The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis Study Guide

Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis in 1912, the year he felt his creativity finally taking a definite form. It was one of fairly few works Kafka was to publish in his lifetime. In 1913 he turned down an offer to publish the story, possibly because he was saving it for a book he was planning called Sons. A year later he sent the book to a friend who was prevented from publishing it by his conservative editors. Finally, The Metamorphosis appeared in print in 1915, after Kafka asked a publisher to put it out in a very unusual display of concern for publication.

The writing process on this novel was laborious, taking three weeks in November and December, and the final product turned out to be the longest work Kafka ever completed in his life. The novel is clearly highly autobiographical in its content. To shed some light on the driving themes, we should make a brief examination of Kafka's life, his beliefs, and his ideas on writing. The actual conditions of his life, especially his family life, are certainly a model for the family interactions of the novel, and the form of the story comes from Kafka's watching of a play.

Kafka's views of humanity found their origins in his idiosyncratic religious views, lying somewhere outside the mainstream of Judaism. Speaking with his friend Max Brod, Kafka once explained that he thought human beings were God's nihilistic thoughts. Brod asked whether there was hope elsewhere in the universe. To this, Kafka replied, "plenty of hope, for God? only not for us." This vision of human beings trapped in a hopeless world never leaves Kafka's writing, and it is present in The Metamorphosis, where Gregor's only option, in the end, is to die. Ironically, the story ends on an optimistic note, as the family puts itself back together. Yet after having written the story, Kafka criticized its imperfections, reserving his harshest remarks for the ending and insisting that it was "unreadable."

The style of the book epitomizes Kafka's writing. It was common for Kafka to present an impossible situation, such as a man's transformation into an insect, and develop the story from there with perfect realism and intense attention to detail. The style seems to ground the story in reality, cutting off any possibility of its having been a dream, and yet the story itself is of an impossible occurrence. As a result, the reader is forced to look for deeper meanings within the story.

The idea of writing about an insect appears in Kafka's writing as early as 1907, while he held on to his idealism with regard to the writing process. He imagined his body moving around in the world while his true writing self remained behind in the form of a beautiful beetle. This image changed drastically in 1912. In September Kafka wrote "The Judgment," possibly his most autobiographical story ever, in a single sitting. He wrote in his diary that the writing flowed smoothly and that this is the only true way to write, with "a complete opening out of the body and soul." Reading the proofs for the story a little later, Kafka found himself disappointed by the imperfections in the story. It was as if he had let out the story in a perfect form, but now realized that it was covered with "filth and slime." Writing, when it springs from within, is like giving birth, and the child is covered in mucus. The insect, Kafka's metaphor for his writing self removed from the everyday world, was no longer a beautiful thing, but a repulsive and filthy one. This is exactly the image he gave us in The Metamorphosis.

This idea had to take some form, and found it in a Yiddish play, Gordin's The Savage One. Kafka wrote about the play extensively in his diaries, and it is clear that he used the play as a model for his story. Close parallels between the two abound. All the characters of Kafka's story find their origins in the Savage One; Gregor's counterpart in the play is the idiot son who is unable to communicate with his family and stays locked in his room for fear of his father. The dominant symbols of the story also reflect those of Gordin's play. Like a play, The Metamorphosis takes place entirely in small rooms like stage sets, and the action builds through discrete episodes buildings toward a climax. Even the theme is similar. In The Savage One, a character explains that when one pursues material means, a savage awakens within us and forces us to oppose the laws of humanity, an idea Kafka takes quite literally in his own work.

Finally, The Metamorphosis is an autobiographical piece of writing, and we find that parts of the story reflect Kafka's own life. It is well known that Kafka felt like an insect in his father's authoritative presence and even developed a stammer while speaking to him. Gregor, likewise, cowers in fear of his father, who finds him repulsive and attacks him at every turn. Kafka even wrote that he was pleased with the similarity of Samsa's name to his own. Kafka's mother, like her alter-ego of the story, hid silently behind her husband's presence. Out of a sense of duty to his parents, and because he needed money for his planned marriage, Kafka was forced to take an office job he did not enjoy. Furthermore, his family insisted that he needs to spend his afternoons in the office. Kafka himself felt that his presence at the office was pointless, but it took up enough time that he would not be able to write, alienating him from his creative needs. Kafka had been very close to his sister, Ottla, and she usually understood him. In this dispute, however, even she turned against him in insisting he stay at the office in the afternoons. Kafka felt that she had betrayed him, and that night he actually contemplated suicide. This happened in November. Less than two months later, in Kafka's writing, Gregor's sister betrays him by insisting that the family must get rid of him.

None of these sources for the novel, however, can provide us with a complete understanding of The Metamorphosis. It is not a straight autobiography, nor is it a rewrite of a play or a story aimed only at showing Kafka's disillusionment with writing. These elements are simply the raw materials that Kafka skillfully puts together in his own style, creating a meaning that is far too mysterious to be accounted for simply.