Themetamorphosis: A Story of Alienation
Themetamorphosis (German: Dieverwandlung) tells the story of a man who transforms into an insect one night, becomes despised by his family and is finally disposed of like rubbish after dying in agony.
English-american poet W.H. Auden once likened Franz Kafka to Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe as the single most important writer of his age. Kafka is regarded as the founder of modernist literature and a pioneer of expressionism. His most famous work, The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung), tells the story of a man who transforms into an insect one night, becomes despised by his family and is finally disposed of like rubbish after dying in agony.
The novella opens with the famous line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” In this allegorical, fantasy world, Kafka pushed cold-heartedness to extremes, writing, as it were, a peculiar elegy on the wasteland of Western mentality, whilst also revealing his own worried, heavy heart.
Life of Isolation
In 1947, soon after the 20-year- old Gabriel García Márquez went to study law at university, he began writing. At the time, he was a voracious reader of literature. On reading the first line of The Metamorphosis, he once said: “I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that.” From then on, he became stubbornly attached to the novella and its author, absorbing
its style of writing. Twenty years on, Márquez went on to write the magical-realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which made him one of the best-known authors in the world. In a sense, Márquez owed his success to Franz Kafka, since without The Metamorphosis, there would be no One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Compared with the world’s other top writers, Franz Kafka led an exceptionally ordinary life. He was born into a Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and then part of the Austro-hungarian Empire, in 1883. His father had served in the army, later becoming a merchant, and was known for being unbearably rude not only to his employees but also to his own children. Kafka was therefore timid around his father and gradually became shy and withdrawn. At the age of 18, Kafka went to the University of Prague to study chemistry, later switching to law, and obtaining the degree of Doctor of Law. In 1908 he joined the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute as an insurance officer where he first published several works in the literary journal Hyperion.
In 1912, Kafka began to write the novel Der Verschollene (known as Amerika or The Man Who Disappeared), and went to Leipzig and Weimar with his friend Max Brod. Later, he stayed in a mountain town alone to write Der Process ( The Trial) and The Metamorphosis. Two years later in 1914, he got engaged to Felice Bauer in Berlin but broke off the engagement less than a month later.
In 1917, Kafka wrote Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer ( The Great Wall of China) and got engaged to Bauer for the second time, only to break off the engagement again at the end of that year. He was regarded as eccentric by his family, especially his father, who could not understand his son’s interest in writing. His authoritarian father would often order around and reproach his shop assistants at work, and criticise his own children daily at home. The only thing that he cared about was his business and so could not fathom his son’s desire to be a writer, much less give him any support. In addition, he took a patriarchal approach towards his children, meaning Franz suffered huge psychological pressure from an early age. In 1919, Kafka wrote Letter to His Father, which was more than 100 pages in length but he never posted it.
In the letter, Kafka described the mental trauma he experienced during his boyhood, at which his father just cast merciless ridicule. He also mentioned that he was fond of a Jewish actress, but his father disdainfully compared her to a bug.
In 1923, Kafka fell in love with Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher, but failed to get his father’s approval. His father merely suggested to him that she must have worn some kind of special shirt, like other women of Prague do, to seduce him and make him want to marry her. One year later Kafka died of tuberculosis and was buried in Prague. As his coffin was being lowered into the grave, Dora tried to jump in with it, but was held back by others present.
During his life, Kafka was engaged three times, but broke them off each time and so remained unmarried until his death. He often felt frightened, lonely and despondent, as if he was enveloped in a sense of crisis. However, he was also strongly attached to this mentality— afraid that married life would rid him of his fear of solitude, which was the source of his writing.
Kafka never intended to publish the majority of his works; writing was a pastime and a purely private activity that he did alone. Before his death, he asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts. However, Brod ignored his request and went on to publish them all. In 1931, The Great Wall of China, the first posthumous collection of short stories by Kafka, was published. This was followed five years later by the sixvolume Novellen aus Böhmen ( Novellas from Bohemia) compiled by Brod; and in 1958, the nine-volume Gesammelte Werke ( Collected Works of Kafka) edited by Brod was published. Kafka was by no means a prolific writer, but his works have had a profound influence on the direction of contemporary literature. His novels are rich in symbolism and explore a range of themes from absurdity, irrationality and alienation, to anxiety and loneliness.
