The Metamorphosis


Franz Kafka

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The Metamorphosis Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Franz Kafka

Kafka was born in Prague, the first of six children in a family of middle-class Jews. He preferred to speak and write German, as his family did, though most residents of Prague spoke Czech, a significant division both culturally and politically. He attended elementary school, gymnasium, and university within a few blocks of his birthplace. He studied law and got a job at an insurance company at age 24, though he resented having to work to pay the bills. Kafka's letters and journals reveal that he was tortured by a sense of his own inadequacy, sexually and socially, though to others he came off as quiet and intelligent. He had several passionate love affairs but never married. During his lifetime, Kafka is estimated to have burned at least 90% of everything he wrote, though he consented to publish The Metamorphosis at age 32. At 34, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which would lead to his death seven years later. When he died, he left a note for his friend, Max Brod, to destroy his remaining works. Fortunately, Brod disregarded this request, and published "The Trial," "The Castle," and "Amerika." Despite Kafka's relatively small body of work, he has become one of the titans of world literature, and the adjective form of his name, "Kafkaesque," has come to signify the frustrations of modern existence.
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Historical Context of The Metamorphosis

Kafka lived at a time of enormous tension in Austria-Hungary and in all of Europe. During his formative years, nationalism (a desire for independence and self-control along ethnic or national lines) was on the rise within the pan-national Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading to the hostility that exploded into war when Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in 1914. 70 million people participated in the war, 9 million of whom died, and by its end in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman empires had dissolved. The war was also significant because so many technologies were used for the first time, such as tanks, airplanes, poison gases, and new forms of artillery, resulting in a previously unimaginable scale of destruction. Kafka did not fight in World War I, first because his job was considered essential, and later because of his tuberculosis, although he wanted to enlist. After the war, Hungary split off from Austria and became Communist. Scholars still argue about whether Kafka's writings support Communism or malign it, or even if Kafka is political at all. As for his religion, Kafka wrote that he felt separate from his Jewish heritage, though some scholars define him as an exemplar of Jewish literature. He died before World War II, but all three of his sisters perished in the Holocaust.

Other Books Related to The Metamorphosis

Kafka is associated with Existentialism, a philosophical and artistic movement in the 19th and 20th century whose foundational idea is that each individual human is responsible for creating their own meaning. To paraphrase Sartre, "existence precedes essence"— life is what we make of it. As simple as it seems, this concept boldly defied the conventional thinking that meaning stems from religion or society. Existentialist works are characterized by a sense of confusion and despair in response to an absurd, unfair world. Along with The Metamorphosis, Kafka's The Trial demonstrates this stance, as a mysterious authority arrests a hapless man, Josef K., who doesn't even know what crime he's committed. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a 19th-century novel that deals with typical Kafka themes such as guilt and self-loathing. Existentialism became even more influential during and after World War II, and classic works from that later period include Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett. Both Sartre and Camus acknowledged that Kafka's work had influenced their own.
Key Facts about The Metamorphosis
  • Full Title: The Metamorphosis
  • When Written: Over a three-week period in 1912
  • Where Written: Prague
  • When Published: 1915
  • Literary Period: World War I
  • Genre: Existentialism/Absurdism/Modernism
  • Setting: An apartment in an unnamed European city
  • Climax: During Grete's violin concert for the boarders, Gregor emerges from his room
  • Antagonist: Grete, Gregor's father, and the lodgers can all be seen as antagonists at different moments, but Gregor's greatest enemy is his own changed body and personality.
  • Point of View: Third person, limited to Gregor's point of view with some exceptions

Extra Credit for The Metamorphosis

Cockroach or not? Kafka never specifies what kind of insect Gregor becomes. He uses a German word that roughly translates to "vermin," then describes Gregor's many small legs, hard rounded shell, and antennae, suggesting a cockroach. Scholars have put forward other theories over the years, the most interesting of which comes from Vladimir Nabokov, who was convinced that Gregor actually became a winged beetle, capable of but never achieving flight.

Gregor on stage Many theater groups have attempted to adapt The Metamorphosis for the stage or screen—no easy feat, considering the main character. In a recent, critically acclaimed production, actor-director Gisli Orn Gardasson got around this issue by rejecting costume pieces or body paint in favor of contorting himself into insectlike positions, physically illustrating Gregor's mental anguish of being a human mind in a bug's body.