Anticipates Modern Feelings of Alienation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Franz Kafka, an obscure writer and lawyer working for a Prague insurance company, published The Metamorphosis, a seminal work of surrealistic fiction focusing on a modern, alienated, and angst-ridden antihero who cannot adapt to his grotesque, inexplicable transformation into an insect.

Summary of Event

By 1912, Franz Kafka had completed The Metamorphosis and was reading it to his small circle of friends, but it was not until 1915 that he agreed to publish the novella, which was issued in a minor serial publication, Die Weissen Blätter, under the German title Die Verwandlung. It was first published in English as The Metamorphosis in 1936. The haunting, nightmarish piece, destined to become a modern classic, tells the story of a self-effacing salesman named Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a large insect similar to a cockroach. Unable to adapt to this circumstance, Gregor finally, and willfully, dies of disillusionment and starvation. Metamorphosis, The (Kafka) [kw]Metamorphosis Anticipates Modern Feelings of Alienation, The (1915) [kw]Alienation, The Metamorphosis Anticipates Modern Feelings of (1915) Metamorphosis, The (Kafka) [g]Bohemia;1915: The Metamorphosis Anticipates Modern Feelings of Alienation[03680] [g]Czechoslovakia;1915: The Metamorphosis Anticipates Modern Feelings of Alienation[03680] [c]Literature;1915: The Metamorphosis Anticipates Modern Feelings of Alienation[03680] Kafka, Franz Flaubert, Gustave Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Despite its somewhat repulsive predication, The Metamorphosis is an intriguing modern allegory. Gregor, a hardworking, respectful young man, simply accepts the grotesque change as his lot. In fact, he is anxious only about its impact on his ability to meet his obligations to his employer and his family. The metaphysical implications of his fantastic transfiguration concern him not at all.

In his insect body, Gregor calmly attempts to meet or evade his humdrum responsibilities as if he were suffering from nothing worse than the flu or the common cold. How to get out of bed, how to move across the room, how to get to work on time, how to explain his failure to get there when it becomes obvious that he will be late—these and myriad other banal problems occupy his thoughts.

A decent man, Gregor is particularly concerned about the impact he will have on others, especially his sister, Grete. He worries about how his family will manage without the income he had long provided, and he is especially cautious about staying out of sight, knowing that his appearance is offensive to everyone. He stays primarily in his room; when he needs to venture out, he is careful to scuttle into dark corners or hide under furniture in a deferential attempt to avoid confrontations with his family members and the household servants. Unable to communicate his feelings or concerns to anyone, Gregor slowly becomes totally alienated from the human world.

He also becomes a major liability. Without Gregor’s income, the family faces increasing hardships. First his father is forced out of retirement to go to work as a bank messenger, then Grete and her mother must find menial work. Eventually, the family has to take in boarders. Resentment toward Gregor quickly mounts. Even his sister, who is at first kind and solicitous of Gregor’s welfare, begins to turn against him when, inadvertently, he appears before his mother and shocks her into a life-threatening swoon. The father, who was harshly critical of Gregor even when he was in his human form, is wholly unsympathetic. He takes to throwing things at Gregor, and at one point hits him with an apple, leaving a deep wound that festers—a recurring symbol in Kafka’s fiction—and seems to drain from him the will to live.

As Gregor’s appetite wanes, the troubles of the family intensify. As if to express their resentment at Gregor’s failure to fulfill his responsibilities, the family members eventually neglect him altogether and turn his room into a depository for the household’s refuse. The three boarders, fastidious gentlemen obsessed with cleanliness, catch sight of Gregor when he tries to approach Grete while she is playing her violin. Using Gregor’s appearance as an excuse, the boarders all give notice and refuse to pay for the time they have already spent in the house. Even Grete then concludes that the family must rid itself of the unwanted vermin. His sister’s total rejection is the fatal blow for Gregor. He stops eating and dies, dispirited and totally alone.

