Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis: Gregor's Mental Illness and the Impact of His Depression

Updated on February 22, 2018
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Pam McElprang is obsessed with writing, all things history, and her new corgi, Nigel. Find her on Twitter @PamMcElprang

Franz Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis in 1915 to parallel Gregor’s transformation with the paralyzing realities of a mental illness or disease. A close look will be taken into Gregor’s transformation to define the reality of his disease, including the prejudice with which his colleagues and family treat him due to his extreme condition.

As the story begins, Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. However, it is not his condition that darkens his mood, it is “the overcast weather—he could hear raindrops hitting against the metal window ledge—[which] completely depressed him” (Kafka, 3). His next thought was that he should, “go back to sleep for a few minutes and [forget] all of this nonsense…but that was completely impracticable, since he was used to sleeping on his right side and in his present state he could not get into that position” (3) or turn himself over, which follows that he has fully accepted his condition (or is completely in denial about it) and has no qualms about being turned into a giant cockroach except that he cannot roll onto his stomach, which is a tragedy indeed. His main problem arises when his entire family and a colleague, a chief clerk, start knocking on his bedroom door and he finds his voice becoming increasingly unintelligible and is unable to roll his giant insect body over to get to the door.

What is Wrong with Gregor?

When his sister, Grete, pleads with him to open the door, he “complimented himself instead on the precaution he had adopted from business trips, of locking all the doors during the night even at home” (Kafka, 6). Gregor, without intentionally planning on it, has isolated himself from his family in more ways than one. Locking the door, and considering it a prudent habit, even though he is at home—a place where he should, without doubt, feel safe and secure—defines his emotional suffering on a deeper level. In such a case, Gregor is in a position where he cannot trust anyone, even his family, and feels that he must take extraordinary means to protect himself from invasion. This belief manifests itself into his physical metamorphosis. At the same time; however, his metamorphosis can also be seen as another form of emotional escape from the dangers and stress that he perceives within his reality. Without even realizing it, Gregor has virtually removed himself from life to hide and be cared for in his miserable existence.

Gregor is mentally sick. Where Kafka chooses to transform Gregor into a cockroach, the truth is that something has broken within Gregor emotionally—and it is a change that Gregor accepts without considering the absurdity of the situation. He never pauses to wonder why he has been transformed into a cockroach, and further, and most importantly, he does not find horror in his transformation. Instead, he plods along within his shell of disease without any further emotion for his condition than that his covering is too hard and his legs are a bit too thin.

Gregor is Overworked, Struggling, and Emotionally Burdened

The root of Gregor’s mental illness is that he is overworked, lives with a family whom he struggles to support, and faces a looming debt to his employer brought on by his father’s actions. Gregor’s condition is a direct result of his financial and emotional burden. Since Gregor gives little to no thought to his present metamorphosis—even considering it a normal part of his life—he becomes like a person who can become so overwhelmed with their life that they simply, in whatever way possible, find a means for escape from their responsibilities. For Gregor, this happens to take the form of a human-sized cockroach; a form that allows him to scurry about his quarters without anything more to think about than possibly frightening his family with his quick movements.

His family views his condition in much the same way as Gregor. They are not at all appalled (at least in the manner that normal people would be) that their family member has just transformed into a giant cockroach; indeed, their only concern is that he will no longer be able to care for himself and now they must take up the grueling and gruesome task. For them, Gregor is a burden; a burden who can no longer provide for the family and must now be taken care of as an invalid, a literal infection, in their home.

The Reactions of Gregor's Family to His Mental Illness

The Samsa family do find themselves repulsed by his altered appearance and take to shutting him in his bedroom, only conversing with him when he requires food to sustain his life. His sister is loyal and tries her best to make Gregor comfortable, but even she has her breaking point. At the end of the story, Grete has her own emotional outburst, screaming to her parents that “things can't go on like this. Maybe you don’t realize it, but I do. I won’t pronounce the name of my brother in front of this monster, and so all I say is: we have to try to get rid of it. We’ve done everything humanly possible to take care of it and to put up with it; I don’t think anyone can blame us in the least” (Kafka, 48).

For Grete, her efforts to maintain a relationship with Gregor in his condition have utterly failed. He is no longer the brother and provider that he used to be and he is, every day, falling further into his life as a cockroach. He is a monster, an “it” who must now be destroyed. His decent into madness, as it were, cannot be contained or dealt with by the family any longer. Grete pleads with her mother and father that “it has to go…that’s the only answer, Father. You just have to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that’s our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor?” (Kafka, 49).

Then she begins to rationalize her decision, saying that “if it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will…we’d be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us…obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter” (Kafka, 49). To Grete, Gregor is no longer the brother she once knew, or he would have long ago snapped out of his mental illness. This condition of his is entirely his fault now, and if she believed that anything of Gregor remained within the monster now inhabiting their home, she would go on as they are. But as things stand, she wants to move on with her life, without a burden such as Gregor represents.

After her outburst, Gregor makes his way quietly back to his bedroom. After he is locked inside, he begins to think about his condition and “soon made the discovery that he could not move at all. [But] it did not surprise him; rather it seemed unnatural that until now he had actually been able propel himself on [his] thin little legs” (Kafka, 51). He returns to his family who he viewed with “deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection…[and] then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath” (51).

It is Easier for Gregor to be Dead - He is Useless and Tiresome

Gregor’s family is okay with his death, just as he finds peace and is able to let go of life, they “[decide] to spend this day resting and going for a walk; they not only deserved a break in their work, but absolutely needed one” (Kafka, 54). Gregor’s death, for the family, was a lifting of a giant burden. They had grown tired of caring for him and his strange and disgusting disease. Gregor is like a person with a terminal disease or extreme emotional condition. Gregor’s condition, to them, was one of the mind—one which he refused to return from to relieve them of their burden. In the end, he was lost to them and they knew it; they knew that Gregor was lost forever into his world of self-pity and they were done providing care for him.

Even Gregor’s sister begins to emerge from her quiet, reclusive self into a spirited woman, as the Samsa’s reflect of their daughter, who, before their very eyes, “became livelier and livelier…she had blossomed into a good-looking shapely girl…they thought it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband” (Kafka, 55). Indeed, Grete took Gregor’s condition hardest of all, and his release into death, for her, was a release in life and “it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of the ride their daughter got up first and stretched her young body” (55). For the first time, she is able to shed the ties that held her down, a slave to the brother and infection in their home. And, for the first time, the Samsa family is able to think about living life again.

Franz Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis to show that people treat those with mental illnesses or diseases as if it were their fault. His family grows to despise him as a useless and tiresome burden in their home because he is unwilling to snap out of his disease. In the end, as Gregor finds a small nugget of peace, he goes back to his bedroom to die, at which point his family is instantly relieved of their charge and begin to see the world as if a light has been turned on and they, especially his sister Grete, are able to live as humans again, free from the bug that bound them to a miserable existence.

Reference

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trns. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Pouya 

        6 weeks ago

        Thank you for the review ... :)

        It must be hard (and definitely is hard) to have a cockroach in your dwelling. But the calamity is not having one, but the harsh, bitter fact that it's not their fault they have little legs and a loathsome appearance.

        I can definitely relate ... since my father is schizophrenic - an acute mental disorder eating him from inside ... without his wanting it...

      • profile image

        Bella Allred 

        18 months ago

        Well holy crap. That was seriously insightful, and I appreciate the analysis of the story very much. It's really very sad but so true and the message is an important one, no matter how difficult it may be to hear.

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