In the early to mid-1980s I went through my first Big Reading Binge, when I devoured umpteen newly discovered authors – Virginia Woolf, Colette, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Cocteau, Camus, Calvino – and of course Kafka. I was like a kid in a candy shop, having discovered all these wonderful writers, and fortunately when I’ve revisited them over the years, I haven’t been disappointed. I re-read some Woolf, Colette, Camus and Calvino recently, and the sight of a little bargain in Poundland sent me back to Kafka!

Poundland? I hear you exclaim! Yes, Poundland. We have a rather large branch in the Big Town, which lodges in the old, much-missed Woolworths store, and up at the back there is a section with books for £1. Understandably, these are most often rubbish but occasionally there is a little gem. I picked up a copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” a while back and recently I was browsing with Youngest Child when we spotted some hardback “Banned Books”. There were only a few titles but they were two for £1! I decided to have a fresh copy of “Metamorphosis” and YC settled for “Lolita” (“to see what all the fuss is about”). The books appear to have been produced to sell with a newspaper, but are nice little hardbacks with a dustwrapper and introduction.

There can’t be many people who don’t know what “Metamorphosis” is about but here goes – it’s a short (77 page) story about a young man called Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find he has turned into an insect. Gregor works as a travelling salesman, supporting his mother, father and sister after some kind of financial disaster which has left the family owing money to the company. His dream is to send his sister to the conservatory as she plays the violin and he works hard to earn and save enough for this.

Much of the story is told from the thought-stream of Gregor, as he is unable to communicate with his family now that he is a bug. The family recognise that he is their son/brother, but are repelled by his appearance. Initially, the sister Grete feeds and cares for her brother as much as she can, despite the repulsion she feels, and Gregor attempts to adjust to his new status. The whole family has to take on work to cope without Gregor’s income and tensions build up when they take in three lodgers.

Of course, this surface level description doesn’t really hint at the number of themes explored here. Firstly, if the family are all capable of working, why does poor Gregor have to work so hard to support all three of them – the burden could have been spread equally and everyone would have been under less pressure. It is hinted, through the response of the three lodgers to some violin playing by Grete, that she is not actually that good a musician so it might have been more practical for her to think of a proper job than waste time dreaming of the conservatory. Similarly, Gregor’s father, who was apparently unable to work after the problem with the company, manages to find a job after Gregor’s change and is also revealed not to have been as bankrupt as he made out as there are bonds and savings to be drawn on. Gregor, in his simplicity, sees this as sensible behaviour on the part of his father, whereas the reader is more likely to think that the father has been taking great advantage of the son.

There is also the company that Gregor works for – a large, impersonal organisation whose functionaries are known by their title rather than a name: Mr. Manager, Mr. Chief, Mr. Chairman etc. The company is such a demanding one that they send a member of staff to check up on Gregor at the first moment he is not in work on time. There are echoes of future themes in Kafka’s books here, with the faceless officials in control of the hapless little man who loses control of his situation.

Public domain via Wikipedia Commons

Of course, there is a huge analogy at work here. Gregor has obviously become an insect emotionally before he became one physically – a worker ant, slaving away for three ungrateful family members, with no time for himself or for a proper life apart from his work. When he becomes an insect physically he actually becomes more human emotionally, as he no longer has to rush about frantically pursuing money, but can sit back and lovingly observe his family. He is as considerate as he can be of their needs, covering himself with a sheet when they enter his room or hiding under the sofa. The family, conversely, initially try to care for , but as things progress begin to shun and hate him when he is need of their love and support. In a reversal of roles, they become the emotional insects, rushing about working, and they feel nothing but relief when the inevitable result comes about.

The ending I thought to be rather ambiguous. The remaining family are out in the sun, a burden lifted from them and Grete growing into a woman who will presumably marry and have a normal life. They have shed the past and are moving on to the future – was the sacrifice of Gregor necessary to get them to this point or is it only their cruelty that has made this possible? It could be said that at the start of the story the three other members of the family were completely passive and powerless, and it is only Gregor’s transformation and passing that allows them to develop into functioning ‘normal’ human beings – although whether that is a good thing or not is debatable!

“Metamorphosis” is a thought-provoking story, which demands contemplation and consideration. It’s obvious that Kafka wanted to explore many themes: alienation, transformation, the strains of work, the structure and relationships within a family – but as well as all this, it’s a very readable and intriguing tale and I’m glad I returned to it.