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The Metamorphosis Essay, Research Paper
Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis” in 1912, taking three weeks to compose
the story. While he had expressed earlier satisfaction with the work, he later
found it to be flawed, even calling the ending “unreadable.” But whatever his
own opinion may have been, the short story has become one of the most popularly
read and analyzed works of twentieth-century literature. Isolation and
alienation are at the heart of this surreal story of a man transformed overnight
into a kind of beetle. In contrast to much of Kafka’s fiction, “The
Metamorphosis” has not a sense of incompleteness. It is formally structured
into three Roman-numbered parts, with each section having its own climax. A
number of themes run through the story, but at the center are the familial
relationships fundamentally affected by the great change in the story’s
protagonist, Gregor Samsa (Lawson 27).
While the father-son relationship in the story appears to be a central
theme, the relationship between Gregor and his sister Grete is perhaps the most
unique. It is Grete, after all, with whom the metamorphosed Gregor has any
rapport, suggesting the Kafka intended to lend at least some significance to
their relationship. Grete’s significance is found in her changing relationship
with her brother. It is Grete’s changing actions, feelings, and speech toward
her brother, coupled with her accession to womanhood, that seem to parallel
Gregor’s own metamorphosis. This change represents her metamorphosis form
adolescence into adulthood but at the same time it marks the final demise of
Gregor. Thus a certain symmetry is to be found in “The Metamorphosis”: while
Gregor falls in the midst of despair, Grete ascends to a self-sufficient, sexual
It is Grete who initially tries conscientiously to do whatever she can
for Gregor. She attempts to find out what he eats, to make him feel comfortable,
and to anticipate his desires. Grete, in an act of goodwill and love toward
Gregor, “brought him a wide assortment of things, all spread out on old
newspaper: old, half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from the evening meal,
caked with congealed white sauce; some raisins and almonds; a piece of cheese,
which two days before Gregor had declared inedible; a plain slice of bread, a
slice of bread and butter, and one with butter and salt” (p. 24). Besides being
the only member of the family still willing to face Gregor daily, she is also
the family representative of Gregor, in a sense, to a mother who doesn’t
understand and a father who is hostile and opposing. The father is physically
violent toward his metamorphosed Gregor, pushing him through a door in Part I:
“…when from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a
deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely” (p. 20). Grete
appears to concentrate on protecting Gregor from this antagonistic father and an
indecisive mother. In Part II, when Grete leads her mother into Gregor’s room
for the first time, we see the strange way in which Grete has become both the
expert and the caretaker of Gregor’s affairs (Nabokov 271). She convinces her
mother that it is best to remove all of the furniture from his room. Kafka
attributes her actions partly to an adolescent zest: “Another factor which might
have been also the enthusiastic temperament of an adolescent girl, which seeks
to indulge itself on every opportunity and which now tempted Grete to exaggerate
the horror of her brother’s circumstances in order that she might do all the
more for him” (p. 34).
The change in Grete’s attitudes and actions toward Gregor probably fully
begin in Part II, during the scene where Gregor struggles over to the window and
leans against the panes to look outside. Grete, seemingly beginning to forget
the Gregor still has human feelings and sensitivities, rudely opens the window
and voices her disgust at the distasteful odor of his den. Moreover, she
doesn’t bother to hide her feelings when she sees him. One day, about a month
after Gregor’s metamorphosis, “when there was surely no reason for her to be
still startled at his appearance, she came a little earlier than usual and found
him gazing out of the window…she jumped back as if in alarm and banged the
door shut; a stranger might well have thought he had been lying in wait for her
there meaning to bite her” (p. 30). Against her mounting insensitivity is
Gregor’s poignant selflessness (Nabokov 270). In a marvelous display of feeling
and compassion for his sister and her feelings, he expends four hours of labor
to carry a sheet on his back to the couch to hide himself from her sight, thus
sparing her the disgust of looking at him.
