Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis is as a disturbing look at the absurdity of life-and is literature at its most unsettling and most introspective. Throughout much of his life, Kafka suffered from insecurity and internal torment. An overweening, aggressive father with highly unattainable expectations exacerbated Kafka’s feelings of self-loathing and misery. In examining The Metamorphosis, much inspiration for the actual text seems to have come from the dysfunctional relationship between Kafka and his father. A preliminary and rather obvious parallel between Kafka and Gregor Samsa seems to lie in the very name of the protagonist. Indeed, much speculation has arisen regarding the possibility that Samsa is a crude cryptogram for the name Kafka. Each word consists of five letters, and the letters of both names occupy corresponding positions in the two titles. Although Kafka denied that this congruence was intentional, and even went further to deny any connection between his experiences and Samsa’s, the text of The Metamorphosis exhibits certain similarities that are too blatant to be ignored. If The Metamorphosis is truly an allegory for the life of Franz Kafka, then it is a profoundly meditative journey into the distorted mind and experience of the author. In a lengthy and revealing confession, which has since been published under the title Letter to His Father, Kafka described his feelings regarding their estrangement. Kafka proclaimed himself to be timid, feeble, hesitant, restless, and a humiliating failure. On the other hand, he perceived his father to be bold, impressive, and physically strong, and the contrast bothered him deeply. Kafka felt an overwhelming amount of guilt for the apparent disappointment that he had caused his father. Herr Kafka, although not entirely responsible for Kafka’s mental state, intensified his feelings of regret and shame. Kafka felt as if “a feeling of nothing dominated [him].” This state of continual disgrace and shame is one that is evident in Gregor Samsa’s character. Ensnared in a stagnant job as a traveling salesman, Gregor detests his occupation yet feels bound by an inescapable duty to satisfy his father’s expectations to retain the work. Gregor awakes one morning to find himself changed into the form of a grotesque vermin, and at once all of his self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy have been manifested in physical form. Such an obvious metamorphosis is indicative of the extreme trauma and self-disgust present in Gregor’s psyche. If The Metamorphosis is a commentary on the life of the author, then the idea of self-hatred and alienation is one that has haunted Kafka in the same way it haunts Samsa. Through the protagonist, Kafka has conveyed his inner demons as physical form-as a weak, substandard, and self-proclaimed inadequate individual. As further proof of his father’s mistreatment of him, Kafka includes in Letter to His Father examples of instances when his father addressed him or his friends as “vermin.” This instance of cruelty is as obvious as and as similar to Gregor’s condition that it hardly needs further discussion. Most notable is Kafka’s use of the very word “vermin”-so descriptive and so disquieting that the author denotes in a single word the demented, abused state of both himself and Gregor. Kafka recalls similar instances when his father addresses him in ways that are bestial and dehumanizing: he calls Kafka “a pig,” and he speaks to his wife about Kafka as if his son were not present. In The Metamorphosis, there is a comparable conflict between father and son-Herr Samsa speaks to Gregor as if he were nothing more than a repulsive beast, and he begins to address his son as “it.” Herr Samsa has difficulty believing that Gregor is still mentally a human being (if not physically), and he treats his son with a detached, cavalier manner. One of the many harms that Kafka endures as a result of his relationship with his father is that he “loses the capacity to talk.” This phenomenon is present in Gregor’s situation. Both author and protagonist suffer from an inability to articulate their inner emotions. Kafka’s loss of communication is figurative; Gregor’s loss is literal. For Kafka, the loss stems from his father’s reproach and his own terror of failure. He is forbidden to hold opinions that are contradictory to his father’s, and he is assaulted each time he raises his own beliefs. For Gregor, loss of speech attends his physical transformation, yet the implications are much deeper than their external surface. Gregor suffers horribly from the fact that his family can no longer understand him, and it is with a sickening dread that he realizes he is unable to fully comprehend his father’s speech. From Herr Samsa’s mouth spews a garbled, animalistic “hissing.” Both Gregor and Kafka endure excruciating periods of silence and retreat into an insular world that is completely lonely and devoid of understanding. Like many great writers of similar caliber and genius, Kafka suffered an agonizing tendency to analyze the dark recesses of his inner psyche. He was a man filled with torment and sorrow over his own dysfunctional relationship with his father. Whether consciously or not, his life experiences shaped The Metamorphosis and came to form the strained relationship between Gregor and Herr Samsa.
In his short story “The Metamorphosis” Franz Kafka examines the alienation from society that turns a human being into a bug. At the same time, he also examines how not being alienated from society and how corroborating with society can turn human beings into lesser life forms who have more in common with thoughtless, instinctual insects. Gregor Samsa is clearly unhappy with his life and alienated from the expectations placed upon him by his family in particular and society as a whole. “If I didn’t have my parents to think about I’d have given in my notice a long time ago, I’d have gone up to the boss and told him just what I think, tell him everything, I would let him know just what I feel,” Gregor says. But of course, he can’t tell his boss how he feels. How he feels is thoroughly beside the point. Gregor is a cog in the machine, not much different from a drone bee or a worker ant. Gregor’s boss has no more interest in Gregor’s ambitions than the queen bees have in their drones. Gregor’s alienation is symbolically represented in his transformation; his bugdom is symbolic of his uselessness to the cycle once he has begun to question the validity of it. Just as humans crush bugs because they serve no purpose to their society, Gregor can no longer serve his purpose because he is aware of its emptiness. Gregor’s family’s buying into societal demands makes them just as buglike as Gregor, but they are the ones who are really more like the bugs we step on. The final scene of the story confirms this as they so very quickly settle comfortably into the rat race on the bus as “they discussed their prospects and found that on closer examination they were not at all bad – until then they had never asked each other about their work but all three had jobs which were very good and held particularly good promise for the future.” Things were not bad at all, despite the fact that their son or brother had turned into a bug and died. Normalcy had returned with a vengeance and they were comfortably back into the antlike pattern of work defining their existence. The point of view of the story is thematically coherent: detached, alienated, cold. The lack of a consciousness behind the narration lends to the overall effect of detachment and loss of individuality. In fact, there is no individuality at all to the narration. It is even-tempered and matter-of-fact, reflecting the soul-numbing society in which the story takes place. The opening line sets the stage with description that could have started off a bizarre science fiction story. But the story isn’t science fiction, there is nothing really incredible about it all other than the circumstances of the lead character. Although the point of view could seem at times to be first person, it really isn’t. Gregor isn’t telling his story and that’s important because to allow Gregor to tell his story would be to imbue his individuality with a meaning that isn’t really there. This lack of meaning even extends to the minor characters. The character of the chief clerk is probably the most insect-like of all the characters, much more so than Gregor. Gregor has dreams and ambitions beyond his expected lot in life. He is held down by the expectations of society. The chief clerk has been assimilated into the system so completely that nothing but work matters. Society is reflected in all its gloriously conformist lack of imagination in the clerk. In some ways the clerk is the truly tragic figure of this story, not Gregor. The clerk could never be metamorphosed into an actual bug, because he’ll become something that society needs and would never dare to step on. He is society, he is everything that Gregor wants to, but cannot, rebel against. “I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims,” he tells Gregor. For a person like the clerk, peculiar whims would probably include such strange and questionable activities as wondering whether there is more to life than work. His officiousness, his lack of true sympathy or empathy for Gregor all point to his particular brand of insect quality. The dialogue of all the characters is in keeping with the theme of alienation and society’s ability to suck humanity out of people. Words and language are the best method of dehumanizing people. Whether it is racial epithets or other language signifiers that strip the soul away from people, words are the finest conduit to turning people into insects. The role of language in dehumanizing Gregor takes the usual road. “At first she would call to him as she did so with words that she probably considered friendly, such as ‘come on then, you old dung-beetle!’, or ‘look at the old dung-beetle there!'” At first these harsh words are said in a jesting manner, an attempt at tenderness. But in reality it is merely the family’s methodology for eventually reaching the point where Gregor is no longer considered a member of the family. And, indeed, it doesn’t take terribly long for the friendly description of Gregor as a bug to reach the quite unfriendly description of him as something far worse: “I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.” And not much longer after that Gregor ceases even to be a brother: “You’ve got to get rid of the idea that that’s Gregor.” At this point the alienation of Gregor is complete, as is his transformation into a bug. By transforming into a bug, Gregor metamorphoses into something more than human, not less. The unnamed bug that Gregor becomes is not meant to be taken as a symbol of inhumanity. Rather it is humanity that are the bugs, the insects, the mindless creatures constantly engaging in trivial tasks as they strive after meaningless possessions. Gregor may look hideous, but he is hideous only in appearance. He has the heart and soul of a creature that is better than the two-legged creatures that inhabit his world. He is quite obviously meant to be seen as achieving a higher level of existence than those around him. Gregor’s family, the chief clerk, and the three borders who move into the house are clear examples of the real insects of the story. They are heartless, cold and indifferent to the suffering going on around them. They care only about succeeding in the game that society has defined for them. Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he no longer cared to take his place among a world of lesser creatures.
