One of Kafka's most typical, most "Kafkaesque" works is the novella The Metamorphosis, in German called Die Verwandlung, one of the works Kafka did actually finish. It was written in 1912 and published in 1915.
The story is simple: a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, one morning wakes up in his bed at home - where he lives with his parents and sister, whom he in fact supports with his job - and finds that he has been transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature. The story never explains the why or how, but just gives this as a fact. The insect was, according to lepidopterist Nabokov, not a cockroach, but a big beetle, about three feet tall. Only half-awake, Gregor realizes his plight with a childish acceptance:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.
“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It wasn’t a dream.
The novella is divided into three chapters. The first chapter tells about the initial reactions, of Gregor himself, who has to get used to his insect state and learn to use his six small legs (and not stand erect like a human, which is now painful), of his deeply shocked family, and the head clerk of the company where he works. In fact, his fear of being late for work is greater than his shock of having been transformed into an insect. We are clearly dealing with strict and rule-based German-type culture here (although the setting is Prague, where Kafka was born and lived). Gregor may loose his job if he is late and that would be awful as he supports his whole family, even paying off his father's debts. But who else, from another culture, would worry about being late for work when one woke up as a beetle?
The family members, by the way, are true vulgarians, utter philistines in the Flaubertian sense. They are parasites exploiting Gregor, and he may well have grown his insect shield as protection against them. Their low nature is also shown when after the transformation, they soon return to normal daily life, shutting the bug up in his bedroom, instead of screaming for help (additionally, their attitude may be inspired by social shame).
The second part relates how a certain modus vivendi is found, as Gregor gets used to his insect body and his family feeds him (mainly the wrong things, but they don't care) and removes furniture from his room so that he can freely move around and climb the walls. But they don't want to see his ugly form, he is confined to his room, and usually hides under the sofa when his sister enters with his food, to spare her sensibilities (in contrast to the sweetly human insect Gregor, his "beloved sister" is not considerate at all, but increasingly antagonistic and cruel); his brutish father chases him back by throwing apples at him when he once comes out. The family members also have to take jobs for they can no longer sponge off the successful son. And in the third part this situation breaks down, and the family disintegrates, as three lucrative boarders, students, give notice because of Gregor's presence. The family, with the sister in the lead, wants to get rid of him, so he decides to die (he is already dying from starvation and the wound caused by one of the apples thrown at him) - to their great relief. Now they can look towards a new future, especially for the daughter, who seems sexually liberated by the death of her verminous brother.
The strictness of society is also clear in the way the family tries to keep appearances up to the outside, and the lack of love on the inside. They feed Gregor perfunctorily, but there is no attempt at communication with him, even not by the women. The father positively hates him. This reminded me of Effi Briest by Fontane (see my post about this novel), written two decades earlier, where Effi is not only kicked out of her home by her own husband after a six year old affair comes out, but where also her parents refuse to recognize her any longer.
Kafka has been interpreted in various heavy handed ways - for example, the absurdity in his works has been seen as emblematic of existentialism - so I was surprised to find that The Metamorphosis is in fact full of humor - it is quite joyful - and also infused by a spirit of conscious subversion: Kafka satirizes the strict rules of society, the way people try to keep up appearances to the very last, the coldness of the family that lives off the son but shuts him out after his misfortune and finally is glad he is dead... One could even see Gregor's transformation into an insect as symbolic of a nasty, terminal illness - and the cold way society treats people who have been thus stricken. Or as Nabokov says: "In [...] Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair. "
One final word about translating Die Verwandlung: Kafka writes a beautiful, idiomatic German, with long meandering sentences, so try to read it in the original of you can. Like Flaubert, whom he admired, Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author's private sentiments. It is very difficult to translate this style, and even individual words give problems. For example, Gregor has been transformed in what in German is called an "Ungeziefer," which not just an "insect" but has the connotation of "unclean."
Audiobook English and German.
Text of a Lecture on The Metamorphosis by Vladimir Nabokov (from The Kafka Project). Strongly recommended.
The Kafka project, an essential website with original texts (based on Kafka's manuscripts), translations, articles and essays plus Kafka's biography.
Christopher Plummer has made an interesting movie: The Metamorphosis - A Study: Nabokov on Kafka