The Metamorphosis: Novel Summary: Section 1
Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect. "What's happened to me?" he thought. "It wasn't a dream." He is lying on his back in his own bed, in his own bedroom in his parents' apartment. He looks up and sees he has a large belly with a blanket barely covering it, and his thin legs flounder about uselessly in the air. Outside it is raining. On the wall above his textile samples hangs a picture of a lady in a fur muff which Gregor cut out himself and put in a gilt frame. Gregor simply cannot get out of bed and get on with his job as a traveling salesman.
He thinks about how much he hates his job and would have quit it ages ago if he hadn't had to work to pay off his parents' debt to his boss. Although he set his clock for 4 a.m. so he would be able to catch the five o'clock train, he has overslept and missed it. But he realizes he might still make the next one at seven o'clock if he hurries. He knows his boss will be angry: "what a strenuous career it is that I've chosen! Travelling day in and day out." Calling in sick, or sending a note, is out of the question for Gregor. He's never done it. Then he reminds himself that he just has another five or six years to go before his father's debt is paid off and he can quit his job or "make the big move," as he puts it. Then he attempts once more to get up. He feels hungrier than usual.
Soon Gregor hears a knock on the door. It's his mother gently calling him to get up, and he is shocked by the squeaky voice that emanates from his own throat in response. Then his father calls from one of the side doors demanding that Gregor get up. This is soon followed by his concerned sister Grete's knocking on yet other side door as she begs him to open the door. Feeling glad that he has acquired the traveling salesman's habit of locking doors when he goes to bed, Gregor answers them as clearly as possible that he is getting up to go to work.
Gregor continues to rock back and forth in his attempt to get out of bed, and then the doorbell rings. His boss has sent the Chief Clerk from the office to see why Gregor hasn't come to work. At this point Gregor "swang himself with all his force out of the bed, onto the floor and hurt his head in the process." Outside, Gregor's sister and father continue their attempts to get Gregor to open the door. His mother explains to the clerk that Gregor is sick, that he never takes a break and in his concern for work only reads railway timetables. Gregor explains from his bedroom that he is sick and dizzy. He says further that the Clerk's accusations that Gregor has absconded with company funds is completely false and that he has just turned in some sales orders.
However, no one can understand a word Gregor says: "That was the voice of an animal," says the shocked Chief Clerk. Gregor is now against the wall. His sister begins to cry and his mother sends her running for a doctor while his father sends the maid running for a locksmith. Gregor leans his head against the door and attempts to turn the key with his mouth. Finally, he succeeds in opening the door. His mother screams when she sees him and faints. His father cries and the Clerk says "Oh!" and runs off screaming down the stairs. Gregor attempts to stop him because he knows his job is at stake, but his father grabs the Clerk's cane, and accompanied by loud hissing sounds, begins to hit his son and prod him back toward the bedroom. He shoves him back in and slams the door, but not before Gregor hurts his side because he can't yet move backwards. Finally, "all was quiet."
First-time readers of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" are often stunned by the opening line which is presented so openly and calmly-the protagonist has just woken up as a giant insect, a beetle of sorts, perhaps a dung beetle or a cockroach. There's nothing ambiguous here. Gregor didn't wake up and "feel" like an insect, he simply "is" an insect, and a very lowly despised insect at that. And his concern now is simply with how he is ever going to get out of bed and go to work. The story is not concerned with figuring out how this transformation occurred: Gregor never wonders about what happened to bring it about. Instead, the story remains concerned with what Gregor is going to do about it, especially since he has a family to support. But a close analysis of the family and events leading up to the morning in question provide insights into how perhaps this strange transformation this came about.
While Gregor might be a giant hairy hungry insect on the outside, inside he retains the personality of the mild-mannered traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa. He remains capable of speech, although no one understands him, a point which in itself is a metaphorical clue to Gregor's state of being. But, as the story progresses Gregor's personality will also degenerate or "metamorphose," as he becomes more and more like an insect concerned with maneuvering his new armor-clad body, the loss of his human voice and his increasingly intense cravings for not very palatable food. But throughout the story what will remain paramount in Gregor's mind is his never-ceasing concern for his family. It is important to understand the Samsa family at the beginning of the novella and this can be accomplished with a summary of their background.
Mr. Samsa fell into debt and lost his position years ago and turned to his son Gregor to take over the support of the family which consists of two parents and two grown children, Grete and Gregor, whose names are phonetically similar. Although he was young, Gregor cast aside his own dreams to take on the entire financial burden. This involves supporting the family and repaying his father's debt by working as a traveling salesman for the man to whom his father is indebted. And he keeps the family very well. Notice they have a maid, and a cleaning woman will make an appearance later on, and the father and Grete do not appear to be in ill health: "The washing up from breakfast lay on the table; there was so much of it because, for Gregor's father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day and he would stretch it out for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers." Simply, the family roles have been reversed. The son Gregor has taken on the supportive parental role and his father has become the sit-about dependant "son." Consider what would happen to the family if Gregor was unable to get up and go to work. Gregor is convinced they can't live without him.
Gregor is a young man with a young man's dreams. Consider the sexually charged image of the young woman in the fur muff whose picture he cuts out, frames and places on his bedroom wall: "It showed a lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa who sat upright, raising a heavy fur muff that covered the whole of her lower arm towards the viewer." Gregor doesn't have time to meet a woman and start his own family. He is too tied up in supporting the family who knock on his bedroom doors begging, pleading and ordering him to get up and go to work. Incidentally, his bedroom has three doors, one for each family member to pound on-he is surrounded-and so he feels compelled to lock them out. Consider, however, that Gregor is a completely alienated prisoner in a cage surrounded by jailers, who in this scenario are simply his own family.
Gregor is also a prisoner stuck in a job he hates and wants to leave but if he does, his family will be disgraced because its debt to Mr. Samsa. When Gregor is late for work, the boss immediately sends his Chief Clerk to check up on him, and the mother pleads to their early morning visitor: "The lad only ever thinks about the business. It nearly makes me cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he's been in town for a week now but stayed home every evening. He sits with us in the kitchen and just reads the paper or studies train timetables."
How then can Gregor ever find a way out of his horrible job and his position of sole support of his family?