Realism vs. Fantasy in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis

 Tzvetan Todorov defines the “fantastic” genre of literature as a genre that refuses to be either completely “natural” or “supernatural” (197). It may be difficult for one to conjure up examples of this, especially in classical literature, because most classic works are starkly either based only in reality, or contain very obvious markers of the supernatural.

Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis cover

However, Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, while it fits more into the latter category than the former, gives such a nuanced picture and close narrative distance of the main character's mentality, that of his family members, and of the general family dynamic, that this novel can be classed as "fantastic" rather than as purely supernatural.

By no means does this novella qualify as realistic horror nonfiction, due to the very surreal premise, that the protagonist, Gregor, wakes up and finds he has been transformed into a giant beetle. The audience should have no trouble clarifying that this does not “[derive] from reality” (198), as Todorov says the fantastic genre does.

An oddly emotional work

However, The Metamorphosis manages to be an oddly emotional work, and I argue that the authenticity and preciseness with which Kafka renders this emotion can make the reader forget about the absurdity of Gregor being a beetle, and “hesitate” to write off the novella as horror for horror’s sake. 

Samuel Coleridge criticizes that type of horror extensively, saying it is without any “genius” or ingenuity. The Metamorphosis conforms to both Todorov’s definition of the fantastic, and Coleridge’s idea of highbrow literature, even if these writers would disagree.

Coleridge’s disdain of horror is centralized on his idea that “shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons” themselves, as subjects, make it impossible for horror to achieve depth. I would argue with this basis, as Kafka proves that any subject can be poignant, and also literary. 

Far from jumping to easy tricks like suspense and cheap thrills, Kafka spends the first six pages mostly expanding on Gregor’s ineffectual attempts to get out of bed in his new beetle body (11 – 16). Rather than discrediting The Metamorphosis as vulgar horror with the perception that Gregor is meant to frighten the reader, it is important to examine whether fright is the modus operandi, or whether his condition bears further examination.

The very irony of The Metamorphosis

In fact, there lies the very irony of The Metamorphosis: when Gregor’s family finds their son has become a beetle, they cannot overcome their initial, Coleridge-like repulsion, which leads to Gregor’s downfall.

Ideally, not only should the reader give Kafka’s novella a second chance before calling him one of the “multitude of the manufacturers” (Coleridge), but actually begin identifying with Gregor and Gregor’s own confusion about his strange plight. According to Todorov, this is another of the main tenets of the fantastic genre: the reader is stuck in the liminal space between believing the story to be natural vs. supernatural. 

Thus, the reader empathizes when one of the story’s characters voices the same “hesitation.” “The actual reader identifies himself with the character” (195). Gregor is an ideal example of such a character who hesitates between accepting natural vs supernatural explanations for his sudden condition; one second he is, as expected, going mad over this bizarre occurrence, and the next second he wonders if being a giant bug will prevent him from making the train to work on time (11 - 12).

Because of the absurdity of such a situation, Todorov may find The Metamorphosis too obviously fictitious to fall into the category of the more inconclusive “fantastical,” between fiction and reality. However, Kafka is a master of creating a realistic milieu, providing background on Gregor’s home and work life as a human, until the uncanniness of Gregor’s insect state is usurped by how easily the character can be identified with. “‘Mother, Mother,’ Gregor said softly, looking up at her…he couldn’t resist snapping at the air with his jaws…This made his mother scream again, dash away from the table” (Kafka 22 - 23).

Empathizing with Gregor

It is difficult for the reader to avoid empathizing with Gregor, even in such a surreal situation, and here is the crux of the fantastical, where oddities are reified by realistic emotion and the pity one feels for Gregor.

By marrying the natural and the supernatural together, into a tale that somewhat defies the horror genre but also becomes more nuanced in the process, Kafka meets the criteria set by both Coleridge and Todorov, for a “highbrow” piece of the fantastic genre. Kafka demonstrates how even if one includes “shrieks [and] murders,” and typically horrific subject matter, one can expand on this and form a portrait of the tragedy of the human condition, and how we can rectify this condition. 

When Gregor’s family exiles him and leaves him to die, Gregor, despite being a human, is still touchingly human, and does not harbor any ill will towards them: “He had pains all over his body, but he felt as if they were gradually getting milder and milder…He recalled his family with affection and love” (Kafka 49). 

If Coleridge would have been able to experience such a propitiating and complex horror character, no doubt he would have amended his harsh words about the apparently, without exception, lowbrow quality of certain subjects. Likewise, Todorov would concede that despite the surrealistic material of The Metamorphosis, the characterization is convincing enough that the audience still hesitates to call it supernatural, but instead, they will call it admiringly what it is: fantastic.


Coleridge, Samuel. "Review of The Monk. A Romance." Critical Review (1797). Print.

Kafka, Franz, and Stanley Appelbaum. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. New York: Dover

Publications, 1996. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cleveland: Press

of Case Western Reserve U, 1973. Print.