Unlike 120 Days of Sodom or A Clockwork Orange, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is not overtly or explicitly sexual in nature; As a result, other issues raised by the story, such as the uncertainty of the human condition or the immense potential for cruelty of those we think will love us the most – our families – come to mind first when one considers the transgressive elements of Kafka’s classic tale. However, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that The Metamorphosis not only forces readers to question their beliefs about the human condition and the nature of family, but also boldly pushes the boundaries of understandings of human sexuality.
Even before Gregor is transformed into an insect, there is very little about him that seems comfortably human. Based on the reflections of both his family and himself on his life pre-transformation, it becomes obvious to the reader that Gregor was more machine than man. As Gregor’s mother tells the manager of Gregor’s office in response to his tardiness to work on the day of his transformation: “He’s not well, believe me, sir. Why else would Gregor miss a train! That boy doesn’t have anything in his head but business. I’m almost upset, as it is, that he never goes out at night…He just sits here with us at the table, quietly reading the newspaper or studying the railroad timetables” (Kafka 446). Gregor himself notes that his daily grind is one in which he has “no real human contact, no one who ever becomes a friend” (Kafka 442).
The one unique aspect of Gregor’s life that distinguishes him from a robot that has been programmed to be a dutiful son and hardworking salesman is a picture hanging in Gregor’s room. The picture is described in the following way: “Above the table, where a collection of cloth samples was unpacked and laid out – Samsa was a traveling salesman – hung the picture that he had recently cut from an illustrated magazine and put in a pretty guilt frame. It showed a lady wearing a small fur hat and fur stole, sitting upright, holding out to the viewer a heavy fur muff into which her entire forearm had vanished” (Kafka 442). It is this small, yet colorful detail in Gregor’s otherwise drab life that makes him relatable and human; the picture identifies Gregor as someone with typical heterosexual desires and fantasies, someone who enjoys looking at pictures of women in magazines. In other words, it is Gregor’s sexuality – not his devotion to his family or his work ethic – that truly makes him accessible and relatable to readers, a reality that The Metamorphosis’s prudish first readers would have inevitably found uncomfortable in 1915.
This idea of Gregor’s sexuality (embodied by the magazine picture) as the most human thing about him is further emphasized later on in the story, when Gregor’s mother and sister attempt to remove the furniture from his room. Although Gregor’s more insect-like instincts initially make him partial to this idea, he soon becomes distressed, convinced that the losing his furniture will mean “losing his human past” (460). Gregor decides he must do something to physically prevent all of his belongings from being removed, but cannot initially decide which item he wishes to save. Ultimately though: “…he spotted the picture of the lady dressed in nothing but furs, hanging conspicuously on what was otherwise a bare wall opposite him; he crawled rapidly up to it and pressed himself against the glass…At least this picture which Gregor now completely covered, was definitely not going to be removed by anyone” (461). Gregor’s determination to save the picture is symbolic of Gregor’s hopeless struggle to save his humanness, or at least one last vestige of it.
The picture of the woman as a repeated motif in The Metamorphosis and a potential symbol for Gregor’s sexuality, raises important questions for the reader about the essence of humanity. What is it about Gregor, even after he has become an enormous insect, that makes readers sympathetic to his plight? That forces readers to confront the undeniable glimmer of humanity within Gregor? Kafka seems to imply that Gregor’s sexuality is what redeems him as a creature that is at least somewhat human. This logic is deeply transgressive as it flies in the face of Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers who championed the ability to reason as the distinguishing attribute of humans. Furthermore, the almost redemptive power of Gregor’s sexuality is blasphemous in that it conforms with modernist notions that in the post-Nietzche, godless world, sex has replaced faith as divine. In essence, it is not Gregor’s devoutness to his family, his job, or any higher power that redeem him as a protagonist worth empathizing with until his last dying breath, but rather his (presumably sexual) fantasies about an unnamed woman.
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