Gregor's Mother in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

It's hard to imagine a human bond stronger than that between mother and son - unless, of course, the son turns into a giant insect. We'll study the character of Gregor's mother in Kafka's intriguing short story.

The Metamorphosis of Mrs. Samsa

In ''The Metamorphosis,'' Mrs. Samsa tries to protect Gregor and hopes to be reunited with him. However, she's old, and she has medical issues that make physical and emotional strain extremely taxing. Over time, the stress of sharing a home with a giant insect proves too much for her. Like her daughter Grete and her husband, Mrs. Samsa ultimately transforms and is relieved when Gregor passes away.

Checking On and Defending Her Son

After Gregor wakes one morning to the stress of having become an insect and being late to work, his mother is the first to ask if he's alright. Tapping on his door, she asks: ''It's a quarter to seven. Hadn't you a train to catch?'' Gregor notes that her voice is ''gentle.'' At first, when Gregor reassures her that he's getting up, she's content with his answer.

However, when Gregor's supervisor, the chief clerk at his fabric firm, comes knocking, Mrs. Samsa declares that something must be wrong with her son. She rushes to Gregor's defense, insisting: ''He's not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work.''

Has your mom ever embarrassed you by exaggerating your good qualities in unflattering ways? Mrs. Samsa proceeds to describe Gregor not merely as a dependable employee, but also as a painfully boring person, adding: ''It makes me almost cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he's been here the last eight days and has stayed home every single evening.'' This is doubtless what she thinks the chief clerk wants to hear.

However, in typical mom fashion, she goes a little too far, making Gregor sound completely pathetic: ''He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables [schedules]. The only amusement he gets is doing fretwork.'' (Fretwork is decorative woodcarving in relief; in Gregor's case, she mentions a picture frame he made).

As Gregor tries to verbally placate the chief clerk through his bedroom door, Mrs. Samsa becomes upset. '''Oh dear,' cried his mother, in tears, 'perhaps he's terribly ill and we're tormenting him.''' She commands Grete to fetch the doctor. This not entirely a maternal overreaction since the chief clerk agrees that Gregor's speech doesn't even sound human.

A Victorian Prague woman who might resemble Mrs. Samsa (oil painting by Karel Myslbek)
Victorian Prague woman

A Fragile Woman

The sight of a giant insect where there should be a person would shock anyone, and Mrs. Samsa doesn't cope well with Gregor's appearance. When he opens his door, she takes two steps toward him, then falls face down on the floor. As he approaches her, she jumps to her feet, shrieking ''Help, for God's sake, help!'' Even while trying to get a better look at her son, she backs ''senselessly'' away from him. Next, she sits on the table and spills coffee. When the startled Gregor snaps his jaws, she screams again, falling into her husband's arms.

As Kafka fills in more details about Gregor's family members, we learn that Mrs. Samsa is ''old'' and has bad asthma, a chronic lung disease that makes it difficult for her to breathe. She struggles with this even in simply walking around the flat; she's often forced to lie down on a sofa. Gregor notes that his father frequently repeats himself in discussing finances ''because his mother could not always grasp things at once.''

Even weeks later, when Gregor's mother accidentally spots him on the wall trying to stop her and Grete from taking his favorite picture, she goes into shock again. She screams ''Oh God, oh God!'' and faints.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Samsa doesn't shirk from responsibility: she does the cooking when the cook has to be dismissed, and she does ''great piles of sewing'' for an underwear firm in order to make extra money.

Desire to be Reunited with Gregor

Mrs. Samsa shows strong signs of wanting to be close to her son, if not the insect he's become. After two weeks, she waits outside his room while Grete cleans it, desperate to know ''whether there was not perhaps some slight improvement in his condition.'' Eventually, it's hard to keep her out of his room, as she cries: ''Do let me in to Gregor, he is my unfortunate son! Can't you understand that I must go to him?''

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