Looking at literature in a general sense, it can be seen that some pieces which use a distorted literary style, instead of the straightforward directness of realism, can, when written effectively, be very useful and highly informative, if for no other reason than the higher level of thought required and inspired by their unnaturalness. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an obvious case of effective distorted literature, where several important factors of the story are altered in some way to exaggerate the gravity of the protagonist’s actual position in life. In the story, Kafka uses abstract symbols, like Gregor’s family members and his relationship with them, combined with, or more likely caused by Gregor’s physiological metamorphosis to reflect the real degree of Gregor’s social and familial worth, and moreover allegorically highlight the shortcomings of society and the nuclear family.At first glance, this story really appears to be about very little and superficially offers its readers minimal information from which to draw conclusions about Kafka’s purpose. The story seems too difficult to an uninvolved reader to be effective, because it exists in a world with which we are not presently accustomed. Kafka creates a world where a person can change overnight into an oversized insect and worry less about the metamorphosis than the work they are missing. Because the story is written in this manner, because it is distorted, it requires a more in-depth approach than reading something written in the style of realism. With realism, certain details are afforded the reader and much more is explained; everything, generally, can be taken at face value, but distortion asks more of its readers. It requires the story to be read on a higher level and prompts more questions than can be easily answered. For these reasons, the conclusions drawn from reading a distorted story, as opposed to a realistic piece, will be more profound, more important and longer-lasting.The first and most obvious case of distortion in The Metamorphosis is Gregor’s actual physical transformation from man to bug. The importance and effectiveness of this story hinges on this occurrence and the reader’s ability to accept it as fact. By making the protagonist of the piece an insect, Kafka is trying to raise questions about the significance of the physiology, but is at the same time trying to avoid hang-ups over the feasibility of the metamorphosis. At no point in the story does Kafka allude to the idea Gregor may not be an insect, but actually dreaming or hallucinating; instead, he uses vantage point and point of view to limit the audience’s area of concentration and force them to focus on the ideas which occupy Gregor’s mind. For instance, in the beginning of the story, Gregor bounces back and forth between noticing the changes of his body and thinking about how he loathes his job. Because these are the focuses of Gregor, so do they become the focuses of the reader, and we are likely to regard his physical change with as much passiveness as is in Gregor’s nature. Also, because Gregor never questions the possibility of this change, the reader also will not question its possibility, and we can move forward, using this metamorphosis as a fact and a hub from which all other distortions vein and the overarching truth may be realized.The physical metamorphosis itself is indispensable, but at the same time we must remember it is an abstraction of truth and a distortion of reality, which is more likely represented in this world by withdrawal and depression. Gregor, throughout the story, thinks often about his life prior to his change, namely how he hated his job and responsibility. He resented the obligations he had to support and protect his otherwise incapable family. So he gave up, essentially, and began to withdraw from his family and society. In this case, it becomes possible that he actually wanted this physical change to relieve him of his burdens, and it’s also likely he subconsciously willed this state into being. This sort of will power is an obvious deviation from reality, but helps the reader better understand the degree to which Gregor abhorred his responsibility. Giving this event its due consideration, the reader may also notice Kafka’s existentialist ideas floating to the surface.Following Gregor’s metamorphosis, this existentialist idea is given credence and the audience is made to realize in which ways Gregor will be held responsible for his own actions. Because this story takes place within a very confined area and with a limited number of characters, these relationships are highlighted and become glaringly important. Only by distorting Gregor’s physical nature is the audience able to gain any perspective on the truth behind the facade and understand what’s real in Gregor’s life. The first morning following Gregor’s metamorphosis, his chief clerk shows up at his home with questions and accusations, not worries or concerns which would be more characteristic. Through the chief clerk’s dialogue, and Gregor’s previous thoughts and feeling about his job, we realize his relative unimportance at work. The only reason the clerk showed up is because he suspected Gregor may have tried to make away with some money with which he had been entrusted. The clerk represents the business world where time equates money, and Gregor, with his slipping performance and recent absence has now physically become what his boss viewed him as; he is the vile loathsome insect who would dare break conduct and be late to work. The rest of his relations deteriorate in a similar manner. Gregor’s mother is content to believe her son is well in his new form as long as she doesn’t have to see him in the flesh, or whatever his new body is covered with. His sister is initially content to take care of him, but it is obvious because of the way she lays out his food and water that she views him as no more than an insect. Gregor’s father, who had been physically incapable of work was now forced to support the family once again. He changed from being passive, a nearly etheral presence in the household to a forceful, mock-important man in a doorman’s uniform. He lashes out violently at Gregor several times, because he is unhappy with this new situation. All of these events must remind the reader Gregor wished to be relieved of his responsibility, and now he was, but at a certain price. His mother deteriorates mentally, his sister lords herself over him, his father is vile and ruthless and his boss reveals his negative feelings for Gregor. Because this is what Gregor wanted, we do not pity him, but, in this sense begin to hold him responsible for his own actions and understand the negative happenings of his acquaintances to be his fault.The Metamorphosis serves well to illustrate the misgivings of the family and society, and highlights Kafka’s existentialist ideals. This is a story where the primary interest of the characters is self, and not a higher power. It shows how the selfishness of one person carries negative repercussions which are revisited upon the offender tenfold. Kafka distorts reality to toggle the degree of backlash, and provoke thought which will guide his readers to be more careful about the events for which they wish.
Franz Kafkaâs The Metamorphosis contains direct biographical references to Kafka and his familyâs lives. Gregorâs fatherâs dishonest actions stem from Kafkaâs hatred against own his father for his relentless disapproval of Kafkaâs writing. Kafka depicts Gregor as a lonely, insignificant failure, because that is how Kafka sees himself. Franzâs inability to settle down with a woman is silently noted in Gregor Samsaâs character, as is Kafkaâs low self esteem. While not easily noticed, Kafkaâs relationship with his youngest sister is mirrored in The Metamorphosis between Gregor and Grete as well. They get along very well for the majority of the story, but eventually Gregor feels betrayed. Kafka used the characters in The Metamorphosis to form a literary model of his own twisted relationships with his family members and himself.Franz Kafkaâs dark literary style is unmistakably original, and has earned him his reputation as one of the greatest 20th century writers. His odd works were fueled by staggering amounts of family stress and self hate. Much of this stress came from his father, Hermann Kafka, who disapproved of Franzâs writing, lifestyle, and physique. Kafkaâs father overshadowed him so much, that Franz developed a stutter only when speaking to his father. In The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsaâs father treats his son with comparable disrespect. When Gregorâs father sees Gregor in insect form outside of his room, he brutally throws an apple at his son, almost killing him. Earlier in The Metamorphosis it was revealed that Gregor had been the only working member of his family, providing for his mother, father, and sister. During this wealthy time, Gregorâs father had been saving up money but not telling Gregor anything about it. While this money was available, Gregor had been working relentlessly at a job which he hated, to pay off his fatherâs debt. The connection between the twisted father-son relationships in both Kafkaâs life and The Metamorphosis is undeniable and clearly points to biographical elements in The Metamorphosis.The most depressing thing about Franz Kafkaâs life was his utter isolation from everyone and everything around him. As Jews, the entire Kafka family was isolated from the majority of the population of their home city, Prague. Furthermore, Franz personally found himself more intellectually inclined than most of his ancestors. This prevented Franz from attaching to his heritage among other things. Kafka even proclaimed that he felt isolated from God Himself, whom he referred to as âthe True Indestructible Beingâ?. If we project Kafka onto Gregor Samsaâs character again, more similarities can be seen. Both were plenty old enough, but were not married and were forced to live with their parents. Gregorâs habit of locking all of his doors (even at home) serves to further isolate himself from the rest of the world, including his family.Further similarities can be found in even the most minute details of Kafkaâs writing. At the beginning of The Metamorphosis when Gregor finds that he is an insect he says that he is in âa real room meant for human habitation. The use of the word âhumanâ? isolates Gregor from the rest of his original species in only the second paragraph of the entire story. In Gregorâs room is a picture of a woman in furs which he has become attached to over time. He climbs the wall to prevent his mother and sister from taking it out of his room. Gregorâs attachment to this picture symbolizes his lack of contact with women other than his mother and sister. Kafka himself was very similar, in that he wanted the companionship of a woman very badly but never achieved a marriage through either of his two engagements.Samsaâs relationship with his sister, Grete, is another clear biographical reference to Kafkaâs life. Samsaâs sister is the only one in Gregorâs house who can stand the sight of him, and takes the time to figure out what he can eat. For Kafka, his youngest sister, Ottla, allowed him to move in with her temporarily when he was particularly ill. At one point in Kafkaâs life he felt that he should quit working in the afternoons to do more writing, but his parents disagreed. In an unexpected change of sides, Ottla agreed with her parents, and Franz was forced to remain at work for full days. This event made Franz feel as if he was betrayed by his own sister whom he had trusted more than anyone else in the family. Within two weeks, Kafka included a similar incident at the end of The Metamorphosis in which Grete abandons all hope for Gregorâs recovery.Of all the animals that Samsa could have been changed into, an insect made the most sense when applied to both the story and Kafkaâs life. People tend to view insects as dirty, insignificant creatures. Kafkaâs negative views of himself painted a picture of himself as an insignificant failure, much like an insect. As soon as Gregor is unable to earn the family money, he becomes an insignificant failure, again like an insect. Samsaâs self esteem slowly spirals downward until he discovers that he is better off dead than alive to his family. This may be another biographical reference to the numerous times that Kafka contemplated suicide due to his low self esteem.Kafkaâs fatherâs disapproval and emotional abuse ground down Kafkaâs psyche until he felt inferior to the rest of the world. This psychological abuse forced Kafka to write in his own dark, realistic style and turn to writing as his primary source of expression. Because he felt inferior, the only way that Kafka could fight back at his father was to do so in his writing. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka portrays himself as Gregor, his father as Gregorâs father, and his sister as Gregorâs sister. Franz makes negative statements about his father through Gregorâs father’s thoughts and actions, and reenacts his relationship with his sister between Gregor and Grete. Kafka uses Gregorâs insect form to show his own isolation and inability to interact with the rest of the world. Doubtlessly, The Metamorphosis was written as a direct biographical reference to Kafkaâs life, isolation, and constant family conflict.
