Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis (1915)

Review by Justin Tate

Gregor’s transformation into a bug is no ordinary plight, and yet the fallout is bitterly recognizable. Relatable, even. 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 1915 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 “knock[ing] lightly” from both the main entrance and a side door leading to Gregor’s room. 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.”

Meanwhile, the sister goes so far as to “beg” him to come out. The irony is, of course, that once the family gains access to Gregor (and thus Gregor’s secret) they are 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…’”—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 these answers will destroy your family relationship. Even slight hints at the truth—such as when Gregor hits his insect head against the door and makes a “small sound”—have the chilling effect of “silenc[ing] everyone.” 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, with some evidence that similar comparisons were used in Kafka’s time. In any case, the closet metaphor serves well because the image of a tightly-spaced room, typically with no light source, accurately represents the stifling, oppressive feeling queer persons feel while hiding from a heterocentric society. The social recuperations of being “seen” are too great a risk.

Existing in a dark space, one is used to eavesdropping, of analyzing how much light can be seen through the keyhole, of vast hope whenever someone accidentally leaves the door open—are they signaling acceptance? Is it safe to come out now?

Gregor similarly finds himself “pressed upright against the door and listening” to his family talk about him to gauge how much he matters to them in his present form. He reads into everything he hears, hoping for signs that he is still part of the family, a “friendly word.”

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 deeper into 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.”

As a queer person with an unaccepting family, this dance is yet again all too familiar. 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 turns to ice, letting the dead silence linger on the line until I inevitably say “What did you do?” so that she can promptly change the subject.

Like Gregor below the sofa, I usually limit my speech to “Nothing really,” or something sufficiently vague, as a courtesy to her so that she doesn’t have to be exposed to the grotesque details of my ordinary life. Or maybe I do it for me. It’s not worth hearing her disgust in that long, hate-filled silence. Either way, I’m a bug hiding beneath a sofa with a sheet draped over it.

That Gregor continues to love his sister, even after she becomes increasingly cruel, is not surprising—I too continue to love my obstinate sister—because there is so much textual evidence to show that the Samsa siblings were particularly close prior to the metamorphosis.

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.” Today we could compare this to paying for her college tuition. Additionally, their names—Gregor and Grete—have a similar ring to them and imply the two are a well-suited pair. 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 abhorrent 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 killing his family.

This internalized homophobia 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. Most telling is the line: “his own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s.”

After seeing himself as a burden on his family for so long, the reason for their unhappiness and the hideous creature they see in him, 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 after Gregor un-hid himself in front of his mother, causing her great distress. The “festering wound” is one of the finest 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. Indeed, “It was an apple” is one of the shortest sentences of the novel, drawing particular attention to itself.

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 Baptist 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.” The word choice here is almost certainly an allusion to Jesus hanging on the cross. 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.’”

These references to God at such critical moments stand out like a banner within a queer interpretation. It is so easy to imagine a homophobic family thrilled by such a convenient conclusion to their social problem. For the Samsas, at least, that relief is immediate and apparent.

The blight hidden in their apartment, the thing which hurt them financially and tormented their religious beliefs, is, “thank God,” finally gone. There is no period of mourning, only an immediate desire to “pass that day resting and going for a stroll.” Out in the “open air” and “warm sun” they congratulate themselves on securing alternative sources of income without Gregor and are eager to blot out any memory of his existence.

Again, Kafka breaks my heart with a depiction that is all too familiar to me personally, and queer reality in a broad sense. Some form of disownment continues to be a reality for 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. Though I am independent 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 issue of how we should interpret Gregor in his insect form. I’ve wrote a lot about viewing 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 at face value? That is, that he has literally transformed into a 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 wonder 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? Did a witch curse me?

That Gregor does not question this 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, their primary concerns are getting third parties out of the house so that rumor does not get around.

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 bug? This seems fairly obvious, that Kafka wants the reader to view Gregor as an outcast more than a bug. He wants the reader to read Gregor as a brother and a son, as someone who has been alienated by his own family. There can be some doubt on 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 in his bug form.

Miraculously, Kafka does name a specific type of insect in relation to Gregor, but that insect is so full of innuendo that could also be used as a human insult. 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!’”

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. Gregor, of course, like every gay person who’s experienced the exact same thing, does not find this hostility as an effective way to build bridges. So he reverts more, deeper still into his closet within a closet.

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 the gay experience? 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.

But textual evidence is so overwhelming, so seemingly personal, that I can’t not dig into Kafka’s life. As it turns out, there are some clues which may readily validate a queer interpretation.

“Kafka had homosexual fantasies, but everyone does,” writes Reiner Stach, one of Kafka’s most dedicated biographers. He goes on to argue that it was Kafka’s ability to tap into these subconscious desires 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 “tortured by his sexual desires” though he did not clarify if those desires were same-sex.

It is true that Kafka never married, despite finding himself engaged to a number of attractive, eligible women. Yet another Kafka scholar, Saul Friedländer, concluded that the famous author led these women on for social acceptance while he secretly fantasized about men.

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. But on the flip side, the knowledge that Kafka attended brothels, presumably for their female entertainment, likewise does not prove an exclusive interest in women. Investing in prostitutes is, in fact, a common “treatment” for homosexuality even today. The methodology seeming 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 cockroach, what extremes would you go to for a cure?

Recent research into Kafka’s private life has found he subscribed to pornography. This detail 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 upon the wall and presses himself against the picture of “a woman dressed in nothing but fur.” An act which, it is worth noting the sexual phrasing here, “made his hot abdomen feel good.”

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?’”

Since this line is spoken it has the ability to influence Gregor’s thinking. The nude art is the thing he chooses to save possibly because he views it as the item most likely bring him back to normal. Again, for the gay man seeking to “change” his sexual orientation, pornographic depictions of women might be seen as medicine.

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 rest of the world doesn’t seem to understand, can imprint themselves on Gregor’s situation. This is not a fault of the novel, but rather one of its touchstone achievements.

Still, whether intended or not, Kafka’s tragic tableau tells the story of homophobia in society and within the home. As more queer readers respond to this novel and share their personal connections to it, I suspect there will be more recognition of its relevance as a queer literary landmark.

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