Originating from the era of Socrates and Plato, mankind has been led to the presumption that moral perfection is universal, and that all human beings live their lives to serve an exclusive purpose. During the early 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard’s reaction to the prospect of a singular moral state began one of the first significant expressions of existentialism, in which he stated that each individual must find his own method of achieving his own particular moral ideality and meaning in the midst of the various obstacles that life may present. Existentialism, after growing to encompass multiple facets regarding philosophies, still may be found to center around the thematic ideal that “humans, unlike other entities, make themselves what they are by choices, choice of ways of life” (“Existentialism”), are burdened with constant anguish due to their individual choice, and may only escape such anxiety through death. The message is ostensibly simple, yet the facets lead one into the attempt to delve for greater understanding. Contemplation of existentialist thought is necessary to grasp a sense of the evolution that existentialism has taken since primarily being defined by Kierkegaard, and how such effects impact modern day philosophy. In Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis, the deterioration of humans is portrayed as the climactic absolute in terms of one man’s transformation into an unidentified insect, in which the lack of introduction leads the reader to question what role man’s responsibility of choice plays in one’s psychological makeup. Kafka presents man as a victim of his choice between public and personal focus, in which man has abandoned his individuality for the sake of societal approval. Yet when depicting man as his individualistic self, society turns hostile to cause the constant anguish that is consistent with existentialist thought. The Metamorphosis comments upon the individual’s path to achieving a meaningful compromise between societal satisfaction and moral self-worth, as can be determined through his representation of character relationships, as well as through the symbolic implications that reflect upon Kafka’s own background.
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Franz Kafka led an exceptionally existential life in which he was alienated from society, leading him to constantly search for meaning and grow to despair the trials of life. The Metamorphosis occurs in a time and place that remains unspecified, yet the distracting similarities between the relationships of the characters in the novella and Kafka’s known background inclines the reader to draw the conclusion that the work is a reflection upon Kafka’s perspective of his place in public life. Kafka’s hometown of Prague was predominately Christian and Czech-culture oriented, contrary to his family’s Jewish beliefs and German heritage which were kept separate through religiously-segregated institutions (Study Guide 10). In Gustav Janouch’s conversations with the author, Kafka stated that The Metamorphosis was “not a confession” (Conversations with Kafka 32). However, the psychological transference theory developed by Sigmund Freud declares that man will repress concepts that are threatening to one’s self-concept (Plotnik 560). Such psychoanalysis strongly supports that although Kafka might have denied any similarities, his suppressed emotions of alienation due to his religious and cultural background are likely to have subconsciously imparted itself into his literary works such as the character anxiety and father-son conflicts present in The Metamorphosis.
From the start of the novella, the reader comes to the conclusion that Gregor’s transformation into an insect is quite literal as Kafka’s blatant narration states that “it was no dream” (Kafka 41). Such magical realism, as the general reader is aware that such a transformation from man to creature is outside the scientifically possible realm, places the events following into a perspective which parodies the relationships present, emphasizing a skewed sense of each character’s psychological self-awareness and their relativity with the other characters. Initially Gregor’s relationship with his sense of self is the only perspective present to the reader, in which he himself has ceased to exist as a human being in not only form but in mentality as well. Samsa’s ruminations consist not of concern about how he no longer resides in his own body, but instead regard his job and the plethora of worries that a traveling salesman might have if he were capable of being in a human state of form. Such anxieties such as those regarding “the torture of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends” (Kafka 42) determine Gregor to be in a pregnant state of denial concerning his insect state. The refusal of Gregor’s to accept his current transformation as anything more than a hindrance upon his work life serves to imprint the lack of self-concept that Gregor has, with his devotion to fulfilling the desires of others overwhelming his concern about his own fate1. Society is filled with constant change of thoughts and ideals, which plays a major role due to Samsa’s occupation as a traveling merchant whom must cater to consumer supply-and-demand. Viewing himself as “condemned to work for a firm” (Kafka 45), Gregor plays the victim to his employers, customers, and even to his family as he later discovers and appreciates the thriftiness of his father’s oppressive dishonesty. As a robot operating at the dictation of society and failing to produce anything except satisfaction for others besides him, Samsa has no identification with himself besides the simple fact that he is a salesman. His dramatic, despairing reaction to the mere thought of being replaced as the breadwinner of the family’s income continues to emphasize his complete surrender to society, even as he is incapacitated by his inhuman state. “The mind loses control over the body that represents it” (Ben-Ephraim), where the man has deteriorated to the point at which he is no longer human enough to consciously make his own individual choice. Society acts as a parasite to absorb all of Gregor’s sense of individual identity. Thus, Samsa awakens one morning as an insect because of his failure to fulfill his role as a human as defined by existential thought, becoming creature-like in both spirit and body as resembled through his habit of routine.
