Book Review: Metamorphosis (1915)
The Project Gutenberg eBook of Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis: 100 thoughts for 100 years
Kafka’s tale of a man who wakes to find he has changed into a giant insect still has the power to shock and delight a century after it was first published. Many regard it as the greatest short story in all literary fiction
Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis (1915)
Many authors dream not just of publication of their work but also of penning that bestseller, a book that will stand the test of time and remain forever affixed in the literary world. Such ambitions were unlikely to have been in the mind of Franz Kafka but he not only achieved this feat but his name entered the English language.
Kafkaesque is to experience the kind of isolation and bizarre events that characters in Kafka’s own work have to go through. The author would have had no inkling of his impact when he died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40, leaving instructions for all of his unpublished work to be destroyed. Thankfully, his friend and executor, Max Brod, ignored Kafka’s wishes and the world came to know books such as The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). I have previously read both books but had never picked up The Metamorphosis, a novella published in Kafka’s lifetime in 1915.
The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who lives with his parents and his sister. Gregor is the sole breadwinner in the household, his family reliant on his work and earnings to not just put food on the table but also to clear his father’s debts. One day Gregor wakes up and finds that he has transformed into a large insect. This isn’t a dream but Gregor’s reality. Of course, such a transformation is most inconvenient because it stops him going to work that day but even worse is the issue of having to suddenly adapt to being a completely new being. What follows is not just Gregor’s adjustment to this new form but the sudden change thrust upon his family, colleagues and friends not just of a former man, now insect, but of their general way of life. The question is can Gregor find a way back to human form and if not can he come to terms with his new shape?
I was familiar with the opening line of The Metamorphosis but knew nothing beyond that. This brief story has drawn a wide range of interpretations from authors, critics and the millions of readers that have absorbed it. There are multiple elements here with Gregor’s transformation into an insect and the changing relationships he has with others being just one aspect. While Gregor adapts to his new existence and learns how to survive, his family also must adjust to the loss of the only breadwinner in the household. The novella explores human nature and how many of us can be self-serving when backed against a wall and others still can resort to shameful acts of cruelty in the name of self-preservation. I could go into more detail about what the story meant to me and how, more than a century later it is still relevant to society today for in these days of coronavirus, mankind has demonstrated that when pushed we can be extremely harmful to one another, be it physically or emotionally. Deep down we all wish to be wanted and to be useful to others. The consequences of being obsolete are often unpleasant.
Verdict: A masterful novella from Kafka conveying the metamorphosis that all of us, whether we admit it or not, are capable of.