The Metamorphosis

From Academic Kids

Franz Kafka Verwandlung
Metamophosis - First edition 1915
Illustration: Ottomar Starke

The Metamorphosis (in German, Die Verwandlung) is a novella ( a mix between a short story and a novel) written by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915, and arguably the most famous of his works along with the longer works The Trial and The Castle. The basic idea of the story is that a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect-like creature (see Lost in Translation section for clarification). Many interpret this as a highly symbolic tale dealing with the absurdity of human existence, leading critics to frequently associate it with existentialism.


The storyline

The story is sometimes comic – for example, near the start, Gregor's main concern is that, despite what has happened, he must nevertheless get to work on time. Curiously, his condition does not arouse a sense of surprise or incredulity in the eyes of his family, who merely despise it as an indication of impending burden. However, most of the story revolves around his interactions with his family, with whom he lives, and their shock, denial, and repulsion at his condition. Gregor is unable to speak in his insect form, and never communicates with his family at all. However, he seems to retain his thinking faculties, which is unknown to his family. Horrified by his appearance, they take to shutting Gregor into his room, but do try to care for him by providing him food and water. Nevertheless, they seem to want as little to do with him as possible, and Gregor's father nearly kills him when he emerges from his room one day.

Confined to his room, Gregor's only activities are looking out of his window, and crawling up the walls and over the ceiling. Devoid of human contact, one day Gregor emerges again, hoping to get his much-loved sister to join him in his room and play her violin for him, but her rejection of him is total, when she says to the family:

We must try to get rid of it. We've done everything humanly possible to take care of it, to put up with it, no one can reproach us in the slightest.

Gregor returns to his room, lies down, and dies. Upon discovery of his corpse, the family feel an enormous burden has been lifted from them, and start planning for the future again. Fantastically, the family suddenly discovers that it is not doing bad at all, both socially and financially, and the brief process of forgetting Gregor and shutting him from their lives is quickly accomplished.

The Metamorphosis is open to a wide range of interpretations; in fact, Stanley Corngold's book, The Commentator's Despair, lists over 130 interpretations. Most obvious are themes relating to society's treatment of those who are different. Other themes include the loneliness of being cut off and the desperate and unrealistic hopes that such isolation brings.

A very short sequel, The Retransformation of Gregor Samsa, was written by Karl Brand. Brand, who suffered from tuberculosis and had to rely on his family, identified himself strongly with Samsa.

Lost in Translation

The opening line of the book is famous in English:

As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

However, this English translation of the opening line is spurious. The actual German line runs like this:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect", but this is not accurate, and is based on a misguided attempt to clarify what Kafka intended (according to his journals and letters to the publisher of the text) to be an ambiguous term. In German, Ungeziefer literally means "vermin" and is sometimes used to mean "bug" – a very general term, totally unlike the scientific sounding "insect". Kafka had no intention of labelling Gregor as this or that specific thing, but merely wanted to convey the disgustingness of his transformation. Literally, the end of the line should be translated as ...transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin (this is the phrasing used in the David Wyllie translation [1] (, although the feeling of the word in German is more colloquial sounding.

Amusingly, generations of English translators have gotten more and more carried away with this literal (and incorrect) version of Gregor's transformation, and have actually rendered Ungeziefer as "cockroach", "dung beetle", "beetle", and other highly specific terms. The only term in the book is "dung beetle", used by the cleaning lady near the end of the story, but it is not used in the narration. This has become such a common misconception, that English speakers will often summarize Metamorphosis as "...a story about a guy who turns into a cockroach". Despite all this, no such beast appears in the original text.


In Mel Brooks' movie The Producers, two men working on a fraud scheme are looking for the worst play they can find, and pass up The Metamorphosis (after having read the line about Gregor being a giant insect) as being "too good".

In another Mel Brooks movie, Spaceballs, Dark Helmet passes a referrence to Kafka when their spaceship is transforming into a gigantic maid.

The dialogue driven cartoon Home Movies did a tribute to "The Metamorphosis" in "Director's Cut", an episode in the first season of the show. The characters performed a rock opera style retelling of the short story.

"Once in a Lifetime", a song by Talking Heads, is derived from "The Metamorphosis". In it, the listener, instead of turning into a hideous creature, simply turns into an ordinary person.

External links

  • Complete text ( (in English)
  • Freely available at DigBib.Org ( (German version, text, pdf, html)
  • Template:GutenbergEnglish version.
  • Complete text ( (in Spanish)

Template:Wikisourcede:Die Verwandlung es:La metamorfosis fr:La Métamorphose it:La Metamorfosi pt:A Metamorfose sv:Förvandlingen


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