Find out more about Kafka’s iconic story…
commentary by Surya Iyer,
The Metamorphosis (in German: Die Verwandlung) is a novella written by Franz Kafka, which was first published in 1915. It is one of Kafka’s best-known works. The Metamorphosis tells the story of salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself mysteriously transformed into a gigantic insect, and follows his subsequent struggle to adjust to this new condition.
Kafka worked on Metamorphosis throughout the autumn of 1912 and completed a draft on 7th December the same year. But negotiations with publishers were complicated, and circumstances—the first world war, among other things, intervened. Finally, Metamorphosis was set before readers in October 1915, in the avant-garde monthly Die Weissen Blätter, then put between covers that December.
A century after the novella was published, Metamorphosis is still relevant. How is that possible? Amidst the story’s family tension, there are lighter and enjoyable moments in the novella. Gregor Samsa wakes to discover he has six legs and a shell, yet for some pages, he thinks that what ails him might just be the kind of throat complaint that is “the occupational malady of travellers.” What can one do but laugh?
As Gregor struggles to crawl off his bed, a clerk from his company calls at the Samsa apartment. The grim speed with which the management checks in on a missing employee has all the qualities of a bad dream. Metamorphosis illustrates the world Kafka invented on paper, identifiable but not quite real, accurately detailed, and yet trancelike.
The Metamorphosis tends to implicate the use of a religious or psychological interpretation by most of its interpreters. The most common argument being the story as an expression of Kafka’s strained relationship with his father. Besides the psychological approach, elucidations focus on sociological aspects where the Samsa family is portrayed through the lens of the ordinary people who lived in that time and dealt with their day-to-day struggle. This view of the story had a large following as well.
Arguing against the popular father complex theory, some people observed that it is the sister, more so than the father, who should be considered the most cruel person in the story, as she is the one who backstabs Gregor.
Kafka depicts the struggle of artists for existence in a society that is so conservative and stuck up as the central narrative theme. The generation gap between the parents and the children is readily recognizable well. He also establishes the transitional thoughts of the younger generation towards achieving success in a modernist society.
According to Peter-André Alt, the figure of the vermin becomes a drastic expression of Gregor Samsa’s deprived existence. Reduced to carrying out his professional responsibilities, anxious to guarantee his advancement and vexed with the fear of making commercial mistakes, he is the creature of a functionalistic professional life.
Other interpretations exist of Gregor Samsa and the depiction of his character. Gregor’s back, his voice, whether he is ill, or already undergoing the metamorphosis, whether he is dreaming or not, and whether his family is blameless or not.
Kafka ordered in 1915 that there should be no illustration of Gregor. He argues that it is precisely this absence of a visual narrator that is essential for Kafka’s project, for he who depicts Gregor would stylize himself as an omniscient narrator. Another reason why Kafka opposed such an illustration is that the reader should not be biased in any way before his reading process gets underway.
Writers, when they affect us deeply, become adjectives. Some authors’ visions are so recognizable they can serve as a kind of shorthand. For example, the term “Kafkaesque,” derived from Kafka’s name, has made its way into the English language in a way that few other writers have. An episode in the famous series Breaking Bad was even titled “Kafkaesque.”
The term “Kafkaesque” is used to describe concepts and situations indicative of his work, particularly The Trial and The Metamorphosis. Examples include instances in which bureaucracies overpower people. Often in a surreal, nightmarish setting, which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness. Characters in a Kafkaesque setting often lack a clear course of action to escape a convoluted situation. Kafkaesque elements often appear in existential works, but the term has transcended the literary territory to apply to real-life occurrences and conditions that are incomprehensibly complex, bizarre, or illogical.
To be considered ”Kafkaesque,” a situation or story needs not only to be ”absurdly bureaucratic,” but there also needs to include critical circular reasoning in the characters or people involved. In this way, the character is responsible for his or her own torturous experience. Franz Kafka’s stories typically portray his protagonists in these impossible situations. Often, his nightmarish stories go beyond realism to instill a fantastic, horrifying experience caused by the character’s actions.
Numerous films and television works have been described as Kafkaesque, and the style is prominent in dystopian science fiction. Works in this genre that have been thus described include Patrick Bokanowski’s film The Angel (1982), Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985), and Alex Proyas’ science fiction film noir, Dark City (1998). Films from other genres that have been similarly described include Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) and the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991). The television series The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone are also frequently described as Kafkaesque.
However, with typical usage, the term has become so ubiquitous that Kafka scholars note that it is often misused. In 1991, Frederick Karl, Kafka’s biographer, said what is not Kafkaesque and how it is often interpreted in the wrong way.
“Someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that’s Kafkaesque. That’s not.”
Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your behavior, begins to fall to pieces. Then you struggle against this with all of your resources, with whatever you have. But of course, you don’t stand a chance.
Now that’s Kafkaesque.