Gregor's Transformation in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna Wilkerson earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience, and designed the Dance Program curriculum for College of Central Florida. Dr. Wilkerson has a published poetry collection entitled Odd Remains, published in the UK in 2013.

The transformation of the fictional character Gregor Samsa into a large insect is the heart of Franz Kafka's iconic novella ''The Metamorphosis.'' This lesson will explore underlying meanings of this strange central plot event.

About the Author

The Metamorphosis is a novella written by novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. Since that time, the story has become a classic of 20th-century literature and a case study for the surrealistic style of writing. The word metamorphosis means transformation, so the change that the protagonist Gregor Samsa undergoes in the narrative is at the heart of its meaning.

Franz Kafka
Franz kafka

Before we can attempt to understand what happens in The Metamorphosis it is helpful to discuss what surrealism means. You may be familiar with some of the work of surrealist painter and sculptor, Salvador Dali. Dali was one of the pioneers of the surrealistic style in painting in the early decades of the century. His paintings feature ordinary objects placed in strange places or situations.

Example of a Surrealist Perspective
Dali Painting

This gives us an important clue about surrealism. In Kafka's works, including The Metamorphosis, odd or unbelievable situations are discussed and described as if they were common occurrences, combining the ordinary and recognizable with the fantastic in a way that gives both a different meaning. Understanding surrealism helps the modern reader to appreciate this odd narrative.

Gregor's Metamorphosis

Of course, a man changed into a man-sized insect is surreal and absurd. In a true fantasy, perhaps all the characters would be transformed, or the transformed beetle would still be able to act and move as a man. This is certainly not the case with Kafka's protagonist, Gregor Samsa. Kafka describes Gregor's mysterious new body as follows:

''He was lying on his back as hard as armor plate, and when he lifted his head a little, he saw his vaulted brown belly, sectioned by arch-shaped ribs, to whose dome the cover, about to slide off completely, could barely cling.''

In fact, he can only do what a normal-sized beetle can do, and has no way to communicate to his human family or ask for help.

This begins a routine in which his sister feeds him and cleans up after him while he hides under the couch, afraid that his appearance will frighten her. Gregor spends his time listening through the wall to his family members talking.

As Gregor grows more comfortable with his transformed physical self, he begins climbing the walls and ceiling like any insect would. Eventually, he ventures out of the confinement of his room, but this escapade ends badly. His confused and frustrated father throws apples at Gregor, and one of them sinks into a sensitive spot in his back and gets stuck there, causing him permanent damage.

Gregor's sister Grete, who has up to that point been taking care of her afflicted brother, has a change of heart. Can you imagine the effort of tending to a sibling who has turned into a giant bug?

Vile Insect or Family Member?

Grete suggests that Gregor's presence causes too much trouble, and tells her parents they must get rid of him for the sake of the remaining family. Her father agrees, wishing Gregor could understand them and would leave on his own. Yet, realistically, how can he do this, as he is injured and barely able to function. His only way out, at the climax of the narrative, is death.

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