Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

Estrin, Marc

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Nov-20-2003
  • Last revised: Dec-29-2009


In this novel, with the help of some friends, Gregor Samsa has survived his seeming death at the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and joined a freak show in Vienna. A little man named Amadeus Hoffnung, who suffers from Werner’s syndrome (premature aging), runs this Chamber of Wonders. The human sized cockroach proves to be a big hit with the public and a good friend for his assorted colleagues, who come to admire his optimism, compassion, and sense of social responsibility. Gregor thrives, except for the festering wound in his carapace (back) that will not heal--the wound made when his father threw an apple at him during his traumatic early life in "Metamorphosis" as a human-turned-insect.

In 1923, as a result of an life-changing encounter with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in the context of growing anti-Semitism in Central Europe, Gregor flies (literally) to New York, where he takes up residence and soon runs into Mr. Charles Ives, the composer and insurance executive, who gives him a job as an actuary. The novel describes Gregor’s subsequent adventures over the next 20 years--as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial, as the subject of Ives’s famous "Insect" Piano Sonata, and finally as the confidant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and member of his "brain trust." Along the way, Gregor contributes greatly to the science of risk analysis and management.

In 1943, at the president’s request, Gregor joins the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he serves as risk analyst and all-around moral questioner during the bomb’s development. Finally, Gregor Samsa, having survived 30 years as an insect, becomes physically ill as the old apple-infection turns to septicemia; and he becomes existentially ill, as he confronts the implications of nuclear warfare. He decides to commit suicide by placing himself among the instruments at Ground Zero of Trinity site, vaporizing in the explosion of the first atomic bomb; indeed, "Gregor’s was the most expensive assisted suicide in history." (p. 458)


Science fiction, fantasy, fable, or historical fiction? What sort of work is Insect Dreams? The novel has a filmic quality, and in its pseudo-historical narrative the book reminds me of Woody Allen’s "Zelig," and even more of Tom Hanks’s portrayal of "Forrest Gump," in which a fictional character finds himself repeatedly at the nexus of important historical figures and events. Like Forrest Gump, Gregor is an essentially good person who seeks to influence the world in a moral way. (Gregor, of course, is a genius, while Gump is mentally challenged.)

Gregor Samsa’s ethical rehabilitation project is complex. The fact that he is a 5-foot, 6-inch cockroach not only raises the issue of the moral worth of non-human species--Professor v1065v, where are you?--but it also showcases Gregor’s compassionate world-view. Here is a cockroach that has evidently achieved a higher level of moral consciousness than most of his human compatriots. Yet, to their credit, Gregor is accepted and befriended by many human beings, great and small, who are able to look beyond his antennae, carapace, and multiple legs in order to see his essential goodness. Over the years he certainly acquires an interesting array of friends, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Ives, Franklin Roosevelt, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Like Philoctetes’s festering wound in Sophocles’s drama of the same name [see annotation in this database], the wound that Gregor’s father inflicted in "Metamorphosis" never healed. Is this Original Wound, inflicted as a consequence of his utter separateness from his father, an affliction similar to Original Sin, which presumably was incurred by humankind’s decision to be separate from God? The wound eventually threatens Gregor’s life. There is no way he can be healed; he can never become what he was before his metamorphosis.

The autonomous cockroach’s decision to commit suicide in the conflagration at Trinity site is not a rejection of life--he is, after all, dying--but rather an affirmation of continuity and interconnectedness. He doesn’t die; he is simply transformed, as he muses, "from carbon to silicon" in the heat of the nuclear blast.


Bluehen Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count