Alienation and Isolation in The Metamorphosis
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is a reflection on how alienation and isolation begin and develop in a society by employing the characters in his novella as a representation of society as a whole. Using Gregor’s manager to demonstrate the initiation of isolation and alienation of a person, Gregor as the person being isolated and the inhabitants of the Samsa household as the other members of society, Kafka creates an effective model to represent the hierarchically structured effect of isolationism and alienation in society on a larger scale.
Kafka uses the company Gregor is forced to work for to illustrate the hierarchical effect of isolation and alienation, where the initiation of isolationism begins at the top of the hierarchy and thus creates a ripple effect down through the rest of society. The manager of the company that Gregor must work for due to a family debt is the representative Kafka chooses to demonstrate the most important person in the hierarchy.
By waking up as an insect and being late for work, Gregor has broken his conformity to the parameters of what is tolerated by the company, so the manager himself comes to deal with the issue since such circumstances can “only be entrusted to the intelligence of the manager” (Kafka, 13). This, as well as how the family treats the manager as nicely as possible when he arrives demonstrates the importance of the manager’s decisions and their respect for authority.
Further demonstrating the importance of his decisions, the manager is the first to react to Gregor’s transformation by threatening, “your position is not at all the most secure” (17) when Gregor will not open his door. This shows that he has the ability to completely disrupt Gregor’s place in the hierarchy and in doing so, isolate and alienate him from the rest of society. The manager remarks, “that was an animal’s voice” (20) when Gregor speaks, which alienates Gregor from humanity and reacts strongly to the sight of Gregor by “pressing his hand against his open mouth and moving back slowly” (23). After firing Gregor, the manager flees the building which causes the initiation of Gregor’s isolation since work was the most important and most time consuming thing in his life. This shows that as with society in general, the person in charge holds tremendous influence over the rest of the population and is capable of initiating the idea that a person must be isolated.
Just because the figure in power decrees that a person is not a good member of society and should be isolated, however, does not mean that all members of society react the same way. the spectrum of views that members of society take against those who have been isolated is shown through Kafka’s portrayal of the Samsa family’s reaction to his transformation. Gregor’s father represents those who respect authority and immediately agree with those higher in the hierarchy and unquestioningly aid in the isolation process. He wears a “blue uniform with gold buttons” (62) even when he is at home, asleep on a chair in the living room which demonstrates the value he places on the system. This is also illustrated as soon as the manager reacts to Gregor’s deviation from normal when Mr. Samsa begins to “drive Gregor back into his room by waving the cane and the newspaper” (29). Other members of the family, however, react differently to the situation.
Grete is the closest to Gregor and is the most sympathetic to him immediately after his transformation by placing milk in his room, which “was his favourite drink and which his sister had currently placed there for that reason” (34). Her reaction to Gregor’s isolation demonstrates the opposite of Mr. Samsa’s by being as considerate as he is forceful in Gregor’s alienation. Her relationship with Gregor demonstrates how in society, those who know the person being isolated before its initiation are most likely to resist helping to enforce the isolation. However, Kafka understands that people are very dynamic and often change their opinions. Grete undergoes a change in perspective to such a degree that by the end of the novella it is she who declares, “we must get rid of it” (84). This change in perspective shows how Kafka believes that members of society often stop sympathizing with the isolated group when it becomes inconvenient for them to continue doing so. Gregor’s mother reacts in an initial manner somewhere between the father and sister since when first seeing him she “went two steps toward Gregor and collapsed right in the middle of her skirts” (23).
These conflicting desires continue through the novella, such as when Mr. Samsa tries to kill Gregor, “she begged him to spare Gregor’s life” (65) but at the same time she is repulsed by him. This illustrates how she wants to help him and tries to think of him the same way she did before his transformation, yet is unable to. This resembles the idealists in society who theoretically support the alienated person but often succumb to social pressures when they are forced to face the problem. These three reactions to Gregor’s transformation as a result of the initiation of his isolation by the manager demonstrate the spectrum of reactions. From the immediate acceptance of the hierarchy represented by Mr. Samsa, to the true compassion of Grete and the idealism of Mrs. Samsa, Kafka shows how a wide variety of reactions is expected from society, and how people often change their opinions.
Similarly to how social pressures affect his mother, Gregor is also convinced through his respect for authority that he deserves the isolation enforced on him by society. He believes those above him in the hierarchy to such an extent that he eventually reaches the conclusion that he would be better off dead that to have his family suffering because of his presence. Like his father, Gregor has a strong respect for authority and served in the military until his father, who is an authoritative figure in his life, needed financial help so he became “almost overnight, a traveling salesman, who naturally had entirely different possibilities for earning money (…) which could be set out on the table at home in front of his astonished and delighted family” (43). Gregor’s decision to help his family pay off their debt without thinking of the effect it would have on his own happiness or considering refusing shows how firmly he is entrenched in the hierarchical system.
The belief that authoritative figures are always correct leads him to think that since society dictates that he is worthless and deserves isolation, he would be better off dead than a burden to society. This is shown after Grete and Mr. Samsa decide that they want him gone, but Gregor’s “own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sisters” (89). He overhears his family bemoaning their misfortune and since they are above him on the hierarchical structure, Gregor believes that he has to die in order to spare them the trouble of having to deal with him. This illustrates how Kafka believes that society is so dependent on a hierarchical structure and the guidance from authoritative figures that they cannot think for themselves and even the person who is isolated may still respect and follow those higher in the hierarchy. This is the final step in the transmission of an idea through a social hierarchy whereby everyone believes that a person is lesser and should not exist, including the alienated person themselves.
The Metamorphosis comes together to show the hierarchical pattern Kafka believes a society follows in regard to isolation and alienation. He uses the manager of the company Gregor works for to model the instigation of isolationism, which in society is determined by the most important person in the hierarchy. Gregor’s family represents society as a whole and is used to illustrate the variety of reactions the people in society after they are told who to alienate. These reactions range from immediate, unquestioning agreement with those higher in the hierarchy, to idealistically supporting the isolated person, to sympathizing with and trying to help the alienated person.
He also uses Grete to demonstrate the dynamic state of human reactions, by changing from sympathetic and caring to vicious and unsupportive by the end of the novella. Kafka continues this shaping of society from the hierarchical structure by causing Gregor himself to agree with the authoritative figures in his life and conform to the idea that he is worthless, thus imposing self-isolation. the interactions between the characters in The Metamorphosis show how Kafka believes that the isolation and alienation of a person in society is initiated by those at the top of the social hierarchy and works its way down through the hierarchy until eventually everyone in society has been influenced to accept the initial decision of one person.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Ian Johnstone. Nanaimo: Malaspina University-College, 1999.
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