The familial and more specifically, the father-son relationship taking place is similarly contorted in the illogical world of Gregor Samsa. Subsequent to their discovery of Gregor’s new form, the family continues to promote the magical realist vibe of the novella as they casually transform the bedroom into a makeshift habitat, and attempt to live normal lives with the exception of when Gregor imparts his presence upon them. However, it is the paternal figure that stands out greatest as a source of oppression in relation to Gregor’s complete yielding to societal satisfaction. Samsa essentially becomes an indentured servant as a representative of the family after the alleged failure of his father’s business, albeit unnecessarily although he appreciates the “unexpected thrift and foresight” (Kafka 59) of his father’s deception even in hindsight. A son’s unconditional love for his father is depicted in Gregor’s unwavering faith in his father’s actions, believing that “doubtless it was better the way his father had arranged it” at the cost of his own freedom. In deep contrast to Gregor’s faith, no paternal affection is hinted upon as occurring prior to Samsa’s metamorphosis, seemingly being portrayed as businesslike with “no special uprush of warm feeling” (Kafka 58) to depict the evident lack of fatherly reciprocation of his son’s love. Extended into life after Samsa transforms into a creature, Gregor’s father presents himself predominantly in situations in which his lack of acceptance for Gregor’s state is present, constantly taking “the worst interpretation [and] assuming that Gregor had been guilty” (Kafka 65). His shunning of Gregor is constantly present and escalating in intensity as time passes, from prodding with a stick to apple-throwing. Gregor has replaced his father to “become the pillar of the household” (MacAndrew 54), potentially causing paternal resentment from Gregor’s father against his son’s success in business. “The scene in which Gregor’s father wounds him [â€¦] reveals the psychological situation” (MacAndrew 55), in which the father’s sudden violence towards his son as a assertive presence enlightens the reader to the role reversal between father and son that has taken place with Gregor’s transformation into an insect. Such a role exchange continues to be depicted as Gregor’s photo of himself in military uniform is packed away, preluding to his father’s sleeping in uniform with “extreme discomfort and yet quite peacefully” (Kafka 68), allowing the reader to gain the sense that Gregor’s father is reassured in his masculinity now that he has seemingly reassumed his position as the dominant force in the family. Similar to Kafka’s own paternal influence in which his father’s lack of appreciation for his son’s talents in literature caused tension within the familial structure as well as “lifelong guilt, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence” (Study Guide 9), Gregor and his relationship with his father, in which his father appears to be continually disappointed in Gregor’s performance, may be deemed a predominant cause of Gregor’s dramatic need for community support; even as an insect when he is comforted by the feeling of being “drawn once more into the human circle” (Kafka 49), Gregor is continually seeking to satisfy his desire for paternal affection through yielding his life to societal whims in the attempt to gain approval. The failure to obtain a compromise between Samsa’s internal moral state and his dependence upon society’s need for him reflects upon mankind’s overall search for balance between society and self, with Gregor as both a man and insect failing to achieve a conciliation-rooting as the cause of Gregor’s incessant mental agony throughout the entirety of the novella until his death.
Abraham Maslow developed a personality theory that encompasses the hierarchy of needs that man must fulfill to obtain self-realization and balance. Fulfillment of Maslow’s hierarchy is dependent upon mankind’s responsibility of choice. The psychological ladder is arranged in ascending order, in which one “must satisfy your biological and safety needs before using energy to fulfill [one’s] personal and social needs. Finally, [one] can devote time and energy to reaching [one’s] true potential, which is [â€¦] self-actualization, [one’s] highest need” (Plotnik 443). When these needs are unfulfilled, “the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless” (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien). Because Gregor’s paternal figure deprives him of his needs of love and belonging in a familial setting, regardless of both man and insect forms, Gregor is left unable to reach true fulfillment of his unique potential as an individual.
