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The story opens with the first of three metamorphoses that take place in the plot, each in its own section. The first words of the story are intentionally simple and shocking: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from strange dreams, he found he had turned into a bug." This physical transformation is the first of the metamorphoses in the story and accomplishes three important purposes: it immediately engages the reader's attention, it sets the tone for the rest of the story, and it introduces the protagonist and his conflict.
The strangeness of the story is reinforced by the fact that the narrative tone does not reflect the absurdity of the situation, nor does the main character. The events are recounted by a passive, unimpressed narrator, who largely tries to stick to the facts. Gregor expresses no great shock and very little distress at his new appearance. Only in the beginning, when he expresses the thought of sleeping until the "nonsense" is forgotten, does he even remark on the strangeness of the situation. Otherwise, he seems to take in stride his dangling, waving legs, his hard outer shell, and the brown stuff that oozes from his soft underbelly when he scrapes against the door.
Although Gregor does not seem overly concerned about his metamorphosis into an insect, he is very concerned about being late to or absent from his job as a salesman. He has worked in the same ordinary, dull, impersonal firm for five years, never missing a day. He knows that the company doctor never believes employees when they call in sick, and if he is late to work, he is sure to be reprimanded by the boss. These thoughts worry Gregor, for he is very dependent on his job, even though he hates it. It is his responsibility to support the Samsa family as the sole breadwinner; he takes the responsibility very seriously.
It is quite obvious that Gregor's selfless commitment to both his family and his job is not properly reciprocated or even appreciated. When Gregor does not get up and go to work as usual, mother, father, and sister badger Gregor, scolding and admonishing him for still being in bed. No one seems to wonder or worry whether he is all right. When the chief clerk shows up, he also badgers and accuses Gregor, totally forgetting the fact that the salesman has not missed a single day in five years.
Kafka sets up a magnificent metaphor that is filled with irony in the image of a man-turned-bug. At the office, Gregor has slaved like a bee, been treated no better than a bug, and forced into an insect-like existence. The company does not value him as a person or an employee. Gregor knows this, but feels helpless to do anything about it. He is trapped like an insect into a miserable existence because his family is dependent on him. He foolishly believes that in the near future he will save enough money to leave his job and live as he wants. He fantasizes about leading a new and different life; ironically, his new life is to become a literal insect, not a symbolic one. In his insect image, Gregor becomes a metaphor for Kafka's view on the sad plight of humanity. Mankind is trapped by materialism and directed by commerce, alienated from and helpless against the controls of life.
With absurd and superhuman effort, Gregor struggles with his new existence. He worries how he will get dressed and catch the train to work, obviously not coming to grips with what he has become. He struggles in an effort to get out of bed, which is a most difficult task since his shell gets in the way and his many legs go out in all directions. He tries diligently to talk and be heard and realizes his sounds no longer make any sense, totally incomprehensible to anyone who hears them. With no hands, he cleverly works to use his body to open the locked door of his room, but it is not an easy task. Life as a bug is very difficult and meaningless.
Once Gregor allows others to see his new shape, he is immediately rejected. The chief clerk from the office runs away. Pathetically and irrationally, Gregor runs after him to plead for his job. His mother faints, and his father stares in disbelief, later hitting him with a stick and locking him in his room. The tragedy of this scene, and perhaps the entire story, is that Gregor hopes for understanding, even compassion, when he opens the door to reveal his new self. Instead, he is immediately rejected and alienated from the rest of humanity, who cannot tolerate change or difference. It is very significant that Kafka has chosen to change Gregor into the lowest form of earthly existence, the insect.
It is also important to notice Kafka's intentional use of time in this section. Like his entire life, Gregor's sense of human time is very ordered; since he has no future, he is very aware of and concerned about the present. Gregor makes exact reference to the hour in several places, always precise, almost exhausting. As a human, he sets his alarm for 4:00 a.m., expects to make the 5:30 train, and does not wake up until 6:30, which very quickly becomes 6:45. As an insect, he is unable to live his life with such precision. He must spend a long time trying to get out of bed and even longer in opening the door. Gregor is frustrated by this use of time. The significance of time becomes clearer in the next section when the boundaries from hour to hour begin to blur and Gregor's sense of time is as garbled as his insect voice. The loss of distinct time is yet another way in which Gregor Samsa becomes shut off from reality.