The Metamorphosis

Author: Franz Kafka

Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Published: 1913-1919 (original stories), 1996 (this edition)

I read it: June 2015


This is the story that begins: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”

I must have never read it before, though I thought I had. I guess I just had vague impressions of the general plot. It was surprising to me that the story of Gregor Samsa’s fateful change took place in his home, amongst his parents and sister, instead of alone in a hotel room (he is a traveling salesman after all). The story is not really about the metamorphosis (or “transformation” as it’s repeatedly referred to) itself, so we are spared the gruesome details that would make the tale similar to the movie The Fly. It’s more about the aftermath of the change.

Family and work are the key issues here. The first sad realization on the reader’s part is how Gregor’s main worry upon witnessing his changed form is that he is late for work. Obviously the guy is stressed to the max about his station in life, and reasonably so because one of his supervisors shows up in person to come see why Gregor didn’t report that morning. To think that this would be a primary concern makes me squirm more than the bug thing. Gregor also has bitterness about supporting his family (“If I didn’t hold myself back because of my parents, I would have quit long ago”) and places some blame on them for the big picture. When bug-Gregor finally emerges from his room for the first time, he is chased away in disgust by his father. It’s a sorry sight.

At least his sister is nice to him…at first. Gradually, the family must provide for themselves while figuring out how to house and feed the bug in the room, and the strain is palpable. The sister loses patience, the mother retains some hope but slips into dreamlike despair, and the father hardens his hatred more and more. This seems the true interpretation of the title: the metamorphosis of a family who cannot connect with one of their own. It’s made more painful because Gregor can hear their human words perfectly, though he can’t communicate back, and they don’t know that he can understand them. He retains some semblance of his old self; for example, he is moved by music, and “was he an animal if music stirred him that way?” In the end, he gracefully realizes that he is indeed a burden on his family and resigns himself to death. The family’s attitude and fortunes lift after his departure, which is both refreshing and sorrowful.

“The Metamorphosis” is a unique nightmare, and realistic in its exploration of an unrealistic premise. What about the other Kafka in this collection? The first, and weakest, is “The Judgment.” It’s about a young man (named Georg, hmm) with, you guessed it, family issues. Specifically, he has a strained relationship with his aging father, and is apparently keeping secrets from him. The father finds out, reveals his knowledge dramatically, then supposedly sentences his son to a watery death. The son is so distraught by this revelation that he hurls himself from a bridge. Either I wasn’t paying attention, or this story truly doesn’t make sense.

“In the Penal Colony” is the only other story of significant length besides “The Metamorphosis,” and it’s intriguing enough. It’s steeped in concepts of justice and cultural evolution, featuring a torturer-executioner whose motto is “Guilt is always beyond doubt.” A foreign explorer is exposed to the workings of the torture machine in an anthropological Raphael Nonsenso kind of way. He struggles to make up his mind about the scenario, musing that “It’s always a ticklish thing to interfere in someone else’s affairs in some decisive way.” This story actually has an ending less dark than I was expecting, which I applauded after my initial nervousness.

The final two entries are short and sweet. “A Country Doctor” is a single unbroken paragraph about the titular doctor who must constantly ask himself, “what do the people expect of me?” At its most basic, it’s a comment on man’s inability to control outside forces, and the despair found in that realization. It reminds me of that show A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which, come to think of it, is quite Kafkaesque. (Yes! I had a chance to use the phrase!)

The book wraps up with “A Report to an Academy,” which is kind of a reverse “Metamorphosis” with a similarly intriguing first line: “Gentlemen of the Academy: You have honored me with your invitation to submit a report to the Academy about my former life as an ape.” Yep, this beast was once a full-on ape, is captured by humans, and pragmatically starts acting more like them in order to eventually get free. His intellect improves though his body plan seemingly remains the same, and he acquires speech skills. It’s a pretty thinky piece that stays in speech format, and it’s another that’s not nearly as dark as the reader might expect.

So Kafka was good in these small doses. A friend mentioned that a lot of his intention might be lost in translation, which made me perk up at this note by Stanley Appelbaum in this particular version:

These new translations, in idiomatic modern American English, attempt to be more complete and correct than the old British versions, in which outright errors sometimes cloud the meaning to a serious degree, slight omissions occur, idioms are misunderstood, and Kafka’s humor is often negated by pallid paraphrases of wording that is very sprightly in the original German.

Ha. Translator battles.

3 thoughts on “The Metamorphosis

  1. You just made me realize that I haven’t actually read The Metamorphosis. It’s just sitting on my bookcase. I have to say that I loved your wrap up of The Judgement. I’ve felt that way after reading a book and when it still makes no sense after re-reading it, that’s not a good sign. Awesome review!

    • Hey thanks! Yeah it was such a weird thing when a coworker was talking about The Metamorphosis and I’m all “yeah I know that one” only to find out I really didn’t. Fixed that problem thanks to a copy I found in a book exchange bin on I-35. Serendipitous!

      I think that calling stories out for being confusing is necessary so that we can establish when it’s the fault of the author and not the reader. Being experimental is great if you can pull it off, but at no point should you have the reader scratching their head for the wrong reasons. With Kafka maybe there’s some cultural stuff that would help contextualize things, and I’m sure there’s a scholar who could explain it, but that story failed for me. We have to be honest when this is the case, otherwise we’re just stuck saying everything is great when it’s not.

      • Sometimes I wonder if some of the translated stories would make more sense if we read them in the original language. Since they say things are lost in translation all the time; it could explain a lot. Although learning that many languages just to read the originals would be slightly ridiculous, not to mention time consuming.

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