The Metamorphosis as Art

January 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

Many consider Franz Kafka one of the most prominent and influential writers of the twentieth century (Votteler 204). Many of his works, mostly short stories, met with critical acclaim only after his death in 1924. His stories usually present, “a grotesque vision of the world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals seek to transcend their tormented condition” (204). One critic has referred to him as “the classical painter of the estrangement of modern man” (Czermak 7). It is in Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis,” that we meet Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman that awakens one morning only to find himself in the unfortunate position of having been transformed into a giant insect. Despite this fact, Gregor preserves his human faculties of reason and feeling and struggles to maintain his relationships with the family members that depend on him for, if nothing else, financial support. Throughout the story, it is not only Gregor, but also the rest of his family, that undergo metamorphoses. Because “The Metamorphosis” can be seen from so many different perspectives it is rather difficult to label it in any one way (Magill, Masterplots 4115). “The Metamorphosis” has been summarized by Marxists, postmodernists, feminists, Zionists, structuralists, and psychoanalysts, each of whom have interpreted the story in a different way (4114). However, no matter which point of view it is seen from, there are several themes that abound throughout the story, such as guilt, change, liberation, sacrifice, and the place of the artist in society, among others (4115). Objective critics even have trouble categorizing “The Metamorphosis” and argue over the line of attack they should take when breaking it down. Critic Rudolph Binion argues that Gregor’s change into an insect is “not actually a physical occurrence, but is instead a hallucination caused by mental illness” (217). Critic Ralph Freedman contends “that it is best to approach Kafka as a writer of realistic fiction” and that “symbolism must be taken into account, but it is not the master key to Kafka’s work” (218-219). Yet another point of view is taken by critic Alexander Taylor. He finds Gregor’s transformation to be “an expression of his disenchantment with the structure of society” (224). Perhaps Freedman put it best when he said, “Kafka went his own way…No great artist can be caught in the categories set up by literary historians” (219). It has been argued by many that Kafka’s personal life is reflected in many of his works. To that account, many consider “The Metamorphosis” to be highly autobiographical. Franz Kafka was born in Prague in the summer of 1883 to rather wealthy parents. His family was very similar to that of Gregor Samsa’s (Friedman 220). He had a strong, overbearing father named Hermann who is very similar to Mr. Samsa, Gregor’s father. Kafka’s mother, Julie Lowy, was well meaning but usually took Hermann’s side when there was a dispute, as does Mrs. Samsa (Czermak 8). The only person in Kafka’s family that he was close to was his sister Ottla, who is strikingly similar to Gregor’s sister Grete in “The Metamorphosis” (8). Even the names Kafka and Samsa are very similar (7). As a sickly young boy, Kafka felt very inadequate compared to his robust and successful father (Friedman 221). He “felt ashamed at not measuring up while at the same time he felt resentful that he had to measure up” (221). Critic Norman Friedman says that Gregor turned into a bug “in order to spite his father and at the same time to punish himself for being an inadequate son” (221). Perhaps those are the same motives that caused Franz Kafka to write “The Metamorphosis.” One of the major themes in “The Metamorphosis” that most literary critics agree on is that of change. Although many consider Gregor’s metamorphosis to be that of the title, it is the entire Samsa family that undergoes a metamorphosis (Taylor 224). Long before the story takes place, Gregor’s father had a business failure that left him deep in debt. While Gregor is slowly working off his father’s debt, the rest of his family sits at home and lives off of his hard work. They hardly appreciate the sacrifices that Gregor makes for them nor do they realize how much they really depend on him (Madden 211). However, the lazy family is suddenly mobilized by Gregor’s metamorphosis. “[Mr. Samsa] had all but retired, living a slothful and useless existence, when the change in Gregor revived his old interests and ambitions to the extent that he managed to take the family fortunes in hand” (Madden 212). “He raises his stature once again to reclaim his spot as the man of the house while Gregor withers and dies” (Friedman 221). Grete, Gregor’s sister with whom “he alone had remained intimate”, is very close to Gregor at the outset of the story. Critic Heinz Politzer states that “after the metamorphosis she is at first the only one to interpret it as Gregor’s, and not the family’s, misfortune and the first to master her horror and enter the insect’s room” (233). Previously a homebody with no special skills or talents, Gregor’s change has “forced her out into the world of commerce” to help support the family (233). As her brother’s condition worsens, Grete becomes more and more independent and soon feels troubled by the insect’s existence (Magill, Masterplots 4115). Perhaps the most obvious metamorphosis is that of Gregor. Throughout his entire life, Gregor has let other people make his decisions for him (as evidenced by his father offering Gregor to work to pay off his debts for him). The physical metamorphosis that he undergoes is the “first occurrence in his life over which no one (including he) had any control” (Freedman 218). This change “allows [Gregor’s] hidden self to emerge, the self that had been stifled for so many years,” says critic Norman Friedman (222). By means of his transformation into a giant insect, Gregor has been released from his responsibility to support his family without