August 3, 2023

‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka

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Gregor wakes one morning to discover that he has transformed into a large insect. One of his first and most pressing concerns is that he is going to have difficulty getting to work on time as a result of this inconvenience.

We’ve all been there. Am I right? Just kidding. No one has been there. Ever.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is the opening to a B movie or schlock horror story, but it’s not. It’s the beginning of Franz Kafka’s seminal work ‘The Metamorphosis’, a book often referred to as Absurdist but which also falls squarely into the genre of Modernist Fiction.

Since Kafka wrote it in 1912 it has inspired films, plays, music, pop culture references and more essays than you can throw a graduation ceremony at. In fact, it is estimated that by 1977 (presumably the last time anyone took the trouble to check) over 10,000 pieces had been written about it. This would probably have cheered Kafka up no end. Because whilst it was published during his lifetime, it went largely unnoticed until after his death from tuberculosis at the age of 40.

It’s worth noting that the book is short. Categorised as a ‘novella,’ it is complete at only 23,000 words. If the average person reads at 500 words per minute, you could have this little gem under your belt in 46 minutes. You could read it during your lunch break. But for those of you who just want the highlights, the plot is as follows:

Gregor lives with his parents and sister and he is the main breadwinner. No one else in the family seems to do much except live off him. When he wakes as an insect his family are horrified - his mother faints, his father throws apples at him. And in fact, it’s one of the apples which lodges into his back that will eventually kill him. No one at any point questions WHY Gregor became an insect. At first his sister Grete takes care of him, providing food and removing all but the sofa from his room so he can have a good crawl around. As the story progresses, Gregor seems to vacillate between his human thoughts and increasingly insectile instincts. As he becomes more isolated and confined, his family become more capable of caring for themselves. They take in lodgers, Grete grows into a beguiling woman and dad gets a job. When Gregor accidentally scares off the lodgers by crawling out of his room to listen to the music his sister plays on the violin, she refers to him for the first time as ‘it’, which marks the beginning of the end really. Their only concern is that he’s lost them a source of income. Gregor, who loves his family to the end, crawls under the sofa and quietly dies (the apple in his back seems to have caused an infection). The family finally leave the claustrophobic apartment and take a tram to the countryside, and a brighter future where they hope the now lovely looking Grete will snag a rich husband.

So far, so bizarre. And quite sad too. But what’s Kafka asking us to think about?

Well, one answer could be: what does it means to be human in a modern capitalist society? Gregor’s value is measured by his ability to provide for his family and once that is taken away he becomes a burden. Consequently he becomes alienated, which leads Kafka to explore themes of isolation and loneliness. His sister is caring for a while but that also ends, which questions the limits of empathy. Ultimately the whole story centres on Gregor’s transformation, and the transformation of everyone around him, and is a meditation on the absurdity of life.

Kafka himself didn’t really fit in. He lived with his parents until he was 30, never married, suffered with poor health and didn’t get the recognition as a writer he deserved. So, perhaps Kafka is Gregor. Maybe identifying as an insect was, for him, the best way to describe his experience of being a man in the world.

As a storytelling agency that works exclusively with the third sector, the story is a stark reminder of the limits of empathy. Charities have to work hard and relentlessly to maintain engagement, to keep hearts and wallets open. Particularly when there are so many in need, so many who feel isolated or overlooked. Sometimes it’s just easier to ignore the elephant in the room. Or the giant insect in the bedroom.

As you probably know by now, we've undergone our own transformation recently - hence all this chat about metamorphoses. Ours was a cheerful, collaborative thing though, not a ‘Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul’ sort of affair... ANYWAY. If you’re thinking of transforming your charity, or need a bit of a change, a little comms makeover even, do have a look at our new website and get in touch. We’d love to help you tell your story!