I signed up for the 2016 Classics Challenge this year, with the goal to read a classic every month. Suddenly, it was June, and I had not yet read a single classic! June was already filled with reading obligations for book groups and reviews, but I was determined to fit one in. I chose the shortest classic on our bookshelves, The Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka, a novel that both our sons had read in their senior year of high school World Lit class. They’d both enjoyed it (even the one who says he doesn’t like to read), and I’ve never read Kafka before. I found this short novella surprisingly engrossing, clever, and even funny.
Hearing about the plot of The Metamorphosis before (a man turns into an insect), I’d always imagined some sort of lengthy, grotesque change process that took most of the novel to complete. Nope. In the first sentence of the first page, it simply says, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s it. Metamorphosis complete.
The interesting part isn’t the change itself (which is never explained) but what happens next. The author simply imagines, “what would happen if one day you woke up and were a giant bug?” (some experts say Gregor turns into a cockroach; others say the translation implies a bedbug; some say just a general beetle). It’s an interesting line of thinking. First, Gregor must himself realize what has happened and get used to his new body. He can scamper across the walls and ceiling but can’t open his bedroom door. He is understandably worried about being late to work that first morning (cue tongue-in-cheek humor).
Soon, Gregor must also deal with the reactions of his family members. A young man working as a salesman, he lives with his mother and father and sister. First concerned that Gregor is unwell because he hasn’t gotten up yet, they soon discover what has happened and then vacillate between concern and disgust. Interestingly, no one really wonders how this bizarre thing happened. Soon, their worries grow because Gregor was the main breadwinner in the household. His retired father must return to work, his mother and sister take in sewing.
Through all this family drama, Gregor is still a giant bug and must deal with the problems of daily existence. His sister thoughtfully leaves food out for him on the floor of his room, but he doesn’t find that kind of food very appealing. His room becomes filthy because no one wants to come in and clean it. He loses his job quite quickly after a visit from his boss that first day. Gregor simultaneously worries about the effects of his strange predicament on his family, as well as the practical concerns of learning how to live as a giant bug in his bedroom.
I think you can see, even from this brief synopsis, that the absurdity of the situation – and the very straightforward way both the author and the main character consider it – lends itself to humor. To this mix, Kafka adds his dry, witty way of describing scenes that are completely fantastical in perfectly normal tones. It’s not just a comedy, however. It’s a tragedy as well, as Gregor adjusts to his new life and realizes he’s probably not ever going back to his old form. In this way, Kafka somehow manages to explore human emotions (both in Gregor and in the responses of those around him) through the guise of a giant insect. I found the combination both thoughtful and a lot of fun to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this wholly unique story told in such a calm, even way. The Metamorphosis was a pleasant surprise for me, thoroughly entertaining and compelling. At less than 60 pages, I bet you have time to read this classic novella, too!
55 pages, Bantam Classics