Things could hardly get much worse for Joseph. The family business is being liquidated. The former servant girl is rumored to be dead after the boat carrying her to America sinks. Depressed Uncle Charles suddenly decides to move in and then refuses to ever leave the apartment. Worst of all, Father is dead. Joseph's dad had been "dividing his death into installments" (174) so it is not exactly a shock when Joseph's mother finds her dead husband jumping on the stairs one day. Father has been reincarnated as a crustacean!

Despite his metamorphosis into a crab, Father's resemblance to his former self is remarkable. He spends most of his time scurrying all over the apartment but never misses joining the family at mealtime even though he does not eat along with them. On numerous occasions, Uncle Charles attempts to squash Father, but in the end it is Mother who decides to do in the crustacean--death by boiling. After weeks of occupying a plate in the sitting room, Father somehow resurrects himself. All that remains on the dish where his swollen body once lay is a single shredded leg buried in hardened tomato sauce.


This absurd tale addresses many important topics including the effect of death and dying on the family and the role of family members in caring for disabled individuals. Joseph and his mother struggle with their feelings of repugnance, shame, and fear. Stress alters their perspective. The story shows how illness, disability, and the process of dying seem to make even the most outlandish situations appear almost normal.

How should we view Mother's deed of boiling Father? Is it euthanasia or an act of desperation? The crustacean is an interesting symbol in this story. Among other things, "crab" connotes hard shells, pincers, and an irritable disposition. The genus of crab is Cancer. Cancer the Crab is a sign of the zodiac.

The tragicomedy is best served up with Kafka's The Metamorphosis (see annotation). The many similarities between the two stories and their weird human-turned-invertebrate characters are certain to kindle an animated discussion. In spite of their bizarre premise, both stories are thought-provoking: What traits make us truly human? What qualities make us genuinely humane?


Translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska. This collection of stories was first published in 1937.

Primary Source

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass



Place Published

New York



Page Count