Greetings, and welcome to the series of book summaries/reviews I call Avery’s Athenaeum. Here’s how it works:
- Synopsis: this section is for everyone, containing only minor spoilers and should serve as a suitable enough pitch to anyone who may be interested in reading the book.
The following sections are for people who have already read the book, or people like me who don’t particularly care about spoilers and/or like to know what happens before reading something.
- Summary: this section will contain major plot spoilers and serves as a more complete run-through of the books contents, though I reserve the right to over-generalize– this is mainly just so anyone who wants to can read my thoughts, even if they don’t want to read the book
- Speculation: this section will contain my thoughts and feelings about the book and an overall star rating out of 5
Gregor Samsa is an travelling salesman who one day wakes up as a human-sized insect. Immediately, his first thought is of his inability to get to work, and his fears are confirmed when his manager arrives at the premises and calls through his door. Given that he is the sole breadwinner of his family of four, he is distressed at the notion he might lose his job. He, desperate to show that he will be fine to come for work, laboriously opens the door, maneuvering lock-and-key with insect legs, but the manager flees in horror. His father, also horrified, forces him back into the room, injuring Gregor in the process.
As time passes, and Gregor shows no signs of improvement, his family is thrown into financial instability. His sister Grete, with whom he is close, is the only one who can face him and take care of him. He laments that he was now unable to pay her way to a music conservatory, like he had been secretly planning to announce that Christmas, because she is an extremely talented violinist. She brings him food, which she deduces by elimination he prefers rotten, but he hides under the couch with a sheet thrown over it so she does not have to look at him. Gregor, although often vexed by his situation, is growing more and more comfortable in his new form, preferring to crawl around on the floor, walls and ceiling of the room.
Seeing this, Grete enlists their mother to help her remove most of the furniture from the room so that Gregor has more space to crawl around. Gregor is alright with this for the most part, but grows hysteric at the notion that he might forget who he is if they remove all traces of his past life. He crawls up the wall to protect his beloved portrait of a woman in fur, which he does not want removed, and his mother faints at the sight of him. Gregor follows Grete out of the room when she goes to get aromatic spirits, and she accidentally injures him when she drops a medicine bottle and it breaks. His father, enraged, forces him back into his room by throwing apples, one of which lodges in Gregor’s back, wounding him severely.
His family all get jobs and take in three men as lodgers to supplement their income. They keep his existence a secret from the lodgers, checking in on Gregor more and more infrequently and leaving the job to one of their servants. Still injured and untreated, Gregor grows more and more ill and stops eating. One day, the servant leaves his door open just a crack. He can hear everyone laughing and eating without him. His sister begins to play the violin, and attracted by the sound, Gregor crawls out into the living room. The three lodgers are disgusted by him and leave forever without paying for their time, and Grete announces that they must finally dispose of “it” because Gregor is taking too much of a toll on the family.
Distraught, Gregor crawls back into his room and dies of starvation before sunrise.
They find him dead and rejoice. They take the day off work and travel into town together, deciding to move to a smaller apartment so they can save. Mr. and Mrs. Samsa reflect that despite all the suffering they had recently endured, their daughter has grown to be a full-figured woman, and should soon be married.
The Metamorphosis is easily one of the most speculated-on works in the world, but that won’t stop me from speculating more. Many interpretations of the story have been touted about: it is a critique on capitalism, or on the dysfunction of the nuclear family, or of identity and change. I tend to think most of these themes are present in the story, with the first being the most forefront of it all. In my analysis, I want to draw on the oft-made comparison between Gregor and Grete.
First of all, their names are similar. Gregor and Grete might as well be the masculine and female versions of the same name. This allows you to think of the story from an allegorical point of view, with the two characters representing two sides of one individual or idea. Gregor is a hard-working man who never calls out of work and supports his entire family. Grete is still a high school student, with dreams of a professional violin career that are constantly downplayed by her family. Gregor is the only one supportive of these dreams, hence his desire to pay her way through a conservatory.
When Gregor becomes unable to work––to support the family, to be the cog that keeps the machine running––everything comes to a halt. For some time, Grete takes care of Gregor: in other words, she tends to the possibility of her dreams, knowing that he supports her more than either of her parents do. Gregor, meanwhile, is finding in a lot of ways more freedom as an insect than he ever had as a man. In a sense, their roles become reversed. Gregor is the one with desires that conflict with the needs of the family, and Grete is the one with responsibility thrust upon her. Gregor, unable to work, quickly and irrevocably loses value.
By the end of the story, Gregor, along with Grete’s dreams, are dead. This is not some irrelevant detail, but it seems to go overlooked in a lot of analysis I have come across of this story. In fact, the story ends by drawing attention to Grete’s marriageable status, implying that she will go on to fill a similarly soul-crushing yet supportive role in her family’s life as Gregor once had, putting her dreams aside to do so.
Unfortunately, this is all too real in the late-stage capitalist society in which we live. Numerous families end up in situations like the Samsas, through death, disaster, disease, or any number of terrible D’s. Taking care of your family, or yourself, becomes first to everything else. What good is a music career without a roof over your head? How could one possibly even get into a conservatory without some kind of overhead capital to start with?
When Gregor transforms, he’s not concerned about it. He’s concerned about work. However, that change occurs before we are even brought into the story. It’s all but irrelevant. He could be sick with tuberculosis and the story would read almost exactly the same. In fact, it’s so vague in the original German, that no one can even agree if he was an insect at all. He is referred to only as a “ungeheuerus Ungeziefer” or “monstrous vermin.” Almost the same way people who are perceived to “slack” or be “lazy” in our society are called leeches or cockroaches, or are generally disregarded.
It truly does not matter what, if anything, Gregor Samsa transformed into that fateful morning. What matters is that he was unable to work, and that fact tore the family apart at the seams. He was fully mature by the time it happened, having grown to adulthood and decided to sacrifice his free time for the financial future of his family, and in order to give opportunities such as music study to his sister. He had long emerged from his cocoon by the time we enter the story.
Grete, on the other hand, was seventeen, just at the brink of adulthood. While Gregor was transformed, Grete was transforming. She was reduced to mush and trapped in a cocoon. In her heart, she hoped she would be a musician, but that is not what happened to Grete. Any dreams of the conservatory died with her brother. By the end of the story, she is eighteen: paler of face, but rounder of figure. She is perfect for marriage. Perfect to continue the family legacy and do what is expected of her. She’ll get a husband, and he’ll have a job.
That is the metamorphosis.