The “Metamorphosis” by Kafka may seem another surreal story, but it is deeply touching because of the explicit descriptions of the feelings that may emerge (and, alas, often do) in real-life situations. It really drives the point home, depicting a miserable family with one member suddenly becoming disabled and socially unacceptable. The shame and even hatred of healthy relatives that turns into relief when the “wrong” family member finally passes away are way too common in our world for this story to not be one of the most heartbreaking literature works.
The story starts while Gregor Zamza, an average young man living with his parents and sister and working as a salesman. His father went bankrupt and now is mostly sitting at home and complaining. His mother also doesn’t work: she has weak lungs and is often ill. She also spends her days sitting in her favourite chair and looking to the window. Greta - Gregor’s younger sister - is a cheerful girl, but is too young to work. She is a talented violin player and Gregor dreams of her becoming a professional musician. He decided that after paying his father debt he would gather money for her conservatory enrolling fee.
Gregor himself returned from the army some years ago and settled down as a worker in a small trading company. The work is ungrateful and he feels he is underpaid, but the young man does his best to keep his family fed and safe. He had to spend lots of his time travelling, getting up at dawn and going long distances by train and by foot with a heavy bag full of swatches. His boss was quite a jerk, exploiting Gregor in any possible way, but the young man never complained, knowing that right after he pays his father’s debts, he may try and search for another work. But even his current one gives him income enough to rent a spacious apartment with a separate room for himself.
Gregor is a faithful son to his family, he works hard to help his relatives, loves them very much and they seem to do that too… until he wakes up in the morning - just to discover that he turned in a horrible huge disgusting insect. Nothing special happens later, after this transformation. The narrative focus is kept on average household issues and the agonizing and desperate attempts of Gregor to live something resembling his previous life. Later we see that the transformation wasn’t as bad as we could think before, in comparison with sheer horror of changing his family’s attitude to him.
So, Gregor wakes up and understands that he even can’t stand still anymore. He is an insect resembling a giant cockroach. He tries to understand if it’s a bad dream, looking at his room, searching for proofs of it… But the room - from the woman’s portrait in a frame he recently carved from the magazine to the familiar window with raindrops on the glass - is real. Gregor tries to close his eyes and sleep some more, still trying to save his sanity in denying the reality. But he even can’t sleep in his favourite positions anymore, his new insect body doesn’t allow him to. Gregor freezes in horror: he starts to realize that this is not a dream.
Gregor looks at the clock and sees it showing half past six while he set it at four AM. It seems he slept over his train and can’t go to work anymore. At this time his mother gently knocks on the door asking her son to wake up, worrying that he is late. Gregor tries to answer, but the insects don’t have voice cords so he emits just a faint painful squeak.
The nightmare continues. Both his father and Greta also come to his room worrying about his health, asking him to open the door. But Gregor can’t - he has no hands to turn the key in the keyhole. After endless tries he manages to slide from the bed edge and fall onto a carpet.
While he is trying to accommodate in his new body and make it work, the doorbell rings. The furious boss came to his house and now is also angrily knocking on Gregor’s door demanding explanation. The new horror urges Gregor to try and speak again. He wants to apologize for that inconvenience and say that he will use the eight o’clock train, he will work longer today, and to beg not to fire him, because he is the only breadwinner in the family. But again he can only squeak and screech.
Somehow he manages to stand on his thin rear legs, reaching the keyhole. This position is excruciatingly painful for the insect he is now, but Gregor doesn’t mind the pain. He must open the door and explain everything until it’s too late for him to keep his job. But now there is a dead silence on the other side of the door. The shocked manager whispers that what they just heard are some random animal sounds. Greta bursts in tears and runs to the street to find the locksmith. Hearing his little sister crying is too much for Gregor and he gathers all his will turning the key with his strong jaws. The door opens and he sees his family - and the family sees him.
Gregor continues his speech, trying to explain to his boss that it is a temporarily condition, for sure. For the first time he objects, pointing that he never asked for sick leaves and he might have one now, considering what happened, even if he is just the lowest-ranked salesman who has no legal rights to do this.
But no one listens. Gregor’s mother silently faints, falling to the floor. His father shakes fist at him in confusion and horror, and the manager, with the blank stare frozen in his eyes, slowly steps back, to the exit. This silent scene lasts for a minute - then Gregor’s mother comes to her senses and starts to scream insanely. She leans against the table and overturns the coffee pot with hot coffee. The Gregor’s boss, awakened from his shock, runs away down the stairs. Gregor runs after him, begging not to fire him, but his own father blocks the way out for him, pushing him away with his cane. With great difficulty Gregor manages to retreat to his room and the door is immediately slammed behind him.
From this horrible morning, Gregor has to live a humiliating and monotonous life in confinement. He slowly gets used to his loneliness and to his new body, even discovering that he can crawl the floors and the ceiling. After some practice he is even delighted to do so. Despite being trapped in an insect body, Gregor stays the same good man. He is sincerely sorry that his family now is afraid and disgusted of him and thinks that he is somehow responsible for it. He can hear the talks of his family from his room and every time they talk about him makes Gregor sadder. His parents are so helpless and sister is so little. Now his family will starve, his ill mother won’t receive her usual treatment and little Greta will never become a musician.
