K.

Kafka’s Novellas

The Metamorphosis

(w. 1912, p. 1915)

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir:

1. The Complete Stories. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0-8052-1055-5; Paperback $15.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0-8052-1057-1; Paperback $12.00 [Browse/Purchase]

3. Bantam Classics, 1972, ISBN 0553213695; Paperback $5.95 [Browse/Purchase]

4. The Sons: The Judgment, the Stoker, the Metamorphosis, and Letter to His Father. Schocken, 1989, ISBN 0-8052-0886-0; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]


Translated by Richard Stokes:

5. Hesperus, 2003, ISBN 1843910144; Paperback $12.00 [Browse/Purchase]

The Metamorphosis is the classic story of guy turns into bug, guy scares the bejeezus out of his family, and guy (or bug?) enters a downward spiral.
Die Verwandlung was written at the end of 1912, a few months after “The Judgment,” the story that marked a creative breakthrough for Kafka as a writer. But while he had enjoyed re-reading “The Judgment” when getting it ready for publication, he felt quite differently about The Metamorphosis. In a diary entry dated October 20, 1913, he remarked “I am now reading The Metamorphosis at home and find it bad.” Four months later he judged it “imperfect almost to its very marrow.”
Nevertheless, after it was published in October 1915, its popularity continued to grow. By the end of his life, artistic communities in Prague knew Kafka as the guy who wrote the bug story; after Kafka’s death, artistic communities all over the world knew Kafka as the guy who wrote the bug story; and today, everyone knows Kafka as the guy who wrote the bug story. The Metamorphosis is one of the few “literary” works to have secured a place in popular culture, and references pop up everywhere. On an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa falls in with an intellectual college crowd that likes to frequent a place called Cafe Kafka (now featuring Hegel’s bagels!), and hanging on the walls are paintings of a cartoon cockroach. It’s a long way from Prague to Springfield.
At the center of the story is Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with his family: his stern and disapproving father, his somewhat hysterical mother, and his beloved sister, who is trying to establish her own identity. The only member of the family who holds a job, Gregor feels misunderstood at his office, and he works only to absolve his father’s outstanding debt and keep the family solvent.
On the surface, Gregor’s story seems simple enough. He wakes up, he’s a bug. (Kafka establishes early on that his transformation is not a dream.) But what kind of bug is this ungeheueren Ungeziefer? Translations vary from “gigantic insect” to “monstrous vermin”; at one point a maid calls him a dung beetle, and Vladimir Nabokov has drawn a very helpful picture. Most people think of a cockroach, which is more an instinctual reaction of disgust than anything else. However, the physical details are unimportant, and Kafka insisted that published editions of The Metamorphosis contain no actual illustrations of the bug. What matters is that the main character has become something despicable, horrifying, and yet kind of funny – a scurrying little chaos hiding behind the bedroom door.
It is this “chaos” that drives the rest of the story. While the changes that his family goes through as they cope with the situation are important, and form a fascinating series of metamorphoses of their own, it is Gregor’s condition that really absorbs us. Naturally, when approached with such disorder, our first reaction is to make sense of it, to contain the disruption by framing it with reason. We may look to cause and effect for a possible explanation – a very powerful force, both in the physical and the moral universe. Turning into a gigantic bug is a rather extreme expression of alienation, one that even suggests punishment. Perhaps Gregor deserved his fate? After all, whenever transformations occur in literature, they are usually appropriate to the characters being transformed. Think of that “other” famous Metamorphoses, where Ovid’s characters often get their just desserts: the wicked Lycaon is turned into a beast, Cadmus the errant dragon-slayer becomes a serpent, and the vain Narcissus is transformed into a waterside flower entranced by its own reflection. Another example may be found in Dante, who visits ironic punishments upon his sinners, often in the form of hideous transformations. So, if Gregor’s metamorphosis reveals something about his character, what could that be? As a gigantic bug, he seems to be quite a hindrance upon his family – was he not a good son? He also spends a lot of time in idle contemplation and pointless scurrying – maybe he was self-obsessed, or simply not productive enough? Gregor feels a strange mixture of fascination and shame at his new condition, and at one point conceals a photograph of a girl with his sticky body – could that mean anything?
No matter how you look at it, the question remains: Why is it important that Gregor be turned into a bug? Or, if you prefer to see Gregor as a metaphor for something larger, then why is it appropriate to liken a man – or a son, a writer, a Jew, a bachelor, a latent homosexual, or the state of modern humanity itself – to the form and substance of a bug?
If you enjoy answering these sorts of questions, or if you enjoy formulating these sorts of questions in the hope that one day you might find the perfect question that contains its own answer, then The Metamorphosis has a surprise for you. Although it is tempting to dive beneath the surface of the story and grope about the murk, hoping to retrieve that one, perfect key that unlocks its meaning, the only thing you’re likely find are other hands, groping as blindly as your own. From literary critics to baffled high school students to guys who run Franz Kafka Web sites, people have tried to “explain” Kafka’s story, but no one has really succeeded. The Metamorphosis is as protean as its name suggests: just when you think you’ve gotten hold of a theme, another one clips you from behind, and while the themes go laughing away into the sunset, you’re left struggling on your back, your legs waving comically in the air.
Additionally, there’s the nagging problem of interpretation itself: why must we pin Kafka’s bug down to any distinct meaning? If Kafka wanted to say something specific with his stories, then why didn’t he just say it plainly? After all, there are more reliable ways of transmitting information about culture, family relationships, or personal anxiety that writing a bug story. And yet, Kafka’s bug story endures; it speaks to us on some level that defies a simple explanation. The inescapable fact is that The Metamorphosis is the hidden message we are looking for. Whatever Kafka wanted to say couldn’t be said any other way, and all our interpretations are only incomplete re-statements of the original. The best way to understand that message is to absorb it as transmitted.

