Family in The Metamorphosis: Theme & Quotes

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' looks at Gregor Samsa's abrupt transformation into a giant insect and how this affects relationships in his family. This lesson looks at the theme of family in 'The Metamorphosis' as well as key quotes.

Brief Overview

Kafka's Metamorphosis is a short book that deals with the bizarre transition of the main character, Gregor Samsa, from a normal man into a hideous and frightening insect. The book begins when Gregor wakes up one morning to discover his new, terrifying form, and the pages that follow cover the remainder of his short life, all of which is spent as an insect.

Much of the focus of the Metamorphosis is how the relationships within his family shift as his parents and sister slowly forget that the person inside the monster is still part of their family, and as they slowly come to treat him as something subhuman. Kafka's work makes us consider the limitations of love, even the most reliable and unconditional form of it: familial love.

Franz Kafka, 1917
Franz Kafka

How Does the Theme of Family Matter?

Families are often thought of as units we can all depend on, even when all other support systems fall apart. Often, when we have no one else to turn to, we know that our families will still be there for us as we go through our worst moments.

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka asks important questions about the criteria for this familial support. Although it is unlikely that any of us will ever wake up as an enormous insect, Gregor's transformation can be understand as a metaphor -- or an idea that represents a broader, more abstract concept -- for some other change in our lives that might put our family relationships under strain. These changes might include anything ranging from changes to our physical forms, dramatic shifts in personalities, and so on.

Gregor's Family's Responses

At first, Gregor's family is largely stunned, which is completely understandable. His mother spends a great deal of time crying and trying to avoid looking at him, and Gregor's father appears to try to avoid dealing with the situation as much as possible. It is only Grete, Gregor's sister, who does her best to continue to treat Gregor like a human being. For example, Grete brings him food and tries to reorganize his room in a way that might make it easier for Gregor to move around in it.

''In order to test his taste, she brought him a whole selection of things, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from an evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before...''

Although Grete has a hard time looking at her brother, she at least has the sensitivity to find out what kind of food he might want, so that he can eat enough to survive. We will see later, however, that even Grete's patience has its limits.

Change in Family Circumstances

Before turning into an insect, Gregor had been the main breadwinner in the family. Clearly, his transformation makes it impossible for him to continue working, so the three members of his family all have to find jobs, and the family takes in boarders for extra income. This leaves everyone feeling more strained than usual, and with less time and patience to take care of Gregor. We read:

''Who, in this tired and overworked family, would have had time to give more attention to Gregor than was absolutely necessary? The household budget became even smaller; so now the maid was dismissed...''

First, it is noteworthy that at this point in the book, the ''family'' refers to the mother, father, and Grete -- Gregor is listed separately from them. This underscores the way these characters are now looking at their son and brother: as someone who is no longer part of the family unit, but becoming a burden on them. Secondly, this description offers more reasons why they are running out of patience with caring for Gregor; it is hard enough to continue to love an enormous insect, but it is particularly difficult when you are exhausted and anxious about money.

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