- John Gaines
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is a short story about Gregor Samsa, a salesman who wakes up one day to find himself turned into a large insect. It is a grim tale of social alienation that is frequently considered one of the most depressing short stories ever written. How could any writer possibly expand such a profoundly melancholy text into a novel-length adaptation? Quirk Classics, the specialty publisher behind such “revised” versions of classic texts as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina, has attempted this with The Meowmorphosis, an adaptation of “The Metamorphosis” that has Gregor turning into a human-sized kitten rather than a bug. Although perhaps still too grim for some tastes, The Meowmorphosis does provide an interesting take on social alienation and a clever satire on Kafka’s writing technique.
The early chapters of Meowmorphosis are confined to the apartment where GregorSamsa’s family lives, giving the reader a chance to learn about his job and life before he became a kitten and how his “human” mind reacts to his predicament. His early struggles with opening the door without opposable thumbs and his family’s shocked reaction to his transformation are written in a much more comedic style than Kafka’s original text. Also, the illustrations by Matthew Richardson of a kitten in stereotypical human clothing are more funny than disturbing. But as Gregor is locked in a room and fed (and cuddled) by his sister, his sense of alienation and self-disgust give way to a cat’s innate desire for adventure, freedom, and whatever meat he can find. Particularly amusing are the vivid descriptions given of Gregor’s hatred of the vegetables and cakes he once enjoyed, as he turns up his nose at them in favor of moldy old kippers and scraps of meat.
The best segment of The Meowmorphosis is its middle portion, where Gregor escapes his family’s apartment and wanders throughout Prague, learning the ways of a street cat and seeking food and shelter. Soon he finds a colony of once-human giant cats ruled by the tabby Josef K., who had worked in a bank when he was human. As Gregor is given an incomprehensible trial and learns the bizarre rules of cat civilization, many humorous references to Kafka’s original work are made. One chapter begins with a variant on the “Someone must have slandered Josef K.” line from Kafka’s novel The Trial. The tabby Josef K. describes the trial he faced as a human over crimes he didn’t understand, and “Franz,” another human turned cat, tells his own story of once being an unhappy novelist to Gregor. The book’s description of the scents and sounds involved in cat communication—a level of sensory perception humans cannot comprehend—are fascinating to read and show that the author has spent a great deal of time with cats and has excellent psychological and scientific insight into them.
However, the final segment of The Meowmorphosis, in which Gregor returns to live with his depressing human family, is considerably less interesting than the parts of the novel that preceded it. It echoes most of the living conditions that the Gregor-insect faced in the original “Metamorphosis,” as the Gregor-cat faces squalid living conditions, neglect, and starvation with his family. The cowardly and insect-like nature of the original Gregor made sense for this condition, as he was too isolated and depressed to consider leaving his family. But a cat is rarely a true coward; most cats enjoy leaving their owners’ houses frequently to go on adventures. The reader may wonder why Cook didn’t simply devise a new ending where Gregor decides to embrace the lonely but daring life of a solitary cat and leave the depressing confines of humanity, and Prague itself, behind entirely.
After all, William Blake’s poem reads “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/in the forests of the night”, not “Tyger, Tyger, skulking around some city.” If a writer opts to use a cat as a symbol, at least let it live up to the empowering symbolism that people associate with the animal. Cook’s inability to incorporate the noble and empowering aspects of the cat into the inherently depressing nature of Kafka’s original texts is a failure of imagination and one aspect in which the Quirk Classics adaptation was too faithful to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to truly thrive as its own text. But such are the limits of Quirk Classics, which always tend to lean too heavily on the public domain novels from which they are adapted. The Meowmorphosis is still an entertaining read for those who have been fascinated by Kafka and will enjoy the many nods, both obvious and subtle, to his literary career.