Gregor’s significance based itself upon his relationships with his family, and the function he played in being the support for the family. Post-transformation, however, he is no longer capable of attending work and sustaining the support that he considered so paramount to his importance. By the closing shift of the novella, Gregor’s role in society is diminished even further to the point where Gregor the insect has no individualized relationships, in which “the separation of the animal from the human beings is complete” (Klingenstein 2). The reader is able to realize that the world, most particularly his own family, glosses over his absence to reveal that Samsa’s perspective of his individual significance was purely his own fabrication. The replacing boarders’, as well as his family’s reaction to him, morphs into a mob mentality against him in which they react to him simply as a group effort. After reaching such a point, in which Gregor’s sister proclaims that she will not utter her “brother’s name in the presence of this creature” (Kafka 75), Gregor quickly draws the conclusion that regardless of how he desires to remain a part of things, and apart of the meaning of things, he is incapable to do so without cooperation of community. He dies at heart nothing but an insect, with his humanity and significance removed not because of his transformation, but due to his failure to justify his existence by being useful. Irony plays a major role in Gregor’s realization of self, portraying his insect self as being neglected long enough to finally compose itself with true substance, being “covered with dust; fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides,” yet too indifferent to bother to “scrape himself clean on the carpet, as once he had done several times a day” (Kafka 73). It is only once Samsa has grown idle and no longer serves nor has the possibility to create a meaning to his subsistence, that he finally gains a true form and self of his own, only to be replaced by the introduction of newer characters that newly gain the purpose of supporting the family through rent.
Symbolism within The Metamorphosis may be seen to reflect upon the societal-self relationships that Gregor Samsa faces, as well as being used to parody the Christian religion that Kafka was raised surrounded by. Initiating the novella with the depiction of “the window, and the overcast sky” (Kafka 41) immediately compels the reader to delving into the meaning of the window as a figure in itself, as well as the significance of what can be seen outside. Windows are typically viewed to define a boundary between outside and inside, and between public and private. As a man, Samsa had no social life extraneous to his work, lacking true participation in society aside from flitting in and out as part of his dutiful procedure. Similarly, in Gregor’s insect state he is condemned to merely viewing the occurrences around him through the window rather than participating, emphasizing his lack of function. Shutters and blinds are used to obscure the view to the casual onlooker, but the lack of coverings on the window within Gregor’s room signifies Gregor’s inability to fulfill his escapist thoughts of “forgetting all this nonsense” (Kafka 41) and restoring “all things to their real and normal condition” (Kafka 45). Not only does the window portray the finite fate of Gregor Samsa, but also his rapidly deteriorating relationship with the outside world.
The scenery outside of the omnipresent window changes as the plot continues, in a reflection of Gregor’s gradual acceptance towards his insect state of being. The psychological implications that society places upon Gregor is evident in The Metamorphosis within the second paragraph, initiating with the senses of “hear[ing] rain drops beating on the window gutter” (Kafka 41) and seeing naught but “the morning fog” (Kafka 45). Such fog and rain create the tonal representation of isolation as society, “muffled even [on] the other side of the narrow street,” is no longer visible to Gregor when he is in complete denial of his insect state. The “dreary at least and perhaps oppressive” (Delahoyde) sense that the reader obtains from Kafka’s initial setting sets up the pessimistic tone of Gregor’s relationship with himself, which later enables the emphasis of the extreme anguish and guilt that Gregor experiences from his lack of contribution. As Kafka portrays later on in the morning when “the light had meanwhile strengthened; on the other side of the street one could see clearly a section of the [â€¦] hospital” (Kafka 50), the bringing about of light visible through the window becomes a metaphorical spotlight emphasizing how Gregor’s new form is being revealed to society for judgment. Such a rendering of revelation “plays ironically on the traditional angel [â€¦] when Gregor displays the metaphysical ugliness of Frankenstein’s monster” (Ben-Ephraim), due to the bringing on of light for vermin rather than the traditional religious occurrence of light at a time of sanctitude, such as the star illuminating over the baby Jesus (Holy Bible: King James Version, Matthew 2.1-2,7,9). Kafka’s Jewish background portrays itself in the irony of the situation, in which the Christian symbol of baby Jesus, a symbol of the spiritual rebirth of mankind, is paralleled to the grotesqueness of the vermin that Gregor has become. The reference to the visibility of the hospital, a societal establishment of the therapeutic process that is described as the building opposite to the Samsa apartment, serves to be the introductory of the stifled relationship Gregor has with his father and family-the Samsa family never appears to consider taking Gregor across the street to the hospital where he might be cured-blatantly representing the family’s extreme placement of value on appearances in society, not wishing to blemish their own roles for the sake of Gregor. As time passes and Gregor’s humanistic deterioration continues, the hospital is “now quite beyond his range of vision” (Kafka 60) and the symbol of society’s aid to the ailing is completely removed from availability to his insect form.