Kafka remained virtually unknown during his lifetime, but people gradually recognised the value of his works after they were published. At the time, a craze for all things Kafka spread across Europe which has lasted until today. A brief comment by W.H. Auden helps explain why people are still interested in this seminal author: “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.” Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is another fan of Kafka, and even named one of his novels “Kafka on the Shore.” In addition, many Chinese writers have also been influenced by the author, including Ge Fei and Yu Hua. To commemorate the writer, two American astronomers even named an asteroid— discovered in 1983—“3412 Kafka.”
During Kafka’s lifetime, the AustroHungarian Empire began to crumble, and, because he was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche, he stood aloof from political events. Therefore, his work typically features an isolated and desperate protagonist within a hostile environment told through bizarre imagery and
symbolism. He flourished mainly around the period leading up to, during and after World War I. At that time, because of the economic depression, social corruption and poverty, an air of desperation hovered across the whole of Europe which contributed to Kafka’s agony and loneliness. As such, alienation, loneliness and fear are the central themes in his oeuvre.
Kafka often employed allegories in his writing and frequently created fantastical images. However, once readers grasp the metaphor that lies behind, they are left with a vivid sense of profundity. Using his inimitable style, powerful symbolism and detailed descriptions, Kafka created works punctuated by fantastic or incredible elements. His novella The Metamorphosis is just such a work: A salesman awakes one morning and finds he has been turned into a bug. This transformation reflected people’s true state of life in Europe at the time, who suffered from immense physical and mental pressure, and as a consequence, had become deranged and alienated.
Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, spends his life busily rushing from place to place, earning money to support his family. After his father goes bankrupt, he works hard to become a successful salesman in order to allow his parents and sister to enjoy a good quality of life again. As the eldest child in his family, Gregor’s mother is full of praise for him and his sister loves him dearly. However, one morning he wakes up and finds he has turned into a giant insect. The incident deals a heavy blow to Gregor and his whole family. His father is griefstricken because the creditors will come; his mother becomes depressed because she must take on the burden of the household chores despite her failing health; and his sister feels sorrow as her dream of entering the music conservatory is shattered. The family’s reactions are provoked not at the loss of a relative but by the fact that they cannot enjoy the comfortable life they had become accustomed to. Gregor, on the other hand, feels helpless and worried. After his father realises that Gregor cannot make money to support the family, he “clenched his fist with a hostile expression, as if he wished to push Gregor back into his room.” And, one time when Gregor gets stuck in the doorframe, his father “gives him one really strong liberating push from behind, and he scurried, bleeding severely, far into the interior of his room.”
After he transforms into a bug, Gregor lives the life of an insect but retains his human mind. Although he loses his job, he still worries about his father’s debts and how to send his sister to the conservatory. A few days later, however, his whole family begins to see him as a burden. This giant bug, which still thought like a human and could understand human words, creeps forward to see his mother, but at Gregor’s appearance his father becomes so angry that he hurls apples at him, and one apple “drove into Gregor’s back really hard.” From then on, the rotten apples are closely linked with Gregor’s fate as they remain lodged in his back until his ultimate demise.
In order to survive, Gregor’s family all have to get jobs. Slowly they begin to lose any patience for the insect and Gregor’s sister even proposes driving him out of the home. Faced by the callous indifference of his relatives and living in near-constant cold and hunger, Gregor contracts an illness. His head sinks all the way down, and his last breath flows out weakly from his nostrils. Anxious and guilty, he bears the misfortune of his family, but the greatest misfortune is that he is discarded by society and his family and dies in oblivion. His family are greatly relieved at his death, with his father saying “Well, now we can give thanks to God” and his mother having a “melancholy smile on her face.”
Gregor’s experience in the novel symbolises the fate of an unimportant person at the bottom of society in an age that is materially rich but lacking in humanity. Through the fantastic story of a man’s transformation into an insect, Kafka depicted people focused on profit and indifferent to true humanity. These people finally become deranged under social pressures, thus reflecting the reality of social life under capitalism. Nobel Prize winning author Elias Canetti once said: “In The Metamorphosis, Kafka reached the height of his mastery: he wrote something which he could never surpass, because there is nothing which The Metamorphosis could be surpassed by—one of the few great and perfect poetic works of this century.”
