The Science Fictional Insight of Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
By Johnathan McCauley
Few first sentences rustle up more reader intrigue than Kafka’s opening line of Metamorphosis:
As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin (Kafka, 7).
Within this sentence we are provided something universally familiar to connect to through the act of waking up from unsettling dreams, but our familiarity with Gregor is then derailed by the mention of something universally, I hope, unfamiliar. In Metamorphosis, Kafka challenges our notion of what it means to be human by imagining a character waking up in his bed one morning in the body of “a monstrous vermin”. Virtually everything else in the story remains the same except the vermin body wherein the mind of Gregor Samsa is trapped. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is chilling, humorous, and pedantic because it alters one element of one character, Gregor Samsa’s physical nature, and attempts to reconcile this single albeit major alteration with all the physical and social demands and expectations we consider a necessary element of being human. As it unfortunately turns out for Gregor Samsa, human beings place an enormous emphasis on physical appearance. Despite maintaining a seamless continuation of consciousness from pre-vermin Gregor to metamorphosed Gregor, his different bodily appearance eventually leads to his death.
The first dozen pages of Metamorphosis reveal Gregor Samsa’s first reactions upon discovering he now occupies the body of a vermin. It is a workday and Gregor, despite this major physical alteration, flounders about trying to keep his job as a traveling salesman. At first, Gregor thinks his new vermin body is nothing more than a fuzzy morning hallucination, a result of, “getting up so early . . . a man needs sleep” (8). This play upon the detrimental physical demands of the business world loses its charm when Gregor realizes this is no hallucination, but an inescapable newfound reality.
As Gregor’s boss bangs on his bedroom door threatening to terminate him from the company, Gregor, despite now looking like a giant vermin humans routinely terminate, shouts back to his superior, “I will be on the eight o’clock train” (14). But Gregor’s enunciation of these human words comes out as no more than clicking and hissing from the other side of the door. To these sounds, Gregor’s mother responds, “did you just hear Gregor? That was the voice of an animal!” (15). This transformation has robbed Gregor of his verbal communicability and the mother’s reaction to those sounds is insightful. In a sense, Gregor is speaking a new language, a language his family and boss do not understand, yet before even seeing Gregor in his new vermin state, his mother determines she heard the voice of an animal. Perhaps we would react the same way, but Kafka emphasizes the word “animal” in an effort to convey the unbridgeable gap Gregor that is growing between himself and his family. What is sad, ironic, and frustrating for both the reader and Gregor Samsa, is that we know he is still capable of cognition and thought. Gregor Samsa’s mind is alive and well inside the body of the roach. He thinks in language and attempts to speak in language, but the vermin body refracts his linguistic efforts into indiscernible clicks and hisses. This is a horrifying phenomena to consider. It is a stretch but if one can imagine all animals, plants, insects, and mammals consciously experiencing the same kind of scrambling and metamorphosis of linguistic thoughts into unintelligible sounds as Gregor is subjected to, then we may have to seriously reconsider how we treat those beings that are lower down on the food chain than us. Investigating the possibility of advanced consciousnesses in other species is a scientific endeavor that has been underway for decades. It would be a travesty if we were to discover that every cow, tree, and roach that we have killed had a kind of Gregor Samsa trapped inside.
A few times throughout the story, Gregor attempts to reconnect with his family. He leaves his dungeon like room and is met with abhorrence, resistance, and even violence. The father hurls apples at him and one is lodged in his thorax and becomes infected. One of Gregor’s many little legs is broken as he is forcefully shoved back into his room with a cane, scraping against the molding of the doorway as he enters. He is treated better than one would traditionally treat a cockroach or vermin, but much, much worse than one would ever hope for a human being to be treated and this is the fragile, delicate line Kakfa tightropes. Gregor is treated neither like a vermin nor a human, but something in between which reinforces the issue raised in the first paragraph concerning the pivotal role physical appearance plays in determining one’s worth as a human.
Toward the end of the story, Grete is playing the violin for a few bearded tenants and Gregor is drawn out into the living room by the beautiful music. For many days leading up to this moment, Gregor has been hiding under the couch in his room in the dark, refusing to eat, ruthlessly depressed and downtrodden about his condition. And then he hears his sister play. He reflects, am I “a beast if music could move [me] so?” (44). While the other human bodied human beings are unimpressed with Grete, the bearded tenants are blowing plumes of smoke up into the ceiling disinterestedly, Gregor is having one of the more sacred and transcendental experiences of his life. He worked arduously for quite some time in order to save up enough money to send Grete to music school and was going to surprise her with the sum at Christmas. Then he woke up in the body of a vermin. Yet here she is standing before him playing what he feels is the most beautiful music he has ever heard. Furthermore, the reaction from the others in the room indicates that Grete may not be a very talented musician, but to Gregor, what matters is she who is playing the music rather than the music itself. This visceral connection and love for another human being is only shown by Gregor in this scene. The rest of the human beings in the room are either distracted or telling her to stop because it does not sound nice to them. Exterior properties are yet again considered overly important by the human bodied human beings in this novel, while it is Gregor who understands all too painfully the significance and worth of what lives on inside the body, no matter the shape or size.
The human bodied human beings in the room see Gregor and panic. The tenants are rushed into their room as they blurt out threats of suing and claiming retribution for being deceived into paying to live in a place with such a monster hanging around. Heartbreakingly, after the tenants are placated, the mother, father, and sister Grete sadly say aloud, “if only he could understand us” (46). They discuss exterminating him. They lament the effort they have put into caring for the beast. They conclude the roach is not Gregor and must depart. There is poignant and painful irony in the family’s wish for Gregor to understand them because truly, it is they who fail to understand Gregor. Gregor crawls into his room, his little legs give out from underneath him, and he dies.
In the closing scenes, we are given a scene depicting the family riding through the countryside on a train. Grete stands as sunlight pours through the windows and she stretches her young, developing, voluptuous body. Like the clap of a gavel, Kafka states with conviction the prevalent theme in his Metamorphosis through the declaration of his final word in this story, body.
Questions for further exploration and consideration:
What role does the human body play in determining one’s humanness?
Does a human consciousness determine humanness?
How do we tell the difference between a human consciousness and a non-human consciousness?
Should a being be considered a human being if it is a human consciousness contained in a non-human body?
Should a being be considered a human being if it is a non-human consciousness contained in a human body?
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996. Print.