Existentialism in The Metamorphosis: Theme & Quotes

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the theme of existentialism from Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis.' This is the story of a man who wakes up one day to discover he has transformed into an insect.

Existential Crisis

Have you ever examined your life and wondered how you ended up where you are? In Franz Kafka's ''The Metamorphosis'', Gregor Samsa, the protagonist, identifies himself in terms of his service to other people. As a result, he sacrifices his own happiness and never really forms any close, mutual relationships.

When he wakes up one morning and discovers he has transformed into a bug, his unusual state of being forces Gregor into an existential crisis. Existentialism is the philosophy surrounding how each individual's choices have molded them and shaped their life. Let's examine existentialism from this story.

The Bug Metaphor

The story begins by explaining, ''When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.'' Although from a literal perspective this story seems to be a fantasy about a giant bug, it is actually a metaphor for the way the author felt about his own life.

Samsa was a person of Jewish descent living in an anti-Semitic world in the Czech Republic in the early 1900s. He also had a contentious relationship with his father, who wished for Kafka to follow in his footsteps as a businessman. Gregor's transformation into a slimy, disgusting bug that no one wants to be around reflects Kafka's belief that he is unwanted and out of place in the world he has created for himself.

Gregor's Role in the Family

Initially, Gregor thinks that others will step in to help. He narrates, ''…the others now believed that there was something the matter with him and were ready to help him…He felt integrated into human society once again…''

However, he begins to realize the limits of his relationship with his family. His family had grown dependent on him and appear unable to maintain a relationship with him outside the confines of their established relationship.

Gregor viewed himself as a former army lieutenant ''demanding respect for his bearing and rank'' and then as a provider for his family. When he is no longer able to work, he worries that ''all the peace, the comfort, the contentment were to come to a horrible end?''

Resentment Grows

Gregor tries to figure out how to continue to take care of his family ''by being patient and showing his family every possible consideration, help them bear the inconvenience which he simply had to cause them in his present condition.'' Gregor's situation forces the other members of the family to step up. They all get jobs and begin to contribute, but finances are tight. Instead of wanting to take care of Gregor as he wanted to take care of them, they are resentful.

Gregor's father becomes so frustrated that he permanently maims Gregor by throwing an apple at him. From that point forward, Gregor's injury ''reminded even his father that Gregor was a member of the family, in spite of his present pathetic and repulsive shape, who could not be treated as an enemy…on the contrary, it was the commandment of family duty to swallow their disgust and endure him, endure him and nothing more.''

Mr. Samsa's beliefs about the role of family extend only far enough as to tolerate one another. True, unconditional love and acceptance is not part of his moral code.

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