How an Army of Interpreters Buried Kafka’s Suffering
Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915), i.e. The Metamorphosis, is a novella of around seventy printed pages. Kafka writes about the life of Gregor Samsa. The book opens with Gregor waking up one morning in his parents’ home. During his sleep, he has transformed into an “ungeheuren Ungeziefer”, a sort of giant dung beetle. Kafka avoids precisely naming the creature, except that it is some sort of insect. Whatever it is, it’s something inhuman.
Before his metamorphosis, Gregor used to work as a salesman. Because of his many travels, his work had brought him little joy. He primarily did his job out of an obligation to repay a debt to his parents. Samsa believes it will still take him five or six years time to do repay that debt, but he already pantingly looks forward to his liberating freedom. As if the burden of this debt is not enough, he also offered to pay for his sister’s studies at a conservatory, because he enjoys her playing the violin so much.
In short, Gregor is a loyal, hard worker, but his metamorphosis stops him from accomplishing these goals. As a bug, he can’t go to work. When his father and mother discover what has happened to their son, they react in shock and behave in an emotionally detached manner. Using a sort of stick, the abhorred father beats his son back into his bedroom, where his family will decide to keep him from view from the outside world, as they attempt to cope with the situation.
Despite his family’s inability to comprehend Gregor’s attempts at communicating with them, in turn, he can certainly still understand them. He stays in his room but eavesdrops through walls and floors to hear what his family is saying about him. He discovers that his parents possess a substantial sum of money in savings. Moreover, his parents, no longer able to live off their son’s income, now apply for jobs.
Gregor’s sister Grete, who in the first instance helped feed her insect-like brother, in the third act of the book will be the first to remark she no longer recognizes her brother. She puts forward the idea to get rid of him. Shortly after overhearing her, the emaciated Gregor dies of hunger. A cleaning lady disposes of his body. In the end, father, mother, and sister forget about Gregor. Grete now takes on the role of their darling child.
Among the book’s many interpretations, by armies of scientists, psychologists, sociologists and lay people, oddly enough the one closest to Kafka’s personal life seems nowhere to be found, namely the one that explains the book’s literary success, and the reason why people feel personally attracted to it. The Metamorphosis supposedly would be a societal allegory, the beetle-motif would mean such and such, etcetera. But the book is really about Kafka’s personal life. It is an autobiography of how Kafka himself had experienced his early life living with his parents. Kafka describes how he had experienced his parents’ financial and emotional exploitations of him, to the point of detaching from them and thereby ceasing to be their son (the real metamorphosis).
The book’s main theme is that of both instant and gradual dehumanization, namely Gregor’s initial metamorphosis into a beetle, and his subsequent gradual loss of human behaviors, as described throughout the book. It is not Gregor who wanted his metamorphosis to happen, he had to suffer it. But his inability to communicate to his parents and sister his need for a gentler, more human treatment—perhaps one that could have returned him to his human self—symbolizes many children’s inability to communicate their emotional needs to their parents, possibly out of fear of offending or angering them.
Gregor’s metamorphosis is that of Kafka’s being an obedient son, subserviently paying for his parents’ narcissistic needs with his own life, into being a disobedient one—as if he had become a ‘piece of vermin’. Gregor’s parents possessed a large sum of money in savings, which symbolizes the needlessness of Gregor’s exploitation. In other words, the parents did not love him for who he was, but for his loyal willingness to undergo this exploitation.
Reduced to vermin, Gregor can (or will) no longer financially benefit his parents. It is the parents that caused Gergor’s/Kafka’s metamorphosis. The debt Gregor intended to repay his parents symbolizes the emotional debt many adult children continue to feel towards their elderly parents for the love and care they have provided. Sister Grete, at first siding with her brother against their unfriendliest father, eventually switches sides after her brother’s metamorphosis, conveniently seizing first place in the sibling hierarchy, a reference to Kafka’s relationship with one of his siblings.
The reason why the book continues to enjoy popularity among large audiences of readers is that they recognize themselves in Gregor Samsa, which makes it all the more astounding how many ‘expert’ interpretations attempt to distract students of Kafka away from the most likely one.