In this story, Kafka was undoubtedly exorcising some personal devils, notably his ambivalent feelings toward his father, Herrmann, an overbearing, intemperate, and tyrannical man whose worldly values repeatedly collided with his son’s aesthetic interests. A shrewd, self-made entrepreneur and owner of a wholesale luxury-goods business, Herrmann Kafka was an unmerciful taskmaster who treated his servants and employees abysmally. Kafka’s reactions to his father’s behavior were to turn inward and to nurture a basic kindness and decency in his dealings with others, behavior for which his father viewed him as weak and irresponsible.

Although the equation of Gregor with Franz Kafka and the senior Samsa and Gregor’s boss with Herrmann Kafka is of speculative interest, it is of less importance than the particular modern themes that evolve from such character contrasts. Gregor is a victim—a hapless, antiheroic protagonist who, hamstrung by his own decency, is unable to cope in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst deliberately hostile and cruel. Furthermore, he becomes totally alienated from those whose love and loyalty he should command. Turned into an insect, lacking the physical capacity for speech but still endowed with human longing and rational powers, Gregor is literally unable to communicate with his family. As metaphor, Gregor, despite his limited spiritual vision, is the sensitive but ineffective man isolated and alone in a brutal, depressing world that relentlessly progresses along Darwinian and Freudian lines.

The dominant mood of The Metamorphosis is one of gloom and despair. Life for the Samsa family is dreary and largely uneventful. If there is any hope for anything other than an empty, time-serving existence ending in an obscure grave, it lies in Grete’s potential as a violinist or, for the author, in his own art. It had been Gregor’s hope to fund his sister’s training at a conservatory, but with his metamorphosis, that hope is crushed. Ironically, as the story progresses and Gregor becomes more adept as an insect, he also becomes increasingly sensitive to Grete’s playing, with the allegorical implication that in order to develop an aesthetic sensibility fully, modern man must withdraw from or be ostracized by a society that no longer cares about what he thinks, much less what he feels.

Although there is an apparent kinship between Kafka’s fiction and that of Russian writers from Nikolai Gogol to Anton Chekhov, the writers Kafka admired most were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Gustave Flaubert. The latter has been credited with having prompted Kafka to use antiheroic protagonists treated with scientific detachment, the former with having instilled in him an abiding sense of Weltschmerz, or world sorrow. Kafka, a Jew, filtered these influences through a consciousness acutely sensitive to social victimization and familial obligation. What evolves from that confluence of ethnic and literary heritages is the “Kafkaesque” tale, a story told in straightforward, simple prose that deals with a hapless protagonist who, while maintaining a cringing respect for authority, suffers anxiety and depression from a failure to measure up to its demands. Ironically, that authority, in whatever form, is often illogical or inscrutable and is invariably dehumanizing.

It is that irony that gives The Metamorphosis its disquieting and provocative power. After his transformation, Gregor, although powerless to meet his obligations to job and family, develops a maturing, humanizing self-awareness. In addition to becoming increasingly sensitive to the feelings of others, he begins to appreciate his sister’s music, that form of human expression that impinges most directly on the soul. Meanwhile, the authoritarian figures, Gregor’s loutish father and the bullying office manager, both reveal a total insensitivity and mounting hostility toward Gregor—particularly the parasitical father, who resents having to return to work and holds Gregor responsible for all ills that befall the family. Clearly, the real vermin of the piece are the selfish exploiters who treat others without a shred of human compassion or respect.

Significance

General recognition of the literary achievement of Franz Kafka did not come until after his death from tuberculosis in 1924, in part because Kafka himself had been reluctant to publish more than a small sampling of work. Although he had early champions among a small coterie of German-language literati—in Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann, for example—it was not until the posthumous publication of his unfinished novels in the late 1920’s that Kafka’s reputation began to grow and his works, in translation, broke geographic and language boundaries. Had his friend and biographer the German novelist Max Brod Brod, Max not chosen to ignore Kafka’s dying wish that his unpublished works be burned, Kafka would probably have remained an obscure and largely ignored writer.

