Verbal Communication and Identity in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”
“The Metamorphosis,” a short story by Kafka, explores the implication of losing one’s physical body and the abilities that it provides. The process of metamorphosis itself represents the lack of the protagonist’s self-understanding and self-reflection. Further, verbal communication and its challenges play a pivotal role in the narrative development, representing underlying themes of alienation and self-isolation. However, the fundamental function of spoken interaction in the narrative differs from what the dialogues seemingly convey. The author drives home the idea that despite the seeming presence of verbal communication between the characters, they nonetheless did not understand each other even prior to the metamorphosis.
The role of verbal communication in separating and alienating people is shown in the narrative. At the beginning of the narrative, the author presents the protagonist’s recent inability to communicate as the main reason for his struggles. The physiological difficulties of post-metamorphosis verbal communication put too much pressure on him, rendering him unable to connect with the surrounding world (Farahmandian and Haonong 338). When Gregor transforms, he can still comprehend human speech, so he assumes that others can understand him. Furthermore, his words are initially discernible: “Because of the wooden door, the change in Gregor’s voice was not really noticeable outside, so his mother calmed down with this explanation” (Kafka 23). Gradually, the changes worsen, but nothing hints that Gregor and his relatives cannot understand each other. Gregor becomes more isolated from his family without realizing his verbal communication is unimpaired (Farahmandian and Haonong 336). Hence, verbal communication plays a role in a deceitful divide between the protagonist and his family.
The author highlights the lack of understanding between characters by showing the striking absence of verbal communication. The scene where Gregor, the protagonist, blurts out a long-winded explanation for not being in the office to his manager is remarked by the response “that’s an animal’s voice” from the latter (Kafka 30). Consequently, when Gregor presents himself in the insect form to the family, they, despite being shocked, force him back into his room (Kafka 36). They do not attempt to understand him, choosing to hide or dispose of the problem rather than face it head-on. Farahmandian and Haonong argue that Gregor’s world becoming incomprehensible may reflect his unwillingness to communicate (338). This statement is supported by the scene where Gregor is given unsuitable food: he “would sooner starve to death than call her attention to the fact” even though he was desperate enough to beg (Kafka 38). Thus, upon transforming, Gregor leaves all attempts to communicate his needs, seemingly discouraged by the inability to speak and be understood.
Nonetheless, the verbal communication in the Samsa family was arguably impaired prior to the protagonist’s metamorphosis. Ikram and Sarfraz contend that there is little loss of emotional attachment since most of his family, except his sister, are only interested in benefitting from Gregor’s earnings (237). Kafka describes Gregor’s realization that he was regarded as a money source rather than a family member, whom they worried about no more “than was absolutely necessary” (55). Gregor goes from keeping silent by choice to being forced to remain silent (Ikram & Sarfraz, 2018). His insect’s insect version’s lack of verbal communication gives his family an excuse to decide for him, saying it would be otherwise “if he understood us” (Kafka 64). This indifference is again demonstrated when Gregor is left with an injury after his father throws an apple at him, and nobody helps him for over a month (Kafka 53). Hence, after the metamorphosis, the communication remains fundamentally unchanged; the understanding did not exist before, just like it does not exist now.
The process of metamorphosis itself, however, represents more than the mere inability to communicate. According to Ikram and Sarfraz, the hard shell of a vermin represents the withdrawal from reality that the protagonist exhibits, as stated, even before transforming (238). Upon discovering that he has transformed, he remains completely calm – eerily so; instead of processing his transformation, he is concerned with performing his daily tasks. When Gregor throws the blanket to the side to discover that he has little insect paws instead of his arms, he only thinks, “I must not stay in bed uselessly” (Kafka 24). Simon argues that the protagonist only felt accomplished through his actions, which were physical and centered outside of his body: going to work, bringing the money back to the family, and getting ready for work again (5). Gregor wants to meet his family’s needs – he wants to provide for them, and this desire has dictated most of his existence. However, in earning money, he may have forgotten what it was like to be aware of himself.
Even with the transformation complete, the protagonist continues to run away from any form of critical self-reflection. For instance, when Gregor contemplates how proud he was to be a ‘breadwinner,’ a thought creeps in: “but how would things go if now all… should come to a horrible end?” (Kafka 37). Nevertheless, he avoids reflection “in order not to lose himself in such thoughts,” so Gregor crawls back to his room and stops observing the apartment (Kafka 37). Acknowledging the impact of this metamorphosis on his life would entail losing the very core of his identity – as a human being and as a provider (Simon 5). Therefore, the protagonist pushes these thoughts aside for as long as he can until he is faced with reality.
The way metamorphosis functions in the narrative is seen when the line between the human and the insect begins to vanish. The scene where Gregor’s mother and sister start removing the furniture from his room is the first one where he truly panics (Kafka 48). Up to this point, his identity has relied on the physical tasks performed by an ordinary human body – Gregor’s mind and his body do not exist as separate entities for him (Simon 6). Thus, although unsuitable for his new body, the furniture in his room gave him an illusion that he was still tied to that previous identity – that of a human. He scares his sister when he tries to hide the last bit of his belongings – a framed picture – by sitting on the wall (Kafka 50). After this moment that terrified and heartbroken, Gregor ultimately gives in to his insect nature, starting to “creep and crawl over everything: walls, furniture, and ceiling” (Kafka 50). Thus, the metamorphosis is complete – the readers may no longer view Gregor as a human being but as an insect instead.
In conclusion, the process of metamorphosis completes with Gregor staying confused, lost, and alienated throughout his life, learning nothing from his experience and only inaudibly suffering. The author uses verbal communication and its disappearance to show the protagonist’s struggles. The understanding between the characters never existed, so the metamorphosis could not prematurely terminate it. Gregor’s silence as both a human and an insect renders him unable to verbalize his repressed feelings. Moreover, his lack of self-reflection prevents him from defining his identity from anything other than his physicality and his duties. The author demonstrates that the verbal communication in the narrative serves as a façade behind which hide estrangement, alienation, and isolation. Lastly, physical metamorphosis in the story represents the inability to separate the mind from the body, eventually leading to the loss of protagonist’s identity.
Farahmandian, Hamid, and Pang Haonong. “Existential Failure in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” Forum for World Literature Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2018, pp. 334–342.
Ikram, Mahnoor, and Sulaim Sarfraz. “Pragmatic Linguistic Markers for Socio-Psychological Themes in Kafka’s Metamorphosis: How Kafka Conveys Meaning through His Characters Conversational Implicature, Haptics, Proxemics and Para Linguistics.” Journal of Research and Reviews in Social Sciences Pakistan, vol. 1, no. 2, 2018, pp. 236–242.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, edited by Paul Johnson Byrne, translated by Ian Johnston, Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 21–69.
Simon, Ashley. “A Critical Analysis of Franz Kafka’s Novella The Metamorphosis.” IUSB Graduate Research Journal, vol. 5, 2018, pp. 3–15.