What if sudden misfortune strikes someone in a family? What if the misfortune is of the kind where the member is disabled or becomes diseased but does not die? What does it feel like to be helpless?
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is about these questions.
Gregor Samsa of Prague, the only breadwinner of a family struggling to make ends meet, wakes up one morning and finds he has metamorphosed into a gigantic insect with “many legs pitifully thin compared to the rest of him”. He is lying in his room and has to get to work, but is unable to move in the usual human way. As pleas from his parents and his manager from work who has come to ask about his absence mount, Gregor slowly gets to the door, succeeds after much labor in opening it and reveals his new self. His family is shocked, the manager runs away, and his father shoos Gregor back into his room.
Gregor can still think as before but his speech is unintelligible. His appearance is grotesque but he is not harmful in any way. He has the best of intentions. It is his sister, Grete, who now takes care of Gregor and feeds him, even though they cannot communicate. Gregor and Grete had shared a wonderful relationship. Gregor appreciated his sister’s talent for music and was putting away some earnings to send her to music school. The two siblings had planned to announce this to their parents during Christmas. Now, with Gregor's metamorphosis, that plan is no more.
And yet, Grete tries her best to help Gregor. He reciprocates the best he can. This a moving part of the story:
To find out about his likes and dislikes, she brought him a wide assortment of things, all spread out on an old newspaper: old, half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from the evening meal, caked with congealed white sauce; some raisings and almonds; a piece of cheese, which two days before Gregor had declared inedible; a plain slice of bread, a slice of bread and butter; and one with butter and salt. In addition to all this she put down some water in the bowl apparently permanently earmarked for Gregor’s use. And out of a sense of delicacy, since she knew that Gregor would not eat in front of her, she left hurriedly and even turned the key; just so that Gregor should know that he might take himself as comfortable as he wanted.Since his appearance has the potential to unsettle, Gregor scurries and hides under the couch as his sister enters the room to lay the food on the floor. But Gregor's head is still visible. To make sure his sister does not get a glimpse when she brings food, he struggles painfully with his legs to arrange a bed sheet in such a way that he is completely invisible. Grete is grateful. In turn, she also recognizes that Gregor, when he is alone, might benefit from positioning himself, difficult though such a maneuver is, against the window to look outside – it was something he did frequently before. She adjusts the chair every day so Gregor is able to do this in his present vermin state.
But is Grete’s compassion endless? The latter part of the story – the tragic part – is the family’s gradual realization that Gregor has become a liability. To keep the family going and to pay back the mortgage, Gregor’s retired father has to return to work; his mother turns to sewing clothes; Grete becomes a saleswoman. Over time, Grete becomes irritable. She stops cleaning Gregor’s room. Dirt and crumbs gather. Gregor loses interest in food and spits it out. He begins to starve, walks in his own filth, and becomes weak. One morning, after an altercation, his father hurls apples at him, one of which gets lodged painfully in his scaly back.
As the story draws to a close, Kafka seems to be posing the question: How unconditional is our love for those whom we consider close and how much can we endure for them? The Metamorphosis does not give a clear answer, but we are able to intuit the internal lives of those trapped in such a conundrum. Kafka achieves this in fifty pages of spare, well-controlled prose. No wonder The Metamorphosis is considered one of literature’s greats.
And here is an essay on recent book on Kafka's relationship with his father.