Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" is considered one of the most important books of the 20th century, despite its short novella length. The book follows a traveling salesperson who suddenly finds himself morphing into a grotesque, insect-like creature. Although the book might seem like little more than a work of science fiction, it explores important political themes.
The story follows Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesperson who -- for no apparent reason -- turns into an unattractive insect. Through this transformation, Samsa's personality changes from a confident and slightly rebellious salesman to a shame-filled shell of a person. In telling Samsa's story, Kafka aims to demonstrate that human nature is not permanent and fixed, but something that is constantly evolving and based on individual, social and political circumstances.
Detachment and Alienation
As he transforms into an insect, Samsa becomes increasingly alienated from his own body, and this leads to disruptions in his sense of self as well as his relationships with others. During Kafka's time, the concept of alienation of people from their very nature was an ongoing subject of philosophical debate, thanks mostly in part to the work of Karl Marx. Kafka tracks how progressive alienation limits the ability to work and have relationships and, ultimately, to be human.
Economics and Work
The nature of work and political economy were significant sources of political debate during Kafka's time, particularly given the rise of Marxism. After Samsa's transformation, his father must return to work to support the family, despite the father's old age. Kafka, drawing on the tradition of Marx, shows how dependence on work can alienate people from their families and how financial difficulties can spell disaster not only for the person who has them but for the surrounding family and community.
Samsa's family provides care for him, even though they find him repulsive. There is ongoing scholarly debate about the meaning of this message. Kafka is clearly exploring themes of familial obligations, human decency and compassion. In doing so, he also shows the toll that caring for another can exact and the ways in which being a recipient of such care can lead to shame and humiliation, which is a theme that often overlaps with politics.