Kafka was born in Prague, a large provincial
capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that
was home to many Czechs, some Germans,
and a lesser number of German-cultured,
German-speaking Jews. His father, Hermann
Kafka, of humble rural origin, was a hard-
working, hard-driving, successful merchant.
His mother tongue was Czech, but he spoke
German, correctly seeing the language as an
important card to be played in the contest for
social and economic mobility and security.
As a youngster, Kafka, like his father, has no more than the most
perfunctory relationship with Judaism. He dutifully memorized what
was necessary for his bar mitzvah, but he was already an atheist
Writing early became an issue in the antagonism between Kafka and
his father; the latter continued to disdain writing as an unworthy
occupation long after Kafka became a published author.
He received his doctorate in law on 18 June 1907.
Kafka found a new job with the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute
for the Kingdom of Bohemia. He worked there until her retired in
In August 1914 the thirty-one-year-old Kafka, having completed the
novella In der Strafkolonie (1919; translated as "In the Penal Colony,"
1941) and begun working on the novel Der Prozeß (1925; translated
as The Trial, 1937), finally moved out of his parents' home.
He suffered a series of failed engagements. Much of Kafka's personal
struggles, in romance and other relationships, came, he believed, in
part from his complicated relationship with his father.
After horrible suffering, he died on 3 June 1924 of tuberculosis of the
His claim to greatness includes his service in completely collapsing the
aesthetic distance that had traditionally separated the writer from the
reader. In what is probably his most famous work of fiction, Die
Verwandlung (1915; translated as "Metamorphosis," 1936-1938), the
protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is presented to the reader as a man who has
become an insect; Gregor's condition is never suggested to be an illusion
or dream (although many critics have commented on its dreamlike
qualities). In his shock at the result of Kafka's unmediated aesthetic
distance, the reader is led to forgo his usual reflective and explicative
function. Kafka has his characters perform that explicative function--
hectically, repeatedly, self-contradictorily, and with a new kind of irony that
has come to characterize modern literature. Finally, in an age that
celebrates the mass, Kafka redirects the focus to the individual. His
characters stand for themselves as individuals; in the case of the male
protagonists--and almost all of his protagonists are male--they stand for
For most of Kafka's lifetime, his home town of Prague was a Czech
city within a German-speaking empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Only at the end of World War I did that Empire disappear, leading to
the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. But in 1912, when
Kafka was writing The Metamorphosis, the Czechs had not yet won
their independence, and despite its Czech majority, Prague was
dominated by a German-speaking elite. Recognizing where the
power lay in the city, the Jews of Prague tended to identify with the
German minority rather than with the Czech majority; the Czechs
therefore considered the Jews to be part of the German community,
but the Germans themselves did not. As a result, it was easy for the
Jews to feel that they did not fit in anywhere.
In general, Prague was a city of ethnic tensions, primarily between
Czechs and Germans and between Czechs and Jews. In 1897,
when Kafka was fourteen, the tensions erupted into anti-Semitic riots
started by the Czechs. Thus Kafka would have grown up knowing
hatred and hostility as well as the difficulty of fitting in.
Third Person/Limited Omniscient
The story is mainly told through the
perspective of Gregor Samsa, as if the
narrator were planted with Gregor's
human consciousness inside Gregor's
insect body. We discover aspects of
Gregor's body as he himself discovers
them. If he itches, we don't know why
until he looks to see what's making him
itch. If he's hungry, we don't know what
he likes to eat until he discovers his
preference for rotten foods.
The narrator does break out of Gregor's
perspective on occasion and weaves into
the minds of other characters, most
notably in the last few paragraphs of the
story after Gregor dies.
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and,
more importantly, can we trust her or him?
This novella is an extended literalization of the implications of
the metaphor used in its initial sentence. Gregor is
metamorphosed into an insectlike species of vermin, with
Kafka careful not to identify the precise nature of Gregor’s
bughood. German usage applies Kafka’s term, Ungeziefer, to
contemptible, spineless, parasitic persons, akin to English
connotations of the work “cockroach.” Gregor’s passivity and
abjectness before authority link him with these meanings, as
Kafka develops the fable by transforming the metaphor back
into the imaginative reality of his fiction. After all, Gregor’s
metamorphosis constitutes a revelation of the truth regarding
his low self-esteem. It is a self-judgment by his repressed and
continually defeated humanity.
Kafka today is a household word around the world, one of the few
writers to have an adjective named after him (‘‘Kafkaesque’’),
describing the dream-like yet oppressive atmosphere characteristic
of his works. When his writings first appeared, however, some
reviewers found them baffling, tedious, or exasperating; and the two
extreme ideological movements of the twentieth century both found
his message unacceptable. The Nazis banned him, and Communist
critics denounced him as decadent and despairing.
But fairly quickly Kafka began to be praised by a host of influential
writers and intellectuals. The English poet W. H. Auden compared
him to Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. The German writer
Thomas Mann, quoted by Ronald Gray in his book Franz Kafka, said
that Kafka's works are "among the worthiest things to be read in
German literature." And the philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing
during World War II, said (also as quoted by Gray) that "Kafka's
nightmare of a world ... has actually come to pass.’’
Gregor Samson goes to bed one night
and wakes up, late for work, as a
cockroach. We learn that Gregor is a
traveling salesman. He hates his job but
feels obligated to perform it because of
his parents. They are indebted to his
boss, and because of their advanced age
it is left to Gregor to fulfill their debt.
He spends day after day at this work,
consumed yet unfulfilled. He has not
missed a day of work in five years.
1. Discuss the details Kafka uses to establish Gregor’s
life before his metamorphosis into an insect. How
do these familiar details and objects define
Gregor’s character and life?
1. The relationship between Gregor and his father is
at the core of the story. Describe this relationship
both before and after Gregor’s metamorphosis.
1. Much of this part of the story, focuses on Gregor’s
inner life. Describe Gregor’s private thoughts and
emotions; use psychoanalytic theory to discuss his
attitudes toward his family and outside world.
Read The Metamorphosis Chapter 2
Post #20: Choose 1
Grete’s character undergoes a dramatic change
in this section. Trace the changes that highlight
the changes in her attitude, character, and
personality. Can feminist theory help explain her
Gregor refuses to part with the picture of the
woman wrapped in furs on the wall. Why is it
important? Explain its symbolic meaning.
In this section of the story, Gregor’s sense of guilt
is highlighted. Use Psychoanalytic theory to
explain Gregor’s guilt. Consider how his lingering
guilt affects his state of mind and his feelings
toward his family.
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