of behaviour is obvious in his novella and I think it bears some similarities with Goethe’s studies on morphology and transformation of all living things and their natural evolution.
    Years ago,I enjoyed reading “The Trial” and I worked through his allegorical references more easily,when I watched a theatrical performance of it in the Greek National theatre.Reading such,almost philosophical, books of famous influential writers only once, it is not enough to elaborate the real dimension behind the lines.
    Thank you for giving your readership elevating material for spiritual and moral thinking.Your analysis and your approximation to the concept of Kafka’s work is of great help.
    and….” he dies quietly like the vermin”…..

    Reply

    • The Rhyming Med Student
      Feb 17, 2011 @ 21:56:02

      I think a large part of what gives Kafka’s work such resonance is that, although it’s autobiographical, the story is sufficiently abstract and symbolic that it evokes themes which are universal in nature. It’s definitely a book which requires multiple readings to fully appreciate. The more I think about the book, the more there is to think about the book.

      I’ve heard that Kafka’s original German prose was very distinctive both in terms of his use of (intentionally) ambiguous wording and the way he structured sentences for maximum impact. I suspect that neither of those factors can ever be entirely recaptured, no matter how good the translation is.

      I haven’t read ‘The Trial’ yet, but considering how much I enjoyed ‘The Metamorphosis’ I certainly intend to. Did you find it transferred well to the stage?

      Reply

  2. DG MARYOGA
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 06:33:10

    Presumably,that’s the grandeur of Metamorphosis.Although autobiographical,he tackles timeless,universal themes of moral and social values,based on experience and reason ,through his allegorical symbolisms.
    However,I strongly believe that the readers’ social and cultural background involve and the concepts they get,differ widely somehow.
    Indeed, his writing style was dinstinctive, as you say,with his almost endless sentences and the, intentionally, use of so many elusive words. Unfortunately,translation always “KILLS” part of prose,poetry,essays and any kind of literature,no matter how effective it is.
    By the way,”The Trial” was a successful performance, as far as I remember and the directore’s notes, had helped the audience.

    Reply

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  8. Ignas Bednarczyk
    Nov 04, 2012 @ 20:31:03

    A very dense novella-on the literary fashion list with Nineteen Eighty Four, Down & Out in Paris and London, The Tin Drum, The Gormenghast Trilogy, The Plague, A Day in the Life of Ivan,,,,etc etc, and yes, I read them all. In fact they expanded my consciousness much more than anything school had to offer at the time. I founf Met very hard-I’ve enjoyed his other works, but not this. It was depressing. The value of it is insurpassable and it is the only Kafka I have read thrice. I have read The Trial, twice. Brilliant, but of course, wouldn’t it be great if life wasn’t like that.

    Reply

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