Imagine waking up one day to discover that you’ve been transformed into a human-sized beetle-like creature. Not only that, but you’ve slept in, and you’re hours late for work. That’s what happens to Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, in Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis”.
We are just to accept that this transformation happened. Was it mutation? Was it magic? Was it a curse? Was it catastrophic karmic punishment? We never know why, nor does Kafka expend any effort in offering even a hint of a reason.
The very first line dives straight in and delivers the shock factor of the novella, “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous vermin.”
Gregor shares an apartment with his parents, who we only know as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, and his sister Grete. The first part of the novella focuses on his panicked discovery of and hurried attempt to adjust to his new form while trying to prevent his family from discovering him this way. Much of the mobility that Gregor took for granted in his human form has to be relearned in this new insectoid body. Gregor also cannot communicate verbally, as anything he tries to say comes out as unintelligible noise.
His employer, concerned about his unexplained absence, sends the office manager over to check on him. Everyone’s curiosity and concern are piqued at Gregor’s refusal to open his bedroom door. The family’s discovery of Gregor’s new form can no longer be avoided, and after fumbling at the door handle with his weak new appendages, he manages to open the door with his mouth. The family reacts as you might expect a family to react when they discover their son is a human-sized beetle-thing. The office manager runs for his life, and Gregor tries to pursue him, but his father beats him back to retreat into his bedroom. Exhausted from the morning’s events, from learning to operate this new body and badly injured from his father’s physical response, Gregor falls asleep and awakens later that evening to begin the second part of the novella.
In part two, Gregor discovers that his former diet doesn’t work well for his new form. His sister Grete brings him some milk and bread, a favourite of his, for which he immediately discovers he no longer has an appetite. He discovers that his bedroom makes him inexplicably uncomfortable, and he feels much more at home hiding by squeezing his bulky body under the couch in his room as best he could. His night was a fitful one, asleep and then not, troubled by his new reality and coming to grips with rearranging his life and wondering how the family will do without his income. I mean, who would buy anything from a travelling salesman who is a giant beetle?
In the morning Grete removes the virtually untouched milk and brings him some scraps of food that, if they didn’t come from the garbage pail, they were certainly destined for it. Here he discovers another new thing about himself. The fresher the food is, the less he prefers it. The more rotten the food is, the better.
For several days this continued. Gregor doing little more than existing and eavesdropping on conversations (usually about him), confined to his room as his sister brought him rotten food and cleaned his room a little. The family was also going over their options, exploring the different scenarios of what would happen with Gregor this way. Gregor found himself longing to be a travelling salesman again. He could support the whole family, and he felt useful. Now, he was a prisoner in his own room and could not bear his family’s expenses.
The family was not in immediate need. Some of Gregor’s earnings had been salted away for a rainy day, and his father had a small amount of investment from a failed business, but all of that would be exhausted in short order.
Days turned to weeks, then months. Bored, Gregor’s next discovery was that he could climb walls and his new favourite thing to do was to hang from the ceiling. After a while, when Mr. Samsa is out, Mrs. Samsa works up the courage to enter the room and help Grete remove a few furnishings from it to accommodate Gregor’s wall-climbing and make the room more habitable for a beetle-creature. The realization dawns on everyone – Gregor included – that this move was a divestment, if even a small one, of Gregor’s human past.
Gregor’s father returns home during this, wearing what looks to be a bank teller’s uniform. Gregor deduces he must have taken a job. Mrs. Samsa is distressed from the experience of moving the furniture and Mr. Samsa decides to go after Gregor, first trying to stomp his foot down on him as if he were a regular cockroach, then pelting him with apples from a fruit basket. One of the apples did serious damage, and Gregor retreated to end the second section.
The third and concluding section of the novella continues over a month later. The damage suffered from the apple severely slows Gregor, the wound will not heal and his condition is worsening. Gregor rarely sleeps or eats now, and Grete’s cleaning can no longer keep up with him and the room begins slowly looking disheveled. Mrs. Samsa again works up the courage to enter Gregor’s room and do some cleaning but this does not go well.
The family decides to clean out one room in their apartment and take in lodgers. Almost inevitably, the lodgers discover Gregor’s existence and this forces the novella’s conclusion, which I will leave for you to discover for yourself.
The Metamorphosis was originally written in German and published in 1912. , The work I listened to was translated by Ian Johnston and read by David Barnes. There are two other versions available from LibriVox, all listed below.
This novella has inspired many other creations. Seven movie versions of the story were created, and even the Simpsons tipped their hat to Kafka in the Treehouse of Horror story “Metamorphosimpsons”. Other authors have retold the story from the perspective of different characters in the story and others not included. For example, Jacob Appel’s novel “Scouting for the Reaper” tells the story of a rabbi challenged with providing a proper Jewish burial for Gregor. (oops, “Spoiler Alert!”). An illustrated version of Metamorphosis was created by famous cartoonist Robert Crumb.
As a foreword for Susan Berenofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis, filmmaker David Cronenberg recently compared The Metamorphosis and his 1986 treatment of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum.
The 1995 Oscar-winning short film “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” features the latest “Doctor Who” Doctor, Peter Capaldi, as the author Kafka struggling desperately to work through a rather extreme case of writer’s block to complete the famous opening line of The Metamorphosis. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning he found himself transformed into a gigantic… banana?”
The Metamorphosis is about 50 pages long and you’ll want to set aside about three hours for the audio version.
- download The Metamorphosis from Feedbooks
- download The Metamorphosis from Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive
- listen to The Metamorphosis read by David Barnes at LibriVox
- listen to The Metamorphosis read by David Richardson at LibriVox
- listen to The Metamorphosis read by Bob Neufeld at LibriVox