The Metamorphosis Summary and Analysis
by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. After examining his new physiology, complete with numerous thin legs, a hard back, and a segmented belly, he wonders only momentarily what has happened to him. His attention is quickly distracted as he observes his room, noting its small size and seeing on the wall a picture of a woman he had clipped out of a magazine and framed. Wanting to go back to sleep, Gregor realizes that he cannot turn over on his side, which is the only position he can sleep in.
Gregor then begins thinking about his job as a traveling salesman. He hates the traveling, the worrying, and the fact that none of the acquaintances he makes are ever anything more than that. Then, finding an itch on his stomach, Gregor attempts to scratch it but dislikes the sensation. He goes back to thinking about his job and how much he hates getting up early. His chief is overly tyrannical and Gregor would gladly have quit the job a long time ago if he didn't have to support his parents, who owe his chief a substantial debt.
Wanting to get up and catch the 5 a.m. train, Gregor realizes that it is past 6:30 and he must have missed the alarm. He would certainly be late for work, which would create a scandal, but it would seem suspicious if he called in sick since he had never been sick in the five years he'd worked there. In any case, Gregor feels well, if a little drowsy, and saw no reason why he couldn't go to work. At this point Gregor's mother begins to call to him, and as he answers her he senses that his voice is changing. Realizing that he is still home, his father and sister also begin calling him through the doors, so Gregor tells them that he is getting up, trying to control the change in his voice, which he believes to indicate the start of a cold. As Gregor's sister attempts to come into his room, he is glad for his habit of locking all his doors.
Unable to control his numerous legs, Gregor instead attempts to move the bottom part of his body out of bed, but this part of his body turns out to be the most difficult to move and is also the most sensitive to pain. He then attempts to move the upper part of his body, which turns out to be easier, but then realizes that falling out of bed like that would injure his head. It is already past 7 a.m., and Gregor attempts to lie back and calm down, hoping this will resolve the situation. Gregor then attempts to rock himself out of bed, hoping to land on his hard back. He thinks that the help of two strong people would make this much easier, but ridicules the idea of calling for help to get him out of bed. At this moment the doorbell rings, and the chief clerk comes into the apartment. Gregor is angered by the fact that, though he is only a little late, already the chief clerk has come to cast suspicion on him in front of the entire family. In anger, Gregor swings himself out of bed, landing on the floor.
Gregor's father asks Gregor to open the door, while his mother is explaining to the chief clerk that Gregor must certainly be ill or he would never be late since he only thinks of his work and never goes out. Gregor refuses the latest request to open the door, and his sister begins to sob in the next room. Gregor cannot understand why his sister is already crying, since he is not yet in serious danger of losing his job and only wants to be left alone. The chief clerk suddenly loses his temper and tells Gregor that he is shocked by his behavior. There has been some suspicion that Gregor was absent from work because he was recently entrusted with some cash payments, and the clerk is now uncertain as to whether this really is the reason for Gregor's behavior. He also tells Gregor that he is acting disgracefully and that his position in the company is in jeopardy because his work lately had been unsatisfactory.
The clerk's speech hits a sore spot, and Gregor begins to defend himself, telling the chief clerk that he is simply suffering from a slight indisposition but that he will soon be at work and that his business has, in fact, not been so bad lately. No one outside understands a word of what Gregor has said due to the change in his voice. His mother, believing him ill, sends Grete, Gregor's sister, for the doctor and Anna, the servant girl, for the locksmith. Gregor is glad that finally, believing that something is wrong, the others are willing to help him. Placing his faith in the doctor and the locksmith, Gregor nevertheless manages to get to the door and turn the key with his mouth.
At the sight of the large insect, the chief clerk backs away. Gregor's mother faints, while his father clenches his fists and then begins to weep. Gregor begs the chief to give an accurate account of these events at work and to stand up for him. He says that he must provide for his family and that he will gladly go back to work, despite his present difficulty. People in the company often dislike him because he is a traveler and others think he has an easy job, but he insists to the chief clerk that this isn't true and that as a traveler he often finds that others have been gossiping and complaining about him with no foundation in his absence. He begs the chief clerk not to leave without agreeing with him.
The chief clerk continues backing away as Gregor is still speaking. Gregor realizes that if the chief clerk leaves in the state of mind, his job would be in serious danger. He attempts to catch up with the clerk, finally landing on his feet, but then notices that his mother had gotten up. She backs up against the table in fear and tips over the coffee pot. Gregor involuntarily snaps his jaws, frightening her, and she attempts to run away. The commotion gives the chief clerk time to escape down the stairs. Gregor's father picks up a walking stick and waves it while hissing and stamping his feet in order to drive Gregor into his room. Gregor tries to back up but can't, finally attempting to turn around slowly. When he cannot fit through the door and gets stuck, his father pushes him from behind and slams the door behind him.
