If you woke up one morning and realized you’d turned into a big brown beetle while you slept, would you be surprised? Or, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, would you be more worried about the fact that you had overslept and missed your train, that your tardiness would look bad at the office? Would you then, trying to get yourself up out of bed and dressed for work, worry about how your family might be bothered by your new appearance? No? I can’t say I’d be concerned about those things either. I’d be panicked and yelling some choice swear words at the top of my new beetle lungs and hoping Bookman called an ambulance because a human turning into an insect is not normal. Gregor Samsa takes it all in stride, however. He is not surprised and I was surprised at his lack of surprise. Until, that is, I got a look at his family.
Turns out Gregor has been supporting his parents and younger sister Grete for about five years. They all four live together in a big lovely apartment that Gregor pays for. Gregor’s father used to have a business but it went bankrupt and his father hasn’t worked since. He makes himself out to be a poor and broken old man. His mother doesn’t work either, she claims it’s because of her asthma. Then there is Gregor’s sister Grete, seventeen at the time of the story, deemed too young to go out and work even though the maid that works for the Samsas is only fifteen. So Gregor, a traveling salesman, is out working his fingers to the bone in order to support his parents and sister, but also to pay back debt his father incurred in his business. Gregor hates his job and dreams of the day he can quit. Nonetheless, he never asks anything for himself, is always concerned about the comfort and well-being of his family and whether or not he is imposing on them.
After meeting the family it is no longer a surprise why Gregor was not surprised to wake up as a beetle. He was already a bug, he just didn’t have the form before. Now that his outward appearance has caught up, one would think his family would feel some remorse. Nope. As Nabokov says in his lecture on the book:
Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people.
Gregor’s father clearly despises him and eventually pelts poor Gregor with apples. One of the apples gets stuck between his beetle-y sections and it is the beginning of Gregor’s end because no one will remove it. Gregor’s mother is not allowed to see Gregor at all in order to spare her feelings. Because she does fret about him, more than anyone else does. But in the end, even she rejects him.
Then there is Gregor’s sister. Gregor loves Grete very much. She plays the violin and Gregor has convinced himself that she is so good he will work extra hard so he can pay to send her to a music conservatory. Late in the story we get to hear Grete play and it is clear that she is not very good at all. His sister is the only one who will take care of Gregor. She takes on his care willingly. At first she is attentive, bringing him food regularly, cleaning his room and opening and closing a window so he can have fresh air all while Gregor is hiding from her view under a couch and sheet so he doesn’t scare or offend her. But as time goes by the food gets neglected as does the cleaning and Gregor’s room gradually becomes a storage room.
Things come to a head when, one evening, Gregor’s door is left opened. The family has taken on three borders and after dinner they invited Grete to play her violin for them. Enchanted, Gregor creeps out from his room. He is weak with starvation and the apple lodged in his back has become a festering wound. Of course he is seen. The family goes ballistic. The lodgers are horrified and demand all their rent back. Gregor’s father says absolutely not and evicts the lodgers on the spot. Gregor is chased back to his room and locked in but still, he overhears the ensuing family conference in which Grete calls him a monster and declares:
“It’s got to go”, shouted his sister, “that’s the only way, Father. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that that’s Gregor. We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it’s not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will. We wouldn’t have a brother any more, then, but we could carry on with our lives and remember him with respect. As it is this animal is persecuting us, it’s driven out our tenants, it obviously wants to take over the whole flat and force us to sleep on the streets.
Gregor is such a sad, beaten man. His family only cared about him while he was supporting them. Then his insect form only served to remind them of how they unfairly took advantage of his love for them all those years. It is only natural that they would eventually grow to hate him and wish him gone. So he disappears into death. Upon learning the news from the charwoman, the Samsas decide to take a holiday to celebrate.
Poor Gregor. I felt so sorry for him. Usually characters like him would make me angry with their inability to stand up for themselves. But somehow Kafka managed to write it so perfectly that I only ever felt sympathy for Gregor. If you have not read this one before, I highly recommend it. It is fairly short, and even though it is not anywhere near uplifting, it is very good.