“The Metamorphosis”

Franz Kafka, The MetamorphosisPerhaps the oddest thing about Franz Kafka’s celebrated short story, “The Metamorphosis,” is how stubbornly it resists the notion that it is an allegory or extended metaphor. Though dreams are invoked in the very first line–“Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams” (28)–the notion that the protagonist’s transformation itself is anything other than real is soon roundly denied: “It was not a dream” (28). Of course, we might still want to read the tale allegorically, but not without pausing to consider the thoroughly matter-of-fact tone in which the whole affair is described. Nobody finds it particularly remarkable that Gregor has turned into a cockroach (or dung-beetle or whatever precisely it is). And, horrific though the change is, everyone is determined that life must go on regardless. At first, Gregor himself even holds out the hope that he might still take the train and continue work as before. The closest he comes to surprise at his fate is the observation that “It’s not yet going as well as I thought. But I’m fine now. Oh, the things that can come over a person!” (36). Which is putting it mildly indeed. In short, the only real surprise is the general lack of surprise that pervades proceedings.

There is little thought or investigation into how or why Gregor has suffered this fate. Nobody evinces either wonder or real curiosity. It’s not even an issue for Gregor himself, while his family shoo away any investigators (the doctor, say) whose role it might be to look into the causes of this strange phenomenon. Gregor’s sister instigates an experiment to see what kinds of food the bug might like–“to try out his taste she brought him a large selection” (46)–but the family never tries to find out, for instance, whether he can really hear or understand what they’re saying. They do end up leaving the door to his room open in the evening so that he can vicariously participate in their company. After all, “family duty towards him commanded that they should swallow their disgust, and put up with him in patience, just put up with him” (59). His changed circumstances ultimately constitute an irritation, an inconvenience. His parents and sister will have to adapt their lifestyle and routines, not least because Gregor had been their provider and breadwinner. But the problem itself is to be neither addressed nor eliminated. It is simply a matter of fact.

Gregor’s metamorphosis does induce a series of other changes: his father, for instance, who previously was somewhat bug-like himself (fat, idle, slovenly, parasitic), takes a job at a bank; his sister and mother likewise find ways to replace Gregor’s lost earnings; the family loses some of its servants and takes in lodgers, accelerating their slow decline and loss of status. But ultimately no one learns anything–and nor, I think, is the reader encouraged to believe that there is any kind of moral or lesson here. We are no longer to believe in any over-arching explanatory narratives. Indeed, we see that those who try to impose such lessons (the chief clerk, for example) are motivated by the most petty of self-regarding interests. It is better, Kafka suggests, to acknowledge simply that we are in a world governed by chance and statistical regularities, in which the odd exception or irregularity should not unduly disturb our everyday habits. We are in a world, in short, best described in terms of biopolitics: patterns, probability, general expectations governing generations and populations rather than exemplary individuals. Occasionally, shit happens. But the only thing we should understand is that there is nothing really to understand. Nothing to see, move along please.

2 thoughts on ““The Metamorphosis”

  1. Of course the main idea is that Kafka’s metamorphosis is about becoming and not about any metaphoric representation, and becoming can only happen between stratas. Gregor is constricted by the family and the bureaucratic stratifications, and this is his genetic-transformative double bind. I like a lot when you end saying that ‘occasionally, shit happens’: you reminded a passage of Terry Gilliam’s Brasil: a bureaucrat chasing a bug that falls into the typing machine, which mistypes the name of someone who will be unfortunately proceeded and persecuted: totally kafquesque!

  2. Pingback: Conversation in Posthegemony «

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