The Metamorphosis  
First edition cover
Author Franz Kafka
Original title Die Verwandlung
Country Austria–Hungary
Language German
Genre(s) Philosophical novella, absurdist fiction
Publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig
Publication date 1915

The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) is a novella by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. It is often cited as one of the seminal works of short fiction of the 20th century and is widely studied in colleges and universities across the western world; Elias Canetti described it as "one of the few great and perfect works of the poetic imagination written during this century". The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself transformed into an insect.

Plot summary

Gregor Samsa awakes one morning in his family's apartment to find himself inexplicably transformed overnight into a gigantic insect. Gregor does not immediately recoil from his insect form, but instead chooses to lament his job by saying, "How am I going to get to work?" and the general misery of the rainy weather outside. Indeed, the narrative establishes the poor conditions as the cause of his bed-ridden state. Gregor works as a traveling salesman, and, as it is usual for traveling salesmen to move constantly from place to place, he is accustomed to waking up in unfamiliar surroundings and various circumstances.

The true reality of his metamorphosis is complete when he sees his many legs waving in the air. But from then on he resists any conscious recognition regarding his change or the fact that a change indeed happened—everything but the recognition of his separation from the others. The problem Gregor has at the beginning of the story is that his family and a messenger from his boss are knocking at the door, concerned for him, and he's unable to flip off his back onto the floor.

The weight on Gregor's life is that he is the financial head of the household; nobody else apparently works in his family (or is able to work); their whole present and comfortable existence relies upon Gregor's employment at the "firm." Most of the weight is the debt which his father owes to the employer for whom Gregor now works.

Gregor becomes progressively unable to communicate with his family, and even before his physical appearance is revealed to them, his voice becomes completely unintelligible. He retains his cognitive faculties, though his family remains unaware of this.

Curiously, his condition does not arouse a sense of surprise or incredulity in the eyes of his family, who merely despise it as an indication of their impending burden. However, most of the story revolves around his interactions with his family, with whom he lives, and their shock, denial, and repulsion whenever they are confronted with his physical condition. Horrified by his appearance, they take to shutting Gregor into his room, but Grete, his sister, tries to care for him by providing him with food and water. In his new form, he rejects his erstwhile favourite food (milk and bread), preferring stale, rotten food, but later loses his ability to eat, despite immense hunger. He also develops the fears of an insect, being effectively shooed away by hissing voices and stamping feet. Because of the effect that his appearance has on the rest of the family, Gregor decides to hide underneath a sofa when somebody has to come into his room, later going to the extent of draping a sheet over it to hide more effectively.

Because Gregor can't provide financially any more, the other family members get jobs: Gregor's father comes out of retirement to work at a bank, his mother sews fine underwear for a fashion house and his sister works in a shop and gets a position on a secretarial course. One day, when Gregor emerges from his room, his father chases him around the dining room table and pelts him with apples. One of the apples becomes embedded in his back, causing an infection.

While he is confined to his room, Gregor's only activities are looking out of his window and crawling up the walls and on the ceiling. Financial hardship befalls the family, and Grete's caretaking deteriorates. Over the course of the story, Gregor's vision grows dimmer, and his physical size shrinks: where he is initially about the size of a human, and can't get through a single door without trouble, he later becomes small enough to crawl up the wall and sit over a picture frame. Due to his infection and his hunger, he is soon barely able to move at all, though. Later, his parents take in lodgers to supplement their income, and his room gets used as a dumping area for unwanted objects, and is seldom cleaned. Gregor becomes dirty himself, covered in dust and old bits of rotten food.

Although he imprisons himself within his room voluntarily at first, his family later become the jailers, locking Gregor in from the outside, partly to hide him from their new lodgers. Devoid of human contact, Gregor alternates between concern for his family and anger at them for neglecting him. One day the door is left open, and Gregor's sister plays the violin to entertain the lodgers. Gregor is attracted to the music, and slowly walks into the dining room despite himself, entertaining a fantasy of getting his much-loved sister to join him in his room and play her violin for him. He imagines telling Grete of his plans to send her to the conservatory to study the violin. The lodgers see him and give notice, refusing to pay the rent they owe, even threatening to sue the family for harboring him while they stayed there. Even Grete's rejection of Gregor is total when she says to the family, "We must try to get rid of it. We've done everything humanly possible to take care of it and to put up with it, no one can reproach us in the slightest."

The sister then determines with finality that the insect is no longer Gregor, since Gregor would have left them out of love and taken their burden away. Gregor returns to his room and collapses, finally succumbing to his wound.

