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by Franz Kafka
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
As this might be the most famous 'existentialist' or 'surrealist' novel, explanation is neither possible or necessary.
One morning, as Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a very large creepy-crawly. He lay on his armour-like back, and lifting his head a little, he could see his belly, brown and divided into stiff sections. His many, pitifully thin, legs waved about helplessly.
"What has happened to me?" he thought. It wasn't a dream. This was his room, a proper human room although a little small, and there was his collection of textile samples, for Samsa was a travelling salesman. Gregor looked out the window at the grey skies. "Perhaps I might I sleep a little longer and forget all this nonsense". What about if he reported sick? But that would be extremely suspicious, Gregor had never once been ill in his fifteen years of service
There was a gentle knock at the door. "Gregor", - it was his mother - "it's quarter to seven. Didn't you want to go somewhere?" Gregor wanted to explain everything, but in the circumstances contented himself with saying: "Yes, mother, yes, thank-you."
It was a simple matter for him to throw off the bed covers. But, after that, it became rather difficult, especially as he had become so exceptionally wide. He would have used his arms and his hands to push himself up, but instead of them he only had all those little legs, forever moving in different directions. He wanted to get out of the bed, but he had never yet seen the lower part of his new body, and it turned out to be rather hard to move; it went so slowly; he bounced against the bedpost, and learned from the burning pain that the new body might well be rather sensitive.
"Seven o'clock, already", he said to himself when the clock struck. But then he said, "Before it strikes quarter past, I'll definitely have to be out of bed. And by then somebody will have come round from work to ask what's happened to me." And so he set himself to the task of swinging his body out of the bed. His back seemed to be pretty tough, so might well withstand falling onto the carpet. He would have to just risk the loud noise it would make.
It occurred to him how simple everything would be if somebody came to help, perhaps his father and the maid. After a while he had worked so far across the bed that a simple rocking motion was ready to dislodge him.
Then there was a ring at the door of the flat. "That'll be someone from work", he said to himself, and froze very still, although his little legs became all the more lively as they danced around. Gregor only needed to hear the visitor's first words and he knew who it was - the chief clerk himself.
There was a loud thump, and his fall was softened a little by the carpet. Gregor's back was more elastic than he had thought. "Something's fallen down in there", said the chief clerk whose footsteps in his highly polished boots could now be heard in the adjoining room. "Gregor", said his father from the room to his left, "please open up this door. I'm sure he'll be good enough to forgive the untidiness of your room." Then the chief clerk called "Good morning, Mr. Samsa". "He isn't well", said his mother. "Mrs. Samsa", said the chief clerk, "I hope it's nothing serious. But, you know, we business people do have to try and overcome these little things." "Can the chief clerk come in to see you now?", asked his father. "No", said Gregor. In the room on his left his sister Grete began to cry.
The chief clerk now raised his voice, "Mr. Samsa", he called, "what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, your employer did suggest that your failure to appear might not be unconnected with the money that was recently entrusted to you - but I doubt that that could be right." "Sir", called Gregor, "I'm just getting out of bed. It's not as easy as I'd thought. No need to wait, sir; I'll be in the office soon". "Did he understand a word of that?" the chief clerk asked his parents. "Oh, God!" called his mother, in tears, "he could be seriously ill."
But Gregor had become much calmer. So they couldn't understand his words any more, although they seemed clear enough to him, it had become very quiet in the next room. Perhaps his parents were whispering with the chief clerk, or perhaps they were pressed against the door, listening.
Gregor slowly pushed his way over to the door, using the adhesive on the tips of his legs. He then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock with his mouth. He seemed, unfortunately, to have no proper teeth.
"Listen", said the chief clerk in the next room, "he's turning the key." Gregor was greatly encouraged, though would have preferred "Well done, Gregor". Then he lay his head on the handle of the door, and opened it.