References to food are a recurring theme in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The food that Gregor eats to strengthen his physical body reflects the attention that he receives from his family to satiate his emotional appetite. As the story progresses, the family grows more distant, and Gregor’s eating habits decline until, at the story’s end, Gregor dies of physical – and perhaps emotional – starvation.When Gregor discovers that he has been “transformed into a monstrous vermin” (1640), one of his first concerns is eating breakfast. Even before he discovers a way to crawl out of his bed, Gregor thinks about his hunger. Kafka describes Gregor as “ravenous” and says that he wants “above all [to] have breakfast” (1642), even before contemplating what to do about his condition. The emphasis that Kafka puts on Gregor’s appetite indicates that recurring references to food may have some symbolic meaning in the story.The next time that Kafka mentions food in relation to Gregor is when his sister has left food for him while he was sleeping. Gregor is “hungrier now than in the morning” (1651) and is overjoyed to find that his sister had thoughtfully brought him a bowl of milk, his favorite thing to drink. The milk however, fails to satisfy him as it had before his transformation. The sister’s thoughtfulness in bringing Gregor milk reveals the family’s concern for Gregor and their willingness to offer assistance; Gregor’s change in taste reflects the change that has occurred in his relationship with his family. Though they still care for him and desire to help him, the dynamic of the relationship has been inevitably altered.In spite of the drastic change that Gregor has undergone, he expresses a strong interest in being as small of a burden as possible to his family. He wants to “help the family endure the inconveniences that… he was forced to cause them in his present state” (1652). This attitude is further illustrated when his sister comes in later that evening to check on him. Although Gregor was quite hungry because the food he was accustomed to no longer satisfied him, “he would rather starve to death” (1652) than appear ungrateful by communicating to his sister that he did not enjoy the food she had provided for him. She notices, however, that Gregor didn’t drink the milk, and takes it away only to return with:a whole array of food, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables, some bones left over from supper and coated with a solidified white sauce, a few raisins and almonds, some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days ago, dry bread, bread and butter, and salted bread and butter. (1652)The sister’s effort to determine what type of food Gregor enjoys most – by providing him with so many choices – is an indication of the family’s interest in Gregor’s welfare. Although the parents are content to hear the sister’s reports of Gregor’s behavior and apparent health, their concern is still evident. When, over time, it becomes “more and more frequent” (1653) for Gregor not to disturb his food, Kafka says that Gregor’s sister is sad when she sees that he hasn’t eaten. Her sorrow demonstrates yet again the concern that the family has for Gregor.This family’s interest, however, fades as the monotony of caring for Gregor becomes more of a burden to the family as they try to carry on with their lives. As the story progresses, the sister’s meticulous care for Gregor turns into an apathetic and compulsory ritual:No longer paying any heed to what might be a special treat for Gregor, the sister, before hurrying off to work in the morning and after lunch, would use her foot to shove some random food into Gregor’s room. Then, in the evening, indifferent as to whether the food had been merely tasted or – most often the case – left entirely untouched, she would sweep it out with a swing of the broom. (1663)This lack of concern for Gregor is mirrored both by Gregor’s attitude toward the family and by his lack of interest in food. Gregor was “filled with sheer rage at being poorly looked after” and “unable to picture anything that might tempt his appetite” (1663). On the surface, it seems ironic that Gregor is angry because the sister does not care for him well enough even though he does not eat what she does provide for him. On closer examination, however, this paradox vanishes because what Gregor truly desires is not temporal food, but the intangible nourishment that could be derived from the love of his family. Although Gregor is not fully aware of it yet, he is not angry because his room isn’t kept clean or because he isn’t provided with proper food; rather, as he would later discover, he longs simply for the love and attention of his family.The sister’s indifference toward Gregor continues to grow until she stops caring for him altogether. The household servant undertakes the task in the sister’s stead. The fact that Gregor’s care has been entirely entrusted to someone outside the family conveys an even greater insensitivity toward Gregor’s physical and emotional needs.In keeping with the pattern, Gregor’s appetite continues to dwindle as the family’s concern for him lessens. After Gregor’s care is relegated to the servant, “Gregor was now eating next to nothing. It was only when he happened to pass the food left for him that he would playfully take a morsel in his mouth, keep it in for hours and hours, and then usually spit it out again” (1664). At this point in the story, Kafka mentions that Gregor ponders just what it is that is making him lose his appetite. “At first, he thought that his anguish about the condition of his room was what kept him from eating, but he soon came to terms with those very changes” (1664). If Gregor’s living conditions are not the primary reason for his disinterest in food, there must be another cause.Kafka reveals the reason for Gregor’s disinterest in food when Gregor hears his sister playing her violin for the boarders. Gregor “felt as if he were being shown the path to the unknown food he was yearning for” (1666). Finally, Gregor realizes what it is that he truly desires. He covets the attention of those that used to love him. He wants his sister to come into his room, “sit next to him,” and “remain with him not by force, but of her own free will” (1667). Gregor longs to express to his family his love for his sister and his desire to provide for her by financing her education at the conservatory. More than for physical food, Gregor is starving for attention, the emotional nourishment vital to a happy life. He has reached the point where he no longer cares to live without the love of his family, and thus fails to take in the life-sustaining food provided for him by the servant.Gregor’s neglect of his physical needs and the family’s insensitivity toward his emotional needs eventually lead to his death. The evening before Gregor’s death, the sister says that Gregor “has to go… that’s the only way” (1668). With that statement, any remaining feelings of concern that may have been present are lost. The family views Gregor as a burden and has no desire to have him in their house. Although Gregor still cherishes his family and longs for those feelings to be requited, his thoughts that evening reflect his sister’s statement. “He recalled his family with tenderness and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s” (1669).After the servant discovers Gregor’s death the next morning, she informs the family of the news. Their reaction reinforces the attitude that the sister had expressed the night before: “‘Well,’ said Mr. Samsa, ‘now we can thank the Lord'” (1670). The family then went on an afternoon drive in the country to get away from the situation and to enjoy themselves for the first time since Gregor’s transformation (1672).Gregor dies of starvation at the point when the family’s concern for him reaches an absolute minimum. Just as it is throughout the story, Gregor’s physical hunger is directly related to the unfulfilled desire for emotional sustenance from those he loves. Gregor’s sister, when describing Gregor’s corpse, states, “‘Just look how skinny he was. Well, he stopped eating such a long time ago. The food came back out exactly as it went in'” (1670). Although it is obvious that Gregor had been suffering from physical starvation, the family has no idea that Gregor has been wasting away from an entirely different form of starvation – one that they could have prevented if they had been more attentive to him.
Choice is inescapable and inevitable to all who exist or have ever existed. When meeting a fork in the road, a decision is always made, even if no action is taken. Utterly paradoxical, even the act of no decision at all is stepping in one direction of a choice, always making a statement. It is around this ideology of constant choice that the philosophical theory of existentialism exists. It declares that each individual lives in the universe as a being of free-will, one that is capable of his own decision-making and actions. And that it is through these self-determined choices and actions that each individual distinguishes himself from every other member of the population while simultaneously defining himself. The existentialist theme presents itself in three divergent ways in the following works: Hunger, The Metamorphosis, and The Stranger. In each of these compositions, the protagonist is physically and mentally alienated from society, possesses a desire for something never obtained, and dies surrounded by a void that continues past their deaths and applies to others.
In Hunger, Bobby Sands experiences mental and physical alienation from his surroundings due to his hunger strike and subsequent placement in the hospital ward. While imprisonment itself creates separation between the imprisoned and society, Sands further experiences isolation even from other prisoners when he steps forward as the first to participate in a hunger strike. Sands’ hunger strike distances him from all non-participating prisoners; the tremendous mental fortitude required to overcome his hunger creates an alienation from other prisoners, some of whom are not involved in the hunger strike. In addition to the mental alienation that he experiences, Sands is also physically separated from other prisoners when his hunger strike intensifies and he is transported to the hospital wing. As Sands spends the remainder of his life in the prison hospital wing, maintaining his hunger strike and resisting the temptation of three meals each day, he is physically alienated from other prisoners. From the start of his hunger strike until his death, Sands experiences increasing mental and physical alienation from other prisoners.
