Few writers are so famous that their names become adjectives. But in the case of Kafka, perhaps more than any other writer, that’s exactly what happened. While a name itself connotes a specific person and is as particular as the individual to which it refers, when turned into an adjective, it becomes broader in meaning, describing a whole, a feeling, an era, an atmosphere, a form, a kind of dream or a kind of nightmare. We all know what is meant when something is called “Kafkaesque,” even those who have never read Kafka. This is partly because writers who attain classic status become part of common knowledge. Kafka, then, is more than a writer: he is a breed of literature unto himself. And that literature contains an entire universe.
Classic writers also enjoy an enduring influence, one that allows them to remain contemporary and vital over time and in widely different contexts. In the case of Franz Kafka, there’s another factor in play: the power of his prophetic writing, which harnesses the primordial shape of what already exists while also anticipating what will come to be in the future.
All this helps explain the astonishing relevance of The Metamorphosis, which continues to present vital questions even after a century. The terrifying story of Gregor Samsa, who one day wakes up to discover he has turned into an huge insect, continues to have a startling impact, not just as if the protagonist’s predicament were a very real possibility, which would be bad enough, but even worse: that this transformation somehow has already happened to us.
Kafka’s writing – The Metamorphosis in particular – tends to lend itself to allegorical readings, symbolic interpretations and the search for abstract and metaphysical truths. But perhaps the most disturbing part of what we refer to as “Kafkaesque” is what comes across as material and concrete, what seems literal. Who hasn’t felt like a huge bug? Who hasn’t seen themselves as monstrous? Who hasn’t felt trapped inside his own body? Who hasn’t felt different from everyone else and thus utterly alone?
The Metamorphosis continues to move readers after a century because of how Kafka is able to evoke inhumanity, the cruelty of the family and the isolation of those who suffer. And so we know that this story will continue to resonate for hundreds of years to come.