Relationship Between Father & Son in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Franz Kafka's famous 1915 novella ''The Metamorphosis'' is a fascinating story open to many interpretations. In this lesson, you will learn about the relationship between the protagonist and his father, as well as the parallels between the story and Kafka's own life.

The Story of Gregor and His Father

In Kafka's ''The Metamorphosis,'' there's a kind of inverse relationship between the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, and his father. The story's basic plot describes Gregor's overall decline while his father becomes more powerful and more controlling. In a way, it's a typical story of a dysfunctional family — were it not for the bizarre twist that the first line tells us Gregor has transformed into a giant, monstrous bug overnight.

The backstory we learn is that Gregor's father is an old man and retired. Gregor's mother also doesn't work, and his sister, Grete, is too young to get a job, so the whole family is financially dependent on Gregor. Ever the dutiful son, humble Gregor gets up every day to work and provide for his family: ''At that time Gregor's sole desire was to do his utmost to help the family ... success was immediately transformed into hard cash which he could lay on the table before his amazed and happy family.''

Given his current six-legged condition, however, it's unlikely that Gregor is going to report back to his sales job any time soon. Facing dire straits, his feeble old father suddenly steps up to become the man of the house again.

The Father After Gregor's Metamorphosis

Already in the first section of ''The Metamorphosis'' you can see the transformation his father undertakes. Before Gregor's overnight transformation, Old Man Samsa would probably have spent his morning in an armchair, reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of tea until his midday nap. Kafka describes Gregor's father as ''the man who used to lie wearily sunk in bed whenever Gregor set out on a business trip; who on the evenings of his return welcomed him back lying in an easy chair in his bathrobe; who could not really rise to his feet but only lifted his arms in greeting.'' Horrified at how his son has turned into a gross bug, however, Mr. Samsa leaps into action and ''began stamping his feet and flourishing the cane and the newspaper'' until Gregor scuttles back to his room.

From then on, Mr. Samsa takes charge. He gets a job, and the family also takes in a group of boarders, who rent rooms in the house. He orders Gregor to stay in his room so the family's dirty secret won't be discovered by the boarders and hurls constant insults at his bug-son.

All the while, Gregor becomes more and more of a powerless recluse. At one point, the sight of him makes his mother faint. His angry father begins pelting him with apples: ''suddenly something lightly flung landed close beside him and rolled in front of him. It was an apple; a second apple followed immediately; Gregor came to a stop in alarm; there was no point in running away now, for his father was determined to bombard him.'' One of them sticks in Gregor's back, injuring him seriously.

That's the beginning of the end for Gregor. Eventually, the boarders find out about Gregor. Furious, Grete decides Gregor needs to go, and Mr. Samsa agrees, but his son simply dies soon after. Mr. Samsa and the rest of the family don't seem very upset. They even take a cheery ride to the countryside where they talk about finding a new apartment and a husband for Grete.

Kafka and His Own Father

A powerful, judgmental, abusive father, and a quiet, reclusive, abused son: ''The Metamorphosis'' is an emotionally wrenching story. A strained father-son relationship is a theme Kafka turned to in two other stories from 1913 (when ''The Metamorphosis'' was originally written), ''The Judgment'' and ''The Stoker.''

Portrait of Kafka
Portrait of Kafka

There's a lot of evidence from Kafka's diary and other sources that suggests he and his father, Hermann Kafka, didn't exactly get along either. There are hints that Hermann was abusive and controlling, and constantly referred to his son as a failure.

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