The problem of interpreting Kafka’s Metamorphosis is two-fold: one, it lends itself to a variety of interpretations; two, it’s been interpreted and discussed so many times that even those who haven’t read it have thoughts on its meaning. To be quite literal, the story is about Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning late to work and as he attempts to get ready for the day realizes he has transformed into a bug. The rest of the story covers how Gregor and his family deal with his metamorphosis.
Writing in the early 1900s during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, Franz Kafka uses The Metamorphosis to explore the effects of the dehumanizing process of these societal institutions on the lower- and middle-class worker. At the time Kafka is writing this text, the Czech Republic, like much of the world, is at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, and Kafka used his text to explore social issues related to the economic and ideological shift.
Gregor’s transformation functions metaphorically as a physical manifestation of Gregor’s psychological reaction to his unwanted job and as a visual representation of how society views Gregor (i.e. as less than human). While the cause of the transformation is never directly stated, a reader can infer a causal relationship between Gregor’s job and his metamorphosis due to the continued negative references Gregor makes regarding his work. Gregor cannot help but mention his job from the very beginning of the story when he oversleeps and misses his train to work. By the fourth paragraph, Gregor is complaining about his job as “an exhausting profession” (Kafka 211). He is expected to work long hours, even traveling away from home for “the best part of the year” (Kafka 218). And despite his loyalty to the company and his tremendous effort, he is treated as subhuman.
Still, what I’ve always found striking about the book is the transformation of the family after Gregor’s metamorphosis into a bug. Prior to the metamorphosis, and hence prior to the opening of the book, Gregor’s father, mother, and sister were rather useless. All three relied on Gregor to support them, and while readers are given the impression that this is due to some rational explanation such as physical problems, age consideration, etc., the conclusion of the book clearly indicates that all three are capable of work.
The father failed in a previous business adventure, leaving the family in debt and Gregor responsible for paying it off. Gregor worked hard to do so and eventually Gregor “earned enough to meet the expenses of the entire family and did so” but the family “had simply grown used to it.” They expected it and seemed perfectly comfortable to let Gregor continue in a job he disliked, which forced him from his home for long periods of time, with no feelings of guilt. This easy allowance of one person to take on the burdens of an entire family is so antithetical to my philosophy that I am absolutely disgusted by the family almost immediately when reading the book.
When Gregor is turned into a bug and no longer capable of working, each member of the family gets a job which is “entirely satisfactory and seem[s] to be particularly promising.” Despite the many, many interpretations possible, I often read the book as a reminder that if everyone pulls his own weight and takes control of his own life, the world will be a happier place. It’s also, in my opinion, a slight admonishment of those who allow themselves to take on responsibility for others. After all, Gregor had to be forcibly removed from the family in order for his father, sister, and mother to become independent entities – and he dies, in part, because when they are finally able to take care of themselves, there is no longer a reason for him to exist.
I perfectly realize and can even appreciate the other interpretations: the Freudian look at Kafka’s relationship with his own father, the social criticism of the way those who are different are treated, a look at the effects of isolation and loneliness, a metaphorical look at the writing process, a criticism of the bourgeois life, etc. and perhaps tomorrow I will have a different outlook on the book. And that, when it comes down to it, is the insight of literary interpretation: How a book is interpreted reveals more about the reader than the author.
I have read this story at least four times now, and to be honest, it is one I will probably pick up again sometime. I’m actually thinking of including it in Intro to Lit next fall.