Since its publication in 1915, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis has become one of the most dissected literary works of all time. Multitudes have pored over every detail of the author’s life for clues to reveal its proper meaning, extending their search even to the journal entries of his close companions (Cain). A hypothesis that Kafka suffered a Father Complex remains the running theory for how such bizarre fiction manifested itself into existence (Abraham). This interpretation is far from conclusive, however, with dozens of other compelling arguments. Feminist readings and postcolonial readings offer their own rich interpretations, and practically everything in between.
A century later with still no definitive answer, it seems Kafka’s most famous novel may simply be a lock with no satisfactory combination. Or rather too many satisfactory combinations. Because, if there is one thing certain about The Metamorphosis, it is that it continues to inspire readers from every corner of the globe, generation after generation. There are many possible explanations for the novel’s enormous popularity, but perhaps the most unexpected reason is its relatability.
The sudden transformation to an insect is not a plight anyone should expect to suffer, and yet the fallout of this event is bitterly recognizable. Like many others before me, the reality of Gregor’s situation comes across personal. In fact, I associate myself with Gregor so exactly that it is almost as if Kafka had been writing—in his veiled, symbolic way—about my queer anxieties, just as they are on this day in 2021.
For context, let me briefly address what’s going on in my life before getting into the novel.
I am a thirty-two year old gay man who recently “came out” to his deeply religious family. I use quotes here because I did not so much come out as stop tip-toeing around this aspect of my life. For several years my family has known about my boyfriend and yet believes any recognition of my relationship will “condone” the abominable act. So they pretend he doesn’t exist. Whenever my boyfriend’s name comes up, they turn to ice, go completely silent until the topic moves on to something else. I can return home for a visit, provided I travel alone and never speak of my personal life, otherwise I am not invited.
Having finally grown exhausted of this game, I informed my parents and siblings that if I could not see them with my boyfriend by my side, I simply couldn’t see them anymore. The response was flat “then I guess we won’t see each other for a while.” And by “for a while” the subtext is, until I’m not gay—or at least until I’m not openly gay.
With this dilemma bubbling around in my head, I found it shocking that every detail in Kafka’s bizarre novel served as a parable for my experience, and indeed many other queer experiences which I haven’t personally encountered. It begins with the image of a locked door.
Gregor’s titular metamorphosis occurs behind closed doors, with his entire family and employer “knock[ing] lightly” from both the main door and the side door leading to Gregor’s room (17). The family understands something is wrong, Gregor is usually quite punctual for work, and his mother makes excuses on his behalf: “‘He is not well, believe me, Mr. Manager…the young man has nothing in his head except business. I’m almost angry that he never goes out at night” (25).
Meanwhile, the sister goes so far as to “beg” him to come out (17). The irony is, of course, that when the family finally does gain access to Gregor (and thus Gregor’s secret) they are immediately appalled and close the door again. Such probing accusations—“‘What is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents…’” (38)—have a familiar echo to my own experiences. These translate in my head as “Why are you so quiet? Why don’t you ever pursue that cute girl? What is wrong with you?” To those on the outside, these seem like ordinary questions capable of ordinary answers. But being inside the locked room, you know that the answers will destroy your family. Even the slightest hint at the truth—such as when Gregor hits his insect head against the door and makes a “small sound”—has the chilling effect of “silenc[ing] everyone” (61). That queer sound alone is enough for the family to freeze in horror. Not in optimism—is he communicating with us?—but revulsion. Something they do not want shared with third parties. Something they would rather not think about themselves.
The phrase “coming out of the closet” has long been used for revealing one’s sexuality, possibly even as far back as Kafka’s time (Morris). The metaphor serves well because the image of a tightly-spaced room, typically with no light source, accurately represents the stifling, oppressive feeling queer persons have while hiding from a heterocentric society. Although no one enjoys being imprisoned, the social recuperations of being “seen” can be so great a risk that it’s often easier to simply deal with it.
Existing in a dark space, one is used to eavesdropping, analyzing how much light can be seen through the keyhole, and interpreting every interaction within the vicinity. Might anyone turn the knob and signal acceptance? Will I ever be invited out of this cell?
Gregor similarly finds himself “pressed upright against the door and listening” to his family talk about him (56). He reads into every word he hears, hoping for signs that he is still part of the family, hoping for a “friendly” word (56). There’s a fleeting moment when the sister enters his room to tidy up and provide food. Feeling optimistic, Gregor makes himself seen—slightly—to test her level of acceptance. Her revulsion assures him the timing is not right, however, so he reverts back deeper behind his hiding place under the sofa—a closet within a closet. He goes so far as to spend “four hours…drag[ging] a sheet” over the couch so that his sister does not have to endure seeing “small parts of his body” which “stuck out” (66).