Chapter 1: Analysis
Very little can be said about the meanings Kafka actually intended. On the one hand, almost everything he writes can be taken at face value. On the other hand, myriad meanings can be read into his words. The story is written in a strict realist style, with excessive attention to detail and verisimilitude. With one obvious exception-the protagonist's metamorphosis into a giant insect and his strangely calm reaction to this change-the story is so intricately described that we can almost imagine it happening in real life. Thus, almost nothing takes on any symbolic or metaphorical quality, since every object, action, and word can be seen as contributing to the realistic quality of the style. This attention to detail serves to focus the reader's attention on the one abnormal character-Gregor Samsa-for an understanding of the story's meaning.
The first sentence is intended to shock. In Kafka's view, we are all frozen inside and literature should be the axe that smashes the ice. This first sentence-one of the most famous first sentences in modern literature-certainly breaks the ice. Reading it, we know from the start that we cannot anticipate the events of this story; all our normal expectations of literature are instantly stripped away. The most natural response is to try to understand how Gregor Samsa could have been transformed into an insect overnight, but neither an answer nor any hint at one is offered. Again, our attention is focused on Gregor's response to something that has already happened and that we cannot unravel.
This first sentence of the story achieves something else as well. Kafka's goal is not to suspend the laws of nature. He is, of course, not saying that it is possible for a man to be transformed into an insect. The point, rather, is that literature does not need to honor the laws of nature. The story takes this one completely impossible event and develops logically out of it.
Kafka wrote many stories about animals, but this is the only one where the animal is an insect. It is also the only one where, instead of the animal acting like a human being, it is the human being who is physically transformed into an animal. We are told very little about this insect, except that it has a segmented body, numerous legs, a sensitive bottom, and a few other random and uninformative details. Many commentators and translators have tried to make the insect into a beetle, a cockroach, or a centipede, but such efforts are fruitless and unimportant. The exact identity of the insect does not matter, and Kafka in fact refused to have an illustration of the actual insect on the cover of the publication.
The traits common to all insects are far more important than the insect's exact identity. Insects are, first of all, viewed as insignificant. To call someone a fly, an ant, or simply an insect is equivalent to saying that they don't matter. Gregor's transformation into an insect, then, can be seen as an attempt on his part to make himself insignificant, or as a reflection of his own pre-existing feeling of insignificance. Insects are also repellant and filthy, something for the exterminator to take care of. Gregor's transformation causes repulsion all around; he is not simply feared and loathed, but actually evokes disgust in others.
Looking around his room as he awakens, long before coming to any real understanding or acceptance of his condition, Gregor notes that it is "a regular human bedroom," though a bit small. In his normal accepting tone, Gregor seems to be expressing dissatisfaction with the size of his room and the conditions in which he lives. The use of the term "regular human" serves already to distance Gregor from everything human. Though he has not yet caught on to his transformation, he already feels removed from humanity. This raises the question of whether this distance is a result of his transformation or indicates his pre-existing distance from other people. No answer, of course, is given, and both are possible. There is a hint here that Gregor's entire metamorphosis may be the result, or the metaphorical equivalent, of his alienation.
On the first page we are informed, in between dashes, that "-Samsa was a commercial traveler-." This fact is introduced in an offhand manner, as something completely unimportant, thus bringing out its importance; understatement is a common literary technique for depicting emphasis. We might note that the narrative sequence in the course of which this fact is introduced is mostly from Gregor's point of view. The fact of his profession is something that he does not consider particularly important. The reduced emphasis on this important information concerning Gregor's profession shows that, for Gregor, his job is not something he is proud of; it is also something so natural to him that it is hardly worth mentioning.
As a "commercial traveler," or traveling salesman, Gregor belongs to the commercial business world. He is firmly rooted in the new economy that so many modern thinkers have railed against. This economy, where the emphasis is always on money rather than on craftsmanship or on one's humanity, is the world that surrounds Gregor.
Almost at the very beginning we are told of a picture of a lady in fur, hanging up on Gregor's wall. He has cut this picture out of a magazine, framed it, and put it up. It is the only picture in his room that we are told of, and it is mentioned again in Chapter 2 and, also, later on in this chapter when Gregor's mother tells the chief clerk about her son's occupations at home. The emphasis on the picture seems to indicate that it is, somehow, important. As a framed cut-out from a magazine, it also seems as something a little odd to put on one's wall. The picture itself, representing a woman, seems to be a metaphor for an actual love interest for Gregor. He seems to find this picture important (he spent several nights making the frame) because for him it symbolizes women apart from his mother and sister. Gregor is single, and he seems lonely; he remarks that the people he meets while traveling are never more than temporary acquaintances. This picture is his escape from his solitude.
