100 years ago this month, Die Verwandlung, or rather The Metamorphosis, written by the German-speaking Czech author Franz Kafka, was published and today it is regarded as one of the most seminal works of fiction to come from the 20th century. It is a peculiar and thought-provoking short story revolving around Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman with the responsibility of providing for his entire family, who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a cockroach/dung beetle/giant insect - there have been many arguments debating the exact translation from the German phrase ungeheures Ungeziefer meaning monstrous vermin. The novella tells of Gregor’s attempts to adapt to his transformation and the impact it has on his aging parents and younger sister Grete.
Franz Kafka is one of the best known writers of absurdist fiction, with the term "Kafkaesque" being derived from his ability to create senseless complexity and surreal distortion. The opening line of The Metamorphosis highlights Kafka’s skill at dealing with the absurd and the widely irrational, presenting Gregor’s transformation as a random occurrence, yet not questionable or especially surprising: “One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.” This statement of such a totally life-changing event, written with a complete lack of emotion, is a common feature of the book, where the focus of the story is not on the sheer impossibility and absurdity of Gregor’s supernatural transformation but on the more mundane and ordinary, such as how the family is now going to cope financially because Gregor himself can no longer work.
The book forces us to question our purpose in life and more crucially ask ourselves why we exist. It is impossible to define an exact purpose for life and for each individual the answers to its definition will be varied and most likely unanswerable. However, is it right that some existences, such as Gregor’s in his vermin state, should be regarded as less valuable than others? The answer is, of course, not that simple. Should one argue that Gregor is now without purpose as he is no longer earning an income for his family and is of little use to society? Or does Gregor create his own purpose, by setting himself tasks such as climbing along the ceiling or listening to his family talking next-door?
The Metamorphosis also deals with the impact of change and its effect on others, for Gregor’s physical change is mirrored by his family’s rather more emotional transformations. His parents and sister move from viewing him with love and gratitude to absolute disgust. Is it fair to judge somebody solely for their physical appearance, after all Gregor is still able to process human thought and hold opinions? Gregor becomes a burden on his family who are forced to seek work and alter their way of living. Rightly so maybe, they are forced to become independent and self-sufficient, instead of relying on Gregor as the sole-breadwinner.
Gregor’s metamorphosis can be viewed as a lesson, forcing his family to develop as individual characters and ultimately taking responsibility for their own lives. The book highlights the impact others can have on our own lives and vice-versa. It makes us consider how society works and changes in the face of the unpredictability of life.
Kafka’s novella may be 100 years old but its ideas and themes are still highly relevant today in our ever-changing world. These are just a few aspects that I have found especially interesting and thought-provoking, yet there are many more for each of us to discover. The beauty of the book is that it leads to a philosophical exploration of Kafka’s ideas, and, although the story has remained unchanged for a century, the opinions and interpretations are forever evolving. It is an infinitive metamorphosis.