Within Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the reader is firstly conditioned only to see the metamorphosis that Gregor undergoes when he wakes up as a verminous bug. However, are there more metamorphoses within the story that need careful consideration and understanding of the way they change the meaning of the story once realized? Throughout this essay, the different metamorphoses present in The Metamorphosis will be discussed, taking into account what type of change is represented and their significance within the story.
Biologically speaking there are three types of physical metamorphoses found in insects: ametabolous, hemimetabolous, and holometabolous, which are subtle, incomplete, and complete metamorphoses respectively (Hadley, n.d.). However, there are also other types of metamorphoses, for example, psychological, societal, and economic metamorphoses among others. Within The Metamorphosis, all these changes are present in some shape or form, whether it's an obvious change like Gregor's physical metamorphosis or a subtle one like Grete's power gain within the family. Those subjected to metamorphosis are not only individual characters, but also the Samsa family as a whole.
However, these metamorphoses are brought about by Gregor's initial and complete physical metamorphosis where he woke up and 'found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.' (Kafka, 1915). The use of 'vermin' in this translation is interesting as one could look at this as a literal, or metaphorical description of Gregor as there are at least two definitions for 'vermin', the first being 'small common harmful or objectionable animals (such as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control' ('Vermin', n.d.). This definition seems apt when looking at Gregor's metamorphosis, he has been stripped of his human form, and he is at first easy to control, but as time goes on and his thoughts of his family deteriorate, he does become more difficult to control. An example of this is when Grete cries 'Gregor has broken out' (Kafka, 1915) to the father, noting the difficulty they are having trying to keep Gregor confined to his room, so as not to taint the family image.
The second definition of 'vermin' is 'people who are unpleasant and harmful to society' (Webster, n.d.), initially, when the Samsa family is goading Gregor to come out of his room, we can see that his father already thought of him in this way. Gregor's father states that the chief clerk 'will be kind enough to excuse the disorder in your room' (Kafka, 1915) giving us the understanding that Gregor's father thought his untidiness could be harmful to their role in society but would allow it to pass as Gregor may be unwell. According to Cantrell, Gregor's metamorphosis 'emerges as part of a coherent and destructive pattern of family life' (1978), meaning that Gregor has changed due to the way he was valued and perceived within his family. Despite being the breadwinner with the sole income keeping the family afloat and caring for them in the only way he could, one can still see how he was a disappointment to the family, a reminder of debts unpaid, the only one with enough power to dictate their role in society.
Despite Gregor's physical metamorphosis being the most significant and obvious metamorphosis within the story, Gregor is also subject to other metamorphoses. Due to his physical metamorphosis, Gregor also undergoes a psychological metamorphosis, changing his emotions and feelings towards his family, as well as the way in which he depicts himself. Initially, his human thoughts are all that remains of his humanity after being stripped of his human form, according to Mikkonen, 'when something turns 'metamorphically' into something else, some aspect or trace of the original always remains' (1996). This is true, as when Gregor first realizes his metamorphosis, his only thoughts are of his work, 'Day in, day out on the move. The stresses of making deals are far greater than they are in the actual business at home.' (Kafka, 1915). Over time, Gregor's thoughts, and feelings towards his family changes, 'He is distracted from human interests and intentions by sudden animal impulses' (Luke, 1951). The longer he remains an insect, the more he starts to react and think like an animal, and the less he thinks of his family in a loving way, he begins to resent them, understanding that 'he is outside what Gregor thinks of as 'the human circle'' (Cantrell, 1978). His thoughts stray, he realizes he thinks like a bug, and he experiences bliss in a way that he could never have as a human, when listening to Grete playing the violin, he becomes obsessive and compulsive, completely different from how he was as a human. Despite the untoward feelings he has about his family, he still thinks 'back on his family with affection and love' (Kafka, 1915) in his last moments before he dies alone. As Cantrell states, 'he died as he lived, trying to insulate his family from shame' (1978), he purposefully isolates himself from them, dying so that they could live freely, without his presence tainting the family image.
Finally, Gregor also undergoes an economic metamorphosis, notably an economic decline, where due to his lack of ability to work, he does not earn any money and is unable to support his family. This decline is in complete contrast to how the Samsa family as a whole also went through some sort of economic metamorphoses, from a family with economic dependency 'a dependency upon Gregor being the breadwinner, to a family with more prospects now that he has died compared to when he was with them in human form. This newfound economic independence has also brought with it a higher role in society, they are looking for a new place to live, and they are able to do things that they could not do before Gregor's transformation or during his phase as a bug. Despite losing their son, their sole income, and their sole prospect of survival, things seem to change overnight, they mourn for minutes after his passing but continue as if the event did not occur, as if Gregor never existed in the first place.
As Gregor's role within the family and within the human world in general deteriorates, Grete's newfound role raises her status within and without the family. Gregor is reduced to bug Gregor, then bug, then 'it', Grete transforms from a child enjoying her way of life: 'dressing nicely, sleeping late, helping about the house, taking part in a few modest entertainments' (Kafka, 1915) to a woman who had 'blossomed of late into a handsome, full-figured girl.' (Kafka, 1915). Her metamorphosis is an acceleration of familial, psychological, and physical human growth, she transforms from a child to a woman. These changes, particularly her economic and societal metamorphoses have been extremely positive, it seems Gregor's downfall paved the way to Grete's success and elevation in society, 'it is she who will ironically 'bloom' as her brother deteriorates' (Straus, 1989).
