Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published in 1915. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young salesman who one morning wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a monstrous, bug-like creature. The balance of the tale concerns itself with the way in which Gregor and his family cope with the metamorphosis.
There is something about this story that fascinates people. I find that people both in real life and online tend to become very interested when this tale is mentioned. Many folks who have not read it seem to be familiar with it. There are so many popular culture references to this tale ranging from MTV shorts to Mel Brooks movies to serious musical compositions. There are many film versions out there.
Why is this strange and quirky yarn so famous? Why does it seem to fascinate so many people? I think that there is something in this story that many people find very relatable.
This is a narrative of a person facing inescapable and absolute horror; responding to it as best he can in stoic way. Gregor is living a nightmare beyond compare, yet he does not respond to it as such. He has been transformed into something that elicits disgust. There is no escape from it. Making matters worse, his family, the only people that he can count on, begin to show hostility towards him and begin to neglect him. All this time, Gregor is inwardly calm, as he tries his best to deal with the situation.
At one point, he tries to contend with an itch and experiences something that might drive someone else to madness,
"Feeling a slight itch on his belly, he slowly squirmed along on his back toward the bedpost in order to raise his head more easily. Upon locating the itchy place, which was dotted with lots of tiny white specks that he could not fathom, he tried to touch the area with one of his legs, but promptly withdrew it, for the contact sent icy shudders through his body. He slipped back into his former position."
As the above passage illustrates, instead of succumbing to insanity, Gregor just continues on and tries to cope the best he can. He always remains calm. When his family begins to turn on him, he does not react with outrage or even despair. This is despite the fact that in the past he made great sacrifices for them.
I think many people can relate to Gregor’s predicament. Life is full of horrors and injustices. War, genocide, famine and poverty are very real horrors that affect so many people. Even those who are shielded from such misery must cope with things like the death of loved ones, pain, disease, petty injustices meted out by those around them, as well as many other ills. Most people accept these things with relative calmness and try to go on. As is the case with this story, observing what other people endure sometimes makes us scratch our heads in wonder that others can accept such things. Even those who spend their time fighting wrongs, and stranding up for themselves make compromises. Even the most fractious of us pick our battle and end up accepting many of the world’s evils. In a way, there is a little Gregor is many of us.
There are many reasons, other than those highlighted above, that people are drawn to The Metamorphosis. This is a fascinating story filled with intriguing characters. It is full of meaning and symbolism that is open to varying interpretations. Even in translation Kafka’s prose style is quirky, creative and interesting to read. In addition to all this, I think that many people find something to relate to in its pages.