I have my own sister who I imagine very much views me as a hideous bug; a blight on the family. As time goes on I imagine she will change, that even if my “bugginess” continues to bother her she will choose to accept a bug as family. On the phone, I occasionally push boundaries. When she asks “What did you do this weekend?” I might daringly respond “Me and Ryan went to the movies” to see what happens. So far the reaction has not changed. She still freezes over, letting the dead silence linger on the line until I inevitably say “What did you do?” so she can promptly change the subject.
That Gregor continues to love his sister, even after she becomes increasingly cruel, is not surprising. Their names—Gregor and Grete—have a similar ring to them and imply the two are a well-suited pair, but there is plenty of textual evidence to show that the Samsa siblings were close. Gregor worked relentless hours to keep his family financially stable. He even set aside extra wages so he could “send [his sister] to the conservatory” (58). Today we could compare this to paying for her college tuition. Till the bitter end, even after she spearheads a plan to kill him, his sister is the one he trusts and admires most.
Another reason Gregor never condemns his sister’s cruelty is the common queer experience of internalized homophobia. This occurs when queer individuals begin to view themselves as disgusting because that is how others view them. Lines such as “there was, of course, no question of her ever becoming fully used to the situation” and “[it is] a requirement of family duty to suppress one’s aversion and to endure – nothing else, just endure” and “his mother…was perhaps near death, thanks to him” show a growing ideology that Gregor sees himself as a problem which, in the best of circumstances, can be begrudgingly tolerated and at worst is literally killing his family (79-87).
This internalized homophobia unfortunately climaxes, as it often does for queer persons, in death. As he lay dying, with “pains throughout his entire body,” Gregor feels “relatively content,” with “deep feelings of love” for his family (114). Most telling, “his own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s” (114). After seeing himself as a burden on his family for so long, seeing himself as the reason for their unhappiness and seeing himself as the hideous creature they see when they enter his room, he is ready for his life to end because he feels it will be for the greater good.
Gregor’s death is not a suicide—though his relief in death can certainly be viewed as suicide-esque—but rather the result of a festering wound from an apple that his enraged father threw at him. The father’s fury arose as a result of Gregor un-hiding himself in front of his mother, causing her great distress. The “festering wound” is indeed one of the finer symbolic moments to illustrate that Gregor’s death is the result of lingering insult that sticks to the skin (or exoskeleton) long after the initial confrontation. Even Mr. Samsa’s fruit of choice carries the symbolic weight that particularly resonates with my experience growing up in a deeply religious household. Gregor’s father hurls from a “fruit bowl” and yet, if the bowl contains a variety of fruits, it is only apples used for ammunition (83). Indeed, “It was an apple” is one of the shortest sentences of the novel, drawing particular attention to itself (83).
Apples are, of course, most famously associated with original sin in the Garden of Eden. Thus it is impossible for someone like me, whose own father is a minister, to miss the interpretation that Mr. Samsa’s apple-hurling is effectively calling Gregor’s existence a crime against God. These accusations, common in the queer experience, are also the most “sticky” and hardest to ignore. One can brush off homophobic friends and even, with more difficulty, family, but the belief that your life is an affront to God is—at least for the religious—the wound least likely to heal.
In case the religious implications of the apples are missed, Kafka includes crucifixion imagery in the same scene. After being “bombarded” by apples, Gregor describes feeling “as if he was nailed in place and lay stretched out” (84). Furthermore, to once again cement religion as an issue, Mr. Samsa’s reaction to his son’s death is “‘Well…now we can give thanks to God’” (117).
Whether the reader is religious or not, the use of God at these critical moments stand out like a banner within a queer interpretation. No one, not even the terminally ill, receive such an out-loud response at their death unless they are identified as one of the “abominations” against humanity, such as murderers, robbers, and, in the Samsa family, queers. The relief they feel is immediate and apparent. The abomination which has been hidden in their apartment, that has hurt them financially and tormented their religious beliefs, is, “thank God,” finally gone. There is no period of mourning, only an immediate desire to “go for a stroll” out in the “open air” and “warm sun” (120-123). They congratulate themselves on securing alternative sources of income without Gregor and are eager to blot out any memory of his existence.
