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In Kafka's Metamorphosis, What Really Happened to Gregor Samsa?

Franz Kafka is known for creating a particular type of closed-up and self-sufficient, ongoing allegory; a world which seems alive by itself.

An introduction

Not many short novellas can rival The Metamorphosis, written by Franz Kafka in 1912, in terms of literary prominence, originality, and – as the critic Theodore Adorno put it – in regards to being a self-consistent work of powerful imagination; a so-called “poetic creation”. The reader does not need to be aware of the etymology of the term “poetry”, which comes from the ancient Greek poiein , meaning to “create”, in order to sense upon reading the Metamorphosis that this is not the work of a casual writer, nor of a random intellect. It would be apt to note that Kafka’s full body of work can stand on its own, without requiring the reader to be aware of other authors; for there rarely are allusions to other authors, in the pages of the stories left to us by Kafka.

Indeed, Kafka almost never mentions even any actual locations in the external world; there are just a handful of exceptions to this: the town of Riga, in the story about the Hunter Gracchus, Oklahoma and New York, in his novel Amerika, and some fleeting references to Russian towns or cities, such as the one in the short story The Judgment, and again in the story about an abandoned railway project in the vast rural lands of that country. And even those references do not really serve the role of what is understood as literary allusion, nor do they require the reader to be familiar with an external setting so as to observe Kafka’s story to the best of his abilities.

To be concise, it can be argued that Kafka created his own, closed-up realms, and proceeded to present inside them a struggle which does not fail to make us forget we are reading a story; for we may find ourselves, often, thinking that the pages are alive with the thoughts and history of the characters contained within…

One of those characters, and perhaps his most famous creation, is Gregor Samsa; the person who woke up one day to find himself metamorphosed into something no longer human…

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

When Gregor Samsa woke up

The famous first sentence of The Metamorphosis is surely one very frequently quoted. I find it, therefore, highly interesting that – to the best of my knowledge – there hasn’t been any examination of it in regards to what it may help cover up… By this I mean that we, as readers, are enchanted - and also surprised, if we read it for the first time - by the sentence, and cannot help moving on to learn what is going to happen, and how Gregor Samsa is to deal with this incredible predicament! Yet in doing so we, inevitably, forget to look back, to revisit that sentence and re-interpret it; because we are already busy in reading the three chapters of this magnificent novella. So, upon reaching the end, and learning that Gregor fades away and commits suicide, banished from the human world and betrayed by his own family, we still do not question what the first sentence of the novella may have served as – that is, if it served any other purpose, apart from introducing us to the terrible transformation...

After we have read the story, we do possess the ability to look back. And we may well ask whether or not Gregor Samsa had any chance of saving himself. In the way the story actually progressed, Gregor was doomed: he first tried to return to his work, as a traveling salesman – only to be denied, by the representative of his firm, who came to visit – and later on attempted to at least be accepted by his family as still being human – failing again, despite some help offered by his mother. His sister, who he used to identify as a loving sibling, and meant to help with her career as a violinist, becomes by far his most hostile critic and enemy. And his father… barely seems to see in Gregor something other than some vermin.

What about the time before Gregor had woken up?

But what about the time before he woke up? We do know that he was working as a salesman, a job he disliked but had to do in order to service the family debt. Yet we aren’t told anything concerning the previous night; the night when he slept for the last time as a human. Gregor himself only reflects on how he might have been more sick than he thought. But he immediately abandons that trail of thought, and so the reader learns nothing which might explain why the metamorphosis took place. And while it isn’t important that the reader should know, one has to assume that it might have been very crucial for Gregor to try to establish the reason he was metamorphosed; for only then could he have hoped to reverse what happened to him…

He does no such thing. In fact he appears to be willing to distance himself from the memory of it. This, ultimately, seals his fate: he is to die in exactly one year from the day he woke up transformed into a hybrid form, consisting of a beetle and a centipede.

The cover of the original edition of this work, published while Franz Kafka was still alive. It is worth noting that it was Franz Kafka himself who asked that the creature (Gregor) should not be depicted in the cover.

The cover of the original edition of this work, published while Franz Kafka was still alive. It is worth noting that it was Franz Kafka himself who asked that the creature (Gregor) should not be depicted in the cover.

Does Gregor know what happened to him?

This is another question which, in my view, is worth asking. Let us be reminded of the aforementioned ability Kafka had to present stories that burst with life – not in regards to their sentiments; they are almost never jovial, but in regards to the believable struggle of the characters to move about, or at least crawl about, in the world they are found in. With that in mind, it can seem quite logical to examine whether Kafka had fleshed out – in his own imagination; he didn’t provide such information in the story – the answer to this question.

Perhaps an easier way to go about answering this would be to rely on the large quantity of autobiographical notes this writer has left us. Granted, there are very little on this story – just the passing notes in the diary entries near the end of the year 1912 – but there is a plethora of entries about Franz Kafka’s own stance to personal, psychological problems.

If we assume that the metamorphosis of Samsa is – not in the context of the story; it is literal there – a metaphor for his emotional and psychological downfall, and that, in so many words, he now feels as if he isn’t human any more, then we can juxtapose Samsa to Kafka (obviously their surnames provide an added hint as to their relation) and think of a few reasons why Gregor Samsa chose to not examine, that first morning, the reason for his terrible metamorphosis.

Franz's father and mother, Hermann Kafka and Julia Löwy

Franz's father and mother, Hermann Kafka and Julia Löwy

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Why didn’t Gregor try to look inside, and solve his issues?

Kafka has written down, in hundreds of different notes as well as in letters to others, his sentiments, which characteristically were that he was “married to fear”, or that “an invisible court” surrounded him. Those sentences do not just tie to the specific context they are perhaps mostly associated with; for they are part of a continuum of homogeneous reflections. In the case of the marriage to fear, though, it prominently features in his letters to Milena Jesenská - his Czech translator and person of interest for him - while the invisible court is first described in his diaries for the year 1914, in the process of the breaking of his first engagement to Felice Bauer.

But those are motifs, found in various other notes and letters. Kafka never felt that he had the power to solve his psychological problems. Moreover he felt that it was those problems, sensed as an abyss opening up inside him, which helped him produce writing.

If Samsa was acting in a similar way – and why should we think otherwise? – then we have reason to argue that he also did not wish to examine what caused his monstrous metamorphosis. And he didn’t wish to do so because he feared that it would only make things worse. Perhaps, even without doing anything, he could still return to his human form – he obviously hopes that this will happen, in the first chapter of the novella. Or, at least, he might be allowed to go on living, mostly like before, despite not being human. If those aspirations seem grotesque to us – and they should – then we gain even more reasons to suspect that the regions which Gregor Samsa – like Franz Samsa – would have to revisit if he actually decided to go back and change things, would simply have included even crueler, and more monstrous sights, and it was on account of that horrible outlook that he chose to run away from the stampeding Colossus of his inner world. Even at the cost of losing his humanity forever...

The Metamorphosis

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos