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The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis is a short story by Franz Kafka in which a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, is transformed into a giant insect (supposedly). The opening line is famous in English:

As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

However, this English translation of the opening line is spurious. The actual German line runs like this:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect," but this is not accurate, and is based on a misguided attempt to clarify what Kafka intended (according to his journals and letters to the publisher of the text) to be an ambiguous term. In German, Ungeziefer literally means "vermin" and is sometimes used to mean "bug" - a very general term, totally unlike the scientific sounding "insect." Kafka had no intention of labelling Gregor as this or that specific thing, but merely wanted to convey the disgustingness of his transformation. Literally, the end of the line should be translated as ...transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin, although the feeling of the word in German is more colloquial sounding, almost something like ...transformed in his bed into a monstrous koodie.

Humorously, generations of English translators have gotten more and more carried away with this literal (and incorrect) version of Gregor's transformation, and have actually rendered Ungeziefer as "cockroach," "dung beetle," "beetle," and other highly specific terms. This has become such a common misconception, that English speakers will often summarize Metamorphosis as "...a story about a guy who turns into a cockroach." Despite all this, no such beast appears in the original text.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers.

The story is sometimes comic - for example, near the start, Gregor's main concern is that, despite what has happened, he must nevertheless get to work on time.

However, most of the story revolves around his interactions with his family, with whom he lives, and their shock, denial, and repulsion. Gregor is unable to speak in his insect form, and never communicates with his family at all. Horrified by his appearance, they take to shutting Gregor into his room, but do try to care for him by providing him food and water. Nevertheless, they seem to want as little to do with him as possible, and Gregor's father nearly kills him when he emerges from his room one day.

Confined to his room, Gregor's only activities are looking out of his window, and crawling up the walls and over the ceiling.

Devoid of human contact, one day Gregor emerges again, hoping to get his much-loved sister to join him in his room and play her violin for him, but her rejection of him is total, when she says to the family:

We must try to get rid of it. We've done everything humanly possible to take care of it, to put up with it, no one can reproach us in the slightest.

Gregor returns to his room, lies down, and dies. Upon discovery of his corpse, the family feel an enormous burden has been lifted from them, and start planning for the future again.

The Metamorphosis is open to a wide range of interpretations; in fact, Stanley Corngold's book, The Commentator's Despair, lists over 130 interpretations. Most obvious are themes relating to society's treatment of those who are different. Other themes include the loneliness of being cut off and the desperate and unrealistic hopes that such isolation brings.

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