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Kafka: The Longing for Home (critical essay)

A Journey into the Psychology of Desire.


This essay was written in 2001 for the MA Comparative Literature program at the University of Iceland.

‘The ego creates, autocratically, a new external and internal world; and there can be no doubt of two facts - that this new world is constructed in accordance with the id’s wishful impulses, and that the motive of this dissociation from the external world is some very serious frustration by reality of a wish - a frustration which seems intolerable. The close affinity of this psychosis to normal dreams is unmistakable. A precondition of dreaming, moreover, is a state of sleep, and one of the features of sleep is a complete turning away from perception and the external world.’     Sigmund Freud 1

It is extremely tempting for a reader of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to suggest that Gregor Samsa has dreamt an extraordinarily realistic dream. He wakes as a bug, a hard-backed, human-scaled, many-legged insect and on top of it all is late for work. Though Kafka’s opening sentence tells of Gregor waking from troubled dreams, this transformation is not so ethereal. The reader is told emphatically it was no dream. Gregor’s room is as real as it was before he retired and its four walls are still meant for human habitation. Yet there is a hint that had he gone back to sleep and “forgot all this foolishness,” he might have been able to catch the seven o’clock train as a real human Gregor. But Kafka chooses to not let his protagonist off so easily. Gregor cannot return to his sleep and bug he will remain. The reader is left to journey into the odd, dissociated world of a troubled man.

Who though is the man to whom we refer? Gregor Samsa is, after all, a character in another man’s story.  And though it is tempting to dismiss the unreality of the story’s premise as dream, in the end the supposed dreamer dies while the narrative continues.  The implication then is that this is Kafka’s personal excursion into his own frustrations and secret wishes. And in fact Kafka did not dispute parallels between himself and his most famous character. 

Geoffrey Hartman’s  describes, in his essay The interpreter’s Freud, a kind of writers affliction which demands that one’s most intimate hopes, fears and desires become words on a page and this seems more than aptly applied to Franz Kafka.  Hartman mentions of Coleridge’s “racing thoughts,” he notes Flaubert’s sense of an “onset of madness,” thus reminding us that writing is, for some, the primal path into the subconscious.   “Literary analysis, like Freud’s dream analysis, does no more and no less than disclose a life in images or words that has its own momentum.”2  Here Hartman allows an initial platform from which to dive into the complexities of Metamorphosis.  Samsa is Kafka and his travails are the author’s  own.  Hartman asks whether there isn’t “a link between writing and grieving such that writing can be shown to assist those Herculean psychic labors Freud described for us, whose aim is to detach us from the lost object and reattach us to the world?”  Gregor Samsa, then, mutates, detaches and dies so that Kafka’s unconscious can be freed of some personal weight unknown to us.   Within that frame we can examine the story not only as an odd fantasy but as a written expression of a personal therapy. 

Jacques Lacan wrote that “beyond what we call ‘the word,’ what the psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious is the whole structure of language.” 3 Gregor Samsa wakes from troubled dreams as a large bug but does not realize the magnitude of his alteration until he finds himself unable to communicate with his concerned family. “Gregor was frightened when he heard his own answering voice…his words retained their clarity at the very outset but became distorted as they faded away.” Soon he is not able to communicate at all.

This loss of human speech is the crux of his great problem as an insect. Ferdinand de Saussure, the renowned Swiss linguist, identified language as having “an individual aspect and a social aspect. One is not conceivable without the other.”4 With his loss of speech, of any ability to communicate with his family Gregor’s split begins. He is able to think with human rationality and even human emotions and as such retains a sense of individuality. However, denied any way to relay his thoughts he loses the social aspect of language, thus making it virtually redundant.

Saussure suggests that “In all cases of aphasia what is affected is not so much the ability to utter…this or that, but the ability to produce in any given mode signs corresponding to normal language.” It is not merely a muteness which overcomes Gregor but a complete inability to form distinct verbal signs recognizable to human society. An important question then is why Kafka would remove his alter-ego’s faculty of speech. How far a stretch is it, if one is creating a human-scale anthropomorphized beetle, to give it the ability to talk?

