You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.Franz Kafka
The world is tragic, beautiful, strange, and mundane all at once. Confusion of the unpredictable nature of life leads the writer Franz Kafka to conjure stories exemplifying the absurdities life holds in modernity. This work analyzes Mr. Kafka’s intriguing book Metamorphosis, and his poignant themes about our existence.
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire and now the modern-day Czech Republic. Franz was the eldest son in an upper-middle-class Jewish family, who all spoke German—the language of prestige in the Empire at that time. Although provided a good education by his family, Kafka was always haunted by his strict father who never appreciated his creative work, or cared much for his son’s own interests. While working various jobs over his life, from a law clerk to insurance, Franz used his free time to write stories that would later be among the most notorious in 20th-century literature. His stories were seen as incredibly bizarre and surreal, leading to the coining of a new word, ‘Kafkaesque.’ Metamorphosis was Franz Kafka’s most famous work.
Kafkaesque: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality (Merriam-Webster)
The story of Metamorphosis is about a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa supporting his family financially. One day Gregor awakes in bed as an insect. Gregor realized he is late for work, and begins to ruminate on his career and his need to support his family. Some time passes, and his family members come knocking, stating that he is late for work and asking if he is okay. Gregor tries to hide his situation, and while the door is still locked, tells them he is fine and is getting ready.
Later Gregor’s boss comes to check on his employee in person, as Gregor never missed a day of work. Gregor still does not budge, choosing to make up more excuses to delay, promising his boss that he’ll be working as soon as possible. Some time passes, and eventually Gregor opens the door to his family, who catches sight of their insect son; his mother and sister being shocked with fright, and his father with enraged with horrific anger. His sister becomes his caretaker, feeding him throughout the day bits of left-over rotten foods, as his parents cannot bare the tragic sight of him.
Part One Themes
Irony. Upon reading Metamorphosis, one is struck with Gregor’s off-kilter anxiety, as one would naturally assume that awakening as an insect would be the biggest fear. Yet, it is Gregor Samsa’s fear of being late for work that consumes him. The worries of Gregor’s future employment outweighs his bug-like transformation. This to me is a particular critique on modernity, that life itself in the Industrial Age has transformed at a tremendous pace, yet we are so caught up in the minutiae of the system that we miss the dramatic altering of our lives.
Capitalism and the Bug Men Meme. Here I think Gregor Samsa’s insect form is no accident; we are all familiar with the bug man memes of the internet. The bug man meme is usually meant to portray someone completely dependent on the system, disconnected from a sense of individuality and ownerships of one’s own life, someone like a drone, an insect, living for superficial pleasure. Kafka understood and used this meme a century before it entered public consciousness online. Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis from human to bug is a physical representation of an existential crisis, that being a complete slave to his salesman job, robbing Gregor of human dignity, and transforming him into the disgusting bug man we hate. The sister taking care of Gregor represents a reversal of expectation; he thought he was the provider, but is now the one subsidized, the illusion of autonomy broken, and reality revealed. Rotten food is given, like the awful junk food we are fed today. Gregor is faced with ‘meals’ that are ugly and representative of the awful state we experience.
One day, after his sister and mother were moving furniture inside their insect son’s room, Gregor noticed a beloved picture of a woman on his prized work desk he didn’t want them to move. He thrusted his body atop the picture to protect it. After the mother again caught a glimpse of her son’s bug form, she fainted. His father comes home later after taking up a new job in Gregor’s absence. Angry to hear of his wife’s condition, he throws apples at Gregor, logging one apple into his back, which later grew into an infection.
After spending yet more time locked in his room, Gregor hears music coming from the downstairs; his sister playing violin for their three men who are boarders for extra family income. The insect son makes his way out of his room to listen to and appreciate his sister’s music. After the boarders catch sight of Gregor, they storm out. Angered by the strain that Gregor’s metamorphosis has taken on the family, they yet again lock him away, where Gregor later dies there and is found the next day. After Gregor dies, his bedroom window is opened, bringing in the nice spring weather. The family then leaves on spring vacation to go relax and take in the amazing springtime bliss.
Part Two Themes
Nostalgia. The scene of the picture on the desk represents to Gregor, the bug man; his perceived humanity represented those objects, not wanting to part with them. The point here is that he never enjoyed either a girlfriend nor did his work provide human dignity. Quite the opposite. He was caught up in false nostalgia, like many in modernity, for either something that never was or something that is indeed the vehicle of one’s enslavement. Nowadays, one can find plenty of memes idealizing 1950s America, the nuclear family with the white picket fence, and in a perfect, all-White suburb gleaming with the newest consumer products. The sad reality that Boomers and Zoomers alike often misunderstand, is that they long for a time that never was, and that the Consumer Capitalism they champion for giving them their supposed freedom, is the very thing that enslaves them to their current circumstance and moral despair. Consumer Capitalism has sold us ‘meaning’ in the products that promise to empower and fulfill our lives, further leaving us at a loss of what was missing in the first place. Nostalgia itself is commodified.
Meaning. The one time Gregor is about to transcend his bug like condition occurs when his sister plays the violin for the three boarders. Upon hearing the beautiful music, Gregor wonders why he can still enjoy and make sense of a melody. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an existentialist masterpiece because it deals with the meaning of Gregor’s boring life in a profound way. It was not the pictures on the desk or the desk itself that made him experience his humanity again. Meaning itself is something fluid, not frail locked in an object, but is found through living experience and enjoyment of the present. The symbolic and literal use of apples cleverly represents some form of punishment by Gregor’s father. This I think has more to do with the personal antagonism Franz Kafka experienced with his father, but nevertheless, still, give us the audience meaning in that the rotten apple represents the continued scorn of his father.
When Gregor dies, his window is opened to the beautiful spring weather. This moment is oddly freeing, as it represents the first time that one is relieved. The family, rather than working themselves to exhaustion, takes time off to spend with each other. Rather than ending in tragedy, the death represents a new beginning, which adds a cyclical ending. Bizarre, yes, but ultimately a humbling story of our own situation in modernity. The irony of our modern, extreme lifestyle being obscured by minutiae, the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, and the bug-man lifestyle it spawns, is fresh on our existential wounds. Nostalgia selling us the representations of happiness rather than happiness itself, is truer than ever in the modern digital age.
Ultimately, this work is an existentialist masterpiece because of the profound way Kafka portrays the mundane. Franz Kafka’s metamorphosis identifies the problems and conflicts that vex us inwardly. Kafka’s existential analysis gives a sense that life is stranger and grander than any one individual, including Kafka himself, could ever fully comprehend and this is what makes the essence of kafkaesque. Alan Watts, the English-American mystic and UC Berkeley professor once said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, nor a question to be answered. Life is a mystery to be experienced.”