Often regarded as the greatest novella of the 20th century fiction, The Metamorphosis by German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka continues to be widely read. A tragicomedy that questions man’s search for meaning in life, The Metamorphosis is a mirror to modern man’s existential predicament.
Kafka’s novella narrates the story of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning and finds—to his utter horror—that he has transformed into a giant, beetle-like insect. He tries going back to sleep, hoping that when he wakes up later from the nightmare, he will be back to normal. However, when he cannot roll over due to his new body, he realises it is for real. Samsa is disgusted by his transformation, but he is also bemused as he is unable to make sense of it. Lost in thought, Samsa fails to realise he is late for work. But what’s surprising for the reader, however, is that Samsa is still bothered about work, as if nothing has happened.
The simple, yet, engaging narrative captures the theme of absurdity in life. Samsa’s life is a testimony to the conflict between man’s search for meaning in life and his human inability to find it. This is elucidated by circumstances in the book. For instance, if Samsa thought he had a meaningless job before he turned into a beetle, then it was nothing compared to the meaningless transformation he underwent.
The overnight change impacts Samsa’s life to such an extent that he becomes a stranger in his own house, an object of disgrace for his family. But it is not just Samsa’s transformation into a beetle that defies logic. His family barely reacts to his transformation. His mother, father, and sister seem unnaturally calm and unperturbed by the turn of events in the household. They don’t even seek any help or advice to fix the problem.
The drastic turn of events in Kafka’s book drives home the point that man’s search for meaning is pointless, given the random quality of life’s events. The character of Samsa represents each of us, and our eternal quest for meaning and purpose in life. By the time the reader is through with the book, they are bound to feel man’s search for meaning and purpose is futile, because purpose is not a destination, but a journey. While the protagonist fails to understand this truth, and meets a tragic end, the author conveys that we don’t have be to Samsa. Kafka makes it very clear: finding our purpose is a journey, and it is perhaps this message that makes The Metamorphosis a masterpiece.