At the end of the 19th century, and especially after the First World War,
the defects in capitalist societies began to appear. Constant turmoil and fierce competition raised doubts about traditional values, and Western pessimism—first recognised in Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”—began to take root. Therefore, a mood of disillusion spread across the western world. It was the impact of this mainstream ideology that allowed Kafka to gain insights into reality. During his early teens, Kafka enjoyed reading the works of Nietzsche and Darwin, and was also deeply influenced by China’s Lao-zhuang philosophy. As he examined the world around him, he could not free himself from a sense of desperation and so his depiction of the world expressed this mood.
The Metamorphosis strikes readers as fantastic and bizarre, but contains a profound morality and wisdom, displaying the alienation of man within a capitalist society.
The narrator of The Metamorphosis records the speech and actions objectively, like a video camera. The descriptions that appear in the book are surprising and unexpected, estranging Gregor from the readers’ world. However, readers feel surprised that Gregor would succumb so readily to his animal status. In terms of writing, Kafka said, “My heart yearns to get more involved in the story, but I have to try and stay outside. That is really hard work.” Kafka attempted to present a panorama of some surreal place, an imaginary, dreamlike space, or a mysterious world. But once this symbolic world took shape, it would always show some kind of odd feature.
Kafka was afraid that the publisher, Kurt Wolff Verlag, would illustrate the book with a picture of an insect, so he wrote to him saying: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance—if you allow me to offer a proposal, I will choose such a picture: The parents and the secretary stand in front of a closed door, or, better, the parents and sister stay in a well-lighted room with an open door leading to another dark room.”
In the novel Kafka accurately described the characters’ mental states, producing vivid characters. He narrated but did not comment and expressed strong emotions using plain language. The concise, somewhat-flat style he employs becomes more powerful due to the use of allegory. No one can match Kafka in terms of using such matter-of-fact language to describe an incredible and fantastical transformation. It is this unromantic style that Kafka used to associate rationality with irrationality, and the bizarre with the everyday.
In The Metamorphosis, Kafka described the appearance of its protagonist in minute detail, for example, “his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bowlike sections” and “his numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference.” Kafka adopted the protagonist’s perspective, enabling readers to feel involved in Gregor’s predicament from the very beginning. Through the eyes and ears of Gregor, the readers witness the changes in his family after the metamorphosis, and sense his helplessness in the face of his family’s misfortune.
The Metamorphosis contains many detailed and realistic descriptions. For instance: “In order to spare her even this sight, one day he dragged the sheet on his back onto the couch (this task took him four hours) and arranged it in such a way that he was now completely concealed and his sister, even if she bent down, could not see him.” Details such as this faithfully reflect the protagonist’s undying affection towards his family. “From the window he witnessed the beginning of the general dawning outside. Then without willing it, his head sank all the way down, and from his nostrils flowed out weakly out his last breath.” At the end of his life, Gregor is still attached to, and even loves, his family but “…his own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s.” For him, disappearing meant freeing his family from their fear—a mentality which also reflected his own desperation.
Over the past 100 years, The Metamorphosis has had a profound influence on world literature and contemporary Chinese literature in particular. The novel enlightened Gabriel García Márquez, whose later works inspired such Chinese authors as Mo Yan and Chen Zhongshi, spreading the seed of magic realism among many of the world’s best writers.
Translators have played a critical role in this process. In 1979, the first issue of World Literature published The Metamorphosis translated by Li Wenjun, from which, countless Chinese readers first encountered the artistic charms of the novella. This issue also contained “Kafka and His Works” written by Ding Fang and Shi Wen—the first article in China taking a comprehensive and objective look at the author. In fact, Ding Fang was a pseudonym of Ye Tingfang, a renowned expert on Kafka; and Shi Wen was the pen name of Li Wenjun. Over the past several decades, many translators and experts in German literature such as Zhang Rongchang, Ye Tingfang, Xie Yingying and Zhao Dengrong have all tried their hands at translating The Metamorphosis. Of the various translations of the work, Li Wenjun’s is considered the most influential, popular and widely acclaimed in China.
The Metamorphosis is the gem in Franz Kafka’s literary works. Kafka described—in a fantastic and humorous tone— Gregor’s anxiety, fright, loneliness and despair, as well as his wretched life after he transforms into an insect. All in all, this led to the vivid image of a giant insect taking root in the minds of Chinese readers from one generation to another.
Thetrial (1962) directed by Orson Welles, who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Franz Kafka
Leni played by Romy Schneider in Thetrial (1962) directed by Orson Welles
Bronze statue of Franz Kafka in Prague