He heard the chief clerk exclaim a loud "Oh!", like a sigh of the wind. Gregor's mother looked at his father, then she sank onto the floor into her skirts. His father clenched his fists. Then he looked uncertainly round the living room. Gregor leant against the inside of the other door, so that only half of his body could be seen, along with his head. "Well, then", said Gregor, aware that he was the only one to have kept calm, "I'll get dressed straight away."
But the chief clerk turned away as soon as Gregor started to speak, and only stared back at him over his trembling shoulders as he left. Gregor realised that it was out of the question to let the chief clerk go away in this mood if his position in the firm was not to be put into extreme danger. That was something his parents simply did not understand, they had become convinced that this job would provide for Gregor for life. The chief clerk had to be calmed, convinced and finally won over; the future of Gregor and his family depended on it!
The chief clerk had already reached the stairs when Gregor made a run for him; he wanted to be sure of reaching him; but the chief leapt down several steps at once and disappeared; his shouts resounding all around the staircase. Gregor's appeals to his father were of no help. His appeals were simply not understood.
Now nothing would stop Gregor's father as he drove him back, hissing at him like a wild man. Gregor was as yet unskilled in moving backwards and was only able to go very slowly. If Gregor had only been allowed to turn round he would have been back in his room quite quickly, but his father seemed impatient. He lay at an angle in the doorway, one flank scraped on the door and was painfully injured, leaving vile brown flecks behind. Then his father gave him a hefty shove from behind which sent him flying, and heavily bleeding, deep into his room. The door was slammed shut with the stick, then, all was quiet.
It was not until that evening that Gregor awoke from his deep sleep. The light from the electric street lamps shone palely here and there onto the ceiling and glistened on the furniture, but down below, where Gregor was, it was dark. He pushed himself over to the door, feeling his way clumsily with his antennae - of which he was now beginning to learn the value. One of the legs had been badly injured in the events of that morning, and dragged along lifelessly.
By the door he discovered a bowl filled with sweetened milk with little pieces of bread floating in it. He was even hungrier than he had been that morning, so immediately dipped in. but the milk did not taste nice. Milk was normally his favourite drink, and his sister had certainly left it there for him because of that. But he turned away from the dish and crawled back into the centre of the room.
He spent the whole night there, barely sleeping from fear and hunger. He knew, however, that he must remain calm, show patience and consideration so that his family could bear the unpleasantness of his condition. Gregor soon had the opportunity to test the strength of his decisions.
Early next morning his sister opened the door and looked anxiously in. Gregor pushed his head forward to the edge of the couch, and watched. His sister noticed the full dish and immediately picked it up - using a rag, not her bare hands - and carried it out. Gregor never could have guessed what his sister, in her goodness, actually did bring. She brought him a whole selection of things, spread out on an old newspaper. Half-rotten vegetables, bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce gone hard, raisins and almonds and some cheese that Gregor himself had declared inedible two days before. She poured some water into the dish, and placed it beside them. Then, out of consideration for Gregor's feelings, she hurried out.
Gregor's little legs whirred, at last he could eat. "Am I less sensitive than I used to be, then?", he thought, sucking greedily at the cheese which, almost compellingly, attracted him much more than the other foods. His eyes watering with pleasure, he consumed the cheese, the vegetables and the sauce. The fresh foods, on the other hand, he found not to his taste at all.
From now on Gregor received his food once in the morning while his parents and the maid were still asleep, and again after everyone had eaten their meal at midday As nobody could understand him, not even his sister, though he could understand them, he had to be content to hear his sister's sighs and appeals to the saints as she moved about his room.
Gregor would sometimes catch a friendly comment, "He's enjoyed his dinner today", or if he left most of it, which was becoming more frequent, she would say, sadly, "Everything's just been left again".
Although Gregor wasn't able to hear any news directly, he did listen to what was said in the next rooms. All the talk was about what they should do now, and how the maid had fallen to her knees and begged Gregor's mother to let her go without delay. She left within a quarter of an hour, tearfully thanking Gregor's mother for her dismissal as if she had done her an enormous service. She even swore emphatically not to tell anyone about what had happened.