Brod was the first important critical interpreter of Kafka’s fiction, and although many of his opinions have been discredited, he played an extremely important role in bringing Kafka to an international audience. That was paramount for Kafka’s artistic survival, for in the 1930’s, despite Kafka’s early espousal of atheism and socialism, the Marxist critics of Eastern Europe rejected his works as nihilistic and defeatist; in Nazi Germany, they were suppressed as the irrelevant whinings of an effete, intellectual Jew. By then, much of Kafka’s work had been translated into both English and French, and by the 1940’s Western European and American scholars and critics began to herald both the finished and the fragmentary works as major contributions to modern fiction. Thereafter, Kafka was rediscovered in the German-speaking nations of Europe and became a major influence on contemporary German fiction. In the 1960’s, he gained belated recognition in the intellectual and literary circles of his native Czechoslovakia, then under Communist rule.

By midcentury, Kafka’s name had become synonymous with the modern theme of alienation, and The Metamorphosis, his first important published work, was often singled out as the seminal piece of fiction developing that theme. Less perplexing and more tightly structured than more ambitious works such as Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), The Metamorphosis quickly gained a reputation as Kafka’s most approachable work, and it was widely read and discussed. Since then, it has continued to enjoy a reputation as a modern classic, a brilliant tour de force embodying in mode and manner Kafka’s artistic genius and his dominant themes and technique.

The general influence of Kafka’s work, directly or indirectly, is both diffuse and pervasive in modern literature. Although his work’s greatest impact has been on fiction, Kafka’s influence cuts across literary genres and is particularly visible in drama. In The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), Martin Esslin credits Kafka with having had a formative influence on the absurdist playwrights of the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Kafka’s fellow countryman Václav Havel and the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who was born in Czechoslovakia. In general, existentialist playwrights and novelists, notably Albert Camus, were drawn to Kafka’s work, seeing in his protagonists the plight of the existential hero who somehow must plod on in the face of cosmic insignificance and personal despair.

The theme of the individual’s alienation from an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world will always be associated with Kafka, but of equal importance and lasting influence is the technique he developed in The Metamorphosis and other fictional works. Although he dealt with mostly mundane human activity, he filtered it through the crazy-quilt world of the dream, rich with symbolism subject to a wide range of psychological and critical interpretations. In fact, few modern writers have inspired as much controversy as Kafka, and academic interest in his work remains intense. About one thing, however, there has long been a lasting scholarly consensus: that Kafka was a prescient visionary who left behind an important literary legacy. Metamorphosis, The (Kafka)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corngold, Stanley. The Commentators’ Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973. An important critical bibliography on The Metamorphosis. Digests the content of several English- and foreign-language articles and reflects the great range in critical interpretations of the story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Richard T., et al. A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. More than eight hundred entries provide information on Kafka’s works, characters, and themes as well as details of his personal life. Includes a select general bibliography in addition to suggestions for further reading provided with most entries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Ronald D., ed. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Included in this anthology of critical pieces are important essays by such influential thinkers as Friedrich Beissner, Albert Camus, Erich Heller, Martin Buber, and Edmund Wilson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayman, Ronald. A Biography of Kafka. 1981. Reprint. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. One of several significant biographies of Kafka, this study is thorough, well researched, and well documented. Includes a useful chronology, photographs, selective bibliography, and glossary of German and Czech names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated and edited by Stanley Corngold. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. This highly regarded and readily available translation and critical edition includes excellent explanatory notes, a selective bibliography, relevant Kafka letters and diary entries, and excerpts from important critical articles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spann, Meno. Franz Kafka. 1976. Reprint. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An excellent starting place for assessing Kafka’s importance, this critical overview of the author’s works includes a useful chronology, a brief biography, a survey of his style, and interpretive sections on each of his principal works. Selective bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stach, Reiner. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Translated by Shelley Frisch. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. First of a planned three-volume biography of Kafka covers the years 1910 to 1915, during which he produced The Metamorphosis and other seminal works. Draws on thousands of pages of Kafka’s journals and letters as well as unfinished literary works.

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