The world of literature is abundant with monsters: physical monsters, psychological monsters, benevolent monsters, evil monsters. However, there is hardly a monster as puzzling and fascinating as Kafka’s ‘Ungeziefer’ in The Metamorphosis.
Before even considering the symbolism and psychology, we must consider the physicality of Kafka’s monster, which is both vaguely important and importantly vague. It is vaguely important in the sense that Kafka devotes substantial passages to describing the physical experience of Gregor —his protagonist that for absolutely no reason turns into an Ungeziefer and gets locked in his room. The physical experience, then, in subtle but definite ways, transforms the psychological experience of Gregor. As he gains more control of his body, he becomes more and more identified with his bug status and comfortable with his new habits, actually enjoying sticking himself onto the ceiling. In a way, Gregor gives in to the arbitrary metamorphosis; but one could also argue he adapts to it by finding new ways to pass time, to be alive. Kafka seems to link physical experience to identity: the body, often belittled by (especially idealist) artists and thinkers, becomes just as important as the abstract will. On the most superficial level, the message is that really, looks matter. More subjectively, the way we utilise our body to interact with the world involves a will and the dualist conception of the human being — trying to subordinate the body to the will — has been misleading.
The important vagueness of Kafka’s monster is a point of translation and reputation. Most English readers imagine Gregor as a beetle-ish bug, although the German term, “Ungeziefer”, doesn’t exactly mean this. This points us to two important issues in literature: the first is, how much is lost in translation? And the second: how much is lost when a work is so famous that we already have some image of it in our mind before opening the first page? The Metamorphosis not only occurs within the book, but also with the book itself through translations, adaptations and interpretations.
The brilliance of Kafka’s creature — the characterisation and situation of Gregor — is that it is at once surreal and ultra-real. It is illogical and bold enough to support an engaging plot line, but also illuminating and relevant enough to make us think. The monster represents the misfortune of a family, thus invoking questions like how much a family and a society is bound by moral reasons to take care of its members; the monster also represents economic inequalities, as even in his bug form Gregor tries, absurdly, to keep his job. The Metamorphosis, despite its brevity, is incredibly rich, exploring many key interests of human existence ranging from power to taste.
After all, in depicting monsters, authors are often trying to say something about ordinary human beings. There is monstrosity in all of us; what literature does is to help us define that monstrosity and investigate its relationship with our rationality.