Main Characters of “The Metamorphosis” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”


The stories of Herman Melville anticipated much that shaped Franz Kafka. The protagonist Bartleby refuses everything: work, food, pleasures; it leaves the reader with a mystery. Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis accompanies young Gregor Samsa until his death after turning into a giant beetle. The Metamorphosis and Bartleby, the Scrivener, is a protest against the demands and expectations of society and the family. The parable-like narration shows a lack of freedom, humiliation, and exploitation generated by the authoritarian structures of modern society, to which the protagonist submits without will.

It is one of the critical texts of modernism, written at a time when little was known about modernism: the first print appeared in a monthly magazine in 1853. Many Bartleby the Scrivener pages have been interpreted, but it remains a mystery that words cannot fully resolve. The generation of the first modernists keenly felt the exhaustion of the forms of realistic narrative, their aesthetic fatigue. The short story The Metamorphosis (1913) is about an extreme degree of human alienation, in which the problem of individualism is raised (Shrestha 87). Above all, they put the value on an individual artistic vision of the world; the artistic worlds they create are uniquely dissimilar to each other, and each one bears the stamp of a bright, creative individuality.

Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener

One day the lawyer hired a new clerk, a pale, nondescript, reliable, solid-looking man named Bartleby. It seems like a welcome addition to the two other writers he already has: red-haired Turkey and the choleric Nippers. Bartleby orders the young errand boy Ginger Nut to bring him gingerbread just like the others. Still, he never leaves the house, even for regular meals, and does not participate in the usual office rituals. Everything becomes unreliable when he refuses to correct other people’s copies one day.

What at first seems like reluctance, immersion in reflection soon develops into the grotesque. When the lawyer asks Bartleby to help him review the transcripts, Bartleby, deadpan, replies, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 7). Never before has there been such a clearly articulated refusal; the narrator is amazed, stunned. He makes this a proposal that he will repeat over and over again in the next, with all possible requests; this phrase has become a constant cipher in the history of literature. Some others might throw Bartleby out in the face of this quiet but stubborn resistance, but the lawyer, quite unusually, feels sympathy for him.

Herman Melville’s hero Bartleby advocates radical rejection and radical individualization. This figure anticipates much of what would later become defining for Franz Kafka. Bartleby makes himself small and inconspicuous until he disappears completely. The head of the office notices Bartleby’s strange existential charisma. He will not dare fire him, and he is not labeled as boss, as American capital seems to suggest.

Melville opposes reality and the prevailing orders in his portrayal of the protagonist. However, Bartleby cannot change the world and perhaps does not want to, so his desire to live disappears, and complete denial appears, leading to death (Ruvolo 233). The protagonist knows perfectly well and resigns himself to this that he cannot change the world and his place in it. Therefore, death is his only volitional decision, which reality cannot resist and which he can implement. It symbolizes opposition to the common and the struggle for identity.

Franz Kafka′s The Metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa is the hero of Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, one morning, waking up after a restless sleep, Gregor discovers that he has turned into a terrible insect. Previously, he was a traveling salesman; with his earnings, he tried to help his parents, who were bogged down in debt, and his sister. Gregor was always in a hurry from train to train in pursuit of good orders. However, the boss suspected him of low conscientiousness since he firmly believed everyone was lazy. The transformation turns out to be only a complete embodiment of the state in which Gregor has long been: now, his appearance is entirely consistent with the life Georg led because caring for the family supplanted all his other interests. He had to live like a fussy and helpless insect.

Transformed into an insect, Gregor Samsa comprehends truths that he could not understand before due to difficult family conditions and exhausting work. Previously, he believed that his sacrifices were not in vain; now, all illusions are shattered (Kafka). Samsa discovers that the family can do without him and that his relatives, who previously did not pay attention to him, can hardly contain their disgust. In response, Gregor changes: he was almost not surprised that recently he began to treat others not very sensitively; before, this sensitivity was his pride. One day, Samsa finds out that the family wants to get rid of him. He sees that it is impossible to continue living and decides to die.

Death of Gregor Samsa raises him above the hostile world: having known himself, he at least understands the unbearably of his position. The transformation into an insect serves, on the one hand, as a sentence pronounced on the hero of the story, but, on the other hand, it morally justifies and tragically elevates him. Metamorphosis did dissection of the human soul successfully. Grego transformed into a bug, but he had the human soul; therefore, he had human nature, which judged how people around him changed because of his non-human body. The novella explores how the nature of his family and society changed along with the change in Gregor’s body (Shrestha 89). This new body allowed him to see and understand humans and human nature, which he had failed to do as a human. The terrible metaphor of the protagonist’s transformation is embodied by displaying the hero’s everyday behavior. Still, behind it, a deep and ambiguous meaning opens up.