Again, Kafka’s narrative symbolically describes situations frighteningly personal to me, and applicable to broader queer issues today. Some form of disownment or erasure continues to be a common reaction to queer persons from unsupportive families. This is why, out of 1.6 million homeless youth, it is reported that a staggering 40% will identify as LGBT (“The Cost of Coming Out”). Though I am an independent adult and cannot be thrown out of doors, my family works hard to “erase” me in other ways, such as tucking away pictures, home movies and other artifacts that may remind my young nephew of my existence. If the family shows any level of support for a gay person, they fear, it could reverse his installed belief that homosexuality is a sin against God.
At this moment, it is worth backtracking to discuss the narrative dilemma of interpreting Gregor in his insect form. I’ve discussed reading Gregor as a queer person, but how should we deal with the fictional reality of his being an insect? Should we only see his bug exterior as a metaphor for the queer experience? Or should we ever take the story literally? That is, that he actually transformed into an actual bug? Based on Kafka’s careful word choice, the answer seems to be a bit of both.
Kafka includes many examples where Gregor moves his tiny limbs, creeps about the ceiling, or eats rotten food to assure us that he has, indeed, become a bug. There should be no doubting the reality of that. And yet, it is also interesting that his insect form does not overwhelm the novel. Gregor does not linger on how this metamorphosis happened. At first he thinks he’s dreaming, but after waking up there is scarcely a thought how this came to be. If I transformed into a bug, I would do nothing but wonder how this happened and how it might be fixed. What did I eat last? What chemicals was I exposed to? Was I cursed?
That Gregor does not ask questions, and seeks no solutions for his situation, only further illustrates that is aware he is queer and, frankly, always has been. Now the exterior only matches the interior, and the dilemma is in handling that reality.
Neither does Gregor’s family go to any length to uncover the mystery of the metamorphosis. They do not ask, for example, “How did this happen?” or offer any medical assistance—despite there being a hospital right across the street, visible from Gregor’s window. Instead, primary concerns are getting third parties out of the house so that rumor does not get around. The first housekeeper also seems aware of the social ramifications of the transformation, swearing “not to tell anyone the slightest about what had happened” (62).
Kafka further blends the insect issue by making it unclear precisely what bug Gregor has transformed into. Why avoid a line which plainly states “he was a cockroach!” or “he was a ladybug!” — why not make it easier for the reader to picture the protagonist as a specific type of creature? This seems fairly obvious. Kafka wants the reader to view Gregor as an outcast more than a bug. He wants the reader to consider Gregor as a brother and a son, as someone who has been alienated by his own family. There can be doubt whether or not Kafka intended the queer implications of his novel—more on that later—but the ambiguous language is certainly meant to make the reader view Gregor as human as possible despite his metamorphosis.
Interestingly, Kafka does name a specific type of insect in relation to Gregor, but it is spoken as an insult and not meant to be taken as classification. The maid, using a tone that “she probably considered friendly” taunts Gregor with such phrases as “‘come on then, you old dung-beetle!’” and “‘Look at the old dung-beetle there!’” (96).
Of all the insect species, it’s hard to imagine a more antagonistic choice for her to use. It’s also hard to find one more steeped in innuendo. For the queer reader, the interpretation of this scene is a familiar affront of homophobic slurs. Regardless of the maid’s tone, she uses the equivalent of such phrases as “fudge packer” or “poop dick” when she calls him a dung beetle. In her mind she might consider this address as an actual way to build a connection, a way of saying I know what you are, and it’s disgusting, but I’m trying to be your friend. But of course Gregor does not find this hostility as an effective way to build bridges. So he reverts deeper still into his room, as far under the sofa as he can possibly get.
By now I hope my argument is convincing that The Metamorphosis can be read as a parable for the queer experience. This naturally leads to the question of authorial intent. Did Kafka intend to write about being gay in the early 1900s? Is this the “true” interpretation of the novel that a century of scholars have yet to identify? Maybe, probably not. In truth, it doesn’t matter. It’s certainly possible for a heterosexual to write a canonical queer novel without intending to. Furthermore, the art of masterpieces is often found in their ability to warrant many interpretations. Still, there is evidence of a queer connection.
“Kafka had homosexual fantasies, but everyone does,” writes Reiner Stach, one of the most dedicated biographers of Kafka’s life (Cain). He goes on to argue that it was Kafka’s ability to tap into precisely those kind of subconscious thoughts which make him such an enduring and brilliant writer.
