Vintage Book Review: “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka (1913)

Metamorphosis (1913) is most likely the best known short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), which explores the possibilities of a physical transformation. Its stark narrative style is what makes this particular story all the more striking.

The story begins, innocuously, with the statement that Gregor Samsa has been transformed overnight into a giant insect (as can happen, of course). What immediately follows this revelation is simply an inner monologue of someone becoming accustomed to such a transformation. Describing how his new limbs “waved feebly” in his helpless state, his thoughts turn almost immediately to his job, and how he will manage to get there today.

Before long, the people in his life begin to show up, demanding to know why he is not making an appearance. His family demand to know why he is not awake and fulfilling his duty of going to work and bringing in an income (he is the sole breadwinner for the whole family). More bizarrely, soon his boss turns up, also demanding to know why he hasn’t shown up on time. Soon, we gain an impression of just how “put upon” Samsa really is in his everyday life, in which he is, apparently, merely a cog in the societal machine, chained to a home, and to a workplace, “where the smallest lapse was greeted with the gravest suspicion”.

Although he dreams of telling his superiors where to go and quitting his job altogether, Samsa accepts that this is not an option, and that his main priority should be to get out of his “present fanciful state” and return to normal as soon as possible – but mostly to appease his boss and his family.

When, eventually, his “state” is made known to them, their reaction is, of course, one of horror and revulsion – but not at all of concern for the young man. They now treat him as if he is merely the creature that he has become, but do concede to feeding him and rearranging his room to suit his condition out of a reluctant obligation. However he is essentially banished from participation in the family and is shooed away. Succumbing to his unfortunate condition, he becomes ill and dies, which with a cruel twist of irony, becomes the only way he, and his family, are able to gain any respite from the situation.

Although surreal in its premise, Kafka’s narrative style, combining realism with marked nonchalance, manages to explore the probable aftermath, in “real life”, of such a transformation; in narrating the quiet reflections of Samsa in his state, more is revealed about the “rat race” of working life, and the extent of the depersonalisation it can cause.

Metamorphosis certainly manages to epitomise, in a relatively short space of time, the definition of “Kafkaesque”.