Similarly, in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa experiences mental and physical alienation from those around him when he awakes one day as an insect and is then forced to become a prisoner in his room. Samsa’s transition to an insect brings him distinct mental differences compared to those around him, separating Samsa from his family. For example, he feels a liberating high when adhering to the walls and ceiling of his room: “He especially liked hanging from the ceiling; it was completely different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; and in the almost happy absent-mindedness which Gregor felt up there, it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and plopped onto the floor” (30). He begins to adapt the feelings and emotions of an insect, continuously drifting away from his family. Additionally, he is physically imprisoned in his room out of disgust from his family and differences in his bodily appearance. The family who, at one point, had loved and cared for him cannot hide their true feelings of hatred toward him, banishing him to his room. It is clear to the reader that any territory outside of Samsa’s home is now forbidden to him through his father’s reaction when he dares to leave his space: “He had only the fixed idea that Gregor must return to his room as quickly as possible (…) when from behind, his father gave him a hard shove, which was truly his salvation, and bleeding profusely, he flew far into his room”(18-19). Both Hunger and The Metamorphosis encompass the physical imprisonment of the protagonist. Samsa reflects on his isolation, explicitly using the word “imprisonment”, after hearing new financial news discussed at a family meeting he hears from his room: “These explanations by his father were to some extent the first pleasant news Gregor had heard since his imprisonment” (25). Mentally, he is isolated through abnormal thoughts and feelings. Physically, his horrible appearance is unbearable by those around him, causing his family to banish him to his room.
Although Meursault in The Stranger also feels both physical and mental alienation, there are some differences between him and Samsa or Sands. Meursault’s situation differs in that his isolation is not evident to him until he is put in front of a jury. He recognizes nothing wrong with how he handles his mother’s death and does not recognize just how inhuman he is. It is established in The Stranger that Meursault does precisely as he pleases, unaffected by the thoughts or predetermined normalities set by society. An example of this is demonstrated when the thought of bread is dismissed in his mind as the effort of making a trip to the store is not worth the outcome: “I fixed myself some eggs and ate them out of the pan, without bread because I didn’t have any left and I didn’t feel like going downstairs to buy some” (21). This continuous behavior of mild interest and little enthusiasm carries through his life preceding his court date. He disregards his case as anything important. The gravity of taking another man’s life does not resonate with him and he treats the matter as if it is something of daily occurrence. He becomes aware of his physical isolation from society following the murder of the Arab, when put in front of a group of his peers in the courtroom. Up until this point, Meursault disregards the importance of himself. He is for once isolated out of a group and it is a foreign feeling to him: “I think that at first I hadn’t realized that all those people were crowding in to see me. Usually people didn’t pay much attention to me. It took some doing on my part to understand that I was the cause of all the excitement” (83). In addition to physically being isolated during his trial, Meursault is mentally trapped in his cell alone, prior to his execution. The lingering thoughts of a free man swirl in his head after his entrance into prison. It is at time when he feels these longings for freedom that he is truly alienated from society: “For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water. As I imagined the sound of the first waves under my feet, my body entering the water and the sense of relief it would give me, all of a sudden I would feel just how closed in I was by the walls of my cell” (76). Meursault’s alienation mirrors that of Samsa’s and Sands’ through the confining walls of imprisonment he resides in, yet differs mentally in the fact that Meursault does not realize his alienation until it unequivocally presented itself to him in the courtroom.
What pushes Sands to starve himself to death is the constant longing for an Ireland free from the United Kingdom. This constant hunger for political liberation is the driving force of what pushes Sands to kill himself in such an inhumane way. Following Sands’ death, some demands are met. However, the forlornness of the situation is that Sands never experiences the freedom nor the satisfaction of triumph. He was constantly striving for something out of reach and it took his death and the death of seven others for the government to step in. In his lifetime, he never achieved his goals. He was only ever fighting for something that he was unable to obtain. This burning desire for something that will never be achieved is similarly shown in The Metamorphosis through Samsa’s fantasies of leading a normal life again. He longs for his body to return to how it was before he went to bed, an impossible request after his transformation. An example of just how driven Samsa is to return his life to its normal state is his dismissal of the entire situation when he first wakes. His focus is solely pinned on arriving to his workplace, as if it was just another weekday: “The next train left at seven o’clock; to make it, he would have to hurry like a madman, and the line of samples wasn’t packed yet, and he himself didn’t feel especially fresh and ready to march around”(5). Furthermore, throughout the novella, Samsa maintains this conscious effort to stay alive, hoping for an alteration that makes him human again. He does not give in to the notion that he should remove himself from the family even when his sister, who up until this point has been loyal, finally believes that the family should rid themselves of his presence. His desire to continue living and become human again is an unrealistic objective and without his permission, he is taken from the world: “Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath” (51). Throughout the entire novella, Samsa yearns for a goal that he can never achieve. As those around him begin to dismiss him as a member of the family, this hunger for change does not falter.
Meursault faces the constant challenge of achieving a feeling he has not experienced: love. Following the death of his mother, he does not exhibit the symptoms of a normal grieving man. Rather than partake in the five stages of grief, he jumps the gun, immediately accepting what has happened. He did not truly love his mother, for he would have been depressed or mourning. His lack of love is also demonstrated in how little attention he pays to the details of his own mother’s death, even unsure of the exact day she passed away: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know”(3). Moreover, he is constantly convincing himself that he and his mother have tight rapport, through his continuous use of the word Maman, a childish synonym of Mother. He tries to love his mother, but he cannot or will not feel that love. He makes mild attempts to be close with Maman and maintain a loving relationship, but he feels nothing and only goes through the motions. His search for love continues after Maman’s passing when he flirts with Marie: “I asked her if she wanted to go to the movies that evening. She laughed again and told me there was a Fernandel movie she’d like to see” (20). His sudden jump between his recently deceased mother to a new young woman is a part of his endless attempt to find love. He feels no real connection between either individual. Maman dies, and he goes out to find someone to take her spot; but still, he finds no one he loves. He and Marie go through the motions of a couple, but he does not feel an attraction of love toward Marie: “Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her” (41). He first attempts to love his mother. When she passes away, he turns to Marie. He continuously looks for a love that he will never find.
Sands surrounds himself with the ongoing pain of famine through the last sixty-six days of his life, a void in it of itself. However, he is also constantly surrounded by his strong feelings about the United Kingdom and Ireland. A void is created for Bobby Sands and fellow members of the Irish Republican Army through their strong feelings between the separation of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is seemingly inescapable and they feel they have a responsibility to affect the outcome of the situation. With the thoughts of Ireland’s future in mind, Sands patiently awaits his death in a state of extreme hunger. He dies from self-starvation while surrounded by not only the void of hunger, but also lack of political freedom, which continues without him until seven more have killed themselves.
Much like in Sands, Samsa is surrounded by two voids. Although he does have the void of his metamorphosis, he is trapped in another void as well, which was established before his first awakening as an insect. His responsibility to provide for his family at a young age to work off the debt to his father’s name when he should be getting married and starting a family of his own is a void that seems endless. It becomes clear to the reader that he abhors his career as a traveling salesman, only working because of the obligation he feels to provide for his family: “If I didn’t hold back for my parents’ sake, I would have quit long ago, I would have marched up to the boss and spoken my piece from the bottom of my heart(…) Well, I haven’t given up hope completely; once I’ve gotten the money together to pay off my parents’ debt to him – that will probably take another five or six year s- I’m going to do it without fail”(4). Gregor is relieved from this duty through his metamorphosis, the death of his human self and the birth of a different animal. It is through that process of death that he escapes the void his parents have created for him. However, although Gregor has died, his sister, Grete, is soon to be sucked into the void of her parent’s expectations. This is demonstrated through the bleak and darkly ironic ending, following Gregor’s death: “While they were talking in this vein, it occurred almost simultaneously to Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, as they watched their daughter getting livelier and livelier, that lately, in spite of all the troubles which had turned her cheeks pale, she had blossomed into a good-looking, shapely girl. Growing quieter and communicating almost unconsciously through glances, they thought that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband” (55). The void continues past Gregor’s death as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa think about expectations to be set for their next child, Grete.
Finally, in The Stranger, Meursault finds himself lost in the void of life. He spirals through aimlessly, uninterested in what the world has to offer. He participates in only a small amount of activities and does not feel compelled to go above and beyond in any way. If he does not feel the desire or need to do something, he simply won’t do it. He does socialize with friends and is romantically involved with Marie, but he does not love her. Meursault feels unimportant to the world, someone that will soon be gone and leave without a trace. He floats through the void of life, waiting for it to discontinue. He is certain that his death will come and his pessimistic view of life is translated through to his lack of feelings when something as important as his mother’s death takes place: “Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why(…) Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across the years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was leaving” (121). It is for this reason he never over-achieves and is merely mildly interested in most things. He becomes offended when someone, like the chaplain, regards him as someone of significance:”Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me(…) But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me”(120). Meursault finds comfort in the fact that death is certain and that he will eventually face it one of these days, taking him from the void of life. However, even with his passing, the void continues; life will go on for others living in the world and Meursault is one of billions who inhabit the Earth. He believes his effects and contributions as a human are indeterminable.
