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The Metamorphosis | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Metamorphosis | Context


Jewish Roots

During the early 20th century Prague was home to a large Jewish population. Although Kafka's family was Jewish and lived in a Jewish neighborhood, they rarely attended synagogue and did their best to fit in with the native Czechoslovakian population. A great deal of anti-Semitism existed at the time in Prague, leading to riots and attacks on Jews and Jewish businesses. In one such attack rioters spared the Kafkas' store from vandalism because they mistook it for a Czech-owned business, suggesting the extent to which his parents had assimilated.

Over the years a number of Kafka's Jewish friends and peers came to view their parents' efforts to assimilate as a betrayal of their Hebrew roots. Some of his friends, such as Max Brod, were becoming dedicated Zionists, advocating for the formation of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. Kafka also dabbled in Zionism; however, the extent to which he practiced and believed in Judaism remains a matter of debate. Many scholars believe the author was at heart an atheist who struggled to fit in. Whatever the case, this sense of alienation and "not fitting in" plays out in The Metamorphosis. The novella's protagonist, Gregor Samsa, feels alienated first as a traveling salesman and then as an insect. Gregor is trapped in a world that is seemingly bound by rules that are nonsensical and impossible to understand; even the feelings and motives of those closest to him, such as his father and sister, are difficult to understand. As an artist trapped in an office and as a possibly Jewish atheist in anti-Semitic and largely Catholic Prague, Kafka's plight mirrors that of Gregor, who does not really fit in as a man, much less as a bug.

Modern Life in Prague

Like much of the Western world, Prague in the early 20th century experienced a period of mass modernization, with horses and buggies giving way to cars and commuter trains and technological innovations (electricity, radio) changing the nature of life and work. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka uses Gregor to paint a picture—and not a very pleasant one—of life in the modern world. Gregor gets up before sunrise every morning to catch a five a.m. train and work at a job that makes him miserable. He cannot stand the "bad and irregular food, [and] contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly to them." As a traveling salesman, Gregor is governed by railroad timetables.

Along with technological advancements came other changes, including challenges to authority and longstanding beliefs and customs. Artists and thinkers, many influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), viewed the rules of society as constricting. Kafka may have been influenced by—or at least sympathized with—this view, called nihilism. Certainly, as a student he chafed against the rules of school. Furthermore, in its denial of a god or any other transcendent power, nihilism challenged the idea that life has any meaning. The Metamorphosis reflects this darker aspect of nihilism. After his transformation, Gregor is still "himself" on the inside, but the rest of the world thoroughly rejects him, calling into question whether his existence in any form has meaning.

Freud and Darwin

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, published a number of books around the turn of the 20th century that likely influenced Kafka's thinking and some aspects of The Metamorphosis. For instance, Freud theorized that suppressed conflicts, horrors, feelings, and desires are housed in the unconscious mind and express themselves in dreams or in neurotic behavior. Kafka's story starts with Gregor awakening from an anxiety-provoking dream, followed by the strange transformation of the salesman into a terrible bug—or what sounds like the continuation of his bizarre dream. In this light, is it possible that Kafka's entire story is a dream that reveals Gregor's unconscious mind—his feeling that he has been dehumanized by the modern world?

Freud also claimed that in patriarchal societies, boys are driven to compete with their fathers, resulting in guilty feelings that Freud dubbed the Oedipus complex. Literature is full of examples of sons battling fathers—from the mythical Greek Oedipus to Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars. Kafka's conflicts with his own domineering father seem to inform many of his fictional works.

Another groundbreaking theorist, Charles Darwin (1809–1882), influenced art, philosophy, and literature of the early 20th century; Kafka likely pulls from Darwin's theories, too. Although Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) well before Kafka's time, his ideas were still widely discussed in intellectual circles when Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis several decades later. Darwin's theory of evolution, for instance, posits that all living species evolve over time to adapt to a changing environment. Gregor's metamorphosis may be viewed as a de-evolution or a result of his inability or lack of willingness to adapt to life in the modern world.

The Genre of Modernism

Kafka wrote in the midst of the modernist movement. This art and literature movement began around the turn of the century and flourished as the century progressed, amid industrialization and catastrophic warfare. Modernist writers merged psychological theory with revolutionary forms to express the alienation and uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing world. The Metamorphosis reflects both the themes and styles of modernism and its rejection of traditional literary "rules"—such as the one forbidding the mixing of realistic, contemporary details with fantastic elements.

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