For the first fourteen days, Gregor's parents could not bring themselves to come into the room to see him. His father and mother would wait outside the door while his sister tidied up, and as soon as she went out she would tell them how everything looked, how Gregor had behaved and whether any improvement could be seen. His mother wanted to go in and visit Gregor relatively soon but his father and sister persuaded her against it.
Out of consideration for his parents, Gregor tried to avoid being seen at the window during the day. But it was hard to just lie quietly, so, to entertain himself, he took to crawling up and down the walls and ceiling. He especially liked hanging from the ceiling- his body had a swing to it up there, he was almost happy. Now, of course, he had far better control of his body.
Soon his sister noticed the traces of the adhesive from his feet as he crawled about - and thought to make it as easy as possible for him by removing the furniture- not something that she could do by herself, but she did not dare ask for help from her father. So she had no choice but to choose some time when Gregor's father was absent, and fetch mother to help.
First, his sister came in and looked round to see that everything in the room was alright, and only then did she let her mother enter. Gregor hurriedly pulled a sheet over himself, and refrained from spying out from under it. The old chest of drawers was too heavy for a pair of feeble women, and Gregor listened as they pushed it. Did he really want his room transformed into a cave? They were taking away everything that was dear to him. So, while the women were catching their breath, he sallied out, not knowing what he should save first, until his attention was caught by the picture on the wall. He hurried up and pressed himself against its glass. This picture at least, now totally covered by Gregor, would certainly be taken away by no-one.
Then there was someone at the door, his father had arrived home. "What's happened?" were his first words. Sister Grete's appearance must have made everything clear, " Gregor got out." "Ah!", he shouted as he came in, both angry and glad at the same time. Gregor ran up to his father, stopped when his father stopped, scurried forwards again when he moved, even slightly. In this way they went round the room several times without anything decisive happening, until something rolled in front of him. It was an apple, then another one. Gregor froze in shock. His father had filled his pockets with fruit from the bowl on the sideboard and now threw one apple after another. One glanced against Gregor's back without doing any harm. Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in his body.
No-one dared to remove the apple lodged in Gregor's flesh, so it remained there for more than a month. Because of his injuries, he was now reduced to the condition of an ancient invalid - crawling over the ceiling was out of the question. But this deterioration, he thought, was fully made up for by the door to the living room now being left open in the evenings.
He got into the habit of lying in the darkness of his room to listen to their evening conversation - with everyone's permission, in a way, and so quite differently from before.
Who, in this tired and overworked family, would have had time to give attention to Gregor? The household budget was now considerably shrunken, so the maid was dismissed, to be replaced each morning and evening by an enormous, thick-boned charwoman. Gregor even learned that several items of family jewellery had been sold. But the loudest complaint was that although the flat was much too big for their present circumstances, they could not move out, there being no imaginable way of transferring Gregor to a new address.
He hardly slept at all, either night or day. Gregor's sister no longer thought about how she could please him but would hurriedly push some food or other into his room with her foot before she rushed out to work in the morning. She still cleared up the room in the evening, but now smudges of dirt were left on the walls, and here and there were little balls of dust and fluff. Gregor's mother did once thoroughly clean his room, using buckets of water, but the dampness made Gregor ill. Gregor's sister was exhausted from going out to work, and looking after Gregor was even more work for her.
Just by chance one day, the charwoman opened the door to Gregor's room and found herself face to face with him. He was taken entirely by surprise, and began to rush to and fro while she just stood there in amazement. From then on she never failed to open the door slightly every evening and morning and look briefly in on him. At first she would call to him with words that she probably considered friendly, such as " Hey! old dung-beetle!". If only they had told this charwoman to clean up his room instead of just disturbing him!
By now Gregor had almost entirely stopped eating. If he happened to find himself next to the food he might take some of it into his mouth to play with it, leave it there a few hours and then, more often than not, spit it out again.
They had got into the habit of putting things into this room that they had no place for anywhere else, and there were now many such things- for one of the other rooms had been rented out to three gentlemen with full beards. And then the charwoman, being always in a hurry, would just chuck anything she couldn't use in there. At first he moved the stuff about, because he was forced to, to make some space for himself. But later he came to enjoy it, though the exercise left him immobile, sad and tired to death for hours afterwards.
