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The Metamorphosis | Themes

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In The Metamorphosis Kafka uses Gregor and other characters to reflect on themes related to work and life in the early 20th century. These themes are introduced early and expanded upon as the story unfolds.

Alienation in Modern Life

Throughout The Metamorphosis Kafka portrays the early 20th-century work world as an alienating place devoid of happiness and human connection. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, works as a traveling salesman—a position involving "the curse of traveling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them." Gregor is fed up with the lifestyle, thinking, "It can all go to Hell!" He is ripe for a transformation that may or may not be physical; readers can read the story as a fantasy or as a metaphor for the character's mental breakdown.

Each one of Gregor's complaints, from the stress of making train connections to the lack of meaningful relationships with colleagues and customers, are characteristic of the changing nature of work at the turn of the 20th century. During this time period advancements in technology, industrialization, and scientific discoveries sped up the pace of doing business—leaving less time for eating regular daily meals or socializing. Through Gregor and other characters, Kafka paints a picture of the toll modern work can take on society. The office manager, for instance, represents the unreasonable demands placed upon employees, who are expected to show up at work every day, whether they are sick or not: "If we people in commerce ever become slightly unwell then, fortunately or unfortunately as you like, we simply have to overcome it because of business considerations," the clerk tells Gregor (through his bedroom door) and his parents.

The modern work world takes a toll on Grete and her parents, too. When the three come together for dinner after a full day of work, they are too tired to talk. Gregor, watching from his room as they eat dinner, notices the stark contrast between the "lively conversations" of earlier times and the near-silence of mealtimes now. Each evening Mr. Samsa falls asleep in his chair, while Grete lacks the energy to give Gregor the time and attention he needs. Spending her day running "back and forth behind her desk at the behest of the customers" and then studying at night, she "just did not have the strength to do any more." Grete's work life, like that of other modern workers, leaves her with little of herself left over for her family.

Mind and Body

On the outside Gregor looks like an insect, yet on the inside he thinks and reasons like a human, revealing a mind-body disconnect. This is especially true in the beginning of the story, when Gregor has to figure out what to do with "all those little legs continuously moving in different directions, and which he was moreover unable to control." At this point Gregor's thoughts focus primarily on work—he worries about how his boss will react to his late arrival, and he plots a path to get out of bed (so he can dress for work) before the clock strikes 7:15.

As time passes, however, Gregor learns to use his legs and limbs to hang from the ceiling, adhere to the framed advertisement of the woman in furs, and more. He realizes he no longer enjoys his favorite human drink—sweetened milk—and prefers spoiled, rotten vegetables and scraps from his family's pantry and meals. He grows excited by the idea of Grete clearing out his room to create more space for him to crawl. In these instances Gregor's thoughts begin to align with his insect-like body, but these thoughts go away when elements of his human life interfere. The sight and sound of Mrs. Samsa entering his room, for example, make Gregor long for his furniture to remain in place in his room, just as hearing Grete play violin makes him question, "Was he an animal if music could captivate him so?"

Gregor never achieves full mind-body connection, though he does, at times, come close.

Family Ties

Kafka explores the complex nature of family relationships in The Metamorphosis. Throughout the story Gregor plays the role of family caretaker and peacemaker. He works a miserable job as a traveling salesman to provide for his family, rarely keeping any money for himself and saving to fund his sister's conservatory. Even after he turns into a bug, he worries about whether his parents, whom he sees as aging and frail, will be able to go out and earn money; he also feels terribly guilty that his sister will not get to attend conservatory, given that he can no longer pay for it.

Much of Gregor's anxiety comes from his acceptance of responsibility for his family's hardships—and feeling a need to fix them on his own. Gregor takes on the responsibility of trying "to calm his father" each time Mr. Samsa experiences a fit of rage, and he attempts to rationalize his family's neglect as an unavoidable consequence of their exhausting lives.

At the same time, however, Gregor resents his parents and sister for ignoring him. These mixed emotions, which fluctuate from loving to resentful, are similar to those Mr. and Mrs. Samsa and Grete have for Gregor. For instance Mrs. Samsa simultaneously loves and is repelled by her son, just as Grete loves and resents her brother.

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