A totemic novella of Modernism and alienation, Franz Kafka's "bug piece" has been in publication for nearly a century, baffling and delighting readers in equal measure with its fundamental strangeness and rigorous avoidance of explanation. In our present era, marked by a ferment of genetic engineering and hybridization (not to mention isolation and economic hardship), revisiting this text seems not only appropriate but necessary. This welcome new edition of The Metamorphosis was translated by Susan Bernofsky in a smoother, less Germanic, more contemporary voice than the Muir version most Anglophone readers remember from school, and is introduced by the master of biological horror, director David Cronenberg.
Per Bernofsky, the creature Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into is not, as literal translations would have it, an "unclean animal unsuitable for sacrifice," a "vermin," or even a "bug" in the most general sense, but an "insect," a "monstrous insect." As she reminds us in her Afterword, Kafka referred to the character as an insect when discussing illustration ideas with his publisher (the author adamant that the transformed Samsa should not be depicted, even from a distance). Outside of translation circles, there was never much cause for debate. With its feelers, six legs, mandibles from which brown fluid drips, and ability to cling to walls and ceilings, Gregor's new body is clearly that of an insect (in Nabokov's precise entomology, a beetle), not a mammal or rodent, so it's puzzling why Kafka chose such a vague word for it. The most likely reason is that he wanted readers to focus on the fact of the transformation and how Gregor and others react to it, not the exotic particulars of non-human anatomy.
Gregor's morphology is in some ways a MacGuffin. While Kafka takes obvious relish in describing the bug's physicality and behavior, Gregor could have woken up in permanent clown makeup or as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the mechanics of the narrative would be the same. For all of its unexplained and seemingly irreducible metaphorical implications, the story is really about a striving, conventional, middle-class family and how petty, selfish, and inhuman its members can be to each other.
Rereading it after many years, I was struck by how much The Metamorphosis resembles the first half of an episode of Intervention in which a full-blown addiction (and its deleterious physical effects) emerges literally overnight instead of over months or years. Home becomes a diorama of familial dysfunction—the increasingly disordered, dust-filled sanctum of the addict surrounded by rooms occupied by the rest of the family, each of whom responds to the monster in their midst by fulfilling stock roles as if on cue: the stern authority figure (father), the confused enabler (mother), the reluctant caretaker (sister). Indeed, the following speech by Gregor's sister Grete toward the end of the novella could have been transcribed from an Al-Anon family meeting:
You just have to try to let go of the notion that this thing is Gregor. The real disaster is that we believed this for so long. But how could it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it just isn't possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own. We would have been lacking a brother but we would have been able to go on living and honoring his memory. But now we have this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter.
In addiction-recovery terms, this is the moment when the family realizes that the only way to help the addict is to stop helping him, so to speak, and that in order to absolve themselves of any attendant guilt for practicing tough love and throwing him out of the house, they must pretend that the addict is no longer their son. It is a way of forcing the addict to take responsibility for his own life while sloughing off any sense of responsibility the family still feels toward him.
Kafka's work is often about the anxiety of assuming responsibility for something, whether it be a job, an errand, a role as family breadwinner, or a defense against a mysterious charge from an impenetrable state—and how easy it is to bungle or shirk that responsibility. In Gregor's case, he has taken on the responsibility of supporting his parents and sister by working as an insanely overscheduled traveling salesman, but it has become too much for him. As Bernofsky puts it, Gregor has "worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents' debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement." Cronenberg reads Gregor's situation as closely analogous to that of the doddering, demented, live-in grandfather the family can't afford to put in a nursing home (the director had just turned 70 when he wrote his introduction), and as novel as this take is, if one replaces "his parents' debts" with "his family's debts," it doesn't clash with Bernofsky's.
Bernofsky concludes: "Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretchedness of his situation, since he has willingly accepted wretchedness as it was thrust upon him in its many forms. . . . Gregor is a salesman, but what he's sold is himself: his own agency and dignity, making him a sellout through and through." This is not quite right. If Gregor were truly a "sellout through and through," he would not lament to himself, upon the general manager's arrival at the apartment to inquire about his lateness, "Why oh why was [he] condemned to serve in a firm where even the most negligible falling short was enough to arouse the greatest possible suspicion?" Rather, he would think that management's attitudes, however overbearing, were in line with his own (and also for his own good).
Without getting all Marxist about it, one can see Gregor's fate as the result of the pressures of petit bourgeois capitalism on a man too sensitive to meet its unceasing demands. After Gregor finally dies, what restores his family's mood are the prospects of career advancement in their respective jobs, moving to a more "practical" apartment, and marrying off Grete to a "good husband." Gregor tried valiantly (and successfully) for years to help further this 1950s-style bourgeois fantasy, but was ultimately too weird, too human to carry on. Next to the inhumanity of his family's authoritarian conformity, Gregor appears as alien, other. He becomes unsuitable for further sacrifice on the wheels of commerce. And like so many of the terminally unemployed, he withers away, dies, and gets swept out with the trash. Life—in the form of Grete's "beautiful, voluptuous … young body" and its reproductive promise—goes on.
Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series, 2003).