By: Keegan Douglass
In 1915, German author Franz Kafka wrote the Absurdist novel The Metamorphosis, which depicts the story of a man named Gregor Samsa – who unexpectedly turns into a human-sized cockroach – and the life of his family after his transformation. While, on the surface, the initial concept of the novel may be disturbing, it actually has a deeper meaning, discussing both religion and the life of a disabled individual.
In the early twentieth century, those who suffered from any disability, such as Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder, were ostracized by their families and friends, and were often put into asylums in order to keep them far away from “normal” civilization and to protect them. In the novel, Kafka attempts to tackle this issue by the use of metaphors comparing Samsa’s transformation into an insect to the life of someone with a disability.
In the opening third of the novel, Samsa attempts to call out to his family, who worries about him, as he had not woken up at his regular time. His family, however, is unable to understand his calls, since he had been transformed into a cockroach, yet he still clings to the idea of being “in the circle of humanity” (Kafka 21).
The use of the word “humanity” is meant to show the dehumanization of both Samsa, and those with disabilities. Essentially, the novel shows that individuals who suffer from some sort of physical or mental deficiency are often shunned by loved ones.
Samsa spends the majority of the novel in complete isolation, with his family and friends refusing to speak to him, as they believe it is pointless and that he wouldn’t understand them anyway. Despite them knowing who the giant cockroach actually is, they still ignore him, and treat him like a threat, or a disgusting animal. This depiction of Samsa’s life is meant to show the life of a disabled person, from that disabled person’s perspective – something that had not been done previously.
Mary Shelley attempted to express many of the same ideas through her novel Frankenstein, by showing the life of a monster abandoned by his creator. Kafka expressed most of the same sentiments, but through Absurdist writing styles.
Kafka tackles the idea of a Christ figure – someone who gives up his/her life in order to benefit loved ones, or the human race in general – by having Samsa starve himself to death by the end of the novel.
Samsa witnesses his family deteriorate because of his presence, and so he ends his own life in order to allow his family to continue living happily, despite their cruel mistreatment. This heroic suicide makes Samsa a Christ figure, much like the character Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, who gave up his life in order to save a family from death by the French rebels.
Kafka reflects both the life of a disabled individual, and the noble death of a selfless individual. This novel expresses a life that was not understood by the majority of the public and thus hidden away. Not only is it a statement about disabled individuals, but it could stand for any group of discriminated people.
The novel could be overlooked because of its unsettling nature, but should be further studied, as it expresses a progressive stance on life that has been silenced in the past. The Metamorphosis is one of the great philosophical novels of the twentieth century and is a literary masterpiece of both absurdism and individualism.