Every person who has ever cared deeply and truly about another knows the pain of sacrificing part of himself in order to ensure the life and safety of those they love. Whether it is a father breaking his back working two jobs with double shifts in order to put his daughter through college, or a single mother, barely scraping by, giving her two sons the chicken breast and eating nothing herself; people will always, although sometimes grudgingly, put themselves through torture for the sake of their loved ones, even if the relationship is cancerous to the one doing the sacrifice. The ultimate act of love is the complete sacrifice of oneself for another, which is seen in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa undergoes his hideous metamorphosis in order to be free from the drudgery and the anguish of his difficult life caused by his parasitic family, his unintentional self-erosion, and his subconscious desire to leave this world behind, finally freeing himself and his family.
In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa awakens transformed into a hideous beast, but more importantly he awakens to a terrible family. “[It’s] quarter to seven. Didn’t you want to catch the train?” calls Gregor’s mother (Kafka 5). Gregor set his alarm for four o’clock. His mother obviously knows that Gregor needs to catch a train, but cares so little about her son that she can’t remember the general time when the train will be leaving? This is one of the myriad examples of apathetic behavior Gregor’s family shows towards him. However, when Gregor’s manager comes to inquire as to why Gregor missed his train, the family is very concerned. Gregor is the family’s sole provider who also is working off the debts of the family. When something, in this case the manager, threatens their source of income, what happens? His father nearly bangs the door down and his sister begins to cry hysterically. With seemingly no emotion they wave away the possibility that Gregor is ill, and jump to worrying about losing their money. The family is in serious debt, a debt so serious that it will take Gregor five or more years to work it off, yet he is the only person out of a family of four capable workers that does so much as make a farthing. Gregor’s family sponges off of him, they use him as an a credit card, or an A.T.M. When their checks bounce and the accounts dry up, they toss Gregor to the side. Whether it is through sheer ignorance, or more likely neglect, his parents do not even know that he hates his job. In Wilhelm Emerich’s study of The Metamorphosis, he states:
“Gregor Samsa’s parents….never had any inkling of his conflict, of the sacrifice he was
making for their sake; ‘His parents did not understand this too well; in the course of the
years they had formed the conviction that Gregor was set for his life in his firm. They
had never dreamed that there was trouble brewing within Gregor, that something had
been ‘out of order’ long before the eruption of this inner sickness in the form of the
metamorphosis (Emerich 123).”
It never occurred to Samsa’s parents that he hated his job, a job that drove him hate himself, and who he had become doing the job. It is obvious that not a single person in the family has a strong enough relationship with Gregor to know that the one thing he wants is freedom from this life, because all Gregor is, is money. “They just got used to [him delivering to them, his paycheck], the family as well as Gregor, the money was received with thanks and given with pleasure, but no special feeling of warmth went with it any more (Kafka 26).” His parents are parasites, sucking him dry, yet Gregor bows his head and bears the yoke of slavery. “He [believes] he [has] to provide for his family with a pleasant, contented, secure life by sacrificing himself, by selling himself to his business (Emerich 123).” Because Gregor loves his family, he allows them to drain him until he is nothing more than a dry husk.
Once Gregor is relieved from his life of servitude by his metamorphosis he comes to the realization that his family is not what he thought it was. Most potently “His father possessed more money than Gregor knew about. His father, too, was able to work, and was by no means so ill as it [seemed] (Emerich 123).” His father had “enough [money] to support the family for one year, or at the most two (Kafka 27).” His father deliberately hides money from Gregor, money that could be used to greatly reduce his sentence. If keeping, stealing, money from your provider is in any light bad, his father is terrible. When his son transforms into an insect, his father abuses him, shoving him into the room, and throwing objects at him, which will cause the literal death of the character. Gregor’s mother, does nothing to prevent this abuse, nor does she give any resistance to a single conflict. She is a passive flake, who simply occupies space. Lastly, Grete is a hysterical version of her mother, who instead of shrinking from conflict like her mother, breaks down and weeps hysterically. Once, metamorphosed Gregor realizes that his family is not the good hearted people he thought he was providing for, they are strange caricatures of people he once knew. They are shells of people, just as Gregor realizes that he is a shell of a man. He begins to realize, through his metamorphosis the true nature of those whom he serves.
As Gregor realizes that his family is vastly different than what he thought they were, he realizes that he brought his transformation on himself. “The bug is Gregor’s subconscious taking over, and showing him what he has become to those around him (127)” Emerich states. Continuing to say that “The metamorphosis, thus, had already taken place, before his waking.” Gregor refuses to listen to his subconscious that has been screaming at him to make a change in his life. It tells him that he piddles away his life in a dead-end job scurrying from place to place like an ant running back and forth from its colony, pointlessly running with no personal reward. But only when he becomes on the outside what he is one the inside does he see. He turned himself into a scuttling drone going from task to task by working hard for five years serving a master like an ant serves its queen. Ralph Freedman corroborates Emerich’s idea:
“‘The Metamorphosis’ consists in the self’s gradual reduction to its most vital center–it’s
self-consciousness. In two stages–a more superficial change in spatial relations and a
more central change in the consciousness of time — Gregor is finally reduced to a mere
speck of self-awareness which is ultimately extinguished (123).”
His work causes his self-erosion, with each passing day more and more of who Gregor is is effaced, until in a desperate attempt for succor from his life, he is changed. But even the shock of the change wears away, the “monstrous vermin,” itself being reduced to a shell that causes the maid to ask: “So is that all there is (Kafka 43)?” Originally the family and manager are disgusted and repulsed by Gregor, but the old cleaning lady simply thinks that there isn’t too much to Gregor and that he is pitiful. And that is what Gregor really turned into from the very beginning. A lifeless shell with nothing much to it. Looking at Gregor’s life story pre-transformation will yield the same response. “So it that all there is?” Which reveals the most important reason why Gregor undergoes his metamorphosis.
Gregor’s metamorphosis is a respite from his terrible life. Although he dies at the hand of his father’s apple “Gregor does nevertheless free himself from his enslavement [by] the empirical world. [He] says ‘yes’ to his death. He dies reconciled with himself and the world.”He finally realizes that it is not succor from his job that he wanted, it is succor from his life that he needed.
Death would have freed Gregor as much as his metamorphosis would have, but Gregor is not the only character who must be free. “Gregor’s end is marked by a constriction of his physical universe… the family we infer, had been similarly constricted and set free(Freedman 133).” Gregor could not simply die. If he had died, then the family would fall apart. Dealing with Gregor’s change shows the family that all along, they had the power to free themselves from their own bonds. Once Gregor is gone, his family starts being self sufficient. By Gregor’s transformation they are released from the unhealthy relationship just as much as Gregor. The family members find work, and Grete even begins to play music again. When Gregor finally lets go of himself and the idea that he needs to provide with his family, the family simultaneously, rises and leaves their self-made dungeon, for the warmth of the sun and the promise of a new and better life. Through his metamorphosis, Gregor liberates himself, and his family.
Emrick, Wilhelm. Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of his Writings. Trans. Sheema Z. Buehne. New
York: Ungar Publishing Company, Inc, 1968. 132-148. Rpt. in The Metamorphosis.
Franz Kafka. 1915. Trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004. 113-29. Print.
Freedman, Ralph. Critical Essay. “Kafka’s Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative.”
Modern Fiction Studies. VIII.1 (1962). 65-67. Rpt, in The Metamorphosis. Franz Kafka.
1915. Trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004. 130-134. Print.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 1915. Trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam Classic,