Gregor's consciousness, for the most part, remains very human. His attention is directed mainly towards his surroundings, his job, and his family, not at all towards the fact that he is no longer a human being. He completely fails to realize the importance of his transformation. He is annoyed, for example, that he cannot get back to sleep because he cannot turn over on his side. Gregor, in fact, is the only character who seems, emotionally, fairly unaffected by his metamorphosis. The fourth paragraph of the book reinforces this attitude as, within this single paragraph, Gregor goes from worrying about his job to attempting to scratch an unfamiliar new itch on his unfamiliar new belly. His recognition of his new body does not sink in as he goes on rationally thinking about his work.
Gregor has great difficulty in getting out of bed and opening the door, but constantly excuses this, saying that he is drowsy, that sometimes one wakes up with aches and pains that turn out to be nothing upon getting up, and that he feels a slight indisposition. Once Gregor notes the change in his voice, he attributes this change to the coming on of a cold, still seemingly unaware of his new physical state. In this chapter, Gregor seems to view his metamorphosis as little more than a slight annoyance, something he simply needs to get over before he can get back to work. This gives the impression that Gregor's focus is entirely on his work and his family, to the extent of ignoring his own self.
We get also the impression that Gregor is already alienated from his own body, since the sudden change does not inspire any strong feeling in him. It is as if he has switched from one foreign body to another, less convenient, one. Thus Gregor's strange alienation from his body is given concrete form in his metamorphosis, as he calmly explores his new form. He coolly observes that he cannot control his legs, that he lacks a clear image of the lower part of his body, that he does not know why places on his body itch or what those places are, and he observes, with almost clinical detachment, that he must be damaging his jaw in turning the key since a brown fluid is pouring out. He overestimates the hardness of his back and he experiences aches in unusual places, but none of this really surprises him. Gregor examines his new body as another vessel, just a new shell he has been placed in. It seems almost as if he had never established any identification between his self and his human body, so that a change of form is no big surprise.
Gregor makes it clear that he hates his job. He hates having to worry about traveling plans, he hates that the casual acquaintances he makes never become friends, and most of all he hates the treatment he gets from his boss. The chief is always ready to put him down, forces his workers to speak up to him while he sits behind his desk, and punishes even the smallest indiscretions that other traveling salesmen are allowed to make all the time. Gregor is extremely annoyed by this, and again the theme of alienation is evident, this time of alienation from his job. Gregor wants to leave it and to tell his chief exactly what he thinks of him, but he realizes that he cannot do so while his family depends on him.
This chapter places a great emphasis on time. Gregor first wants to catch the 5 a.m. train as usual, but then realizes that he has slept until 6:30. He thinks about catching the 7 a.m. train, but isn't sure he can get up in time. When the chief clerk arrives only a short time after the company has opened, Gregor is angered that suspicion is cast on him for wasting only an hour of the firm's time. The passage of time on the clock face is echoed also by the changes taking place outside, as morning fog gives way to clear light, something Gregor notes as the previously hidden hospital across the street comes into view. Time, of course, symbolizes the capitalist order in which time is money and is thus valuable. Oversleeping is a crime because by oversleeping one misses business and thus wastes money. Gregor's mother, speaking with the chief clerk, notes that Gregor thinks of nothing but work and never goes out in the evening. This shows the extent to which the rule of the modern economy weighs down on Gregor: time that is not spent working is useless time, and any activity that is not work is pointless.
The chief clerk tells Gregor's mother that "we men of business-fortunately or unfortunately-very often simply have to ignore any slight indisposition, since business must be attended to." This is the code by which the time-based economy operates. Personal illness is unimportant. What is important is that an ill employee is wasting company money. Business must be attended to at all costs. Gregor, while rebelling against this system, is still a slave to it. The importance of time and the need for work are so ingrained in him that they blind him entirely to his condition. Despite his change, his only driving thought is that he must make it to work. Gregor is thus alienated not only from his job, but also from the entire society, based on capital and running on time. Though he is part of this society, he hates it, resenting the transformation of human beings into automatons and wanting to escape.
We also notice that Gregor always locks his doors, a habit he picked up from traveling. Of course this detail makes sense, logically, in the context of the story. But it serves also to emphasize the distance between Gregor and other human beings. He notes that he has a habit of locking the doors at night, "even at home." Thus, even at home, Gregor sets up physical barriers between himself and his family, as if he cannot trust them not to come in and must guard himself and his privacy even against those he loves.