having to assume the guilt of letting them down (Magill, Critical 1731). He has also changed from the provider to the dependent. “The Metamorphosis” also presents the theme of liberation. Both Gregor and his family are set free of some burden during “The Metamorphosis.” Literary critic Ralph Freedman contends that during his life as a man, “[Gregor] had in fact been a vermin, crushed…by authority and routine” (220). Freedman also goes on to say that it might be possible that Gregor wished his new condition upon himself: “It appears more and more purely as [Gregor] nears his end—that it had been an aspired condition” (220). Gregor was a prisoner to his insect form after the metamorphosis, but he was freed from “intolerable burdens, including the tyranny of time” along with his fiscal responsibilities” (Friedman 222). Perhaps most importantly, the metamorphosis relieved Gregor from having to make a choice between his responsibility to his parents and his yearning to be free (Madden 211). Ralph Freedman goes on to say that “in his death likewise he is both extinguished and set free” (220). Like Gregor, the Samsas also experience liberation in “The Metamorphosis.” When Gregor is transformed into a giant insect, he can no longer work to support his family. The Samsas realize this and decide that they need to work to support themselves. “Gregor was turned into a bug…because there was no other way to free his family from their moral degeneration,” and he died because, “there was no other way to free [his family] for the future” (Magill, Magill’s 1045). Had Gregor never changed, his family would have proceeded to live off of him forever, never learning how to take care of themselves. Had he never died, the Samsas would have had to bear the burden of taking care of him for the rest of his life. Thus, through Gregor’s transformation and death, both Gregor and the rest of the Samsas were set free. Because Gregor’s death set everyone free, several critics point to “The Metamorphosis” as an allegorical piece that refers to the life and death of Jesus Christ (Binion 218). “It is beneficent to his family—[Gregor’s] decline revitalizes them—and so by way of his morbid choice, a free and deliberate one in the end, [Gregor] acquires tragic dignity” (218). Critic William Madden points out another similarity between Gregor and Jesus when he says that “Gregor Samsa, surrounded by dust…interiorly distraught…[and] on the point of dying a seemingly pointless death ‘thought of his family with tenderness and love’,” (213). Another theme that Kafka includes in “The Metamorphosis” is that of the role of the artist in society (Friedman 220). For example, as an insect, Gregor becomes especially sensitive to Grete’s violin playing. “Gregor’s new sensitivity to music is a clear indication that [‘The Metamorphosis’] may be read as the self-discovery of the artist” (Magill, Magill’s 1048). When he turned into an insect, whether voluntarily or not, Gregor became a non-conformist. For artists, as with Gregor, “the danger…of nonconformity is that one may be misunderstood, mistreated, or entirely rejected” (1048). Early after his transformation Gregor is misunderstood by his family. At one point Grete wants to remove all the furniture from his room so he can crawl about more freely, when in fact, Gregor wants his furniture to remain so he can cling on to his human past. Once his family is able to support itself, Gregor begins to get mistreated. No longer does his sister bring him proper things to eat. Finally, at the end of the story, Gregor is entirely rejected as Grete convinces Mr. and Mrs. Samsa that the insect needs to be gotten rid of. Although the fate of being turned into a giant insect only to be forsaken by one’s family and eventually left to die a lonely death seems rather harsh, it is perhaps the only way for anyone in the Samsa family to benefit (Taylor 225). To prove this, we need only look at the alternatives. Had Gregor continued working, his family would have continued to live off him as long as possible (Friedman 222). Had Gregor quit his job and left them, they would have blamed him for their misfortunes and felt sorry for themselves (222). If Gregor had gotten sick or lame “they would have had to pity him” (222). Had he died, his family would, again, feel sorry for themselves (223). Critic Norman Friedman’s thesis regarding Kafka’s use of the metamorphosis is that “given the situation, [the Samsas] had to want to be free, and the solution Kafka chose was to make Gregor repulsive to them, for only then could they reject him” (223). Critic Ralph Freedman says that this story, although bittersweet in the end, produces “proper aesthetic satisfaction” because, of the possibilities, “only Gregor being transformed and dying so that [his family] could be reborn does any good to any of them” (219). Critic Alexander Taylor states that “Gregor was not really alive in his role as provider…and ironically his continued success in that very role could only have reduced his family further in their moral degradation” (225). Heinz Politzer sums it up saying, “even if [Gregor] had paid off [the debt] they would have all lost in the end—he wasted by overwork and they wallowing in indolence. As it turns out, he paid off the debt after all” (233). The way Franz Kafka “invites [the reader] to look at a terrifying reality through a disarmingly simple tale” surely stems from his brilliance (Madden 211). Kafka’s works transcend the common literary circles of critics. His works make criticism and labeling difficult because when critics break them down they are “dealing with the means used by an artist to express his conception” (212). In “The Metamorphosis,” “Kafka’s man-turned-insect is Picasso’s quarter-of-an-eye woman: it is one way of realizing a vision” (212). In the case of “The Metamorphosis” Kafka’s vision is one that, try as they may, critics cannot pin down. “The Metamorphosis” cannot be labeled, for it is truly a piece of art crafted by a true artist.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD
Deadline

Page count
1 pages
$ 10

Price