12 Unsettling Facts About The Metamorphosis

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. In celebration of Franz Kafka's birthday (the author was born in Prague on July 3, 1883), let's take a look at a few things we do know about his 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 wrote: "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 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.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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