It is one of the most enigmatic stories of all time, with an opening sentence that’s unparalleled in all of literature. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman living in Prague, wakes one morning from troubled dreams to find himself transformed into—what, exactly, isn’t clear, just as any clear interpretation of The Metamorphosis has eluded readers for decades. As the 100th anniversary of its publication approaches, we take a look at a few things we do know about Franz Kafka’s mysterious novella.
1. A tortured long-distance relationship provided inspiration.
In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, an acquaintance of his friend Max Brod, at a dinner party in Prague. He began writing to Bauer, who lived in Berlin, shortly after, eventually penning two and three letters per day. The correspondence was desperate—and pretty much one-sided. Kafka demanded detailed accounts of Bauer’s days, expressed his love for her and visions of their future together, and demanded that Bauer, who would eventually become his fiancé, respond to him in kind. Lying in bed one morning, Kafka told himself he wouldn’t get up until he’d received Bauer’s next letter. A story, he later wrote her, began to take shape.
2. He wrote it while working on another novel.
Kafka was having a hard time turning out his first novel (which he never finished, and which was published after his death under the title Amerika). Once the inspiration for The Metamorphosis came, he seized on it and resolved to write it quickly, in two or three sittings. There were delays—Kafka was, after all, working full time at an insurance company—but he still was able to finish the first draft in three weeks, from mid November to early December, 1912.
3. It took three years to get published.
Kafka read a section from his "bug piece," as he called it, aloud to friends on November 24, 1912. They began talking about the work, and soon publishers were expressing interest. Due to his preoccupations with writing Bauer and with Amerika, though, it took Kafka months to write a new manuscript. Then World War I broke out, causing further delays. Finally, in October 1915, the story appeared in the literary journal Die weissen Blätter, with a book printing two months later by publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig.
4. There are numerous translations of the famous opening line.
Over the years, translators have had Gregor Samsa transform into "a monstrous cockroach," "an enormous bedbug," and "a large verminous insect," among other things. While scholars agree Gregor changes into a bug of some sort, the exact entomology remains a mystery. And that seems to be Kafka's intention, as the German word he uses for Gregor’s new form, "Ungeziefer," suggests a bug, a vermin and, in Old High German, an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice.
5. Kafka forbid his publisher from portraying "the insect" on the cover.
Given the ambiguity over Gregor’s new form, Kafka argued that its picture should not appear on the cover, as his publisher suggested. Kafka wrote to Verlag, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." He got his wish, with the first edition featuring a drawing of a tormented man wearing a robe. Subsequent editions, however, have interpreted Gregor in all sorts of creepy, crawly forms.
6. It’s a pretty funny story, if you think about it.
Viewed one way, a story about a man who wakes up to find he’s a bug is horrifying. Viewed another way, it’s hilarious. Indeed, scholars and readers alike have delighted in Kafka’s gallows humor and matter-of-fact handling of the absurd and the terrifying. The first pages of The Metamorphosis where Gregor tries to communicate through the bedroom door with his family, who think he’s merely being lazy, is vintage screwball comedy. As translator Susan Bernofsky writes: "I imagine Kafka laughing uproariously when reading the story to his friends."
7. The language is full of double meanings and contradictions.
Dream logic and contradictions abound in Kafka’s work. A man is summoned to a trial for an unnamed offense; a country doctor is instantly transported to the home of a sick patient, who tells him he only wants to be left to die. These contortions happen even at the language level, leaving translators to puzzle over the double meanings in Kafka’s German. In The Metamorphosis, he describes Gregor crawling along the walls of his room using the verb "kriechen," which means "to creep" as well as "to cower." Thus Gregor’s meekness as a man is reinforced even as he tries to assert his new insect identity.
8. Its many interpretations include a Freudian one.
It’s an interpretation of the human condition, an allegory for aging, and a cry of desperation in a rapidly industrializing society. There are many different interpretations of The Metamorphosis, from the oddly specific (it’s all about the dangers of insomnia) to something resembling Lost (it was all just a dream!). There’s also a Freudian theory that states, in essence, the book was Kafka’s way of getting back at his overbearing father.
9. Vladimir Nabokov was a big fan—and critic.
The Lolita author, in a famous lecture he gave about The Metamorphosis, called Kafka "the greatest German writer of our time." Nabokov was also a first-rate scientist and lepidopterist, and he concluded that Gregor Samsa had been transformed into a winged beetle. Despite his reverence, Nabokov the wordsmith couldn’t resist line editing Kafka’s story—or the English version of it, anyway.
10. Stage productions have gotten pretty creative.
How do you portray a man who turns into a giant insect on stage? Plays, operas and even ballet productions have done it using everything from distorted sets to animation to buckets and buckets of brown slime. A Japanese theater company did away with the bug motif altogether and made Gregor a robot.
11. It was on David Cronenberg’s mind when he filmed The Fly.
When writing his script for the 1986 sci-fi/horror classic, Cronenberg couldn’t help but see the parallels between his story, in which a brilliant scientist accidentally transforms himself into a grotesque human/fly hybrid, and Kafka’s. In an introduction to a recent translation of The Metamorphosis, Cronenberg wrote that he thought of Kafka specifically when he wrote this line for the unlucky Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum): "I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake."
12. Benedict Cumberbatch read it on BBC radio.
Can you imagine a more ideal voice for such a surreal story? The Sherlock actor recently read the novella in its entirety to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Sadly, the broadcast is no longer available for free on the BBC's site, but you can find it here.