An answer lies in Gregor’s psychic life prior to the transformation. He is a traveling salesman. His livelihood and that of his family depend as much on the fabric samples he hawks as on his ability to communicate their worth. Salesmen must talk. Gregor describes “intercourse with people that constantly changes, never lasts, never becomes cordial.” He has already shut down his vocalization at home as his mother explains to the chief clerk: “he never goes out at night…he sits with us at the table and reads the paper quietly or studies timetables.” In this declaration one can sense the frustration which Gregor tries to bury for the sake of his family. He spends an eight-day home-stay in silence and an obsessive perusing of travel schedules. The only way out for him is an absolute inability to communicate. His convenient morph into an insect is not a “slight indisposition” which he can overcome.

Here we have an aspect of Freud’s intolerable frustration and its resulting dissociation, or splitting, which is described as a “defense mechanism by which a mental structure loses its integrity and becomes replaced by two or more part-structures.” In the case of Gregor Samsa, the fictionalized world in which he lives allows him the freedom to not only split mentally but in physical fact as well. Kafka, bound by the physics of our world, did not have this luxury.

In the opening quote Freud notes that sleep, as a precondition to dreaming, is necessary but also that it is closely tied to psychosis. Normal dreaming allows one to process neurotic data, bypassing the censorious ego, which would otherwise keep one awake with its troubling content. Dreams therefore function as sedative and through hallucinatory images reveal our deepest wishes. One of the physiological preconditions of dreams, of course, is that they are primarily a visual and not verbal process.5 The psychotherapist’s job is to reveal the underlying frustrations and wishes in a verbal form, translating by talk therapy the elements of dreams which creep into ego’s awareness, disturbing normal social functioning and leading to neurosis or psychosis.

Sleep is something Gregor Samsa does not get enough of and this lack, he avers, “makes you totally idiotic.” He rises before dawn each work day, possibly cutting off crucial time which his unconscious needs to create visual images out of all which he cannot vocalize. He is not only (socially) mute then but psychologically as well. He admits to “crazed pangs of conscience” about oversleeping but there must be more to his guilt than simply missing a few hours of work. Perhaps, as the chief clerk intimates, he harbors fears of being apprehended for the theft of missing receipts but this theory is never expanded on in the story and is left at mere speculation.

On the other hand Gregor’s sleep issues may tell of a deeper need. “Although Freud’s own writings take sleep for granted…Lewin and others suggests that is may itself have a psychopathology deriving from an unconscious equation of sleep with fusion with the breast (primary identification with the mother).”5 Having taken the role of provider of the household, Gregor Samsa enjoys all the pride which the responsibility gives him. His father, once a strong man, is able to soften into old age, eating leisurely breakfasts in his bathrobe. His mother, a sufferer of asthma, need not exert herself for Gregor is able to hire a cook. His sister wears pretty clothes, ribbons, and is able to delve into the musical arts. He is not, however, able to truly become the man of the house. His mother is still his father’s wife. And so his metamorphosis becomes as well the ultimate solution to his frustrations as a man.

Jacques Lacan, psychoanalyst and literary theorist, suggests that beyond Ferdinand de Saussure’s identification of the signifier and signified in linguistic structure, there exists a kind of free-play in word meaning which gives language a life of its own. Saussure’s concept involves, as Lacan puts it, “a placement of the signifier and the signified [in] distinct orders” where the name and the thing it represents are related by a barrier which resists signification but nonetheless connects the two. Lacan chooses to evolve this basic premise by introducing the idea that a signifier (name, word) can have multiple meanings and how “in fact the signifier intrudes into the signified [and] raises the very question of its place in reality.”

