Kafka’s Modern Vermin


“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin,” the story goes. A question pops out: in the story’s universe was it all metaphorical or is it literal? And yet my initial reaction is, does it matter in our appreciation of the story?

If it were a mere literary device espousing how low Gregor has fallen from his humanity because of the dehumanizing working conditions imposed upon him by his job, or if he really turned into a pest, a cockroach, with segmented torso and plant-like limbs, does it weaken or strengthen the  sympathy we feel for Gregor as his family’s dependence and admiration turns into disdain and ignorance of him and his situation?

I do not think it affects the appreciation of the novella, nor do I think that if it were one or the other, the message or the essence of the story would be removed: one day, a man married to his job in order to provide for his family as its sole breadwinner became incapacitated: whether he suffered a stroke, or suddenly just went lazy and disillusioned about the future does not really matter. The conflict is dependent upon what implications there would be in a modern household.

Throughout the story, we are not made more familiar with how Gregor changed. We are given that fact the first paragraph. Rather we see the changes manifesting in the characters around him: the power struggle among the supposed “providers” for the family, their treatment of Gregor as he is indisposed and dependent of them, and more importantly, the changes of personality occurring inside the mind of his sister, whom at first was affectionate and concerned about his brother, but then grows to be a efficiency-obsessed, entitlement-obsessed young woman.

It is not the story of Gregor’s metamorphosis. Or rather, not his metamorphosis from human to insect. We behold the changes which occur in the lives of human beings, specifically of the human family, within the context of modernity and industrialization.
We behold Gregor’s metamorphosis from a respectable member of humanity to a worthless piece of trash which feeds upon the fruits of other’s labor, because he can’t do otherwise.

We behold his sister’s metamorphosis into a capable, useful individual to the household, but has drifted away increasingly from her former dreams and aspiration. It is ultimately captured in the final scene wherein her parents has seen her to have grown into a human be ready for marriage.

“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. “
– Marx, The Communist Manifesto


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