8

Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka

Featuring an ordinary man who wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach, Kafka’s masterpiece of unease and black humour, Metamorphosis, is brought together here with the best of his short stories.

‘I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.’

I

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. He lay on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever on the point of slipping off entirely. His numerous legs, pathetically frail by contrast to the rest of him, waved feebly before his eyes.

‘What’s the matter with me?’ he thought. It was no dream. There, quietly between the four familiar walls, was his room, a normal human room, if always a little on the small side. Over the table, on which an array of cloth samples was spread out – Samsa was a travelling salesman – hung the picture he had only recently clipped from a magazine, and set in an attractive gilt frame. It was a picture of a lady in a fur hat and stole, sitting bolt upright, holding in the direction of the onlooker a heavy fur muff into which she had thrust the whole of her forearm.

From there, Gregor’s gaze directed itself towards the window, and the drab weather outside – raindrops could be heard plinking against the tin window ledges – made him quite melancholy. ‘What if I went back to sleep for a while, and forgot about all this nonsense?’ he thought, but that proved quite impossible, because he was accustomed to sleeping on his right side, and in his present state he was unable to find that position. However vigorously he flung himself to his right, he kept rocking on to his back. He must have tried it a hundred times, closing his eyes so as not to have to watch his wriggling legs, and only stopped when he felt a slight ache in his side which he didn’t recall having felt before.

‘Oh, my Lord!’ he thought. ‘If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession! On the road, day in, day out. The work is so much more strenuous than it would be in head office, and then there’s the additional ordeal of travelling, worries about train connections, the irregular, bad meals, new people all the time, no continuity, no affection. Devil take it!’ He felt a light itch at the top of his belly; slid a little closer to the bedpost, so as to be able to raise his head a little more effectively; found the itchy place, which was covered with a sprinkling of white dots the significance of which he was unable to interpret; assayed the place with one of his legs, but hurriedly withdrew it, because the touch caused him to shudder involuntarily.

He slid back to his previous position. ‘All this getting up early,’ he thought, ‘is bound to take its effect. A man needs proper bed-rest. There are some other travelling salesmen I could mention who live like harem women. Sometimes, for instance, when I return to the pension in the course of the morning, to make a note of that morning’s orders, some of those gents are just sitting down to breakfast. I’d like to see what happened if I tried that out with my director some time; it would be the order of the boot just like that. That said, it might be just the thing for me. If I didn’t have to exercise restraint for the sake of my parents, then I would have quit a long time ago; I would have gone up to the director and told him exactly what I thought of him. He would have fallen off his desk in surprise! That’s a peculiar way he has of sitting anyway, up on his desk, and talking down to his staff from on high, making them step up to him very close because he’s so hard of hearing. Well, I haven’t quite given up hope; once I’ve got the money together to pay back what my parents owe him – it may take me another five or six years – then I’ll do it, no question. Then we’ll have the parting of the ways. But for the time being, I’d better look sharp, because my train leaves at five.’

And he looked across at the alarm clock, ticking away on the bedside table. ‘Great heavenly Father!’ he thought. It was half past six, and the clock hands were moving smoothly forward – in fact it was after half past, it was more like a quarter to seven. Had the alarm not gone off? He could see from the bed that it had been quite correctly set for four o’clock; it must have gone off. But how was it possible to sleep calmly through its ringing, which caused even the furniture to shake? Well, his sleep hadn’t exactly been calm, but maybe it had been all the more profound. What to do now? The next train left at seven; to catch it meant hurrying like a madman, and his samples weren’t yet packed, and he himself didn’t feel exactly agile or vigorous. And even if he caught that train, he would still get a carpeting from the director, because the office boy would be on the platform at five o’clock, and would certainly have reported long since that Gregor hadn’t been on the train. That boy was a real piece of work, so utterly beholden to the director, without any backbone or nous. Then what if he called in sick? That would be rather embarrassing and a little suspicious too, because in the course of the past five years, Gregor hadn’t once been ill. The director was bound to retaliate by calling in the company doctor, would upbraid the parents for their idle son, and refute all objections by referring to the doctor, for whom there were only perfectly healthy but workshy patients. And who could say he was wrong, in this instance anyway? Aside from a continuing feeling of sleepiness that was quite unreasonable after such a long sleep, Gregor felt perfectly well, and even felt the stirrings of a healthy appetite.

As he was hurriedly thinking this, still no nearer to getting out of bed – the alarm clock was just striking a quarter to seven – there was a cautious knock on the door behind him. ‘Gregor,’ came the call – it was his mother – ‘it’s a quarter to seven. Shouldn’t you ought to be gone by now?’ The mild voice. Gregor was dismayed when he heard his own in response. It was still without doubt his own voice from before, but with a little admixture of an irrepressible squeaking that left the words only briefly recognizable at the first instant of their sounding, only to set about them afterwards so destructively that one couldn’t be at all sure what one had heard. Gregor had wanted to offer a full explanation of everything but, in these circumstances, kept himself to: ‘All right, thank you, Mother, I’m getting up!’ The wooden door must have muted the change in Gregor’s voice, because his mother seemed content with his reply, and shuffled away. But the brief exchange had alerted other members of the family to the surprising fact that Gregor was still at home, and already there was his father, knocking on the door at the side of the room, feebly, but with his fist. ‘Gregor, Gregor?’ he shouted, ‘what’s the matter?’ And after a little while, he came again, in a lower octave: ‘Gregor! Gregor!’ On the door on the other side of the room, meanwhile, he heard his sister lamenting softly: ‘Oh, Gregor? Are you not well? Can I bring you anything?’ To both sides equally Gregor replied, ‘Just coming’, and tried by careful enunciation and long pauses between the words to take any unusual quality from his voice. His father soon returned to his breakfast, but his sister whispered: ‘Gregor, please, will you open the door.’ Gregor entertained no thought of doing so; instead he gave silent thanks for the precaution, picked up on his travels, of locking every door at night, even at home.


Pocket Penguins
360° View