But it’s Gregor himself who shall be worried about starvation. For two weeks his family can’t force themselves to enter his room and bring him food. Greta is the only one who overcomes her fear and disgust. She starts to bring Gregor food and take away the empty dishes. Seeing how much she is afraid of him, Gregor starts to hide under the blanket every time she enters the room to clean or to feed him. He is ashamed that his sister now has to endure such a hideous thing he considers himself. However, Gregor discovers that the average human food becomes less and less nutritious for him and he can’t even ask for something else. He can just hope that Greta will figure this out seeing the untouched plates. But she doesn’t. She does her duty for the sake of herself feeling a merciful good sister, not really thinking about Gregor’s needs.
Still, despite his family pretends to live as if he never existed, Gregor thinks of him with great love and tenderness. He is very grateful to Greta and is sad that he can’t spend the time with her as it was before. Also he is filled with joy after he has heard one evening that his father returned home in a brand new shining uniform of a hotel worker. Surprisingly, they can handle on their own, while Gregor isn’t around to work for the whole family. But the young man doesn’t realize he was ruthlessly exploited and then just thrown away. He is just glad for his family coping with the “loss” of him.
But once Greta comes with an idea to free the room from furniture, to give Gregor more space for crawling and to easy the cleaning task for her. Gregor objects: the human furniture is what reminds him of his humanity. He loves to look at his former textbooks, touching his working place or trying to read the books. Even the carpet is needed for him: rolling on it Gregor cleans his chitin. But the women don’t mind anyway. They both - even Greta now - treat him like an insect, an animal, not a person who can have his own opinion anymore. Driven by his fake guilt, Gregor again hides under the blanket in the corner, allowing them to take away every piece of furniture. But then it comes to portrait… and Gregor understands that he just can’t allow them to strip him of his last possession that gives him happy thoughts. When Greta and her mother take a break, Gregor crawls to the wall, embracing the portrait with all his free legs. He decides for himself that he will defend it, even if he has to bite his beloved sister in process.
The women return and see a big dirty stain on the wall where the portrait once was. After realizing who - or rather what it is - Greta’s mother faints again and Greta runs down to bring her smelling salts. The door is left open and Gregor uses this chance to go into the living room for a while. He follows his sister, explaining to her that he is grateful for her idea to give him room but he’d prefer to leave some of his precious possessions on their places. But in the living room Gregor meets his father who, seeing what happened, grabs a vase with apples from the table and starts throwing apples to Gregor violently. An especially heavy one hits Gregor in the back, crushing his chitin exoskeleton. Crippled, he barely crawls back still trying to justify these actions.
The wound is bad. The inflammation soon starts and Gregor feels worse and worse. Gradually, Greta stops cleaning his room - Gregor isn’t able to hide anymore, just lying in the middle of the floor. Later the family also cease the feeding. Now the room is covered by cobwebs and sticky slime dripping from Gregor’s wounded body - he doesn’t even have a carpet to clean himself anymore. But still, Gregor’s suffering from fever and hunger are nothing in comparison to his guilt and grief. He feels himself unworthy to live, a traitor who isn’t able to help his family anymore and now is only a burden for them. He still hears the family talking about him, but now he was referred to as “it” - a non-sentient being or even a thing.
Once he hears Greta playing the violin downstairs. Gregor is touched - he haven’t heard her playing for long. Gathering all his will he slowly crawls out of the room just to listen to the music. His look is now even more hideous than before: the threads, hair, dust and parts of chitin are stuck to the stinky slime from his wound. But he doesn’t think about it, for the first time, mesmerized by the sound of the violin.
Greta plays for the guests - there are new people in the house who want to rent a room and thus provide the family with more income. The whole family is trying to look as cheerful as they can, Greta wears her best dress and plays her best also… but everything is in vain. Seeing the ugly creature, limping from above the stairs, the guests immediately demand their money back. A shameful scandal breaks out. Gregor’s mother falls on the couch again, coughing - her illness became worse because of constant stress. His father shouts that he was a thousand times right when he was trying to kill Gregor.
Devastated, Gregor crawls back to his shelter. He barely stands on his feet. In the familiar dusty darkness he curls in the corner feeling completely exhausted. He doesn’t want to move anymore, nor he is willing to live. He just lets himself go, refusing to cling to life. His last thoughts are filled with warmth and tenderness. He hopes that his death will make the rest of the family feel better.
Early in the morning a maid comes into the room (yes, the Gregor’s family quite quickly went from pretending to be helpless to having a maid). She sees the insect’s body completely still and gladly exclaims that “it” is finally deader than dead.
Gregor’s body is dry, flat and weightless. The maid grabs his remains and throws it out with the daily garbage. The entire family now feels a great relief. They go for a long walk outside the city. In the train car they joyfully discuss their perspectives for the future that turns to be not so bad. At the same time both parents proudly think about the good looks of their daughter and her talents. All of them behave like they have never had a son.