Book Review: Metamorphosis

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.”

Franz Kafka is an incredible writer and one of my favourite novellas, Metamorphosis, stands out as a masterpiece in twentieth century literature. The emotional response that I felt when I completed it was similar to the anime film Grave of the Fireflies where for several days I felt a heavy melancholy, a deep ache within me at the highly imaginative manner in which Kafka was able to portray his existential pain, his isolation and the longing that he felt to connect with his loved ones. The bug both conveys the grotesque image of the impotence he felt together with how his family came to see him as vermin for failing to live up to their expectations.

“Father, Mother”, said his sister, hitting the table with her hand as introduction, “we can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We’ve done all that’s humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don’t think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong.”

Born in 1883 in Austria-Hungary, Kafka was of a delicate and modest disposition. His father was a domineering businessman and his demanding manner prevented Kafka from ever being able to let go of his connection with his the family to become his own man. He no longer had a will of his own, the very individuality that defines a person, because his will remained controlled in perpetual fear of disappointing his father.

His mother did what she was told and became an object and source of financial profit as demanded by his father, leaving her identification with the world emotionless and so could not understand why her son would seek a profitless career in literature. He lost his manhood and never emotionally connected to his family because he knew that as a writer, he would be a failure to them. He would be grotesque.

It was this emotional distance that inspired the novella Metamorphosis, a ‘kafkaesque’ or absurd and deeply disturbing tale about Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who is loved by his mother and sister, but at a price.

He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.

The story illustrates how, when Gregor Samsa turns into a large bug, he is no longer able to follow the business and career objectives as his family desired and therefore the financial security that they sought from him was no longer available. The love that his parents and sister conveyed seemed only because he was of value to them, rather than valuable as a person, as a brother or son. Without bringing money into the home, he was worthless and became a burden and unwanted.

What the book attempts to convey is an example of the authenticity behind love and our affection for others, that the relationships that people have with one another are often built on what that person can offer you, whether it is economically or whether it is socially. People often lie and develop these games to remain connected to others, but these lack emotion or authenticity.

Without any profitability, he was cordoned and locked into a room where he finally died. Gregor turned into an insect and his death was marred in both desperation and guilt, when he was not supposed to feel that way. He was made to feel that way, the psychological abuse that made him believe he is only valuable if he does what his family wanted.

According to Simone De Beauvoir, only when two people who are on a quest for authenticity and who are removed from any emotional programming envisioned by society and family, only then will they be able to encourage tenderness and meaning where genuine feelings will emerge and this love will become authentic. The individual who seeks an authentic life, who is ready to define themselves through themselves, will remove themselves from conformity.

A state of perpetual conformity is itself grotesque; it involves compulsive lying and emotional impotence. It is all about how one is portrayed rather than how one feels.

Kafka, who could not strictly become the man that his father wanted neither could he spend the time to become the writer he wanted, and this all showed in his portrayal of desperation, lifelong unhappiness and a double-life where his literary style is reminiscent of a nightmare. Great little book, highly recommend.

“What a fate: to be condemned to work for a firm where the slightest negligence at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion! Were all the employees nothing but a bunch of scoundrels, was there not among them one single loyal devoted man who, had he wasted only an hour or so of the firm’s time in the morning, was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed?”