The new gentlemen would take their evening meal up at the table where, formerly, Gregor had taken his meals with his family, who now ate in the kitchen. And above all the noises of eating Gregor could still hear their chewing teeth, as if they wanted to show Gregor that you need teeth to eat and it was not possible to perform anything with jaws that are toothless however nice they might be. "I'd like to eat something", said Gregor anxiously, "but not anything like they're eating."
Throughout all this time, Gregor could not remember having heard the violin being played, but this evening it began to be heard from the kitchen. Hearing, too, the middle gentleman said, "Would the young lady like to come and play for us here in the room?" "Oh yes, we'd love to", Gregor's father called back. His sister began to play, and, drawn in by the playing, Gregor dared to come forward, pushing his head a little into the living room. No-one noticed him. Yet Gregor's sister was playing so beautifully, so Gregor crawled a little further forward, keeping his head close to the ground so that he could meet her eyes if the chance came.
"Mr. Samsa!", shouted the middle gentleman, pointing with his forefinger. The violin went silent, the middle of the three gentlemen first smiled at his two friends, shook his head, and then looked back at Gregor. His father rushed up to the gentlemen, his arms spread out and attempted to drive them back into their room, while trying to block their view of Gregor with his body. Gregor's father forgot all the respect he owed to his tenants, and the middle gentlemen shouted like thunder and stamped his foot, "I give immediate notice on my room". His two friends joined in. With that, he took hold of the door handle and slammed the door.
Gregor's father staggered back to his seat. "Father, Mother", said his sister, banging the table, "we can't carry on like this. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all anyone could to look after it. No one could accuse us of doing anything wrong."
"My child", said her father with sympathy, "what are we to do? If he could just understand us, but as it is..."
"It's got to go", shouted his sister. "We've got to rid ourselves of the idea that that's Gregor. If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it's not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will. But this animal is persecuting us, it's driven out our tenants, and now it clearly want to drive us out onto the streets."
But Gregor had had no wish to cause fear, least of all to his sister. He concentrated on crawling as fast as he could until he had reached the doorway to his room. He was hardly inside before the door was shut and locked. "What now, then?", Gregor asked himself as he looked round in the darkness. If it was possible, he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.
When the cleaner came in early in the morning she poked at him a little, and only when she found she could shove him across the floor with no resistance at all did she start to pay attention. She soon realised what had happened; "Come and 'ave a look at this, it's dead, just lying there, stone dead!"
Mr. and Mrs. Samsa sat upright there in their marriage bed. Mr. Samsa threw a blanket over his shoulders, Mrs. Samsa just came out in her nightdress; and that is how they went into Gregor's room. On the way they opened the door to the living room where Grete had been sleeping since the three gentlemen had moved in, she was already fully dressed, her face as pale as one who has not slept. "Dead?", asked Mrs. Samsa. "That's what I said", replied the cleaner, and to prove it she gave Gregor's body another shove with the broom, sending it sideways across the floor.
They decided that they were in serious need of relaxation. So they sat at the table and wrote three letters of excusal, Mr. Samsa to his employers, Mrs. Samsa to her contractor and Grete to her principal. The cleaner came in while they were writing to say "That thing in there, you needn't worry about how you're going to get rid of it. That's all been sorted out." Mr. Samsa saw that the cleaner wanted to start describing everything in detail but, with outstretched hand, he made it quite clear that she was not to. So, she called out "Cheerio, everyone", turned round and left, slamming the door fiercely as she went.
After that, the three of them left the flat together, which was something they had not done for months, and took the tram out to the open country outside the town. They had the tram, filled with warm sunshine, all to themselves. All the time, Grete was becoming livelier. With all the worry they had been having of late her cheeks had become pale, but, while they were talking, Mr. and Mrs. Samsa were struck, almost simultaneously, with the thought of how their daughter was blossoming into a well built and beautiful young lady.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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