When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
In the annals of opening lines, very few can top the beginning of The Metamorphosis. How can you help but wonder what’s going on when a novel begins with its protagonist turned into a giant bug? Unfortunately, readers who are wondering what exactly is going on are likely to be disappointed. Kafka, one of the founders of absurdism, isn’t too interested in telling us how or why Gregor became a bug. This is the first Kafka I’ve read, but from what I understand, Kafka never was particularly interested in the mechanics of things. In fact, picking out what Kafka was interested in can be quite a challenge, as evinced by the size and variety of analysis his work inspires.
So, plot summary: it’s mostly up there in the opening quote. Gregor Samsa, primary provider in a household that includes his mother, father, and sister, wakes up one morning to find that he’s become something resembling a giant dung beetle. As the novel progresses (such as it does—it’s less than 100pp), his family discovers his malady and their reactions, and his coping, form the core of the narrative.
Initially, Gregor’s family, although frightened of the creature Gregor has become, try to help him. They call for the doctor, who never actually sees him, and they try to make him comfortable. The most accommodating member is his sister, and Gregor’s thankfulness for her small graces—bringing a variety of foods for him to allow him to discover what he likes, talking to him, straightening his room—form the novel’s emotional core. As time goes on, however, the family grows more and more frustrated with Gregor and the way he inconveniences their life. At the same time, Gregor becomes more and more animalistic, caring less and less about the house’s other occupants. Everything comes to a head one night when, entertaining boarders taken in to compensate for the lack of Gregor’s income, Gregor’s sister is playing her violin. The music touches Gregor’s remaining humanity, and he reveals himself to his family at an inopportune time. It’s the last straw.
The Metamorphosis is such a strange absurd piece of work that it’s difficult to know how to react to it. Parts of certainly comical enough, especially in the early going, but Kafka’s descriptions of Gregor’s bug-life are quease-inducing, and ultimately, Gregor’s story is desperately sad. Take this passage, where, in a moment of clarity, Gregor reflects on his wasted life:
In his imagination appeared again, after a long time, his boss and the manager, the chief clerk and the apprentices, the excessively spineless custodian, two or three friends from other businesses, a chambermaid from a hotel in the provinces, a loving, fleeting memory, a female cashier from a hat shop, whom he had seriously but too slowly courted—they all appeared mixed in with strangers or people he had already forgotten, but instead of helping him and his family, they were all unapproachable, and he was happy to see them disappear.
Gregor’s transformation has been interpreted as everything from a mental condition to a metaphor for transubstantiation, but upon this initial reading, what I took away was a sense of alienation. Gregor, in spite of spending his life toiling for his family, never knows them, never spends time with them, pushes everything important to some hazily-defined future, and, with his separation taken to illogical extremes, is now as irrelevant as any other bug.
I mentioned earlier that Gregor’s story is sad, and it is, but the novel itself ends on a bittersweet note: the family realizes that they now have more money than before, since they are all working. They move to a more convenient place, and they are all happy. Gregor and his horrible experience seem to fade into the background by the end of the last page. In a way, I guess, that’s the saddest part of all.