Minor Characters

In addition to the main characters in both works, there are characters that are important for revealing the characters. Therefore, in fact, the head of the law firm is just as important a figure in this story as Bartleby. He personifies a well-meaning person who lives in the midst of life and is overwhelmed by what comes to him from the periphery: a provocation from the other. The lawyer realizes that Bartleby lives in the office, that Bartleby no longer wants to work and is just staring at the wall – but before calling the police, he prefers to move his office. Finally, the next tenant puts Bartleby in jail, where he even refuses to eat – and with his death, he also leaves the reader in the great mystery that literature once revealed.

In The Metamorphosis of Kafka, this character is Gregor’s sister, Grete Samsa. After Gregor’s transformation, she is the one who takes care of Gregor. Initially, you can talk about caring, as she tries, for example, to find out what her brother likes; she also keeps the room in order. Despite her disgust, she longs for regular, albeit superficial, care. However, after about four weeks, she continues to snub Gregor. It culminates in her showing open hostility towards her brother at the end, demoting him to ‘It.’ She denies him any humanity and demands his elimination, as his death means salvation for them.

Main Character Theme

Isolation is one of the main themes of Melville’s novel Bartleby, the Scrivener, as it revolves around Bartleby, the main character of the story. The moment Bartleby is hired as a copyist, he is asked to perform the everyday task of a copyist and proofread his work along with the rest of his colleagues. When asked to take part in proofreading, Bartleby replied, “I would prefer not to.” Kafka introduces the concept of alienation; the stupidity of an insect is an image of the dumbness that accompanies human life. Petty, fussy, and secondary are discussed for hours, but the innermost thoughts and feelings, the basis of human nature, remain in the depths of the soul and die in obscurity.

Similarities and Differences

The two stories reviewed have clear parallels, the most notable of which are the main characters. Both Bartleby and Kafka nonetheless portray their characters with a distinct sense of desperation and searching. The first silently, the other in self-disclosure, the characters express their need to find the place they belong. However, both characters do not fit into the accepted society. By virtue of his very asceticism, lack of interpersonal relationships, and history, Bartleby is almost a ghost, a mystery that even the best intentions cannot unravel. He rejected any contact, perhaps because he was supposed to be busy working as a dead letter clerk who dealt with the rejected and the canceled who considered himself hopeless.

Gregor Samsa manages to free herself from her bondage only at the cost of transformation. However, his remorse and sense of dereliction of duty remain despite this apparent release. Kafka impressively shows what he defines as modernity’s ‘human condition’ (Shrestha 86). Gregor, like Bartleby, contains loneliness, deformation, and destruction of the personality through social and personal pressure. Even family and friends or acquaintances no longer offer protection from the hostile world, and they are already infected by their power mechanisms.


Both characters are not only protagonists, but at the end of the narrative, they choose death in the direction of their ideals. Through their heroes, Franz Kafka and Herman Melville touch upon the problems of selflessness, workaholism, and family relationships. He showed that a person could completely lose humanity due to material difficulties. Both stories explain the problem of personality suppression, the gloominess of life, or life without purpose. The heroes are cut off from contact with society because they could not take root in it, leading to horrific consequences.

Both characters are opposed to reality but in different aspects. Bartleby arbitrarily chooses to do nothing and chooses death, while circumstances beyond his control bind Gregor. Their life and death do not become a prerequisite for the proposal or search for an alternative object that could change the established world. The characters have not adjusted to wanting what is asked of them, and at the same time, they have no intention of fighting or showing hostility. However, both works end with death, which criticizes social norms.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Modern Library, 2013.

Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street. Russell & Russell, 1963.

Ruvolo, Giuseppe. “The Meaning of Work and Its Context: A Reinterpretation of Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville.” World Futures, vol. 73, no. 4-5, 2017, pp. 224–247.,

Shrestha, Ravi Kumar. “Dissecting the Human Nature in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Literary Studies, vol. 33, 2020, pp. 86–92.

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AssignZen. 2023. "Main Characters of "The Metamorphosis" and "Bartleby, the Scrivener"." April 27, 2023.


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