The Metamorphosis (1915)

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The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) is a short novel by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. It is often cited as one of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century and is widely studied in colleges and universities across the western world. The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature.

Endlessly dissected, ripped apart, its guts laid out on a slab, sewn back together, reconstructed, reinterpreted, misunderstood, misinterpreted, parodied, plagiarized, overanalyzed, and sadly sometimes underappreciated. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is one of those jumping off points for modern literature, a key touchstone where so many good writers found inspiration in his work and studied it like a textbook on great writing.

But what is the metamorphosis? A dark fantasy about a man who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a vile insect-like creature? Or an absurdist tale of a schizophrenic who believes he’s been turned into a human-sized beetle, terrorizing his family with his decrepit mental state? Kafka left that open for us to decide, even asking his original publisher to remove any imagery involving an insect off the cover.

“The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.”

The first edition cover (you can find it on Wikipedia: The Metamorphosis, is not a definitive statement on the story either. Is it the afflicted Gregor Samsa we see or his unnerved father fleeing from the sight of the creature in his son’s room? As it was written in German, Kafka never definitively stated what Gregor had become. The term he used, in what has now become one of the more famous opening lines in literature, to describe Gregor’s transformation was “ungeheueres Ungeziefer,” which literally means “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice.” This has been translated (and mistranslated) as “gigantic insect” in some cases, but in later years, more translators have settled on “monstrous vermin,” as this seems to suit Kafka’s vague intent much better.

In its construction, The Metamorphosis is flawless. Kafka upends the entire structure of modern storytelling, giving us the climax first, never explaining the possible source for Gregor’s affliction. Instead, Kafka leaves us in the dénouement, showing us the ugly effects of Gregor’s transformation on his too dependent family, who must now care for this unwanted monstrosity. As the tables are turned, the family shuns Gregor, locking him away. We then see Gregor move in two opposing directions — becoming more louse-like in his basic behavior (such as eating garbage), but also more human in his fantasies (and sudden appreciation of music). It is this complex contrast that makes Gregor seem more human to us, thus playing into Kafka’s slippery reality that confuses as much as illuminates.

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