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Although it continues to rain throughout his new presentation to society, the droplets become distinct and individualized. As “large singly discernable and literally singly splashing” (Kafka 50) raindrops, the rain seen through the window changes to reflect Gregor’s new awareness of himself as an individual in the midst of society-a concept of self-identity that he lost in his constant routine. The importance of light is reaffirmed during the first night Gregor spends as an insect, where “the electric lights in the street cast a pale sheen [â€¦] on the ceiling and the upper surfaces of the furniture, but down below, where he lay, it was dark” (Kafka 54). The definite division between light and darkness classically isolates Gregor as a fallen and evil being, represented by how society begins to treat him as he no longer conforms to being a productive member of the culture. The window in Gregor’s room alongside the light, rain, and sun that may penetrate it are representative of the constantly changing stream of human consciousness and self, and of Gregor’s continual decomposition as a human figure, with no true moral self, to a mere insect reflection.
In twentieth-century Prague, approximately “six percent of the city’s population were German speakers,” with another five percent of the population being Jewish. Ostracization came not from obviously direct violence but instead through defined segregation of public places and utilities, strengthened particularly post-World War I (Study Guide 10). Freud’s psychological transference theory predicts that some form of unconscious conflict will be underlying due to the disparity Kafka faced between religious and cultural states as a child (Plotnik 560). Throughout The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka embraces his Judaic roots to parody Christianity’s history and interpretation of sin.
Flagellation initiated in about the eleventh century as a way to repent for sins as a part of one’s piety to the church and to God. The flagellants were a fanatical Christian sect arising in Italy in about 1260 BCE, maintaining the belief that flagellation would appease the wrath of God (“Flagellant”). Such beliefs quickly worked their way out of the Christian mainstream in more modern times, yet “Gregor’s self-disregard expresses itself in acts of self-mutilation” (Ben-Ephraim) to evoke such comparisons between internally-caused anguish of existentialism and the flagellants of the thirteenth century. As Gregor refuses to heed “the fact that he was undoubtedly damaging [his jaws]” (Kafka 49) for the sake of pleasing others, some “brown fluid issued form his mouth” to symbolically depict a connotatively diseased sense of sacrifice and willing pain. The relation to Gregor and the history of the Church makes a mockery of Christian practices due to the sheer ludicrousness that modern-day perspectives and beliefs place upon medieval practices such as flagellation.
In a similar manner, Kafka prods at the Christian interpretation of Adam and Eve at the beginning of time. Although Judaism and Christianity share essentially the same religious text-dubbed the Torah and the Old Testament, respectively-Judaism views the “Decalogue or ten commandments” to be the “only part of the Hebrew scriptures that purports to be the direct speech of Yahweh [God]” (Hooker), and thus consider the rest of the Torah as general guidelines to truth due to the fallacies of human interpretation, branching away from the Christian belief of being born with Sin to deem existence a state of purity. In a parody of the Old Testament’s chapter of Genesis, Gregor’s father is “determined to bombard [Gregor]” (Kafka 67) in a vicious role wherein he is “shying apple after apple.” When contemplating the role of the apple as temptation from the story of Adam and Eve, the pelting of apples is a complete reversal, counteracting the concept of original Sin from Christianity. “The arbitrary and brutal Father invalidates the moral significance of his actions, bringing […] religious history under the shadow of meaningless” (Ben-Ephraim), parodying the Christian concept of Sin through Gregor’s punishment for existence itself and suggesting that Adam was too harshly punished for being an accomplice. Gregor’s insect form continues to be maltreated and abused to the effect of a constant deterioration, with the mere cause of having a will to live. “Repeated invocations of Christmas [â€¦] parallel Gregor’s sufferings with [Jesus] Christ’s slow dying” (Ben-Ephraim), compare Gregor to other religious figures in the Christian Bible. Previously when Gregor is hit by an apple, he “felt as if nailed to the spot” (Kafka 67), akin to Jesus Christ’s being nailed to the wooden cross. Similar in intent as well, Samsa’s final desire to disappear to save his family trouble is selfless and comparable to Christ’s unselfish death for the cleansing of mankind’s sins, with both exemplifying noble gift-giving. However, Gregor’s love for his family goes largely unheeded and even viciously reprimanded in the case of his dominance-seeking father even in death, allowing Kafka to make a mockery of the Christian savior through the suggestion of resurrection.
In the depiction of psychological balance through familial-self relationships that Gregor experiences throughout The Metamorphosis, as well as Kafka’s emblematic use of imagery in regards to the window within Gregor’s room, it can be determined that Kafka finds a correct choice between self and society to be unattainable. Such impossibility is supported by Gregor’s treatment as he varies to either spectrum; he is given the choice to serve as nothing more than a means to an end for the survival of society, or to be loathed for existing as a distinct individual with no contributions to make. In neither case does Kafka indicate that one can be truly accepted, and the imperfect life of Gregor Samsa is left with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and his attempts to balance societal approval and obtain a moral self-worth, unfulfilled.
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