He advances this theme into the realm of psychoanalysis: “Freud shows us in every possible way that the image’s value as signifier has nothing whatever to do with what it signifies.”  Given that we are examining Metamorphosis as an extension of Franz Kafka’s unconscious, the images presented in the story have signifying value for the reader who functions as analyzer to Kafka’s analysee.  Thus the reader, when introduced to the signifier “Gregor Samsa,” must identify just what it signifies.  He is met in the form of a bug and we are asked to believe that he is in fact a large, brown, shelled insect , not simply a sick young man.  Gregor/signifier then equals bug/signified.  Yet as early as the fourth paragraph Gregor Samsa reveals a thought process distinct to humans as he complains about the hardships of business life.  Gregor/signifier must also equal man/signified.  The reader’s image of Gregor has then very little to do with what Gregor signifies.  Entering the narrative, we find that the Samsa family is faced with the same illogic. 

It can be suggested that for Gregor’s mother he remains, post-transformation, man or more specifically, son.  Her image of what Gregor means remains fixed on the concept of what he was and to what he will one day return.  “Let me in to Gregor; after all, he’s my poor son!” she pleads.  She speaks in a soft voice when in his (unseen) presence, perhaps aware, as Gregor is, that her “gentle voice” will pain him by reinforcing his terrible situation.  She is mother, home, comfort, the voice which calls softly from the door beside his head the lateness of the hour as he lays prone in bed, tiny legs waving frenetically in the air.  “Mother, mother,” are the last words he attempts to speak before he is engulfed in his mute world.

And it is milk, once his favorite drink, which reemphasizes his change; he is disappointed in its taste.  

His longing for the comforts of home, to sleep late, dine well, be his mother’s son once more instead of the diligent employee, perhaps his  infantile longing to suckle carelessly at her breast, all this he has repressed to the point of psychosis and mutation.  And now, though he may sleep all he wants and is fed by family hands, he is farther than ever from realizing his secret wishes.  His mother, seeing him suctioned to his bedroom wall, faints.  When she recovers she begs Gregor’s father to spare his life but it is at that moment that she fully gives him up.  “She rushed upon the father and, embracing him, in absolute union with him - at this point all went dark for Gregor - with her hands behind the father’s head, she begged him to spare Gregor’s life.”  She sacrifices her personal relationship to her son, fuses once again with her husband as they were before the competing son entered their world, to spare his life.  Gregor/signifier retains its simplified meaning of son and though an awful creature resides in his room, there is no sense that she accepts a broader definition of his name. 

Gregor’s father, however, from the moment he sees the alteration adapts his form of Gregor/signifier to mean only bug.  Within moments of Gregor’s advance from his room his father adopts a technique of intimidation often seen in the animal world.  He enlarges himself with the aid of a walking stick and newspaper and attempts to frighten Gregor in, what the father supposes, is a close approximation of his own language, an “unbearable hissing.”  He succeeds in driving Gregor back into his room, his noises “no longer anything like the voice of merely one father.”  He has grown, he is now Freud’s Primal Father, not just dominant male but he who speaks with the voice of all fathers throughout history. 

Though Gregor has had a five-year-long stint as provider of the family, his father is still the more powerful of the two of them.  Furthermore, it is Gregor’s deep resentment of his obligation to pay his father’s debts which, repressed, have brought him to the truly low state in which he’s in.  To top all that, this man with whom he must compete for his mother’s affection and even his sister’s future (father disliking the idea of a musical education) is able to return to a semblance of his former power by returning to work in a gold-buttoned uniform.  “Was this…the same man who would lie wearily, buried in his bed, when Gregor used to “move out smartly” on a business trip?”  Gregor’s repressed Oedipal longings have sabotaged his hopes of taking his father’s place, forever.

