‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’
It has been a month now since I last wrote a review and so I thought it fitting that, when I returned to writing, I did so with a review for a book I have been meaning to read for a long time. I say a book but I really mean a short story – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It is one of those stories that everyone knows the premise of, and it is probably Kafka’s best known work. As such, I felt rather intimidated at the prospect of reviewing it. What could I possible say about this story that hasn’t already been said in a more eloquent and scholarly way? Well, I can begin by saying that this story surprised me. Of course, waking up and finding oneself transformed into an insect would be a surprise to anyone, but it was the way in which Kafka told his story – the deft, precise prose, the minute details, the fusion of humour and horror – was what most caught my attention while reading. Perhaps this is because of the often misused and misinterpreted phrase ‘Kafkaesque’, or due to my limited knowledge of Kafka’s own biography, but I had expected the story to be complicated, perhaps even impenetrable, like so much red tape. What I found instead was a darkly comic story, sparsely told from a small premise, proving the point Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the Introduction to this collection, makes – ‘so much less [is] necessary to create a story than people [think]’.
In his Introduction, Thirlwell also states that ‘Often, these are the funniest jokes of all – the ones that are not really funny. They are often slightly sad.’, and this is definitely true of Metamorphosis. Gregor’s transformation is grotesque and frightening but, at the same time, the image of him struggling to get out of bed on his tiny new legs, or that of his father shooing him away with the insect Gregor looking pleadingly back at him – these images are amusing in spite of their sadness. But the story’s humour begins even before Gregor attempts to get out of bed, as his immediate concern is not that he has become a giant insect, but that he has overslept.
The next train was at seven o’clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren’t even packed up, and he himself wasn’t feeling particularly fresh and active.
As the story builds throughout its fifty one pages, we see Gregor face a series of different challenges, from attempting to communicate with his family to being pelted with apples by his father, to his mother and sister attempting to move furniture from his room which he wants to keep to retain some sense of his human self. Although these situations are often comic, because the characters of Gregor’s family, the servants, and the eventual lodgers are only shown through a few details, we sympathise the most with Gregor as his situation worsens. His situation – and, indeed, the plot of Metamorphosis – is very simple, with his transformation beginning a series of interactions and inconveniences that build towards a climax, and so it is the execution, the details, that really make it gripping. From the description of Gregor’s father – ‘his father leaned against the door, the right hand thrust between two buttons of his livery coat, which was formally buttoned up’ – to his sister’s various efforts to find him food that he will enjoy, the details are small but help to paint a fuller picture of the family and their surroundings, so much so that it comes as a shock when Gregor’s formerly sympathetic sister states ‘…we must try to get rid of it. We’ve tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as humanly possible, and I don’t think anyone could reproach us in the slightest.’
Metamorphosis may be a small story, but it packs a powerful punch, and is a fantastic introduction of Kafka’s unique style. It has certainly piqued my interest in reading more of his work in the future – especially since his characters’ attempts to understand the logic of the nightmarish world in which they find themselves seems particularly relevant these days.