Have you ever had one of those days where nothing seems to go right, something like the worst day of Samsa Gregor’s life? He wakes up late for work one morning, has a scratchy voice, and can’t seem to get out of bed because his short bug-legs just wiggle around, unable to reach the bed below his beetle-shell back. Yeah, a day just like that.
For Gregor, the focus of Franz Kafka’s 1912 short story The Metamorphosis, things only go downhill from there. After waking up as a “monstrous vermin,” Gregor experiences a stream of curses from his boss, rejection by his family, the pain of seeing his loved ones suffer at his hand (or what used to be his hand), and the injustice of getting swatted with a newspaper just because he eats rotting food, climbs on walls and ceilings, and has visible mandibles.
The absurd plot of Kafka’s most famous work is, in a word, Kafkaesque. Gregor’s transformation from a successful traveling salesman into an insect that has no hope of anything is inexplicable, unexplained, and without reason or meaning. While it is understandable that his boss would dismiss him for his inability to schmooze with customers given his inability to speak, walk, eat, or breath like his potential clients, the abrupt rejection by his family, given the years that he has worked to provide them with a comfortable life is also curious and extraordinary.
One feels a need to commiserate with Gregor’s circumstances. And yet, I found myself quickly joining the family in their condemnations. Gregor could not, in fact, speak to his family, but he did retain his human capacity for intelligent thought. Why couldn’t he spell out “Help” with things found on his desk? That would have turned the book from Kafkaesque to Shaggy Dogesque. But Gregor contributes nothing to any kind of happy ending. In fact, in the face of his circumstances, he gives up trying even faster than his family does.
The plot presented in The Metamorphosis does give one possible outcome to a person being thrown into an impossible situation. I myself haven’t yet met anyone who suddenly changed into a hideous vermin, but I do know people who, due to illness or family trauma or work-related abuse, found themselves in seeming impossible environments from which the means of escape eluded them. Neither stories nor real life are guaranteed to provide happy endings, and Gregor Samsa’s existence makes that absurdly clear.
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