Gallows Humor in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' has several scenes that can strike the reader as funny in a decidedly dark way. This lesson looks at and analyzes such dark comedic scenes in the context of the greater work.

Brief Overview

Kafka's Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to discover that he had transformed into a giant insect during the night. Understandably, the change (or metamorphosis!) throws Gregor's life into disarray: he loses his job, frightens his family, and ends up having to live an isolated existence within his room until he dies at the end of the book. While Metamorphosis explores several serious ideas about the limits of love and commitment and the effect that our physical form has on our relationships, it is also occasionally quite funny, albeit in a dark way.

Gregor's Concern about Work

There are few novels that begin with such a dramatic event as Kafka's Metamorphosis. Waking up as a bug would surely be among the most startling ways to start the day that one could imagine, which is exactly why Gregor's reaction to his new condition is in some ways rather funny. While the reader might expect him to panic or cry, Gregor appears to be most concerned about his job. After Gregor realizes that he has missed the early train, he thinks to himself:

''Before it strikes quarter past seven I'll definitely have to have got properly out of bed. And by then somebody will have come round from work to ask what's happened to me as well, as they open up at work before seven o'clock.''

Although it has occurred to Gregor that it will be difficult to get to work, since he cannot move easily in his new body yet, it does not seem to have struck him that a giant insect would probably be unwelcome at the office. The humor in this scene comes from the fact that Gregor is aware of his own experience as a bug, but has not yet considered other people's reactions to him. This will all change very soon.

Kafka as Gregor in Metamorphosis

When Gregor's Family Sees Him

It should probably come as no surprise that Gregor's first interaction with his family does not go very well. In short, they reacted more or less the way most people would. Gregor's boss simply leaves, his mother screams, and his father and sister both panic in their own ways. The comedy in the scene comes largely from Gregor himself, who continues to try to deal with his new situation calmly and rationally in spite of the chaos he has inspired. Still, Gregor allows a few insect mannerisms to come through. Kafka writes:

''He had completely forgotten the chief clerk for the moment, but could not help himself snapping in the air with his jaws at the sight of the flow of coffee. That set his mother screaming anew, she fled from the table and into the arms of his father as he rushed towards her.''

This all comes off as a comic moment since Gregor's intentions are so at odds with the reality of the interaction. From Gregor's perspective, he merely wants to reassure his family, and possibly have some coffee. From his mother's perspective, however, her son has turned into an insect and has now begun to snap his jaws at her, which would certainly be unsettling to say the least.

Gregor's Father Snaps

After the family has responded to Gregor in horror, Gregor's father tries to get him to return to his room. Unfortunately, Gregor has still not learned to move around gracefully in his insect body, and the description of Gregor trying to turn around is rather comical:

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