An introduction to Kafka’s extraordinary story of the man who turns overnight into a giant dung beetle.
Few people who have read the opening line of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis will ever forget it. Translations from the original German vary but the one I remember best is: “Gregor Samsa woke one morning after troubled dreams to find he had been transformed into a giant beetle.” Thus begins one of modern literature’s most horrifying, amusing and striking short stories.
The combination of horror and laughter is contained within the predicament facing poor pompous, clueless Gregor: how to continue with his life and his work as an insurance agent while hiding from his family, not to mention the world at large, the monstrosity into which he has turned. He begins in a state of denial – perhaps a little more sleep will make it all go away – and then with dawning horror that his new life as a beetle is something with which he must find a way of dealing. The implications of his traumatic change also begin to occur to him: these range from the trivial to the very serious. On the one hand, he can no longer wear his trousers; on the other hand, he is no longer able to take his position in society as a respectable wage-earning person. He who was the hope of his family as it sought to continue to make its way in bourgeois society of the day had overnight become the means of its destruction. Not only would he be unable to earn the money that the family needed but he would become a burden to them, a burden that must be hidden from the sight of the remainder of the world – surely at a great cost to the innocent family members (if they are, in fact, innocent).
Metamorphosis is often recommended as an introduction to the work of Kafka since it is more accessible than much of the other work and, in its form and structure, more comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with his usual methods and content. The story might also be used as an introduction to modernism and the alienation and anxiety that are associated with that state. Gregor is, quite literally, made an alien to himself and, as an alien creature, is unable to connect with society in the way he was previously able to do and was expected, as a man, to be able to manage. Gregor’s essence is unchanged but, in the modern world, essence is extraneous to the ability to work and to earn and consume in the appropriate, accepted manner.