In all three works, each subject struggles with isolation from society, mentally and physically, wrestles with a longing for something they never achieve, and escapes a void that pertains not solely them, but continues past death. An existential crisis for each individual, they react in different ways. Each man identifies who he is and sets himself apart from the remaining population. Through each action, each protagonist establishes his identity and shapes the opinions of others around him, dividing himself from his peers.
The human mind is so active that an individual experiences approximately 70,000 thoughts each day. These thoughts are often conflicting in their nature, as the stream of consciousness does not readily divide thoughts into categories, and thoughts enter and exit the mind freely. The novella Metamorphosis by France Kafka strongly presents a character that faces two conflicting desires and tendencies of character. Gregor is plagued between his social desire of being human and belonging and a new animalistic side, which oppresses these social constructs. Kafka successfully uses furniture within Metamorphosis as a portal between these two sides, and how they both aid but also hinder Gregor in keeping what is left of his humanity. This work by Franz Kafka can also be read as a critique of the human inclination and how individuals place too much value on social constructs, in terms of identity, relationships, and values- a topic that will be discussed in the conclusion.
The conflicting tendencies of Gregor’s character commence at the preamble of this novella when Gregor first awakens in his transmogrified state. He is no longer a human, but a cockroach – an insect exaggeratingly less complex in thought process and thought-movement correspondence. Yet Gregor is given no time to process his new body and mind due to his family’s constant questioning regarding his absence from work. Gregor, in this frenzy, tries to reach his parents and the chief clerk in order to reassure them that he is all right. In order to do so, Gregor, still not accustomed to his new physique, must use a chair in order to reach the door leading out of his bedroom. “Gregor slowly pushed himself across the door with the chair, there let go of it and dropped against the door… and there rested a moment from his exertions” (p. 99). It is clear that this task is no easy feat for Gregor, yet he pays no mind to how excessively strenuous this endeavor is. Reaching his parents and the chief clerk becomes even more difficult when Gregor tries to open the door; his thin and dangly arms are not strong enough the turn the doorknob and he owns no teeth to grip the doorknob with. “Luckily his jaws were very powerful… he got the key to move, and he didn’t stop to consider that he was certainly damaging himself in some way, because a brown liquid came out of his mouth “(p. 99). Although Gregor is seemingly injuring himself while trying to open the door, his desire of social interaction overrides the pain he is in. It is very clear here that a conflict between Gregor’s social desire and animalistic identity is starting to arise. The main character’s remaining human tendency is latching on to whatever social desires are left; that is, the desire of pleasing his family and not troubling his chief. “He truly had it in mind to open the door, to show himself and to speak to the chief clerk; he was eager to learn what the others, who were all clamoring for him, would say when they got to see him” (p. 97) Gregor’s only human identity is that of a salesman, and in a desperate attempt to conceal his newfound animalism, Gregor desperately tries to function as a human would. However, this new animalistic side is in defiance and opposes his social inclinations, bringing into question the direct nature of Gregor’s character. The use of furniture within this scene works as a gateway between what he desires and where the capacities of his actions lie.
Gregor’s overriding animalistic identity becomes even more obtrusive as the plotline progresses. The scene preambular to Gregor’s death, where the whole family along with their three tenants, sit at the dinner table and attentively listen to Grete vigorously playing her violin, is significant in portraying the dominance of his cockroach tendencies over his human social desire. Gregor advances out of his room here for the first time since an apple strikes him, thrown by his father in a fit of rage for frightening both his mother and sister. Gregor wishes not to bother his parents or his sister since the realization that his presence unsettles him, but this introverting sense of self his pushed away by his attraction to the music his sister plays. “Could he be an animal- to be so moved by music?” (136) Kafka uses free indirect speech within this rhetorical question in order to bring Gregor’s emotional and social perspective into the light. Gregor, in his slowly deteriorating state, is confused as to why he still has such passion for human constructs that his transmogrified state cannot perceive or comprehend to the same extent anymore. However, Gregor is unluckily caught in the act and forced to retreat slightly, as his father rises from the dinner table in great hostility. Grete, tired of the suffering she feels, makes an outspoken remark: “dear parents, things cannot go on like this… I don’t want to speak the name of my brother within the hearing of that monster, and so I will merely say: we have to get ride of it” (138) This reflects the breaking away from the family’s previous mantraic mode regarding Gregor’s existence, as they simply tolerate him before. It is here that Gregor fully realizes that his existence now is one of redundancy as his sister has finally given her honest opinion regarding his existence and which tendency of his character is more prominent- “ the monster” (138). He therefore turns around in order to retreat to his room, yet faces difficulties. “He was struck by the great distance that seemed to separate him from his room, and was unable to understand how, in his enfeebled condition, he had just a little while covered the same distance, almost without noticing” (140). It is here where the reader fully comprehends Gregor’s deteriorating state. Gregor’s animalistic side has strengthened to the point where he can no longer use his social desire to the same extent in order to reach the door. Additionally, with this retreat towards his room, Gregor now understands that he must let go of his human self and die as a cockroach. Insects live short, simple lives without emotional desire. His animalistic character cannot be withdrawn and this inevitable truth must be accepted. His family agrees: “If it was Gregor, he would have long ago seen that that it is impossible for human beings to live together with an animal like that” (139). Gregor passes away the next morning. The dinner table and door in this scene can be seen as the transition from Gregor as an existence with conflicting character tendencies to an existence with only one character.
Gregor’s use of furniture in Metamorphosis clearly illustrates his conflicting tendencies of character, specifically between his social longing and monstrous identity after his transmogrification into a cockroach. It is clear since the beginning of the novella that Gregor attempts at accepting this new animalistic side to him, and once it becomes a normalcy, his desperation to keep his humanity leads him into using furniture as a means of obtaining these social desires. Yet at the end of the novella it is clear that Gregor cannot keep these conflicting tendencies on the same plane, and chooses to abandon his humanity in order to save his family from eternal unhappiness. Metamorphosis may also be viewed as a critique of human inclination as due to the fact that Gregor tries to contain his human longing, he sacrifices the relationship with his family and damages himself physically as well as mentally. Kafka argues that such a longing for human inclination will only hurt an individual in the long run, and should be avoided.
