Modernism in The Metamorphosis: Theme & Quotes

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Modernism was a common theme in stories written between the two World Wars. In this lesson, we will explore modernism in 'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka, including modernist quotes.

A Common Theme

Take a look at a few pieces of work by your favorite author. Is there a common theme present that relates to the time period from when they were writing? It is not at all uncommon for an author to portray their own environment in their writings. One example is the works of Franz Kafka, a German writer during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His short story, 'The Metamorphosis', published around 1915, during the start of the modernist movement in literature.

Modernism is a literary movement that began in the late 1880s and continued through the 1930s. Modernist writers focused on industrialization (creating new machines and building cities), and how the setup of industrialized societies isolated people from each other. This is the atmosphere in which 'The Metamorphosis' was published, so it is no surprise there is a modernist theme throughout the story.

Kafka used modernist elements in his writing.

Modernism and 'The Metamorphosis'

In 'The Metamorphosis,' a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has transformed into a giant beetle. The story follows Gregor as he adjusts to his new form and his family's reactions. In the end, he starves himself and dies, and his family was relieved. It is definitely not a cheerful story.

One element of modernism in the story is the absurd nature of the plot. A man turns into a giant beetle overnight, with no explanation or even much surprise on his part. Absurd situations were not uncommon in modernist literature.


Far more relevant to modernism is that the story was written entirely from Gregor's perspective, or point-of-view. We are never given any outsider's thoughts or feelings, other than Gregor's observations. Our first description of his transformation comes as he discovers it himself: ''He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections.''

Typically, modernist works wrre written in first person so that an individual's perspective is the primary focus. 'The Metamorphosis' is written in third person, but the point of view is still almost completely limited to Gregor. We do not see anything that Gregor doesn't see, at least until he dies. Writing in third instead of first allows Kafka to show us the reactions of Gregor's family after he dies, which would not be easy to do in first person.

Another aspect of modernism is that the story proceeds as Gregor experiences and thinks of things. Sometimes it goes back in time as he thinks of the past, or it skips forward if nothing happens for a few days or weeks. The focus is entirely on Gregor and what he is experiencing.

Writing from such a close perspective shows the emphasis modernism had on an individual's emotions and reactions to events. We see how Gregor adapted to modern society and his need for a job after his father's failed business: ''So then he started working especially hard, with a fiery vigor that raised him from a junior salesman to a traveling representative almost overnight...''

Gregor's previous success all came to nothing in the end. He could not adapt to his new situation, and eventually starves to death. This sense of despair and loss is another modernist element.

Negatives of Society

A major focus of modernism is on how society alienates people from one another, and how modern (at the time) society is actually damaging to its citizens. We can see this in Gregor's job as a traveling salesman. He comments that a salesman has ''...worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them...'' He was isolated, had no close friends, and often spent weeks at a time away from his family.

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