The ‘Metamorphosis’, by Franz Kafka, is an intriguing tale of a young man by the name of Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a beetle bug. Gregor’s family is horrified, not only because of his disgusting appearance, but because he is the sole provider for his father, mother and sister. Without Gregor’s salary to sustain his family needs and to pay off his father’s debt from a failed business, the family appears to be financially doomed. As the story progresses, Kafka takes great pain in describing the details of Gregor’s new life as a bug. His family, once dysfunctional and relying on Gregor to support all of their necessities, changes to compensate for their new way of life. The father and mother, prior to Gregor’s metamorphosis, live a sedentary and illness plagued life, spending most of their time in bed or on the couch. Gregor’s sister seems content with her everyday affairs of sleeping late and getting dressed, but does not seem to have any plans to have a future. By the end of Kafka’s story, it is apparent that not only did Gregor undergo a metamorphosis, but so did his family. The family, once totally dependent upon Gregor, becomes self-sufficient. When Gregor succumbs to death, as a result of the abusive treatment by his family, there is a great sense of relief felt by his father, mother and sister and which could be compared to the death of a terminal ill relative.
After Gregor’s metamorphosis, his family, once totally dependent upon Gregor for all of their financial needs, begins to undergo a metamorphosis of their own. While the family undergoes their own metamorphosis, they begin to see Gregor in a different light. They were all mortified at Gregor’s transformation to a bug, but they at least initially tolerated the fact that he was living under the same roof. The sister kept Gregor’s room clean and provided him with food and drink. His mother, while never able to handle looking at Gregor, helps her daughter rearrange Gregor’s room so he can better climb the walls. For a while, it seems that this could go on indefinitely, but when the family realizes that keeping Gregor was becoming more and more of a liability and disrupting their newly found life, they become agitated with his predicament and finally reject him. Even his sister, who at first seems to be Gregor’s only provider, wonders why Gregor just won’t leave. Finally, his room is reduced to a storage closet where all of the family’s undesirables are kept. Gregor dies alone, unwanted and a shell of what he once was.
After Gregor’s death, the family feels a great sense of relief. While you might think the family would mourn or regret the death of their son (or what use to be him) the father states, “now thanks be to God.” In fact, it is as if a great burden has been released from the Samsa’s lives. The father, mother and daughter, arm in arm, enter a new day. As Kafka describes, “a certain softness was perceptible in the fresh air.” On that day they decided to go on a trip to the countryside where they contemplate their futures and ponder the prospects of a husband for their daughter. While it is hard to imagine that they did not miss Gregor during his human life, they certainly were relieved that the responsibility of taking care of Gregor, the bug, was over.
The relief felt by the Samsa family can be compared to the relief felt by a family that has experienced the death of a relative, after caring for their terminal illness. Take for example my wife. When she was 17, she was given the job of caring for her terminal ill mother who was suffering from colon cancer. Although the doctor’s intentions were good, her mother ended up a quadriplegic after surgery to remove the cancer. My wife’s four older brothers, always the pride of her mothers, suddenly did not want to come by the house for a visit. My wife remembers a time when her mother, overweight prior to becoming a quadriplegic, fell out of bed and needed to be lifted back into bed by four police offers. My wife recalls another time when she was sick of fixing her mother’s pillows and told her to “fix her damn pillows herself!” By the time my wife’s mother passed away, her sole purpose was to take care of her mother, 24 hours a day with little or no help from the rest of her family. When death came, it was greeted with grief and despair, but with relief that my wife could resume with living her life. As I asked my wife about her experience, I noted similarities in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ The most significant is my wife’s comments that her mother would look out the window often, such as Kafta describes about Gregor, “obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out of a window always used to give him.”
The Metamorphosis is much more than just a story about a man that turns into a bug, it symbolizes the changes that occur in relationships when sickness inflicts a once healthy and vibrant individual of the family. Take for example Gregor prior to his Metamorphosis. He labors unselfishly for his family’s welfare and puts the needs of his family first. Although his family does love him, their experience of dealing with his ‘bug’ problem changes how they view and treat him. The same can be said of my wife’s mother. All of her life she helped people and sheltered kids in her home, but when illness struck, the relationships with her family changed similar to Gregors. The relief felt by Gregor’s family and my wife are similar because both were under a tremendous amount of pressure to provide care for the person who once cared for them. When death came, it was viewed as a new beginning. The Metamorphosis, above all, shows us how difficult a terminal illness is, not only for the person it effects, but also for the family and friends of the individual affected. Kafka’s story not only teaches us about death and the terminally ill, it should give us a greater appreciation for the people that have provided care or love to us. In other words, we should not take for granite the people that are most important to us. If we do, we might find ourselves in the shoes of Gregor’s family!