Works Cited: Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
In Franz Kafka’s stories “The Metamorphosis”, “In The Penal Colony”, and “The Fasting-Artist”, the protagonists, Gregor Samsa, the officer, and the fasting-artist, each make apparent sacrifices. These characters give their lives for others, but their deeds are unacknowledged by those they should benefit, who neither enjoy nor even understand the sacrifices made for them. The only one who can truly appreciate a sacrifice is the victim himself.The most prominent example of this tendency appears in “The Fasting-Artist”. The artist fasts for public admiration, so that ladies can have the place of honor holding his body and crowds can come to look at him. He thinks that fasting is not a sacrifice at all; “he knew…how easy fasting was” (212) but his ability to eat the food supplied to him by watchmen who cannot understand “the honor of his art” (210) shows that it costs him at least some effort when his audience does not appreciate his sacrifice. He feels that his true sacrifice is “lying in bed almost at his last gasp…the consequence of the premature ending of his fast” (215) which he does, again, because after “about forty days…the audience fell away” (212). So great is his dedication to sacrifice and to his art that, when business worsens, he is willing to join a circus and understands that “he should not…be placed…in the middle of the ring as a star attraction” (216). But while at the circus he leans that people are not interested in seeing him; they merely pass his cage on their way to see the animals. Eventually the circus keepers stop keeping track of the days the artist has fasted, and his sacrifice is no longer for his audience, but for himself and for his art. The curious aspect of the fasting-artist’s performance is that his sacrifice for art is indistinguishable from the art itself. As the only one aware of his fasting, the Artist is the only one able to appreciate it, and he even tells his overseer that he “shouldn’t admire” (218) the fast. The artist’s plea shows that even those who try to admire his work do not understand it. “Just try to explain to someone what the art of fasting is. No one who does not feel it can be made to understand what it means” (218) the narrator tells us, and indeed the ludicrousness of public exhibition fasting, the appeal of which display no reader can comprehend, underscores the private nature of the artist’s performance. The artist’s fasting is an end in itself. No one but himself is around to appreciate his death from starvation, a sacrifice for an ignored art, as “the world was cheating him of his reward” (218).Gregor Samsa’s sacrifice somewhat resembles the fasting-artist’s; it is just as unappreciated, but more beneficial to others. Gregor hates his job as a traveling salesman; “if [he] didn’t have to hold back for the sake of [his] parents [he’d] have handed in [his] notice long since” (77), but he works to support his parents and sister, none of whom work. He keeps only “a few odd coins for himself” (98), giving most of his salary to his parents. He also plans to raise the money to send his sister to a conservatory to practice the violin. Gregor’s work to help his family and pay off their debt is more easily appreciated by the reader than the artist’s fasting is, but Gregor’s family is less appreciative than the artist’s audience. “They had simply got used to [Gregor’s giving his family his salary], both the family and Gregor…it no longer gave rise to any special warmth of feeling” (97). Gregor’s family does nothing to help him pay off the debt, all the while concealing from him the fact that they have been saving money he earned, instead of using it to pay off the debt to Gregor’s employer and thus let him change jobs sooner. Gregor’s sacrifice, great as it already is, becomes even heavier when he turns into a giant insect. At first both he and his family are in denial; Gregor attempts to go to work, having “no intention at all of deserting his family” (83), and his mother speaks of the time “when Gregor returns to us” (103), as though he will recover. His sister Grete brings him food and cares for him; “milk had always been his favorite drink, and that was surely why his sister had put it down for him” (92). But his father, who never mentions any hope that Gregor will change, drives him back to his room “threaten[ing] to deal him a deadly blow” (91). Gregor’s family is only willing to help him as long as they believe that he may recover, and when he persists in his insect state, they neglect him. As soon as the money they have saved runs out, Gregor’s parents and sister are forced to work and find that they have no taste for sacrifice. Herr Samsa becomes prone to saying “‘What a life this is. Such is the peace of my old age'” (110). Grete neglects to clean Gregor’s room; “streaks of dirt ran the length of the walls” (112). Eventually she gives up on him completely, saying of Gregor, “‘we must try and get rid of it'” (119). Though Grete claims that the family has done “everything humanly possible to look after it [Gregor(!)]” (119), it is ironically Gregor who remains more human than his family, who now refer to him as “it”. He never stops wanting to sacrifice himself for them in whatever way he can. He does his best to spare them the sight of him; after realizing that his sister hates to see him, “he transport[s] a sheet to the sofa on his back–the task took him four hours–and arrange[s] it in such a way that…his sister would not be able to see him” (100). He continues to try to take financial responsibility for his family. “Whenever the conversation turned to the necessity of earning money…Gregor…felt hot all over with shame and grief” (99). He fantasizes of “tak[ing] the family’s affairs in hand again” (111). Even his death appears to be in response to his sister’s wish that he would vanish; his dying thought is that “his own opinion that he must disappear was…firmer than his sister’s” (122). Yet by this point, Gregor’s family has ceased to think of him as human. Though they appreciate his death, using it as an excuse to take a day off from work and to evict their detestable lodgers, they cannot appreciate Gregor’s motives. “‘If it were Gregor…he would have gone away of his own accord'” (120) Grete claims in Gregor’s hearing before his death, but never realizes that he does, as she believes that he cannot understand human speech. Indeed, Gregor’s family completely forgets him after his death; they are content to let the charwoman deal with his corpse, and Herr Samsa even “check[s] her [story of its disposal] firmly with an outstretched hand” (125). They flee the apartment “which Gregor had picked out for them” (125), leaving all traces of his memory behind. Gregor’s family refuses to acknowledge any of his sacrifices, perhaps out of guilt for ignoring him, perhaps for license to ignore him. As soon as they have established that the insect in their house is not Gregor, they have no obligation to care for it. Yet Gregor never doubts his family’s identity, though he has changed merely in shape while they have changed their entire attitude towards him. Though much of his sacrifice is externally imposed–Gregor hardly requests his family to neglect him–his death is ultimately a selfless and human act, all the more so because his family does not acknowledge it; Gregor’s sacrifice is his tie to both humans and humanity.The officer’s sacrifice, on the other hand, can hardly be considered humane, though it is just as self-directed. The penal colony’s officer, who tries, prosecutes, sentences, and executes prisoners convicted of crimes such as insubordination, shows a voyager the colony’s method of execution: death by a machine that carves the commandment violated on the condemned man’s flesh. According to the officer, “enlightenment dawns” (137) on the condemned man’s face as he understands the gravity of his crime, and justice triumphs. The voyager, understandably upset by the process of justice in the colony, is resolved to condemn the means of execution, which the colony’s new commandant opposes; this will mean the end of the practice. Upon learning of this, the officer kills himself with the machine, inscribing “Be Just!” into his own flesh. If he is reacting to the voyager’s condemnation, the officer has given his life for justice, or at least what he considers justice. But although he is the only remaining vocal supporter of this justice, the only one who would consider it just, he fails to benefit from his sacrifice. In his dead face, “no sign of the promised deliverance could be detected; what all the others had found in the machine, the officer had not found” (152). Similarly, the voyager irrationally finds that if the procedure “was really on the point of being abolished–possibly as a result of the voyager’s own intervention, to which he felt himself committed–then the officer was now acting perfectly rightly” (149). The victim of the sacrifice suffers and the beneficiary gains; this is the way a sacrifice is supposed to work. But nothing about the officer’s punishment makes logical sense.The officer’s and voyager’s reactions are a reversal of our expectations, just as the officer’s suicide is; after all, it makes no more sense for the officer to punish himself for injustice by means of injustice. If, however, the officer is executing himself (a just act, according to his morality) for executing himself (an unjust act, according to the voyager), the situation makes more sense; the officer finds no enlightenment because his punishment was unjust, while the voyager believes it to be right because the officer’s crime was judged by the voyager’s standards. By this logic, neither the officer nor the voyager is making a sacrifice. A true sacrifice for the officer would have been for him to abandon his beloved machine, while for the voyager it would have been not to object to the condemned man’s execution. The only sacrifice the officer makes, giving up any future administration of justice, is imposed on him.While the lack of appreciation of all three protagonists contributes to their deaths, the officer’s death is appreciated. The role-reversal of his self-condemnation reveals why his death is not a sacrifice; it is a sentence. The fasting-artist starves out of dedication to his art, Gregor out of devotion to his family, but the officer’s death literally destroys his precious apparatus, ending and not furthering his cause. Satisfaction from sacrifice is limited to those who die neglected, for they care far more about their causes than those they die for do.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines existentialism, in part, as “a philosophical theory that…emphasizes the existence of the individual person… determining their own development through acts of the will.” Existentialist work stresses the importance of the individual often denying the “existence of objective values.” Existentialism is focused on choice, as well as the idea that people must exist before they can have any values. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka uses Gregor Samsa’s struggle against existentialist principles, as well as the consequences surrounding Gregor’s actions against the existentialist principles to exhibit a chiefly existentialist theme.
Jean-Paul Sartre was the pioneering philosopher in the existentialist movement who claimed that “existence preceded essence” and rejected the ideas of older philosophers that humans had a set nature. Human essence refers to “…ideas that [are] eternal and unchanging,” such as those a person could obtain from following a religion. Aristotle believed the essence of humanity was reason, and that reason was what separated humans from animals (Fiero, 70). Sartre argued that humans have no predisposition to any sort of being, and existence in a purely physical manner comes first in human priorities. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that humans have a need-based set of priorities, this theory is commonly referred to as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy described physiological needs, such as those for food, water and basic bodily functions as being the most important. The theory also states that needs further up in the hierarchy, for example friendships and familial relationships, cannot be met until the levels in the hierarchy below these needs are met (Noltemeyer, 1). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is existentialist in nature because humans must meet physical needs in order to exist, before being able to have any sort of philosophy, like a religion, or essence. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor violates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs after his transformation, therefore violating existentialist principles.
Gregor Samsa’s attitude about going to work after his transformation is an example of existentialism because of the consequences that result when he fights the “existence before essence” concept of existentialism. When confronted with his transformation, Gregor immediately attempts to go back to work, despite being transformed into a “monstrous vermin” (Kafka, 1). Instead of trusting his nature and ensuring his needs as a living being, which are now different from the needs Gregor had before his transformation, are met; Gregor attempts to go to work out of obligation to his family member’s needs. Gregor is violating Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, and attempting to fulfill the love and belonging needs that are satisfied when he supports his family before filling his own physiological needs. These actions go directly against the nature of existentialism, and therefore cause Gregor physical harm and emotional distress (18, 19). Due to the consequences of violating the nature of existentialism, The Metamorphosis can be classified as existentialist because when Gregor’s actions violate the principles of existentialism, the consequences are negative.
Existentialism focuses on choice as one of the defining aspects of human existence. The “freedom to choose” was at the heart of human existence and was what made people different from other animals. Humans alone are responsible for their choices, as well as the consequences surrounding these choices. Sartre believed that almost all choices have more than one option and always have more than one outcome to a situation. He also claimed that man’s choices always led to negativity because hindsight gives humans the ability to see the possible outcomes from choices they did not make. Sartre believed that to blame an outside source for a negative consequence from one’s actions, or to claim the choice made was the only choice available is to act in “bad faith” and is “a form of self-deception and inauthenticity” Sartre also claimed that humans natural anxiety about these choices and that every choice made was reflection of humanity as a whole (Fiero, 70). The existentialist principles of choice and “existence before essence” coincide with each other in that the choices made by humans begin to give way to the essences that humans do not have intrinsically. These choices not only give way to the essence of a person, but define what essence they possess. In The Metamorposis, Gregor attempts to violate the coupling of these existentialist principals and have an “essence” before choosing to act one way or another.