It is only Gregor’s sister, his alter ego Grete, the child who remains safely ensconced in the home, who is able to interpret Gregor as signifying both man and bug.  She treats him kindly, feeding him and even attempting to tidy is room.  Yet it is in a decidedly naïve way.  She throws a fit when her responsibility as caretaker is usurped by her mother’s cleaning of Gregor’s room.  Her actions are like those of a youngster with a first pet; though he is decidedly a creature needing upkeep, she is able to sentimentalize him enough to call him by his name and even express anger toward him (‘ “Just wait, Gregor! called the sister with raised fists and piercing glances.’) It is almost as if she takes pleasure in powering over her older brother.  Through the managing of Gregor she gains an authority in the household which as the youngest and as a female she would not otherwise have gained.  

Finally, though, the effort is too much for her. ‘ “Dear parents,” the sister said, striking the table with her hand by way of preamble, “we can’t go on like this…In front of this monstrous creature I refuse to pronounce my brother’s name…we have to try to get rid of it.” ‘  With this declaration Grete not only denounces her brother but removes his sole tie to his former identity, his name.  By refusing to speak his name she has excised him from their community, for as Saussure notes, the act of speech “requires at least two individuals: without this minimum the circuit would not be complete.”  Furthermore, she has refused the signifier.  Gregor signifies nothing.

Metamorphosis is loaded with symbolism and a true, deep analysis of its language could reveal more than Kafka probably ever thought he knew of himself.  It could easily be pulled apart and rephrased in the dark, kakangelic language which Hartman accuses Freud of miring in.  One could, for instance, examine the meaning of the framed advertisement of the girl with her muff-encased arm, seeing in it references to sexual organs, a desire for return to the womb, or even of a desire to wear women’s clothing.  

A detailed examination could be made into the recurring dark brown liquid and it’s relation Gregor’s mouth inciting a possible reference to oral fixation, a halting of childhood development at the oral biting stage which is especially apt in this instance since it is linked to mother-fixation and a tendency toward manic and depressive behavior.  Gregor bites the key to turn it, to bring him closer to his mother causing the  brown liquid to issue from his mandibles and later snaps at the coffee which his mother has upset. 

Forays could also be made into the innuendoes of the chief clerk’s speeches, the view outside his window, the cleaning lady (who in my opinion is a giant, functional insect herself, a bony preying mantis who sees Gregor as nothing more than what he now is: “beetle,” and who takes care of his remains by…eating them perhaps?), the three lodgers and the violin (a link to his soul?)  

Also of immense interest is the recurrence of the number three after Gregor’s death.  He slips away as the clock chimes three a.m., it is the third month of the year, the three lodgers are forced to leave by the three family members linked arm-in-arm. They then sit to write three letters to their three employers and are interrupted by the cleaning lady’s departure.  “So long, one and all!” she cries and at least in the English translation we are thus given the key.  This trinity is at long last united into a single family without the jarring involvement of a son competing for the love of his mother, the dependence of his sister, and the subjugation of his  father. 

Much could also be made with the theoretical materials provided by Freud, Lacan, Saussure, Hartman and others.   Lacan writes, “So, it is between the signifier the form of the proper name of a man, and the signifier which metaphorically abolishes him that the poetic spark is produced…and reproduces the mythic event in terms of which Freud reconstructed the progress, in the individual unconscious, of the mystery of the father.”  In this case the signifier Gregor is both the proper name of a man and the thing which this man becomes, the thing which destroys him.  And though Metamorphosis is often described as an uncomfortable read it does produce that spark which leads us to reexamine our human relation to the world around us.

Maria Alva Roff



Freud, Sigmund, On Psychopathology; Pelican Books, 1979

Hartman, Geoffrey, “The Interpreter’s Freud,” Modern Criticism and Theory; edited by David Lodge; Pearson Education Limited, 1988

Lacan, Jacques, “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Modern Criticism and Theory; edited by David Lodge; Pearson Education Limited, 1988

Saussure, Ferdinand de, “The Object of Study,” Modern Criticism and Theory; edited by David Lodge; Pearson Education Limited, 1988

Rycroft, Charles, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis; Penguin Books 1968

Also referenced:

      Gay,Peter, Freud, A Life for Our Time; Papermac Publishing, 1988

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