That is, as I'm sure you all know, the pickle in which Gregor Samsa finds himself in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis. (Yet another book that was assigned reading in high school for everyone but me.) As the book opens, Gregor's physical metamorphosis has already occurred. The narrative doesn't concern itself with the process of the change, or even the reason behind it. Normally that would drive me crazy because, gaaaah! I want to know why!! But my mind did not dwell on that as I read. It's only dwelling on that now.
So, why call this The Metamorphosis if it only deals with the aftermath? Because there are other changes that occur during the story. The true metamorphosis is in the family's attitude towards Gregor. Formerly the sole breadwinner, he is now their burden. Surely they used to have great respect for Gregor (although I wonder if they didn't quietly snicker behind his back at the naïve way he enabled their laziness). Gregor's transformation caused immediate fear and revulsion accompanied by pity, which slowly changed to anger and hatred. It also caused a reversal of roles. Gregor's parents and sisters were the parasites at first; upon waking on that fateful morning, suddenly the parasite was Gregor.
Kafka's language in this novella is deceptively simple, leaving me certain that it is disguising hidden depths, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to read into the story. To me, it seems like more of an exercise in creative writing. "What would happen if, one day, a man woke up as a giant bug?" As a much-studied piece of literature, there are all sorts of symbols to be found, but like Nabokov said in his lecture about The Metamorphosis, we shouldn't study symbolism too closely. "I am very careful not to overwork the significance of symbols, for once you detach a symbol from the artistic core of the book, you lose all sense of enjoyment." He's hit upon the reason why so many great books are hated by students. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't study symbolism at all, but when you're
And I did enjoy reading this novella, especially the ridiculousness of it all. After Gregor's initial surprise at his new body, he seems to be in denial. He's thinking about his morning as if nothing were different. I like the absurdity of that. Then, he begins to wonder if his metamorphosis will cause anything else to change in his life. What an optimistic outlook for a giant bug.
Initial optimism aside, I felt so sorry for Gregor through most of the book. He wasn't without faults (he seemed unable to see the bad in others, for one thing) but his utter alienation from humanity, which he accepted so humbly, was quite disheartening. I may cherish solitude, but it's always with the understanding that companionship is waiting in the wings. Not so for poor Gregor. I won't tell you whether things end well for him, in case you've not read this one yet, but I'm sure you can guess that life is pretty harsh when you're an oversized beetle.
Yeah, beetle. That's really just a guess. Kafka did not specify exactly what Gregor had become. My translation calls him a "horrible vermin" in the first sentence. The cleaning lady later calls him a dung beetle. I think his specific form was intentionally left ambiguous, which is made even more evident by the fact that Kafka didn't want a picture of Gregor the Bug at all. Regarding the cover of the first edition, Kafka said, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." The unknown is frequently more horrifying than the known. I think Kafka knew that the "horrible vermin" of each individual reader's imagination would be worse than any he could describe. Personally, I tend to think of Gregor as a brand new species, kind of like a short fat millipede with lots of tiny legs and a set of sharp, fearsome-looking pincers.
Whatever kind of bug Gregor was, I'm pretty sure he wasn't a butterfly.