Surrealism Of Identity And Appearance in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
Identity and Physical Appearance
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis follows Gregor Samsa from his transformation into an insect to his death. Naturally, Gregor’s metamorphosis causes great turmoil in his family, leading to changing roles for the different members. There are many ways to read Kafka’s surrealism, but one major element of this piece is the relationship between identity and appearance. The character’s inward transformations and changing roles are reflected in their outward appearances; Kafka illustrates the physical signs of human identity.
The central physical change of a character in The Metamorphosis is obviously Gregor’s literal mutation from human to insect form, which interrupts how he sees himself and how he operates in his family and in his home. Without any explanation, he finds “himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka 7). An extreme physical change opens the story. For the entirety of it, Gregor is in this state; the metamorphosis is his downfall. As a regular human man, he had worked as a traveling salesman to support his parents and sister, and even upon waking as vermin he is determined to get to work on time. This becomes a problem, however, because he has “only the many little legs that continually [wave] every which way and which he [can] not control at all” (10). The drastic change of his physical being not only frightens his family so they confine him to his room – when he emerges shortly after the transformation, “the father [drives] Gregor back relentlessly” – but also makes it extremely difficult for him to move around his room (20). He must adapt to a totally new physical state, and his small house and frightened family do not seem adequate for Gregor’s change.
Throughout the piece, Gregor not only struggles physically, but his humanity is called into question. He mentally struggles to accept that he can no longer support his family. He views himself as strong and sacrificial for having taken care of them, and has great difficulty in not being able to do anything as they struggle financially without his income; he feels “flushed with shame and grief” when he realizes that the savings from his work is “by no means sufficient to support the family” (27). He loses his role as breadwinner and therefor his purpose. Now, he strives to reconcile his transformation and find some way to go on, but his options are limited; he simply crawls around his room. His new form is confusing and taxing; as his mother and sister begin to clear out his room, he wonders if he truly wants “his warm room, comfortably furnished with old family heirlooms, to be transformed into a lair in which he would certainly be able to crawl freely in any direction, but at the price of rapidly and completely forgetting his human past” (31). He is shocked to realize that for a while, part of him had been excited for the space to crawl around, but upon this realization, he longs for the comforts of a human life. Identity is formed in part by one’s family history and values, and by the values, interests, and memories as reflected by one’s possessions. He doesn’t want to let go of any of this, and seems to recognize that his very humanity has been compromised by his transformation. He still has the same thoughts, memories, and beliefs as he did as a human, but it’s unclear whether this is enough to make him human when his physical form is totally inhuman and starting to influence his behavior and desire.
With Gregor incapacitated by his metamorphosis, his father takes on a more powerful role and also grows more physically imposing; his identity is visible in his body and appearance. Formerly, with Gregor essentially acting as head of the household since he provided financially, the father was deprived of the traditional role. He “used to lie wearily buried in bed when Gregor left for a business trip; [he] welcomed his return in the evening by merely raising his arms to show his joy, not being quite able to get up” (34). Physically, he appeared weak, and Gregor felt as if he is responsible for his father. However, now he stands “erect, dressed in a tight blue uniform with gold buttons, like that of a bank messenger; his heavy double chin [bulges] over the high stiff collar of his jacket; from under the busy eyebrows his alert black eyes [flash] penetratingly; his previously disheveled white hair [is] combed flat, exactingly parted and gleaming” (35). With newfound power, he gains a new role and thus a new aspect to his identity. Now, he’s the primary provider for the Samsa family, and accordingly he starts to present himself as strong and dignified. The change in his appearance mirrors his change in attitude and position. He is so committed to this new identity that “out of some absurd obstinacy, the father [refuses] to take off his messenger’s uniform even in the house” (38). Gregor’s transformation is inexplicable, making Herr Samsa’s feel precarious. He clings to the main sign of his patriarchal role because his appearance reflects his power. Gregor ostensibly had no choice in his metamorphosis and subsequent loss of identity; his father’s conscious and adamant choice to always wear his uniform contrasts with his hopeless situation. If he always dresses the part, perhaps he will be able to hold onto his new role.
Grete also grows into a new identity – and grows up in general – following Gregor’s metamorphosis. As both of the parents are too wary of Gregor to take care of him, the sister takes on new responsibilities in order to feed him and keep his room clean, as well as support the parents by contributing to the running of the household. In the beginning, she is not particularly detailed, merely a worried young girl. However, throughout the piece she gains strength and independence through her caretaking of Gregor. She takes on an identity. Though her age isn’t mentioned, she appears to be a teenager, and she seems to come of age in the wake of Gregor’s transformation and as a result of her new role. By the end, “she [has] blossomed into a pretty and voluptuous young woman… [she jumps] to her feet and [stretches] her young body” (52). As with the father, Grete’s changing identity is reflected in her changing body. With Gregor’s death, the family is no longer held back by the terrible situation of being related to and therefore responsible for a vermin. Grete is beautiful and energetic, having broken free from her younger and unidentifiable self. Her responsibilities in this period have changed her body and her identity. Her internal changes are manifested in her outward growth and maturation, further suggesting that the body reflects identity in terms of one’s role. The language here evokes a metamorphosis of a very different kind than Gregor’s; she’s growing, maturing, and preparing for a new stage of life. It is implied that she is now ready to take on yet another new role, as a wife and mother. The jumping and stretching indicates that she will be exercising a newfound identity that’s emerged from her blossoming. In contrast to her brother who withers away, Grete embodies the very source of humanity by indicating her fertility.
Kafka connects physical and psychological change in The Metamorphosis. A physical transformation of outward appearance reflects inward change as a result of the adoption of a new role and identity. This work calls into question how much change can occur without entirely removing the original identity. As a result of Gregor’s physical metamorphosis into an insect, he loses his role as the provider of his family, and diminishes his attachment to memories and interests. Readers must face the question of whether he maintains his humanity despite his physical transformation – he retains his mind, but he dies in the end, unable to reconcile a new identity in this form. On the other hand, his father and his sister undergo their own physical changes less extreme than his but as a result of it, and they benefit from their subsequent new roles. His father is able to physically grow stronger and also become more authoritative and powerful, though before he inexplicably could not help support the family. Grete matures into a young woman physically and mentally, all in response to her new responsibilities she takes on because of the metamorphosis. This work is a reminder that people’s roles have a significant effect on one another; the physical transformations in the text represent the strength of the relationship between internal and external change. Kafka questions and ultimately denies Gregor’s humanity in rendering him useless and killing him; through his downfall, his family members grow more fully into their identities and their humanity. Though not transforming into new species, real people are constantly changing physically, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly due to accidents or illnesses. The Metamorphosis points out that physical change, because of its entanglement with identity and humanity, forces some unfairly out of their roles while others take advantage of resulting opportunities.
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