Gregor’s situation before his transformation in The Metamorphosis is an example of existentialism because Gregor’s choice to support his family instead of doing what he wishes results in negative consequences he can only see after his choice has been made. Gregor’s family does not work and relies solely on him to pay the family debt (Kafka, 4). The other members of Gregor’s family have the potential to work, yet none do and Gregor elects to work to support his family members (Cite). Only obligation to fulfill his family’s needs, and therefore his interpersonal needs, compel Gregor to work. Although the argument may be made that Gregor supports his family because he has to, Gregor actually supports his family because he chooses to. This choice leads to Gregor’s pain. Not only is Gregor in physical pain from the abuse done unto him by his family, his physiology is in pain as well. Gregor stops leaving his room, does not eat and spends his days in agony (43). The Metamorphosis is existentialist because Gregor’s choice to support to his family ultimately leads to negative consequences, and while a traditional manner of thinking would call Gregor’s support of his family something he must do, it is actually something he chooses to do, therefore suffering from the outcome. When Gregor goes against another existentialist principle, the consequences are negative.
Existentialism places the most power in the individual, and The Metamorphosis is an existentialist work because it exhibits how lack of individualism leads to demise. Gregor loses his individuality after his transformation. He is no longer able to do the things he loves to do, or support his family. At the beginning of the story, Gregor has framed a picture of an advertisement with a pretty girl in a home-made frame, something he enjoys doing (1). Gregor does not get to do much, but his wood cutting hobby is something he enjoys. Gregor’s sole purpose in life is to make enough money to support his family and pay off their debt (4). This compulsion makes Gregor an individual and gives his life meaning. When Gregor is unable to work or do any of the activities he could do before his transformation, he loses what makes him a person. Upon discovering Gregor’s dead body, the Samsa’s maid exclaims “Come and have a look! It’s croaked; it’s lying there dead as a doornail” (52). She does not refer to Gregor as “he,” but rather as “it,” fully robbing Gregor of his humanity. Gregor dies due to the loss of his individuality. He is no longer a human being in a psychological sense, as well as physical. Once his former passions and purpose are lost, Gregor is not an individual, and therefore dies after being reduced to something less than human. The events that lead to Gregor’s loss of individuality and subsequent death are existentialist in nature. Gregor dies when he loses the chief idea of existentialism, individuality.
Jo Bogaerts once wrote “French existentialism was among the first intellectual movements to bring Kafka critical renown as well as widespread popularity…” (Bogarets, 69). It can be concluded that Kafka’s popularity with French existentialists is due to his work, The Metamorphosis, an example of existentialist literature. Jean-Paul Sartre credited Kafka as wanting to “describe the human condition” (70). Kafka achieves an existentialist this existentialist description of the human condition in The Metamorphosis. By showing how the rejection of existentialist principles, including the focus on the individual, choices, and the idea that one must exists before one can have true values, lead to negative consequences, Kafka champions an existentialist cause.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in its continuously dissected and heavily studied narrative, details a transformation from man to creature but hides the true meaning of what it means to change form, both in mind and body. From the onset, it is made clear that something deeper exists beyond that of a strict tale of man becomes beast, cared for from surrounding environment, neglected by said environment, and eventually dying. Gregor Samsa, the would-be protagonist, exists as an anti-human, challenging the roles of family life and fulfilling some latent desire to reverse the role he inhabits. For the duration of the reading and eventual completion of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it is important to negate absolutes. Too much time is spent on the end result of an established piece and not enough on the methods, ideas, symbolic features, etc. that make the piece understandable. The reader tends to place too much stock in the author’s ultimate intention rather than the conclusions that can be drawn throughout the reading. Through Kafka’s inclusion of a nonhuman narrator capable of human thought and existing in a world of only upper and lower class, The Metamorphosis succeeds in the narration of a man subconsciously trying to overcome his current position in life, working to amount to a respected man in society, and altogether shaping the other aspects of the story. First and foremost, it is important to look at the creature, both ambiguous in nature, yet universally understood as a nonhuman entity possessing numerous human qualities. From the first line, “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug,” the reader is immediately made aware of the protagonist’s condition. Kafka goes on to describe the details of the insect-like creature, complete with a hard-shelled body and spindle-like legs, but leaves the classification up to the reader, which may reveal something about the lack of importance in Gregor’s physical transformation. Instead, it works at a catalyst for the rest of Gregor’s life, resulting in the loss of his job, alienation from his family, and a death unbecoming of a man who worked his entire life to support the living conditions of his family. The event, in itself, produces a certain level of skepticism in the reader, detailing an absurd reality separated from any sense of normalcy. Gregor Samsa’s condition, under any interpretation of the laws of physics, nature, or science, cannot and should not exist. He seemingly goes to bed human and wakes up as something different, but the reasons for his transformation are unclear. For instance, there is no sign of excessive pain other than a mild twinge of his lower half or slight inconvenience of trying to roll out of bed with his newfound body, ruling out the possibility of punishment. Gregor’s insect-like attributes cannot result from a natural force as he is the embodiment of a care-giving hard worker, who puts the well-being of his family in front of his own. He is neither deserving nor is he responsible for his current position in life. It is in this detail of Kafka’s narrative that an alternative reality may be a necessity. Since the event cannot take place in the real world, nor can Gregor’s transformation be explained through natural occurrence. Furthermore, the transformation is merely discovered to have happened, whereupon the reader lacks any definition of the actual happenings of the events, the details of the transformation, or incidents leading up to his ultimate downward spiral. It is as though one day Gregor’s physical appearance happened to change regardless of any significant motives or outside forces, separated from the surrounding world. The reader, faced with the impossible, should then conclude either one of two things. The first conclusion would be that Kafka is working in a fictitious world where commonplace occurrences are thrown aside for fantastical ideas and characters. While this may answer everything following Gregor’s change from man to creature, it lacks motive. The second conclusion asserts that the events both preceding and following the change happen for some reason, whether true to the author’s ultimate goal or not. It is in this conclusion that the reader is faced with the task of unearthing the characters, ideas, and events that explain the transformation and subsequent downfall of Gregor Samsa. This idea manifests in the first two paragraphs of the narrative and covers the dream-like instances of the story. The first sentence includes the lines “as Gregor Samsa was waking up,” which lacks any definite state of consciousness, alluding to the fact that the protagonist’s present state lay somewhere between sleep and full consciousness. There is no definite realm to which he inhabits. In the second paragraph, Gregor asks himself, ‘“What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream” (Kafka), further clouding the reader’s judgment as to whether the following events could be taking place in reality or a peculiar dream. In so doing, Gregor alienates himself from the reader in a very important manner. When faced with the impossible, the unimaginably grotesque, or a confrontation with the unexplainable, one tells oneself that everything surrounding is operating inside of a dream. It is a defense mechanism to which the human mind can successfully explicate and refute any event or occurrence that cannot be explained. As a child, I did the same with particularly scary movies, telling myself that it is all fictitious in order to maintain some level of sanity. Gregor does not offer the same level of clarity, immediately writing his transformation off as anything other than reality. Upon reading further, the reader is faced with yet another instance of separation between dream and reality. Gregor, reduced to the acceptance of his appearance and lack of human coordination, continues in his pursuit of making it to work, regardless of his current condition. It is not in the protagonist’s ability to miss something that is required of him day in and day out. His family is dependent solely on the money that he brings in, for which they are grateful. Consequently, his inability to answer the door provides much need character insight into both of his parent’s role in the household. In his explanation of why he is late to work, his alarm clock comes into question, saying, “Could the alarm have failed to ring? One saw from the bed that it was properly set for four o’clock. Certainly it had rung. Yes, but was it possible to sleep peacefully through that noise which made the furniture shake?” (Kafka). As a hardworking individual, who is respected for his punctuality and lack of personal life, waking up at the same time every day for five years, one grows accustomed to waking up on time. The idea that Gregor, on an ordinary day some five years into his working career, could all of the sudden neglect his opportunity at providing for his family, is absurd. There is nothing extraordinary about Gregor, his family, his lifestyle, his work, or this particular day. So why now does everything change? If the reader is to accept the idea that Gregor is, in fact, still dreaming and the world in which he now inhabits is all a product of his mind, than a few details can be made apparent to strengthen this conclusion. The narration is told from outside Gregor’s point of view, capable of experiencing the protagonist’s inner thoughts, but there are a few inconsistencies with its telling. For instance, the narrative has a sense of immediacy in its straightforward introduction, beginning directly in the middle of the main character’s stream of consciousness and leaving out any previous action or background information. This same attribute is typical of dreams simply due to the chaotic nature of the human mind. Dreams occur randomly and not in successive order, whereas reality is linear, occurring from one point to the next. Besides his impossible physical appearance, it is imperative that the reader recognize Gregor’s seemingly unfaltering description of the other character’s thoughts and motives. He is aware of the conversations, thoughts, and actions of those outside of his door, even when they are muffled through the many walls of the house. As a dream-state has been