Mediocrity Surrounding Genius: Nabokov's View on "The Metamorphosis"
"The Metamorphosis," a story by Franz Kafka is about an ordinary traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who suddenly transforms into a "monstrous vermin." What exactly this vermin is, and why Gregor is suddenly transformed into it is left unclear throughout the story. After Gregor's transformation, the story continues by illustrating the development of the relationship between Gregor and his family until the "vermin" finally dies. Insight and analysis of story provided by the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov suggests that it is Gregor who is a human in a beetle's disguise, while those around him are the vermin. .
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Nabokov states that "[Gregor] realizes his plight without surprise, with a childish acceptance of it, and at the same time he clings to human memories, human experience" (Nabokov 7). Upon realizing his condition, Gregor does not panic like many people would in such a situation. His main concern is to get to work and continue earning a living for his family. His parents' concern, however, is to get him out of his room and back to work in order to bring more money for them. Nobody cares if he likes or hates his job, if he is sick or is simply too tired to go to work. Gregor is blind to this reality, that he is only being used by his family. An example of this is when Gregor hears his sister crying in the next room, and he asks himself "...what was she crying about? Because he didn't get up and didn't let the manager in, because he was in danger of losing his job, and because the boss would start hounding his parents about the old debts?"(Kafka 808). Nabokov accounts for this reaction because "Gregor is so accustomed to be just an instrument to be used by his family that the question of pity does not arise: he does not even hope that Grete might be sorry for him" (Nabokov 8). Gregor fails to notice that his family has placed him and his health secondary to their greed for more money.
Nabokov explains Gregor's actual metamorphosis in great detail even though Kafka never fully reveals what the "monstrous vermin" is that Gregor has been transformed into. After compiling clues from the story, however, Nabokov suggests that the vermin is a "...brown, convex, dog-sized beetle..." (6), which looks something like this:
This rough sketch helps the reader to visualize the vermin that Gregor has transformed into, while at the same time leaving some of the picture to the imagination. The description of the bug is also explained metaphorically by Nabokov. The pain caused by the way Gregor is treated by his family "... is his beetle itch in human terms. The pathetic urge to find some protection from betrayal, cruelty, and filth is the factor that went to form his carapace..." (Nabokov 5). By relating the physical description of the bug to human terms leads to the assumption that Gregor's transformation was a reflection of how he saw himself.
The family gets accustomed to Gregor's horrendous situation quickly. As Nabokov says, they were at first "under the impression that his condition is some kind of foul but not hopeless illness that may pass with time..." (Nabokov 9). Grete tried to feed him "...a bowl filled with fresh milk, in which small slices of white bread were floating" (Kafka 814) as if this might cure his illness. The family never goes out of their way to seek help for Gregor. Nabokov criticizes the family's reaction, their "... son and brother [is] plunged into a monstrous change that should have sent them scuttling out into the streets for help with shrieks and tears, in wild compassion - but here they are, the three philistines,...