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The Metamorphosis | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Metamorphosis | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the narrator's tone in the opening scene of The Metamorphosis contrast with the text's fantasy aspects?

In the opening scene of The Metamorphosis, the narrator uses an understated, matter-of-fact tone to describe a bizarre turn of events—namely, that Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a verminous, insect-like creature. The narrator reveals that Gregor's "many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly," while his bedcovers scarcely protect his body. Here, the narrator zeroes in on the mundane detail of the bedcovers rather than the absurd and far-fetched nature of the situation. The narrator's understated tone continues with commentary about the "dull weather" and "drops of rain ... hitting the windowpane." Although the narrator's tone does not align with the implausibility of Gregor's transformation, it does match the traveling salesman's depressive demeanor.

In The Metamorphosis why might Kafka have chosen to make Gregor Samsa a traveling salesman?

Kafka might have chosen to make Gregor a traveling salesman because the position provides such a sharp contrast to his abilities after his transformation. Gregor faces a number of challenges in his job as a traveling salesman, which forces him to awaken before the sun rises each morning to catch a five a.m. train. In addition, he has to worry about making train connections and spends far too many nights in "small hotel room[s]." Furthermore, his bosses are incredibly demanding and so intrusive that his office manager comes to his house at 7:30 in the morning to learn why Gregor missed his train. All of this changes after Gregor transforms. It takes all his effort just to get out of bed. He moves slowly and awkwardly, finding it difficult to navigate his own household. The office manager is terrified of him, and soon his sister begins bringing meals to him. Of course, while the challenges of his job are eliminated by Gregor's change, he also becomes increasingly isolated from human contact.

In The Metamorphosis what does Mrs. Samsa's defense of her son during the office manager's visit reveal about her and about Gregor?

Mrs. Samsa knows her son well and realizes something serious must be wrong for Gregor to miss work. As her husband urges Gregor to come out and talk to the office manager, Mrs. Samsa does the opposite: she urges the manager to understand why he needs to stay in: "He isn't well," his mother explains. "He isn't well, please believe me. Why else would Gregor have missed a train! The lad only ever thinks about the business." More than her husband, Mrs. Samsa would like to be her son's protector and defender. Mrs. Samsa goes on to talk about Gregor's commitment to his job and how he "never goes out in the evenings" and studies the train timetables. Mrs. Samsa paints a picture of a young man who spends even his off-hours making plans for work or else making a frame (for the picture of the woman in furs), rather than going out to meet people his own age. In short, he is all work and very little play. He is ripe for a dramatic transformation that might be taking place only in his mind.

In The Metamorphosis are Gregor's feelings about his metamorphosis early in the novella positive, negative, or a mixture of both?

Ironically, Gregor comes across as somewhat content with his new life as a bug in the opening part of the book. Although he first worries about being late for work—and the reprimands he will receive from his boss—his thoughts and actions indicate that he does, in fact, see advantages. For example, when he has trouble getting out of bed, he thinks "how simple everything would be if somebody came to help him." He does not see any reason for his appearance to disrupt his routine; he just wants a hand. Gregor's incapacitation is a sort of involuntary cry for help; it gives him an opportunity to be tended to, no matter that the circumstances are pitiful. Likewise, when contemplating whether to call out for help getting out of bed, he imagines the reaction of his family and can't "suppress a smile at this thought." Here again, the narrator depicts Gregor as not fully at odds with his new life as an insect-like creature. He has been supporting his family for many years now; this role reversal, he seems to think, might offer him a chance to relax while his family tends to his needs.

How do Gregor Samsa's sacrifices for his family in The Metamorphosis contribute to his transformation?

Gregor works for years in a job he despises. As Mrs. Samsa reveals early in the book, he never goes out at night, and even when he is in the company of family, he consumes himself with train timetables and work. His only romantic attachment seems to be a framed advertisement. Essentially, he lives and breathes something that brings him no joy out of duty to his family. However, rather than being thankful for the sacrifices he has made, his family seems to take him for granted. He is saving to pay for Grete to attend the conservatory—a kind gesture, but he is making himself miserable in the process, and his parents think the conservatory is a bad idea. In fact, his family stopped showing any real gratitude for his support some time ago. Gregor's metamorphosis is an outward sign of his deep misery and the low esteem his family has for him.