established, the next question is that of motivation. Gregor, in his monotonous life, complete with the mundane cycle of work and sleep, is operating on a purely subconscious level, where his motives are not readily demonstrated but inwardly experienced. It is in his dream-like state of existence and the idea that everything is operating according to the product of Gregor’s own mind, that the conclusion of the protagonist’s dream parallels his desire to escape from reality, is made available. Though he is not outwardly unhappy with the role he occupies in the Samsa household, Gregor exemplifies a downtrodden, overworked individual seeking a way out. His dream serves as just that; a catalyst for removing himself from the malevolent situation he is faced with, whereupon his family, parents included, relies on him, and not the other way around, as in the traditional manner of the family dynamic. The insect-like form that Gregor occupies can be seen as a refutation of his own responsibility, throwing aside his ability to take charge of the family’s income and instead subjecting himself to be cared for. In the beginning of the narrative, his distaste for his job coupled with the restrictive force of his parents is made clear when Kafka writes, “If I didn’t hold back for my parent’s sake, I’d have quit ages ago. I would’ve gone to the boss and told him just what I think from the bottom of my heart” (Kafka par. 4). Gregor is stuck in the never-ending cycle of living for someone else regardless of his own selfish emotions. The bug/creature can therefore, hold some significant symbolic value. If the reader is to take the whole narrative as a dream, fueled only by Gregor’s inner thoughts, than the ability to become any creature exists. He has chosen his own fate, at some deeper level. The insect, as presented throughout literary history, is symbolic of a grotesque, inhuman being, incapable of human rationality. It is unable to maintain its own life, as Gregor comes to find out as he relies heavily on his sister to provide meals for him. Why then, is this not a punishment for the protagonist? He seems to enjoy the hand he has been dealt, conforming to the wants and needs of an insect, especially in his diet, when the narrator says, “There were old half-rotten vegetables, bones from the evening meal, covered with a white sauce which had almost solidified, some raisins and almonds, cheese which Gregor had declared inedible two days earlier,” to which, “Gregor’s small limbs buzzed now that the time for eating had come” (Kafka). The main character demonstrates a significant disconnect between body and mind; in that, he is unable to reconcile his insect features for his human thought. Early on in the narrative, he still operates as would a human but does not possess the physical attributes to complete his daily tasks. It is not until the story progresses that Gregor is finally able to put aside his human thought processes and become both inwardly and outwardly the creature. By becoming the insect, he pushes aside all of his responsibility, instead becoming part of the house and allowing the rest of his family to transform from their dormant selves into productive members of the working class. Gregor’s subconscious and conscious come into play when discussing the fulfillment of his desire to break free from his previously restrictive working life. He works unquestioningly, striving to accomplish the heavy task supporting his entire family, and is unwilling to act selfishly. His outer insect form draws comparisons with the ego, primarily because he is outwardly demonstrating his frustration with his working and living conditions. He becomes that which is directly opposed to his previous self, acting upon his unconscious desire to be cared for rather than provide said care. His instinctual habits still lie intact for the majority of the narrative, working as his human emotion and thought processes desperately trying to maintain the convictions of his human life but failing to do so in the end. This is represented in the desire to become his own polar opposite, something he cannot rightfully express directly to his outside world, but still in existence. The insect works as a governing body controlling Gregor’s inner thought in the best way he knows how, passively. Subsequently, his transformation to an inept creature is fueled only by his unconscious severing of moral standards set forth to him by his parents and the surrounding environment. Gregor operates his life as does a machine, repeating the same process over and over again, day after day, until the machine stops working. Though the day his transformation takes place lacks any significance other that the metamorphosis from human to bug, it is the day the machine breaks down, causing those around it to become their own embodiment of productivity. The transformation is not only represented in one member of the Samsa family, but presents itself as an overarching catalyst to the productivity and changing of forms throughout the household. None are more so affected than Gregor’s sister, Grete. Throughout the beginning of the narrative, the family can be seen as completely reliant on Gregor’s work ethic, placing themselves solely in his care. His existence is only in stark contrast to the laziness of the family. Upon his transformation to insect, there is a progression of events that takes place leading to the eventual redemption and refusal of sloth-like qualities. His father is questioned by Gregor in the lines, “And yet, and yet, was that still his father? Was that the same man who had lain exhausted and buried in bed in earlier days when Gregor was setting out on a business trip, who had received him on the evenings of his return in a sleeping gown and arm chair, totally incapable of standing up, who had only lifted his arm as a sign of happiness [now] standing up really straight, dressed in a tight-fitting blue uniform with gold buttons” (Kafka). Gregor’s descent into deplorable living created a reaction in those around him, who realized that in order to survive they must take control of their life. Grete is a peculiar case, however. Grete is seemingly closest with Gregor, unquestioningly caring for him in his insect state and providing for him when most others started to turn their back. Their relationship might indicate something much more than a mere close connection between brother and sister. Gregor, in his dream-like wish fulfillment has subjected himself to a life of no responsibility, in accordance with his unconscious desire to resist the impositions placed upon him by his family. Grete initially shows compassion for this change in her brother, primarily during her adolescent stage of development in the narrative. As the story progresses however, she begins to resent her brother for the situation she is placed in, and eventually frees herself from the attachment of caregiver. Her detachment is only rivaled by her search for her own consciousness. Gregor has voluntarily given up his humanly form, or freedom, so that each can search and experience the consciousness that each desires. Grete’s search ends in her eventual maturation into adulthood and improved family dynamic, while the protagonist, upon realizing his conscious self to be nothing more than a hindrance on those around him, ceases to exist. The redemptive quality of this outcome is only found in the end result of the family, whereupon they, “Leaning back comfortably in their seats, talked to each other about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for the three of them had employment, about which they had not really questioned each other at all, which was extremely favourable and with especially promising future prospects. The greatest improvement in their situation at this point, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling” (Kafka). Upon Gregor’s death, none of the family members are where they were at the beginning of the narrative. In fact, the protagonist idea of the ultimate end result, manifested in the image of the fur wearing woman hanging on his wall, serves not as a goal for him but as a consequence of Gregor’s removal from society. It seems that the burden of the main character’s condition was only possessive of the emotions of the family for a short time and his nonhuman form greatly diminished the attachment or sympathy between the family and Gregor. By introducing this mindset, Kafka attempts to categorize the outer extremities of the family dynamic, challenging Gregor’s own capacity to handle the role that his parents should possess, and creating a separation between reality and fiction. Yes, the event may be occurring in a dream-like environment, a product of Gregor’s unconscious desires, but the results are tangible. The title indicates transformation but only of the most specific kind. A metamorphosis is only experienced in certain species of amphibians and fish and is relegated to the transition from adolescent to adult. Gregor does not encompass the values of a normal adolescent. Through and through, he is portrayed as an adult, with the emotions, physical stature and drive, and level of maturity that only an adult can possess. The adolescents in this narrative are those surrounding Gregor, supporting him only for their own selfish needs, begging the question of who is going through the metamorphosis. I would argue that the protagonist does not experience a metamorphosis but is instead, himself the metamorphosis. He is the driving force behind all change in the story, and while his transformation is made clear from the onset, Gregor is not the sole motivation of the narrative’s story arc. The Metamorphosis details a story that does not need to be complex in its interpretation yet possesses all the qualities of a deeply symbolic representation. The suppression of human emotion, as in Gregor’s refusal to abide by his strict responsibilities, is only made clear in his own representation of the self. By configuring his body to parallel his inner refusal of his parent’s lack of motivation, the protagonist allows himself to take the form of that which he aspires to be, while outwardly conforming to social and moral pressures. If the reader is to take the narrative as a dream, than Gregor’s insect form is not an actuality but rather a negation of human sociality, a desire to wish away the social obligations he is faced with. The dream serves as wish fulfillment, as all dreams do and the suppression of Gregor’s own reality may have caused his creation of this pseudo-world, wherein the protagonist is placed in the hands of those that he previously cared for. It is an outward portrayal of an inward idea. The idea that any sense of normalcy can be found in a fantastical world may seem like an arbitrary assignment, yet through Gregor’s impossible transformation, human emotion and social interaction among the family is again found. Gregor’s insect self also contains all levels of human faculties relating to the mind. It comes as a shock that Gregor is unable to stomach his previously enjoyed beverage but his instinctual insect-like tendencies are seen when the protagonist is doing something other than thinking. His consciousness is only experienced in the voluntary subjection to his sister’s care. She, in turn will experience her own consciousness that of moral and physical maturation but not until Gregor is able to become too great a burden to handle. He offers stubborn opposition to Grete in the sense that she has become the primary caregiver for her brother unlike their previous situation. Gregor is only useful to his sister up until the point that she realizes her own consciousness, at which point, the main character is set aside and left to die. The Metamorphosis works as a purely symbolic text because the reader makes it possible, relegating his/her interpretation to be the correct one, when in fact, it is not possible to discern clearly.