Cloaks of Respect and Dignity

November 3, 2020 by Essay Writer

There is something about donning on a uniform that makes a man feel invincible and demand the respect of those around him. When times are tough, people tend to look towards the uniformed man for guidance and to help pull them through a difficult situation. This is evident in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis when Mr. Samsa returns home from work one day in a shiny new uniform to find his wife and daughter willing to respond to his every beck and call. As the uniform becomes more worn and frayed, the family dynamic at home begins to change. However, Mr. Samsa is not the only member of the household that has felt the power of a uniform. For a brief moment while reminiscing about his past, Gregor conjures up the memory of a happier time when he wore a lieutenant’s uniform in the military. Through Gregor and Mr. Samsa, Kafka demonstrates that men can be in positions of power without a uniform, but they will only feel proud and dignified and command respect if they are wearing their uniform.

While Mr. Samsa was out of work, he felt debased and utterly useless. Mr. Samsa was supposed to be the man of the house, yet it was difficult for him to assume this position when it was Gregor who was the sole breadwinner for the family. With Gregor out of commission, all of this changes. Mr. Samsa gets a job that requires him to wear “a smart blue uniform with gold buttons,” a “high, stiff collar,” and a “cap with [a] gold monogram from, probably, some bank” (30). This uniform assures Mr. Samsa that he is in charge of the household without having to thank anybody for anything. As the uniform empowers Mr. Samsa, he commits his cruelest and most ruthless act against Gregor: throwing an apple at him and lodging it in his shell. This vicious act causes all of the members of the family to fear Mr. Samsa. Gregor flees back into his room while Grete screams in fright. Yet it is Mrs. Samsa’s reaction that best demonstrates the power that a uniform can give a man. Mrs. Samsa “pushes herself to [her husband], her arms around him, uniting herself with him totally…her hands behind [Mr. Samsa’s] head begging him to spare Gregor’s life” (31). The fact that Mrs. Samsa has to beg with her husband demonstrates the complete dominance that Mr. Samsa now has over her.

Mr. Samsa’s sense of authority quickly deteriorates. He refuses to remove his uniform even when he is at home. As Gregor notes, his “father would slumber where he was, fully dressed, as if always ready to serve and expecting to hear the voice of his superior,” which causes it to become stained and shabby (32). When a ruler becomes too powerful, it is customary for people to want to usurp him from his throne, and the deterioration of the uniform shows that this is exactly what is happening to Mr. Samsa. Both the boarders that have moved into the Samsas’ apartment and Grete begin to vie with Mr. Samsa for power soon after Mr. Samsa’s uniform has begun to deteriorate. Grete finally takes all the power from Mr. Samsa after Gregor scares the three boarders away. As Grete demands that the family get rid of Gregor, Mr. Samsa begins to “play with his uniform cap between the plates left by the three gentlemen” (39). The fact that Mr. Samsa is toying with the cap instead of putting it on shows that he is no longer in a comfortable position of power. Being treated like a servant in his own house and being told what to do by his daughter has made Mr. Samsa lose some of the pride and dignity that wearing his uniform represented.

When Mr. Samsa was the sole breadwinner in the household, he was treated like a king by the other members of his family. The same cannot be said about the family’s treatment of Gregor when he was the only breadwinner, and this is due to the fact that the job of a travelling salesman does not require a uniform. Gregor puts up with a stressful and demanding job in order to support his family, yet he never receives any form of gratitude from his parents or his sister. Rather, Mr. Samsa puts a large amount of the money Gregor has earned aside instead of using it to pay the debts he owes, which elongates the amount of time Gregor has to work his horrible job. This demonstrates that the Samsas take advantage of Gregor and do not respect him.

Gregor did not always have such a demeaning job. When he first emerges from his room after transforming into a bug, Gregor looks at a “photograph of [himself] when he was a lieutenant in the army, his sword in his hand and a carefree smile on his face as he called forth respect for his uniform and bearing” (15). Gregor’s time in the military was one where he felt proud and happy of the work he did because he wore a lieutenant’s uniform and was respected by members of the military that ranked below him. The fact that Gregor recalls this image just as he is in the middle of being yelled at by the chief clerk for not showing up to work highlights the sharp contrast between how Gregor was treated as a uniformed worker and as a travelling salesman.

In The Metamorphosis, the way some of the characters are perceived is directly linked to their appearance. Just as the family’s treatment toward Gregor worsens after he is physically transformed into a bug, the presence of a uniform also affects the dynamic of the family. This subtle change in appearance underscores the amount of respect that Gregor and Mr. Samsa receive from the rest of the family when they each play role of the breadwinner. A uniform shielded Mr. Samsa and Gregor from any insecurity they might have felt about themselves. Because they appeared to be respectable members of society while dressed in a uniform, Mr. Samsa and Gregor were empowered to feel a high degree of self-respect and self-worth.

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