As Grete’s behavior begins to change, Grete begins to slide closer and
closer to his demise. At the end of Part II, Gregor’s father has completed his
rise to power. Initially weak and enfeebled, the father is now “standing there
in fine shape; dressed in a smart blue uniform with gold buttons, such as bank
messengers wear; his strong double chin bulged over the stiff high collar of his
jacket…his onetime tangled white hair had become combed flat on either side of
a shining and carefully exact parting” (p. 38). It is at this point that the
father begins to pelt Gregor with small red apples, one of them embedding in his
flesh at great pain: “Gregor wanted to drag himself forward, as if this
startling incredible pain could be left behind him” (p. 39). Of course, Gregor
finds he cannot leave the pain behind him, and begins his slide towards death.
Gregor’s reaction to the violin playing episode is the climax and symbol
of Grete’s metamorphosis and Gregor’s demise (Lawson 33). The boarders are
extremely interested in hearing her play an impromptu recital. She begins to
play the violin, and Gregor, his transformation into beetlehood nearly complete,
finds himself drawn to the music, putting aside any human feelings of
consideration for others: “He felt as if the way were opening before him to the
unknown nourishment he craved…He felt hardly any surprise at his growing lack
of consideration of others” (p. 48). So inconsiderate and oblivious is he to
others, that he begins a dangerous trek towards the living room: “And in spite
of his condition, no shame deterred him from advancing a little over the
spotless floor of the living room” (p. 49). Initially, nobody is aware of him,
but soon the middle lodger sees him and becomes inflamed. He announces to Grete
and the mother ? spitting on the floor no less ? that he can no longer live
there due to the disgusting conditions.
Here Grete’s betrayal of her brother is final and absolute. Grete, in
this scene, reaches the plateau of her metamorphosis into an enemy of Gregor,
and is left only to change physically and advance in her womanhood. While she
tries to salvage the situation by hastily making the boarders’ beds, the violin
clangs to the floor, symbolizing her rejection of Gregor and her rapport with
him (Lawson 33). At this point she dissociates the name of her brother from the
insect when addressing her parents: “We must try to get rid of it. It will be
the death of both of you, I can see that coming” (p. 51). And later, “It has to
go” (p. 52). Gregor is no longer “he,” but “it.” She sees the complete
disappearance of Gregor the human and the complete rise of the beetle. “How
can this be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that
human beings can’t live with such a creature, and he’d have gone away on his own
accord” (p. 52). Grete condemns Gregor to death when she urgently locks him
into his own room, crying “At last” (p. 53) to her parents as she turns the key
in the lock. Even in death, Gregor retains tender feelings for his family: “He
thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must
disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister” (p. 55).
Grete’s betrayal was just one more emotional trauma Gregor had to face.
Gregor’s death stands in contrast to the final image of “The
Metamorphosis”. Grete has now undergone her transformation into womanhood. She
wakes up to find her body has bloomed in the wake of Gregor’s disappearance
(Thiher 44). Kafka’s endings begs no questions: “It struck both Mr. and Mrs.
Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughters
increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had
made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure” (p.
58). Grete has emerged from her adolescence into her young adult role in the
real world (Lawson 34). Thus, her parents tacitly agree that “it would soon be
time to find a good husband for her” (p. 58).
Grete’s metamorphosis into womanhood can be contrasted with the mother’s
lack of a similar transformation. She remains less antagonistic than the father,
sometimes more insightful than the sister, but altogether unsure of herself and
eager to please and indulge her husband. In many ways, she stands as a
caricature of a housewife and promises to remain that way even if the Samsas are
fewer in number and forever changed (Lawson 35).
There is a final irony to note in the contrast between Gregor’s demise
and Grete’s awakening. While Grete has developed into an animal whose sexual
passage into womanhood needs no language to express its fulfillment, Gregor was
the animal whose condition begs the words to explain it. Kafka begins “The
Metamorphosis” by remarking that Gregor’s transformation is “no dream” whereas
Grete’s accession to female sexuality is described as the family’s “new dreams.”
Possibly this is Kafka’s ultimate irony ? that nightmares express lost human
reality better than dreams do of animal satisfactions (Thiher 44). Grete
Samsa’s changing actions, feelings, and speech toward her brother, coupled with
her accession to womanhood, parallel Gregor’s own metamorphosis.
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