First edition cover
|Original title||Die Verwandlung|
|Genre(s)||Philosophical novella, absurdist fiction|
|Publisher||Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig|
The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) is a novella by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. It is often cited as one of the seminal works of short fiction of the 20th century and is widely studied in colleges and universities across the western world; Elias Canetti described it as "one of the few great and perfect works of the poetic imagination written during this century". The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself transformed into a vermin (see Lost in translation, below).
Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed from a human into a monstrous vermin. Rather than lament his transformation, Gregor worries about how he will get to his job as a traveling salesman; Gregor is the sole financial provider for his parents and sister, Grete, and their comfort is dependent on his ability to work. When Gregor's supervisor arrives at the house and demands Gregor come out of his room, Gregor manages to roll out of bed and unlock his door. His appearance horrifies his family and supervisor; his supervisor flees while his family chases him back into his room. Grete attempts to care for her brother by providing him with milk and the stale, rotten food he now prefers. Gregor also develops the fears of a vermin, being effectively shooed away by hissing voices and stamping feet. However, Gregor remains a devoted and loving son, and takes to hiding beneath a sofa whenever someone enters his room in order to shield them from his vermin form. When alone, he amuses himself by looking out of his window and crawling up the walls and on the ceiling.
No longer able to rely on Gregor's income, the other family members are forced to take on jobs and Grete's caretaking deteriorates. One day, when Gregor emerges from his room, his father chases him around the dining room table and pelts him with apples. One of the apples becomes embedded in his back, causing an infection. Due to his infection and his hunger, Gregor is soon barely able to move at all. Later, his parents take in lodgers and use Gregor's room as a dumping area for unwanted objects. Gregor becomes dirty, covered in dust and old bits of rotten food. One day, Gregor hears Grete playing her violin to entertain the lodgers. Gregor is attracted to the music, and slowly walks into the dining room despite himself, entertaining a fantasy of getting his beloved sister to join him in his room and play her violin for him. The lodgers see him and give notice, refusing to pay the rent they owe, even threatening to sue the family for harboring him while they stayed there. Grete determines that the monstrous vermin is no longer Gregor, since Gregor would have left them out of love and taken their burden away, and claims that they must get rid of it. Gregor retreats to his room and collapses, finally succumbing to his wound.
The point of view shifts as, upon discovery of his corpse, the family feels an enormous burden has been lifted from them, and start planning for the future again. The family discovers that they aren't doing financially bad at all, especially since, following Gregor's demise, they can take a smaller flat. The brief process of forgetting Gregor and shutting him from their lives is quickly completed.
Gregor is the protagonist of the story. He works hard as a travelling salesman to provide for his sister and parents. He wakes up one morning as a monstrous vermin.
Grete is Gregor's younger sister, who becomes his caretaker after the metamorphosis. At the beginning Grete and Gregor have a strong relationship but this relationship fades with time. While Grete originally volunteers to feed him and clean his room, throughout the story she grows more and more impatient with the task to the point of deliberately leaving messes in his room out of spite. She plays the violin and dreams of going to the conservatorium, a dream that Gregor was going to make come true. He was going to announce this on Christmas Day. To help provide an income for the family after Gregor's transformation she starts working as a salesgirl in a shop.
Gregor's father owes a large debt to Gregor's boss, which is why Gregor can't quit his hated job. He is lazy and elderly, while Gregor works, but when, after the metamorphosis, Gregor is unable to provide for the family, he is shown to be an able-bodied worker. He also attempts to kill Gregor when he is discovered in his monstrous state.
Mrs Samsa is the mother of Grete and Gregor. She is initially shocked at Gregor's transformation, however eventually decides she wants to enter his room. This, unfortunately, seems too much for her to handle, and Gregor hides away from her in an attempt to protect her.
The Chief Clerk is Gregor's boss and the person to whom Mr Samsa is in debt.
Three tenants are invited to live with the Samsas to supplement their income. They are fussy and cannot stand dirtiness, eventually leading to the point when they discover Gregor and threaten the family with a lawsuit, apparently believing he's just an extraordinarily large insect.
The opening sentence of the novella is famous in English:
Kafka's sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop—that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved due to the construction of sentences in German that require that the participle be positioned at the end of the sentence; in the above sentence, the equivalent of 'changed' is the final word, 'verwandelt'. Such constructions are not replicable in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same effect found in the original text.
English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect", but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle German, Ungeziefer literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice" and is sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding "insect". Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor's disgust at his transformation. The phrasing used in the David Wyllie translation and Joachim Neugroschel is "transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin".
However, "vermin" denotes in English many animals (particularly mice, rats and foxes) and in Kafka's letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, in which he discusses his concern about the cover illustration for the first edition, he uses the term "Insekt", saying "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." While this shows his concern not to give precise information about the type of creature Gregor becomes, the use of the general term "insect" can therefore be defended on the part of translators wishing to improve the readability of the end text.
Ungeziefer has sometimes been translated as "cockroach", "dung beetle", "beetle", and other highly specific terms. The term "dung beetle" or Mistkäfer is in fact used in the novella by the cleaning lady near the end of the story, but it is not used in the narration. Ungeziefer also denotes a sense of separation between him and his environment: he is unclean and must therefore be excluded.
Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as writer and literary critic, insisted that Gregor was not a cockroach, but a beetle with wings under his shell, and capable of flight — if only he had known it. Nabokov left a sketch annotated "just over three feet long" on the opening page of his (heavily corrected) English teaching copy. In his accompanying lecture notes, Nabokov discusses the type of vermin Gregor has been transformed into, concluding that Gregor "is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle. (I must add that neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly.)"
There are several film versions, including:
A stage adaptation was performed by Steven Berkoff in 1969. Berkoff's text was also used for the libretto to Brian Howard's 1983 opera Metamorphosis. Another stage adaptation was performed in 2006 by the Icelandic company Vesturport, showing at the Lyric Hammersmith, London. That adaptation is set to be performed in the Icelandic theater fall of 2008. Another stage adaptation was performed in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2005 by the Centre for Asian Theatre. That performance is still continuing in Bangladesh. The Lyric Theatre Company toured the UK in 2006 with its stage adaptation of Metamorphosis, accompanied by a unique soundtrack performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. American comic artist Peter Kuper illustrated a graphic-novel version, first published by the Crown Publishing Group in 2003. Megan Rees is currently working on a new stage adaptation that should be published by 2010.