Max Brod, a close friend of Kafka and the recipient of his estate, described his companion as being “tortured by his sexual desires” though he did not clarify that those desires were same-sex (Cain). It is certainly true that Kafka never married, despite finding himself engaged to a number of attractive, eligible women. Yet another Kafka scholar, writing for Yale University Press, concluded that the famous author led these women on for social reasons while he secretly fantasized about men (Friedländer).
It would have been almost cliché for a gay man in the early 1900s to be repeatedly engaged to women before breaking off the wedding last minute. This stereotype alone does not, of course, prove anything. At the same time, knowledge that Kafka attended brothels, presumably for their female entertainment, does not prove an exclusive interest in women. Kafka could still have been bisexual, incapable of sexual performance with women, or used these methods to try to alter his desires. Investing in prostitutes is, in fact, a common “treatment” for homosexuality even today (Colvile). The misinformed logic seems to be that once you try heterosexuality you will like it. Perhaps Kafka, riddled with a sense of self-loathing, went to brothels to “fix” himself so he could finally marry one of his many female companions. If you thought of yourself as a crawling, creeping bug, what extremes would you go to for a cure?
Recent academic research into Kafka’s private life has asserted that he subscribed to pornography publications (Lezard). This detail alone is hardly revealing, except that The Metamorphosis possibly alludes to porn. In the memorable scene where Gregor’s family is removing all furnishings from his room, he, in a last ditch effort to preserve at least one personal artifact, crawls up the wall and presses himself against the picture of “a woman dressed in nothing but fur” (76). An act which—it is worth noting the sexual phrasing here—“made his hot abdomen feel good” (76).
One interpretation is that this portrait is merely art, a token of his prior life. However, Kafka makes it clear that the removal of furnishings is symbolic of giving up hope on his condition. Mrs. Samsa goes so far as to speak this out loud: “‘…by taking the furniture away, won’t it seem like we’re showing that we’ve given up all hope of improvement and we’re abandoning him to cope for himself?’” (75).
Since this dialogue is spoken out loud it has the ability to influence Gregor. The nude art is the thing he chooses to save possibly because he views it as the most likely item in the room to bring him back to normalcy. Again, for the gay man seeking to “change” his sexual orientation, pornographic depictions of women might be seen as medicine.
Regardless of Kafka’s sexuality, there is little doubt that he was sexual. He had many female companions whose passions burned into the pages of his diaries. Some descriptions suggest he had a specific fetish for the working woman, finding himself most prone to erotic fantasy when observing the opposite sex under ordinary circumstances, such as going about their employer’s business. How much of this erotic pondering was overcompensation for his repressed desires or legitimate attraction to women remains a mystery, but given scholarly evidence for his homosexual feelings, it is wholly possible that The Metamorphosis was specifically written with queer identity in mind.
Of course there are other interpretations. Indeed almost anyone who has ever felt alienated from society, misunderstood, abused, or suffered from some ailment which the world doesn’t seem to understand, can imprint themselves on Gregor’s situation. Many of these alternative readings can no doubt be argued as strongly and with as much textual evidence. This is not a fault of the novel, but rather one of its touchstone achievements.
Given such overwhelming evidence of a queer connection to both the narrative and the author, however, it is surprising there has not been more celebration of the text as one of the greatest landmarks of queer literature.
Abraham, Ulf. Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung. M. Diesterweg, 1998.
Cain, Sian. “Kafka’s Sexual Terrors Were ‘Absolutely Normal’, Says Biographer.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Dec. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/05/kafkas-sexual-terrors-were-absolutely-normal-says-biographer.
Colvile, Robert. “The ‘Gay Cure’ Experiments That Were Written Out of Scientific History.” Quartz, Quartz, qz.com/724158/the-gay-cure-experiments-that-were-written-out-of-scientific-history/.
The Cost of Coming Out: LGBT Youth Homelessness, Lesley University, lesley.edu/article/the-cost-of-coming-out-lgbt-youth-homelessness.
Friedländer, Saul. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. Yale University Press, 2016.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Johnston Ian, Pulp! The Classics, 2015.
Lezard, Nicholas. “Kafka’s Guilty Pleasures.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Aug. 2008, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/aug/15/kafkasguiltypleasures.
Morris, Natalie. “Where Does the Phrase ‘Coming Out’ Come From?” Metro, Metro.co.uk, 11 Oct. 2018, metro.co.uk/2018/10/11/national-coming-out-day-where-does-the-phrase-coming-out-come-from-8028240/. “Women.” Franz Kafka, Kafka Museum, kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/women/.
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