How does Gregor's perception of his physical appearance in The Metamorphosis contrast with that of the people who react to it?

In the opening part of the book, Gregor observes that he has transformed into a "horrible" vermin. He describes his "brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections." Readers also learn that his legs are "pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him" and that his body extends from beneath his bedcovers. He describes himself as "trapped in a difficult situation" but also expresses confidence that he will "work [his] way out of it again." He does not seem to think his freakish transformation is permanent. The reaction of his family, in contrast, reveals that Gregor has become a revolting-looking creature. His mother faints each time she sees him, and his sister has a hard time being in the same room with her brother without first opening a window. His father physically harms him, and the charwoman calls him an "old dung beetle." Likewise, the three boarders describe him as repugnant. These clues paint a view of Gregor as a strange-looking, hideous freak of nature.

In The Metamorphosis, Part 1, why does Gregor fear being late for work more than turning into a bug?

When Gregor realizes the time on his alarm clock after he oversleeps, panic sets in—not because he is a bug but because he is late for work and fears his boss's reaction. His focus on punctuality persists when the office manager and his family first see his new appearance. After unlocking his bedroom door and stepping halfway out, he tells them, "I'll get dressed straight away now, pack up my samples and set off." At this point Gregor does not grasp that his life as a salesman is over—he just wants to avoid getting in trouble at work or losing his job. He also does not seem to realize that neither the office manager nor his family can understand what he is saying. This conflict between Gregor's human mind and his inhuman body creates much of the tension in the story and is one of its major themes.

In The Metamorphosis what is the effect of Gregor's inability to communicate with his family?

Gregor's family first realizes that something is seriously wrong with him when they hear his voice, which sounds unusually squeaky and deep, though still somewhat intelligible, when he first calls out from behind his bedroom door. The next time, however, as he defends his job performance to the office manager, his voice is incomprehensible. "That was the voice of an animal," the office manager says. From this point on, Gregor's inability to communicate with his family leads to his isolation and his demise. He longs to speak to Grete and thank her, but he cannot; he can only show his gratitude by hiding from her to spare her the pain of seeing him. His mother assumes that Gregor can't understand her anymore, leading him to reflect on his "lack of any direct human communication," which results in the removal of his furniture. His father communicates physically, through violence; he bombards Gregor with apples, causing the injury that contributes to his death. "If he could just understand us," says his father before Grete finally says Gregor has "got to go." Through Gregor, Kafka makes the point that communication is necessary to life itself.

In The Metamorphosis, Part 1, how does Gregor's image in his army photograph differ from the image he projects as a traveling salesman?

The photo hangs near the Samsas' dining room table and features a view of Gregor altogether different than the one he projects in his role as a traveling salesman. In the photo, for instance, Gregor looks proud and confident in his clean, crisp uniform. With his hand on his sword, he is clearly a man of action. He wears "a carefree smile on his face as he called forth respect for his uniform and bearing." The carefree smile contrasts sharply with Gregor's burdened life as a salesman. As a traveling salesman, he lives with nagging, nonstop resentment about how hard he works and how little time he has to unwind and relax. He travels all the time, sacrificing good food and the comforts of home to earn the approval of his demanding bosses and to support his demanding family. Instead of carrying a sword, he whittles pretty little frames with a fretsaw for relaxation. In his "bearing" as a salesman, he is more insect-like than soldierly.

Why does Mr. Samsa lash out when he first sees the transformed Gregor in The Metamorphosis?

When Gregor finally emerges from his room, his appearance causes panic in Mrs. Samsa and the office manager, who rushes out of the flat. Mr. Samsa is the only one who manages to stay "relatively self controlled"—until the office manager leaves. Then he stamps, hisses, and waves a stick at Gregor, herding him through a narrow crack in the bedroom door, which causes injury to Gregor. Mr. Samsa may simply be doing what seems necessary—protecting the rest of his family from a beast. He may also be angry about the office manager's departure, which signals the formal end to Gregor's career as a salesman. Gregor's father, whose own business failed some five years earlier, relies heavily on his son to go to work and earn an income to provide for the whole family, none of whom, besides Gregor, have a job. Gregor keeps little, if anything, for himself, enabling his father to stay home and linger over breakfast "for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers." Without Gregor's steady income, this lifestyle cannot continue, and Mr. Samsa projects his anger at Gregor for forcing the family to change.

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