Gregor and Grete's metamorphoses can both be seen as so, but also as a role reversal wherein Grete takes over her brother's role of breadwinner and carer within the family and he becomes a burden, someone, or something, that lays about helplessly all day. Straus has seen this reversal in a feminist light, stating that 'Kafka's transformation of the male role into the female, of Gregor into Grete, mitigates the differences between them and the disrespect accorded to women in a culture concerned with men's upward mobility' (1989). By doing this, Kafka is breaking boundaries, not only by threading different forms of metamorphosis through his story but also by making slight changes to the social roles of the characters. Within the book, Grete is able to gain power, not only as a daughter, taking control of her brother, mother, and at times, her father, but also in society. She becomes a working woman, educating and bettering herself, 'learning shorthand and French in the evening so that she could perhaps get a better position later on.' (Kafka, 1915).
Grete's transformation from a girl to a woman finding independence from her family is clear to see within the language used to tell the story. Grete is noticeably referred to as Gregor's sister and seen as a confidante and a pet to her brother' (Cantrell, 1978), up until she concludes that the bug they have been looking after is not Gregor at all. After her cry 'It has to go,', denying Gregor as a person and instead referring to him as an 'it', she is solely referred to as Grete. This statement wins over her parents, showing her influence over them and she finally earns an identity in her own right, not being known in relation to Gregor anymore, but as an independent person.
Gregor's father also gains his independency during the story, namely economic independence. In the beginning, before Gregor's metamorphosis, Gregor's father was unemployed, with his son paying off his debts by working as a traveling salesman. However, over the course of the story and due to Gregor's inability to work, his father is forced to find a job, he gains responsibility other than being the head of the family and gains pride in his work and himself. According to Corngold and Gross, Gregor is 'the successor of his failed and seemingly near-senile father' (2011) this denotation of Gregor's father as near-senile may be slightly over-exaggerated, however, it does make his transformation into a successful bank-teller seem more of an achievement. Not only that, but it creates the illusion that Gregor's father has seemingly become younger and re-established himself as the head of the family, as Gregor himself has changed, aged, and eventually died.
Though seen as weak and fragile in the beginning, Gregor's mother does change throughout the story, even if slightly and despite being depicted as weak and fragile throughout. When Gregor's mother is first mentioned, all Gregor can think of is 'That gentle voice!' (Kafka, 1915), tainting our first encounter with her, allowing the reader to preconceive her as fragile. Her reaction to seeing Gregor in bug form for the first time solidifies our view of this delicate, but caring woman as she 'looked first with hands clasped together at his father, then took two steps towards Gregor and collapsed, surrounded by her outspread skirts, her face sunk and quite hidden in her breast.' (Kafka, 1915). This imagery with her skirts spread around her depicts a small, shrunken being, almost childlike, someone, who needs taking care of, but also someone who is scared for and of her son.
Her character develops a thicker skin over the course of the book, 'she attempts to act as Gregor's mediator both with his sister and with his father' (Cantrell, 1978), her attempts may be in vain, but her constant fight for her son depicts a strengthening character. She is also the only family member who continues to see the bug as Gregor, she continues to believe that her son is with her. When Gregor is pronounced dead by the charwoman, his mother 'made a move as if she wanted to restrain the broom' (Kafka, 1915) that the charwoman was using to push Gregor's corpse to one side to prove his death. This small detail included by Kafka shows a mother who still cares for her son and still yearns to protect him in whatever form he takes, human, bug, dead, or otherwise, it shows the reader that she has progressed even if slightly. She may not be ready to take any actions against anyone, but at least she isn't as squeamish and beginning to stand on her own two feet.
Although there are many transformations in The Metamorphosis, what is their significance? Gregor's physical transformation could be seen to signify many things, according to Cantrell, it is 'a sign of failure on Gregor's part, or on the part of the universe, or both' (1978), Luke sees it as a 'psychotic breakdown or other serious mental regression' (1951). Gregor's physical transformation could symbolize a change that is forced upon a person, the metamorphoses those around him undergo are their reaction to it, as is Gregor's psychological change. From the beginning, Gregor is 'doomed by the love for [his] parents' (Corngold and Gross, 2011), his deterioration is to be expected, as is their abandonment of him.
Grete's change is equally as significant as Gregor's, showing the rising power of a young woman within her family and society. Her eventual change, however, with the comment that her parents 'reflected that it was also getting to be time to look for a good husband for her.' (Kafka, 1915). This is almost a complete cycle, she metamorphosed into an independent working woman, further educating herself to achieve a better career in the long run. However, the comment made by her parents has regressed her growing power and independence, placing her in a category that society sees fit, one in which she must find a husband to increase her social status without veering from society's normal. This correlates with Gregor's transformation and eventual death, where Gregor 'is so submissive that even his family have decided that he must vanish, since he threatens their livelihood, he obediently dies,' (Corngold and Gross, 2011). Both Gregor and Grete have changed to accommodate their parents, whether to relieve them of the pain they have to face in seeing their transformed son, or to spare them further economic decline.
Overall, there are many different metamorphoses within The Metamorphosis, as outlined in this essay. Their significance changes depending on how the reader interprets the text and the characters individually, and also as a family. The dysfunctionality of the family structure is relatable in some respects, for example, Gregor keeps his job to 'spare his family the suffering of humiliation' (Cantrell, 1978). However, the factor that holds them together as a family is what creates the absurd, where love is not the glue to keep them together, it is in fact the shame, the shame of Gregor's transformation and what effect it would have upon their social standing. Many of the metamorphoses discussed are subject to this shame, characters change so as to avoid it and in doing so they abandon that which causes them shame and metamorphose so that they can live without it, or in Gregor's case, die so that those around him can live without it.