Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

To better appreciate Kafka's Metamorphosis, it is essential to understand some of the existentialist ideas and beliefs that influenced his thoughts and writings.

Existentialism, a philosophy that became popular during the 19thcentury, generally asserts that destiny is chosen (rather than predetermined or ordained), that individuals must decide for themselves what they will believe is true, and that the greatest truths (such as the existence of God or the morality of any one act) cannot be rationally determined. Self-sufficiency or independence from other people is another ideal that existentialism extols. This philosophy also generally values the primacy of momentary existence: The only morality is that which is useful at the present time.

Overall, existentialism admits that stark individualism and self-determination will lead to personal anxiety (or angst). Complete and total freedom of choice can overwhelm a person who is unhindered by any consideration for the past, for other people, or for the good of society as a whole. This can often lead to the kind of isolation and despair that Gregor experiences in The Metamorphosis. Gregor is a type of anti-hero who faces a choice about whether or not to continue upholding the existentialist ideal.

The Metamorphosis is a highly symbolic text; many events, objects, and people represent or illustrate certain other, more complicated, ideas. The plot itself does not make rational sense; it depends entirely on the reader's acceptance of Gregor's transformation. Note that Kafka never answers or even addresses the major question implicit in the novel: How and why did Gregor become a bug?

As you read The Metamorphosis, note the following recurrent themes:

  1. The following existentialist ideas can be found in the text:

  2. Gregor's transformation and new physical form may seem to be the most significant plot details, but they are merely the catalysts for story development and ways for Kafka to express his ideas. Gregor's relationship with the family, the choices he makes or doesn't make, and the various symbols in the book are more important elements.

  3. Kafka explains, at various places in the book, that in a time period before the novel starts, Gregor once provided for the needs of his entire family. Note how the family comes to view Gregor's lack of ability to earn money over the course of the story.

  4. Gregor is not the only character who undergoes a metamorphosis during the course of the story. The rest of the family, especially his sister, also experiences a transformation. Note how the family members change and how their attitudes or actions toward Gregor also change.

  5. Kafka is often celebrated as an especially effective critic of totalitarianism and its faceless bureaucracy. What can you find inThe Metamorphosis that supports this opinion?

  6. Note how Gregor thinks about and deals with his situation, how he relates to his family, what he thinks about his job, and what his responses to change are. Are these responses what one would expect in such a dramatic and catastrophic transformation?

  7. Gregor's room can be interpreted as symbolizing himself; the rest of the house and the city may be representative of the rest of society. Changes in the room and changes in Gregor's ability to enter or perceive the world outside of his room indicate his degree of isolation from other people.

  8. Note the recurrence of the number three throughout the novel: three tenants, three other members of the family, three doors into Gregor's room, and so on. This may be a religious reference or theme that Kafka is creating.