By Franz Kafka
First Published in 1915
Translated from the German by William Aaltonen
I was rummaging through the shelves of a bookstore looking for a copy of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov when I found Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In the end, I went out of that store holding Kafka and no Dostoevsky. It felt surreal.
“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found that he had been transformed – in his bed – into a kind of giant bug.”
So begins the story of Gregor Samsa, a commercial traveller by profession and the protagonist of one of Franz Kafka’s most famous novel. If transforming into a giant bug is also one of that “troubled dreams”, we can only surmise but the metamorphosis wasn’t a dream. Apart from the transformation, Gregor also realizes that morning how he hated his job and it was only out of responsibility for his parents and his sister, Grete, that he had taken the job. What we were not told is how and why Gregor metamorphosed into a “giant bug”. Had he eaten something or was he beaten by a bug (more like Spiderman except that Spidey is a lot luckier) or has he offended the bug kingdom and cursed him into turning one of them? Again, we can only formulate our own story.
As the story progresses, his family’s feelings also transforms – from repugnance to pity to fear to spite and when he died, to hope. When his sister couldn’t take it anymore, bursts all her sentiments and can only see him as a monster, not her dearly beloved brother.
“’That thing has to go!’ Grete cried. ‘It’s the only way, Father. You have to stop believing it’s Gregor. We’ve believed that for far too long, that’s why we’re so unhappy…this monster dogs our footsteps, drives our lodgers away and schemes to take over the whole flat…’”
However, Gregor’s metamorphosis is not all a bane to his family’s situation. In fact, because there’s nobody to support them financially, it allows them to act and rely on each other in order to live. His father took a job in some bank; his mother was doing needlework for a clothing store while his sister worked as a sales assistant and took to studying shorthand and French. It is as if Gregor’s transformation to a hideous creature is his family’s transformation and coming back to life. And when he died, their despair has also died with him leaving only hope and dreams for the three of them.
That feeling when I went out of the bookstore gripped me until turning the last page of the book. It was so surreal and so bizarre. I couldn’t help feeling I was also transforming into a bug or whatever Gregor Samsa turned into. I wonder of all insects, Kafka chose that monstrous bug and not a butterfly or something less hideous. But if he chose something else, there wouldn’t be a story so mysterious and sometimes repugnant yet captivating, is there?