Spoilers: I know this book is over a hundred years old, but, you know, whatever.
I will admit I went into this novella not expecting much. Based on some of the spoiler-light commentary I read on this novella, I was expecting there to be a lot of pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo and pretentious navel-gazing.
….Buuuuuut the audiobook was narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch so I decided to give it a shot.
I was not only pleasantly surprised by how deep and introspective it was, but I also believe it is now one of my favorite stories ever.
Metamorphosis is a unique, terrifying, and frankly heartbreaking story with deep allegorical potential.
What I love so much about Metamorphosis is that there is more than one way to interpret what message Kafka is trying to convey. I know that’s kind of the point with allegory, but considering we are now living in a post-subtly world where every metaphor must be beaten into our faces with the force of Thor’s hammer, it’s nice to go back to a pre-Twitter age where we had to speculate on possible interpretations.
A lot of people interpret this as an anti-capitalist message and I can see what they mean. Because Gregor is not able to provide for his family in his current state, he is seen as nothing more than an insect.
However, I also believe this is a great metaphor for mental illness, especially depression. When you are stuck in the clutches of such an affliction, it is easy to feel as though you are a burden to those around you. You can’t function or be what they need you to be for them. It makes you feel less than human; an insect.
Some people are lucky enough to have a supportive safety net of people to help them cope in times of mental duress; however, a lot of people do not.
And sometimes the people who were supportive of your plight initially get frustrated with you for your lack of progress and slowly grow to resent you.
It makes you ask yourself a whole host of uncomfortable questions. Obviously, you are not going to turn into an insect, but what if something happened and you weren’t able to take care of yourself anymore? What if you suddenly found yourself incapable of communicating? What if you could not function independently at all, and all those that depended on you would have to become your caregiver?
Would you wind up like Gregor and his family, or would your loved ones rally to your side and shower you with the support you need?
It’s scary to think about.
I have to commend Kafka for making me both terrified of Gregor and terrified for him at the same time. I have a thing about large insects and so the description of Gregor just hanging out on the wall made my skin crawl.
On the other hand, the scene where he is trying to listen to his sister play the violin, trying desperately to be included in the moment, is heart-wrenching and I wanted someone to comfort him.
The unfairness of it all is so palpable in this scene that it genuinely broke my heart. Who hasn’t reached out in times of struggle, feeling lost and alone, desperate to be a part of something?
I think most people have or will feel pathetic and helpless at some point in their lives. At some point they might even feel as though they are unloveable, which only serves to heighten their desperation for kinship and understanding.
This particular scene truly resonated with me more strongly than I think any story I have read in a long time. I have experienced empathy for a character before, but this is the first time in a long time that I have felt it so vividly.
I suppose one could also place themselves in the family’s shoes as well. Yes, they were selfish to place the responsibility of breadwinner solely on Gregor’s shoulders, but it makes you wonder what anyone could possibly do in that situation; not knowing how your loved one turned into a literal monster, or whether or not they will ever be the person you once loved ever again.
It is a crappy circumstance for everyone involved.
I’m still mulling over in my head what the conclusion of the novella is supposed to mean. The family moves away from the flat in favor of more suitable accommodations and they appear to be, for all the world, relieved to be rid of Gregor and his strange condition.
Is Kafka saying that people with depression should just end it all?
Or is it pointing out how replaceable a man is in the grand scheme of things, especially in the early 20th century, where the working man was regarded with even less dignity than he is afforded now?
I can’t say for certain.
I guess it’s up to the reader to decide.
Regardless of what it all means, I can see why this novella is still held in such high esteem. Even a jaded reader from 2021 can appreciate all the subtle nuances of this text.
I love it when stories trust you enough to allow you to interpret them for yourself rather than force-feeding its message to you.
Sadly, Benedict Cumberbatch (who does an excellent job in this audiobook by the way) has not narrated any of Kafka’s other works, but I think they may be worth exploring anyway.
Thanks for reading!