In the third act of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the three paying guests living with the Samsas, ask Grete (the sister) to play the violin in their room. While the three boarders are disinterested shortly, and the parents and the sister struggle to impress them, Gregor is “seduced” by the music, and with a desire to protect his sister, moves towards her. At this moment, Kafka throws a question:
“Was he a beast if music could move him so?” (Kafka, The Metamorphosis, Act III)
In my first reading, I told myself, “No, Gregor Samsa is not a monster. He has been a victim of a misfortune, and he has suffered more than he can bear.”
But then, those who love music (and art in general) can also become monsters. Several artists have committed heinous crimes and so have the fans. So, when I went back to Kafka’s question, I found something in the succeeding sentences I had overlooked on my first reading, which completely altered my view. There were hints that showed me why Gregor was a monster–literally as well as figuratively.
I. Gregor and Grete
In the same paragraph where Gregor asks if he is a beast, he is “determined to reach the sister and tug on her skirt to suggest that she take her violin and come into his room, for no one here was as worthy of her playing as he would be. He would never let her leave his room, at least as long as he lived; for the first time, his horrifying appearance would work to his advantage: He would stand guard at all the doors simultaneously, hissing at the attackers; the sister, however, would not be forcibly detained but would stay with him of her own free will.” Had he not transformed, he would have declared on the Christmas that Grete was going to the Conservatory so that she could learn music. “After this declaration the sister would burst into emotional tears and Gregor would raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her neck, which she kept bare since she started working, wearing no ribbon or collar.”
I have no hesitation saying that Gregor has an incestuous desire towards his sister. I also found this article that supports my idea. It says that the desire for his sister (as well as his mother) was “forbidden as a man but not as a beast“.
But, Gregor had wanted Grete even before the transformation. In the second act, we know that “it was his secret plan that she, who unlike Gregor greatly loved music and played the violin movingly, should be sent to the Conservatory next year despite the considerable expense it was sure to incur, which would just have to be met in some other way.“
This “secret plan” sounds sinister. Although he had not declared it, everyone in the Samsa family already know that Gregor wants to send his sister to the Conservatory. So, what is the secret plan? Did he want to take her away from the family so that he could take advantage of her? Did his parents sense his sinister thoughts? I firmly believe that the parents refused the idea of sending Grete to the Conservatory because they thought Gregor was already a vermin in his mind.
And, what was the “some other way” to cover the expenses? Was he going to get a better job? That did not seem to be happening soon. Their father’s pension would never be enough. So then, did he want her sister to get a job? Or did he want to push her into prostitution? Because Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment explicitly mentions people forcing young women of their own family into prostitution and living off it, I don’t think this is a wild supposition!
However, what happens in Act I makes me think that Gregor was not limited to desire and secret plan but he had actually raped her.
Gregor has already turned into a monstrous insect and is unable to get up from his bed. The head clerk knocks on Gregor’s door, and his parents call him out but Grete is crying in another room. Why didn’t she come to his door? “And why was she crying?” She didn’t know that Gregor had turned into a monster. Or did she? Did she cry not because Gregor was going to lose his job because but because she had seen him losing humanity and turning into a monster?
Her feelings towards Gregor is more pronounced in Act III after he scares the three boarders away. Grete says, “I refuse to pronounce my brother’s name in front of this monstrosity, and so I say: We have to try to get rid of it. We’ve done everything humanly possible to care for it and tolerate it; I don’t believe anyone could reproach us.”
On my first reading, she sounded cold-hearted to me, but now, I can hear her anger and pain. She must have been tired of feeding the monster. And if she had seen him turn into the beast, the pain must have been unbearable. But then, a question arises: Why did she feed him?
I think it was because of her parents. As Grete painfully says, her parents were attached to Gregor although he had metamorphosed into a monster. Sending her into Gregor’s room could be a sign for Grete to forgive her brother. I am reminded of several cases where girls are dismissed or told to forget what had happened and forgive the perpetrator. when they say they have been raped by their family member. The parents, to protect their son and to see if she gains at least some sympathy for him him, made their daughter give him food to Gregor. She gave him the food, but there was no love. She always feels uneasy around him. Gregor “concluded that the sight of him was still repulsive to her and was bound to remain repulsive, and that she must have exercised great self-control not to take flight at the sight of even the smallest portion of his body protruding from under the couch.” (Kafka, The Metamorphosis, Act II)
Grete was also sure that Gregor would never feel any remorse for what he had done and would never turn into human.
II. The Father’s fury after seeing Gregor as the monster for the first time
In Act I, after Gregor opens the door, his truth is revealed to the Head Clerk, the mother, and the father. The Head Clerk and the mother are shocked and scared, but the father is neither shocked, nor scared. “The father, furiously shaking his fists as if willing Gregor to go back in his room, looked uncertainly around the living room, covered his eyes in his hands, and sobbed with great heaves of his powerful chest.” (Kafka, The Metamorphosis, Act I)
While the sister is crying in another room, the father is angry and sad seeing the monster instead of his son. Because he is not shocked, I am inclined to believe that the father knew what Gregor had done and wanted to punish him. His anger and grief were also directed towards himself as he had not been able to stop Gregor from turning into a monster.
In Act III, after Grete tells they must “get rid of it”, the father is grieved. “If only he could understand us,” he says, meaning Gregor would never understand their love because he was a monster in his mind and body. (However, while reading for the first time, I felt that Gregor’s family was not even trying to understand him. The Metamorphosis has several layers with several valid interpretations which makes it a great story!)
III. The Apple
At the end of Act II, Gregor’s father sees Gregor out of his room. In fury, he begins an attack. He hurls apples at Gregor, one of which is stuck on Gregor’s body for the rest of his life. This, is a clear reference to the biblical story of the apple stuck on Adam’s throat and a symbol of Gregor’s sin.
In this analysis, I conclude Gregor was a monster. However, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis has many layers. Just as in my first reading, Gregor can be read as a victim of unpleasant situation and his family’s abuse of him. He can also be conceived as a depressed character who has struggled to keep up with the pace of the world and feels so helpless that he believes he is a worthless vermin. In that perspective, Gregor’s family appears as cold-hearted monsters, who never try to understand Gregor. It’s astonishing that the characters of The Metamorphosis can sometimes be white, sometimes black, and sometimes grey!
[Note: The quotes included in the article are from The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, (Trans. Donna Fried), Barnes and Noble Classic, 2003. Bold parts of quotes are for emphasis.]