BOOK (1915)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


The Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka
Kurt Wolff

Gregor Samsa's life is not his own. Events that shape his existence happen despite him and even his plans to take control of his destiny are plagued by doubts about how this might affect others.

Little of this seems apparent to Gregor until, by some inexplicable turn, he wakes up one morning reborn as a cockroach.

This absurd event is one of literature's greatest moments; an unbelievable transformation, casually thrown at the reader in a single simple sentence at the start of a novella that challenges our own perceptions of our existence.

Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is drenched in symbolism and giant life-questioning themes, principally: how much control do we have over our fate, and what unintended consequences arise when we try to exert a greater influence over it?

Gregor's unlikely rebirth sets in train his examination of his place in the world. It also realigns the lives of his family. A young man defined by a dreary job and sexual frustration, his dreams consist of hopes to make his father financially secure after the collapse of his business, and to send his sister to music school. As a result, his family mock him for his inability to act.

Once transformed, his peripatetic life as a travelling salesman ends and his movements become limited to scurrying around the walls and ceiling of his bedroom. His family, now lacking the income Gregor had provided them, are forced to break from their torpor and find jobs. His mother takes in laundry and repairs, and his father finds a job as a bank concierge.

Kafka's theme of unforeseen change is extended in the mutation of his sister Grete from a quiet, shy girl eagerly attending her ill-fated brother to an assertive young woman. She is a foil to her brother. While Grete takes the reins of her life, Gregor initially allows himself to be enslaved by his predicament.

As Gregor gradually comes to terms with his new existence, his family become increasingly less compassionate towards him, regarding him as vermin and neglecting to tend to his needs. He dies a lonely, miserable death.

Believe it or not, there is an upside. Gregor's last dying exertions are to return to the parlour that he used to happily share with his family. There he expresses a warmth and love for them that is absent from his thoughts earlier in the story.

Much has been made of The Metamorphosis' fatalism, especially in theatrical adaptations, but Kafka's classic takes a neutral view. Change happens for good and bad, and while there are rewards and consequences for trying to guide the transformation, we are largely unable to do much about it.