Review: ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka

Originally posted on Goodreads

A man turned into a bug. We’re not told why. This is well-crafted but purely objective prose, and it falls upon the reader to overlay meaning.

Psychologists on Wikipedia argue a metaphor for the father complex. Various other interpretations have been put forward.

Anyone who’s woken up with a violent hangover on a work day could fairly construe the first few passages as farce in the literal sense – “crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations” – illustrating the relentless disregard of the working world when you have to scrape your wretched self onto the 5am train.

But replace the physical descriptions of bugness with the symptoms of depression, however, and you have the layer of meaning that I find easiest to believe Kafka was going for. When you suffer from depression it can feel as if you are a horrible, unwanted presence in the lives of those around you. You feel grotesque. People don’t know how to react to you. You feel out of place and out of sorts in familiar surroundings. Yet despite this, you must attend to and perform within all the mundane aspects of life. The onus is on you to be understood, rather than them to understand. Responses like disbelief, disgust, and hostility are more likely to be forthcoming than understanding, concern, or empathy.

Gregor describes deep anxiety. He was literally crawling up the walls. He describes how his goals and ambitions are sidelined, gradually fading into impossibility. The distance between him and his family grows: at first they try their best to ignore him, before eventually agreeing that not only must he go, but that he should “have realized long since that it isn’t possible for human beings to live together with a creature like that” and “gone away of his own accord.” The refusal – or lack of ability – of Gregor’s family to engage with the subjective, emotional aspect of his experience are his downfall.

Knowing that Kafka struggled with depression and loneliness made reading Metamorphosis through this latter lens especially crushing.

That this story relies on the reader to prescribe their own meaning is often cited as a weakness; that it can function convincingly on so many levels is proof of its strength.

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