The point of view shifts as, upon discovery of his corpse, the family feels an enormous burden has been lifted from them, and start planning for the future again. The family discovers that they aren't doing financially badly at all, especially since, following Gregor's demise, they can take a smaller flat. The brief process of forgetting Gregor and shutting him from their lives is quickly completed. The final sentence echoes the first: while the opening lines document Gregor's physical metamorphosis, the novella ends with mention that Greta too has changed, having become a "good looking, shapely" girl who will soon be old enough to marry.


Gregor Samsa

Gregor is the protagonist of the story. He works hard as a travelling salesman to provide for his sister and parents. He wakes up one morning as a giant insect.

Greta Samsa

Greta is Gregor's younger sister, who becomes his caretaker after the metamorphosis. At the beginning Greta and Gregor have a strong relationship but this relationship fades with time. While Greta originally volunteers to feed him and clean his room, throughout the story she grows more and more impatient with the task to the point of deliberately leaving messes in his room out of spite. She plays the violin and dreams of going to the conservatorium, a dream that Gregor was going to make come true. He was going to announce this on Christmas Eve. To help provide an income for the family after Gregor's transformation she starts working as a salesgirl in a shop. She seems more sympathetic at the beginning but with the passage of time her feelings fade away.

Mr Samsa

Gregor's father owes a large debt to Gregor's boss, which is why Gregor can't quit his hated job. He is lazy and elderly, while Gregor works, but when, after the metamorphosis, Gregor is unable to provide for the family, he is shown to be an able-bodied worker. He also attempts to kill Gregor when he is discovered in his insect state.

Mrs Samsa

Mrs Samsa is the mother of Greta and Gregor. She is initially shocked at Gregor's transformation, however eventually decides she wants to enter his room. This, unfortunately, seems too much for her to handle, and Gregor hides away from her in an attempt to protect her.

Chief Clerk

Chief Clerk is the boss of Gregor and the person to who Mr Samsa is in debt to.


Three tenants are invited to live with the Samsas to supplement their income. They are fussy and cannot stand dirtiness, eventually leading to the point when they discover Gregor and threaten the family with a lawsuit, apparently believing he's just an extraordinarily large insect.

Lost in translation

The opening sentence of the novella is famous in English:

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."
"Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt."

Kafka's sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop—that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved due to the construction of sentences in German that require that the participle be positioned at the end of the sentence; in the above sentence, the equivalent of 'changed' is the final word, 'verwandelt'. Such constructions are not replicable in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same effect found in the original text.[1]

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect", but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle German, Ungeziefer literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice"[2] and is sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding "insect". Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor's disgust at his transformation. The phrasing used in the David Wyllie translation[3] and Joachim Neugroschel[4] is "transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin".

However, "vermin" denotes in English many animals (particularly mice, rats and foxes) and in Kafka's letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, in which he discusses his concern about the cover illustration for the first edition, he uses the term "Insekt", saying "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance."[5] While this shows his concern not to give precise information about the type of creature Gregor becomes, the use of the general term "insect" can therefore be defended on the part of translators wishing to improve the readability of the end text.

Ungeziefer has sometimes been translated as "cockroach", "dung beetle", "beetle", and other highly specific terms. The term "dung beetle" or Mistkäfer is in fact used in the novella by the cleaning lady near the end of the story, but it is not used in the narration. Ungeziefer also denotes a sense of separation between him and his environment: he is unclean and must therefore be excluded.

Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as writer and literary critic, insisted that Gregor was not a cockroach, but a beetle with wings under his shell, and capable of flight — if only he had known it. Nabokov left a sketch annotated "just over three feet long" on the opening page of his (heavily corrected) English teaching copy.[6] In his accompanying lecture notes, Nabokov discusses the type of vermin Gregor has been transformed into, concluding that Gregor "is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle. (I must add that neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly.)"[7]

Adaptations to other media

There are several film versions, including:

A stage adaptation was performed by Steven Berkoff in 1969. Berkoff's text was also used for the libretto to Brian Howard's 1983 opera Metamorphosis.[8] Another stage adaptation was performed in 2006 by the Icelandic company Vesturport, showing at the Lyric Hammersmith, London. That adaptation is set to be performed in the Icelandic theater fall of 2008.[9][10] Another stage adaptation was performed in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2005 by the Centre for Asian Theatre.[11] That performance is still continuing in Bangladesh. The Lyric Theatre Company is toured the UK in 2006 with its stage adaptation of Metamorphosis, accompanied by a unique soundtrack performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. American comic artist Peter Kuper illustrated a graphic-novel version, first published by the Crown Publishing Group in 2003.[12] Megan Rees is currently working on a new stage adaptation and should be published by 2010.


External links

Online editions


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at The Metamorphosis. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.
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