Alienation and middle class comfort form a staple of literature in the modern age. Examples include: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, etc. Kafka tackles the theme of alienation in his seminal work ‘The Metamorphosis’, a work with autobiographical elements. Kafka was a Jew in an anti-semitic Prague of the early twentieth century. His father was a dominating patriarch of the family, just like the protagonist of this fantastical tale. Kafka led a neurotic, lonely life and his neuroses find a surreal expression in the story in the form of Gregor Samsa. In simple, precise, restrained and truthful language, Kafka shows us the true meaninglessness of human condition.
The novel starts with the now classic lines ‘One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.’ Gregor Samsa, is a young, lonely, travelling salesman who finds himself transformed into a giant bug with diminutive legs. Before his transformation, he was leading a bored, unromantic life working for a firm that stifled and exhausted him. The Firm considered the employees as scoundrels, and had a distrust of them. The Samsas are a family of four that includes his parents and his sister Grete. Gregor was the one responsible for supporting his family, as his father had stopped working many years ago due to the failure of his business. In the patriarchal society of those days, the sister and the mother of Gregor Samsa had to conform to the gender stereotypes. Gregor at the beginning of this novella, becomes a monstrous insect. He has a dizzy spell and gains an unintelligible animal voice. His presence in the house disgusts everyone. His sister is the one who initially cares for Gregor, but at the end she cries, “We must try to get rid of it.”
The metamorphosis of a young man into an insect is full of pathos and tragedy. He wants to be included in the circle of humanity. He wants to be accepted by his family. But his father is always ready to give him a strong push from behind or to hit him. His mother collapses whenever she sees her son as an insect. The sister, who is considered as a useless piece of furniture by the father but loved by the human Gregor, continues to bring food for him in that dark room first shorn of furniture and later on made a store of useless things. Gregor loses his human body and human voice, but retains his human spirit and feelings. In the final chapter of the book, during a violin recital of his sister, Gregor marches on, an animal captivated by music. And he suffers another heart break when the sister too turns hostile.
There are two metamorphoses in the novella – Gregor’s from a human to a vermin and the Samsa family’s from a parasitic family sucking the life blood of their only son to a family free of its dehumanizing need of middle class comfort. The book concludes with the new dreams of the surviving family members. In the end, we find the parents on an outing with their daughter who is now a young woman with her own, useful presence in the family. The last sentence shows how “at the end of their journey their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.” Grete is now alive, on the threshold of a new journey.
The novel is perhaps an outcome of Kafka’s masochistic tendencies and his alienation from his own family, especially his brutal father. Kafka suffered from depression and social anxiety. He suffered disillusionment in his romantic relationships, just like the fictional Gregor Samsa who only had a few one-night stands bereft of love. The Metamorphosis is a surreal novella about the empty, meaningless nature of modern life where each man is an island. Loneliness gnaws at human heart, and work becomes a torment. Kafka was always dissatisfied with his writings and most of his work was published after his death. To understand the term Kafkaesque, one needs to read ‘The Metamorphosis’. The book is about a surreal, nightmarish situation which evokes feelings of futility, confusion, and helplessness. It is about the stifling nature of bureaucracies and the embedded loneliness of human condition.
The Metamorphosis is certainly not nihilistic as it ends with a glimmer of hope. The Samsas find a new, invigorating strength after an endless torment at home. They find tranquility. It is the end of March, and the spring is about to begin – a season of youth and hope, that brings alive the sleeping seeds, and dormant human emotions.