Kafka mentions that, hanging on a wall of the living room, is a photograph of Gregor in a military uniform. The mention of this small detail, seemingly unnecessary to the events of the story, serves to point out Gregor's position in the family and society as well as his distance from them. The military is a rite of passage, which makes one into a normal productive member of the social order. Gregor's former membership in the military symbolizes his later membership in the capital economy. But the photograph seems to say something also about Gregor's place in his family. Not only is Gregor a normal and productive member of society, but this is also the ideal image of him that his family keeps on the wall. They care about him and are proud of him so long as he supports and remains within the established order of labor and commerce. This picture of Gregor, "inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing," thus serves as a strong contrast to Gregor in his insect form, no longer useful to society, nor even a member of it.
Gregor's alienation from everything: his job, the society, his family, humanity, and even his body, is one of the driving themes of the book. Gregor's metamorphosis into an insect with a human consciousness thus serves to concretely illustrate these multiple alienations. He is no longer human, no longer aware of his own body, and no longer able to work. If we return to the angle previously taken, that of his alienation from capitalist economy, we can find another meaning to his transformation specifically into an insignificant and repulsive creature. When money is of primary importance, anyone who does not work becomes unimportant. Gregor, now incapable of making money, has become completely insignificant. He is, in fact, repulsive since he must now be cared for entirely by others and can no longer pay his way. The result of the metamorphosis-Gregor's status as an unproductive member of the capitalist system-is precisely what makes him insignificant and repulsive, i.e., an insect.
We are reminded that Gregor has to hold his job in order to support his family, of which he is the only employed member. Gregor's father, extremely concerned that Gregor continue making money, does not make any himself. This fact is emphasized by the mention that he spends several hours a day at breakfast reading newspapers. Moreover, Gregor's parents are in debt to his chief, and he is working primarily to repay that debt; he has already been working at the firm for five years, and must work another five or six before the debt is repaid. Not only does the rest of the family do no work, relying entirely on Gregor, but they even keep on a servant girl to clean for them.
Though Gregor hates his job, he has to keep it, and he must keep this specific job and cannot change because of the debts. Gregor's value to his family is thus primarily a financial one, so that family relations are here reduced to economic worth. While Gregor's parents and his sister are bound to each other by more traditional family ties, his relation to them is redefined in terms of the new economy in the way that Marx and Engels had described. Gregor is thus a virtual slave of his family, forced into hated labor for their welfare, and there seems to be little sign that the rest are trying to pitch in and help. He seems, however, to feel no bitterness. On the contrary, Gregor's primary feeling is one of guilt.
Though Gregor personally does not express any sentiment against his family, several clues in this chapter are dropped to tip us off as to the nature of his relation to them. When Gregor's voice through the door can no longer be understood, his mother becomes worried and instantly sends for the doctor. Gregor observes that "people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him." He does not seem to notice the opposite side of this, which was that before it was clear that anything was seriously wrong, his family seemed to be concerned only that he was late to work. When Gregor emerges from his room to show the others what has happened to him, his father at first clenches his fists and appears hostile, then breaks down and weeps. It is not at all clear that the father is actually concerned for his son. He seems, rather, to be concerned for their livelihood, and when Gregor emerges in a form clearly unfit for work, his father at first seems simply to be angry with him as if Gregor were playing hooky. The father's reaction, a transition from anger to grief, is the same he would likely have had if Gregor had simply announced that he had quit his job.
When Gregor refuses to leave his room, his sister begins sobbing in the next room. In response, Gregor thinks that there is no need for this weeping because he is not yet in serious danger of losing his job and has no intention of "deserting the family." That Gregor imagines his sisters concern is purely over financial matters says much about the relations between the members of the family. Gregor is perfectly aware that the others see him as an ox: a commodity that is valuable for the money it brings in.
Yet Gregor clearly feels guilt, completely failing to realize that the situation is out of his hands. His concern is to get to work and to make his excuses for being late, and his primary realization is that he must hold on to his job for the sake of his family. He fails to recognize that his difficulty in getting out of bed, opening the door, and heading to work is the result of a metamorphosis for which he is not responsible. Instead, he blames his drowsiness, attempts to excuse it by saying he feels somewhat indisposed, and continues thinking that he can still make it, if only a few hours late. The point is not that Gregor cannot recognize what happened to him because he is dull-witted, but rather that his guilt is externalized to such an extent that he feels anything that delays his arrival at work and prevents his ability to make money must be his own fault. The metamorphosis is something that he himself is not responsible for and so he cannot feel guilty for it; thus he ignores the real reason for his tardiness and invents other reasons for which he can blame himself.
