Kafka’s Metamorphosis: A metaphor of personal change

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I had to read Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the Coursera MOOC The Fiction of Relationship that I am currently doing.

When I first read Metamorphosis about twenty years ago, I saw the surface-level of the story and the absurdity of a guy waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a bug. Given the slant that my intellectual development has taken up to that point, I was focused on concrete, matter-of-fact information and while I loved reading, I did not see much in terms of what the story could teach me.

So, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an ugly beetle. His own body feels strange to him. He does not know how to present himself to others. While he still thinks in the same language he was used to using, others do not understand him. And while he craves human contact and would like love and support from those closest to him, they are repulsed by him, confused, and even angry. In the end, their rejection of his new being leads to his death.

The first thing that now comes to my mind is the parallel with the question of sexual identity. What happens if one suddenly becomes conscious of a sexual identity that is not the norm (homosexual, bisexual, etc.)? How does one feel about it? How does one negotiate this new identity with others? And what reactions will others have? New sexual identity (or newly revealed sexual identity) will usually produce strong reactions that lead to a renegotiation of social relationships. The rejection will be even stronger if the behavior revealed is perceived as immoral.

Other transformations that come to mind are professional transformations. What about the social activist who becomes a corporate employee? Imagine an environmentalist who starts working for an industry with a dubious environmental track record. This person may have to reflect on how this can be done without damaging his sense of self based on deeply held beliefs and values. Will former associates understand this change? Will he be perceived as a traitor and be rejected? And will this change lead to being “dead to others”?

Any serious departure from the social norms of a group may be considered a metamorphosis that will make the deviant one move from the in-group to the out-group. The change of social identity will be forced by the reaction of in-group members who reject the change as unacceptable.

What a difference twenty years can make… While some of the people who surround me now at work cannot see things the way I see them anymore than my former self could, many of the people who know me best see the additional depth (shall we call it growth?) but will still chuckle at the times where I really don’t get it and just see the poor bug with the rotten apple on his back.

Reference

Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. Downloaded from the Gutenberg Project.

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4 responses »

  1. Wonderful insights with this my first contact with Kafka’s book. July 3rd was his birthday and I pondered reading one of his books, but I don’t think I’m up to the challenge. Your post brought me closer to Kafka, thank you so much.

    • Kafka is somewhat maddening, because he is Kafka… but it is such a distinct way to looking at human nature and human behavior. Definitely worth the investment.

  2. Kafka definitely makes one pause and consider the current quality of life created for oneself. I’ve always understood this story to reflect that his quality of life didn’t change. He had used up his life and energy working to support his family because he thought his family couldn’t do without him. Once he transformed, he and they both discovered they were much more capable than previously thought. In fact, they could get along without him perfectly fine. He was a figurative bug transformed into a literal one. Sadly, his quality of life was no better than it was before he had his transformation. He was operating under a delusion, and his family was happy to let him sacrifice himself for them…needlessly. I suppose it can be boiled down to “the grandeur of the self-important.”

    However, your interpretation also has a lot of good points, and I agree completely that often times change can really rattle our perceptions of others as well as ourselves. Once we gain a new title/identity, do older ones go away or do they just pile on top of the heap? Or do they rot…like an apple?

    • Hi, thanks for the comment! I hadn’t seen this from this angle at all. And I hadn’t given any thought to the possible meaning of the apple. To me it was just jesting, some kind of comic relief.

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