Alienation and Humanity in The Metamorphosis

August 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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