But Gregor also wants to escape from his guilt, and he secretly hopes that he will be able to do so. Before opening his door, he is eager to see the others' reaction to his transformation. "If they were horrified," he thinks, "then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet." But, almost unwilling to believe that he could escape so easily, Gregor notes also that "if they took it calmly, then he had no reason either to be upset, and could really get to the station for the eight-o'clock train." Gregor's guilt-and his need to feel it-is so strong that he cannot simply accept even the most obvious way out of that guilt: his metamorphosis, a circumstance that clearly relieves him of all responsibility.
The notion of guilt that Gregor seems to experience is similar to the Biblical notion of original sin. Adam and Eve ate the apple, but it is the rest of humanity that carries the guilt. Just as in Biblical lore all human beings are guilty-at least before the coming of Christ-of a sin they have no control over, so Gregor is guilty due to a metamorphosis beyond his control.
Gregor's family in this chapter is introduced only very briefly, primarily through their voices outside his door. The family is based on the model established by Sigmund Freud and mirroring Kafka's own, with a clearly dominant father who subjugates the son to his will through authority and strength. When he seeks to drive the insect Gregor back into his room, he begins stamping and hissing. Gregor notes that "the noise in his rear sounded no longer like the voice of one single father." His father has become something greater than a human being, a force that drives him forward in sheer terror. Freud's identification of the father with God is symbolically repeated here as Gregor's father chases him back into his room with a walking stick. This gesture, driving Gregor out of the living room and the company of the family, "the human circle," resembles the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. This scene is repeated, in a slightly different form, in the second chapter.
Gregor is unable to comprehend his situation also because he is used to resolving problems rationally. Small problems that arise in life can usually be solved with fairly little difficulty, and the larger problems of life are ordinarily ignored. Thus Gregor, in the past, could always ignore the problem of his alienation and never do anything to fix it. Suddenly, however, he is faced with this problem in a concrete form and he "saw no way of bringing any order into this arbitrary confusion." This arbitrary confusion is a metaphor for Gregor's life, and life in general, where our ability to bring order into everyday situations only masks our inability to control the big picture. Unable to grasp this, Gregor attempts to lie back and relax, still believing in "cool reflection" as something that can restore things "to their real and normal condition." The metamorphosis, then, forces Gregor to face the insolvable problem of his life.
The climax of this chapter seems to be Gregor's speech to the chief clerk as the latter is attempting to leave the apartment. He begs the clerk to stand up for him, insisting that he is extremely dedicated and loyal and that he must provide for his family. He mentions also that travelers are disliked in the office and slandered behind their backs. He makes excuses, though at this point no excuses are necessary or helpful, and insists that he will get out of his difficulty and will work even harder when he returns. Gregor's plea is utterly sincere, expressing his guilt, his desire to rejoin the economic order, and tinged with his distaste for that order, touching at once on the main themes of the book. This speech is important, also, for its absolute futility, since Gregor knows perfectly well that the chief clerk can no longer understand what he is saying and, furthermore, since even were he understood, it would make no difference at all.
Gregor hates his job and wishes to escape it. His metamorphosis has given him the ability to do so. Finally, he can leave his job and the social order he dislikes, he can lie around in his room without concern for time and for debts. And yet he cannot accept his freedom because his guilt is stronger than the desire to escape. Gregor is torn, and his speech to the chief clerk shows him trying to plead his way out of his guilt and his freedom.
This is the fundamental crisis that Gregor, as so many human beings in the modern age, must face. This crisis is the conflict between freedom and one's responsibility to oneself on one side, and guilt and the demands posed by society and family on the other. Both sets of values are essential for human beings, but the clash between them is often obscured. Perhaps this conflict is obscured for the best, because there seems to be no way out of it. One cannot be free without guilt, yet one cannot fulfill one's obligation to others and remain true to oneself.
If escape from this predicament is impossible, then Kafka, with his metamorphosis, provides an impossible escape. By becoming an insect, Gregor gains both his freedom and the right to avoid guilt, since his freedom is forced on him. Maybe this transformation happened randomly on its own, or maybe Gregor willed it on himself; that isn't important. What matters is that this transformation is the only escape from the trap that Gregor is caught in. And, since the trap is primarily a psychological one, the escape is physical. Gregor is changed into an insect. This metamorphosis seems to end his conflict.
The Metamorphosis Essays and Related Content
- The Metamorphosis: Major Themes
- The Metamorphosis: Essays
- The Metamorphosis: Questions
- The Metamorphosis: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Franz Kafka: Biography