In the Penal Colony

(w. 1914, p. 1919)

1. The Complete Stories. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0-8052-1055-5; Paperback $15.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0-8052-1057-1; Paperback $12.00 [Browse/Purchase]

In November of 1914, Josef Pollak, Kafka’s brother-in-law, came home from the front. A veteran of early trench warfare, he told a story of finding his captain pierced by multiple bayonet wounds, his soldiers tied to trees in the icy weather as their skin turned blue. It’s possible that grisly tales like these, along with propaganda about enemy penal colonies, may have inspired Kafka as he worked on a story which would prove to be his most disturbing creation. Titled In der Strafkolonie, it was hammered together over three feverish days in October, and finally completed in late November. (During these months, Kafka also restarted his painful relationship with his on-and-off-again fiancée, Felice Bauer. It was a situation tormenting enough to provoke “thoughts so base I cannot write them down.”) A stark vision of institutionalized sadism, the story was so monstrous that Kafka’s publisher hesitated to print it – even Kafka himself agreed it was “distressing.” Finally published after the war, it was greeted with almost universal distaste and disapproval. And yet, distressing or not, it was one of the few works that Kafka selected to linger on after his death.
The story begins with an unnamed Explorer paying a visit to a tropical penal colony, where he is invited to witness the execution of a man who rudely disobeyed the orders of his superior. Placed in irons, the Condemned Man has not been granted a trial – indeed, he has not even been officially charged, and remains unaware of his exact offense. His guilt, however, is beyond question, and he will learn his crime through the needles of the Harrow – the business end of an exquisitely constructed torture machine known as “the Apparatus.” Designed to simultaneously carry out the acts of sentencing and execution, the Apparatus requires twelve excruciating hours to fulfill its ghastly function. Lying face down beneath the Harrow, the commandment violated by the Condemned Man is repeatedly carved into his flesh, an elaborate tattoo of blood and iron penetrating deeper with each iteration. Upon the sixth hour, the Condemned will achieve a state of “enlightenment,” visible to onlookers by a radiance spreading outward from the eyes. Upon the twelfth hour, after fully comprehending the commandment harrowed into his body, he dies.
An invention of the colony’s previous Commandant, the Apparatus is now maintained by his zealous disciple, the Officer, whose devotion to the machine borders on a perverse tenderness. Unfortunately for him, the new Commandant does not share his passion; finding his late predecessor’s machine loathsome and antiquated, he awaits an excuse to consign the horrible device to the scrap heap. The Officer jealously guards the machine against the new Commandant’s progressive tendencies, working tirelessly to keep alive the glorious tradition begun by the even more glorious former Commandant. Like a parent defending an awkward child to a potentially hostile audience, he praises the machine to the Explorer with a pleading desperation, looking for any sign of sympathy or understanding.
Although the story is certainly disquieting, as usual with Kafka, bleakness and horror are served with a dash of biting humor. As the ranting Officer demonstrates his beloved machine to the Explorer, the Condemned Man and the Soldier stand by in idle ignorance – the oblivious prisoner curious about his fate, his guard struggling to stay awake, neither understanding the French spoken by their superiors. The interplay between the two subordinates brings to mind the comedy of silent films, of which Kafka was quite a fan. They get along remarkably well – the question of guilt or innocence has little to do with how they treat each other, because they’re both on the lower ranks of the military hierarchy. At some point everyone tortures, and at some point everyone becomes a victim.
Hovering above this master-and-slave dynamic is the specter of the Harrow’s absent creator, whose Byzantine notes on the machine are all but incomprehensible to the uninitiated. His death has left a void in the Officer’s life, who attends to his duties with the worshipful obedience of a priest. Less interested with the intricacies of torture or the details of crime and punishment, he is wholly devoted to upholding his Master’s legacy. The Apparatus is his pride and joy, his reason for being, a source of illumination for victim and operator alike. This undercurrent of religious fervor intensifies throughout the story, slowly bringing together the subject and object of devotion.
Like Kafka’s enigmatic bug, the machine is more than a simple plot device – it is a mysterious and even paradoxical symbol, a multitude of meanings compressed into one seamless image. Sometimes it represents the brute force of tradition, at other times it serves as an allegorical depiction of guilt, and there are occasional moments when it seems to offer a terrible form of salvation. In its most ominous form, it is an altar of blind Justice, forged by a god-like creator who seems always on the verge of returning. In the Penal Colony is a story about many things; but most importantly it is about the machine, and what happens to those who lie underneath its needles.

Go To:

Main Works Page – Returns you to the Main Works page and the Quick Reference Card of titles.

Novels – Kafka’s three novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.

Nonfiction – Diaries, letters, and journals.


–Jeff Nowak
& Allen B. Ruch
26 June 2004




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