The Metamorphosis: An Existential Analysis By: Franz Kafka
May 10, 2010
Existentialism is a philosophy that officially came into existence after World War 2. Its beliefs are centered on the idea of finding the meaning of life through different choices and situations. Many authors use bizarre circumstances to portray existentialist ideas. Franz Kafka, the author of The Metamorphosis, adapted this tactic into his book, and created one of the first books to incorporate the existentialist belief. The Metamorphosis makes use of several different ideals of existentialism to portray the author’s point of view. Generally, existentialists have a set of rules which they follow. For instance, free will is a central idea, but there is no belief in a common good within people. As Max Bense wrote, “In existential analysis man is the subject, the foundation, in relation to whom everything becomes intelligible and interpretable.” They believe that there are things that are not rational, yet religion is ridiculous and should not be taken into account. In, addition, science will not benefit the world and wealth does not define how successful a person’s life is. Most importantly, though, is the belief against a governing set of rules or code, as existentialists such as Kafka feel that these rules and codes restrict individualism, thus transforming a person into an object. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka exchanges this transformation to an object for a transformation to an insect. “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin,” (Kafka, 3). Without any background information, Kafka thrusts his main character, and the reader thusly, into the precarious situation of becoming a bug. No explanation is suggested as to why or how, only that it has happened. The author seems to be jesting at situations that people generally typify as being out of their control. This is because as an existentialist, he believes that choice defines a person, not external circumstances. While Gregor cannot control his transformation, he does have the free will to get out of his bed and pursue his normal activities. However, he struggles to overcome the challenge that his
laziness presents, telling himself that he will get up at a certain time, but passing each time he sets without so much as a movement. This lack of motivation seems to stem from Gregor’s obvious lack of an identity. By this, it is meant that before the metamorphosis, Gregor worked terribly hard for his family to pay off bills from an unexplained failure of the family business. He allowed little to no time for his own improvement, and consequently lost his individuality. The author follows the common existentialist belief supporting the “self,” and shows the dangers of working for others without taking into account one’s own needs. Kafka fears above all losing individualism. Fortunately, Kafka allows Gregor to pursue a goal, which, although not for Gregor himself, helps lead Gregor to motivate himself to work harder and longer. “He has had a peculiar love for this violin-playing sister, was fascinated even to the end by her playing, and had even hoped to provide for her musical education at the Conservatory,” (Webster). Grete, his sister, provided Gregor with his only glimmer of hope to gaining an identity before he became the horrible insect. The change, however, disallows any chance of Grete attending the Conservatory. With this, Gregor loses his drive to work and live, instead choosing to hide out in his room and waste away. The fact that he can no longer send his sister to a higher education only causes Gregor to fall farther and farther away from his human self, instead gradually choosing to accept his primitive instincts as an insect. By rejecting his former self, Gregor thereby rejects his individuality. Kafka sets the standard for future existentialists in this way by showing the trouble that goes with accepting circumstances and not fighting to overcome adversity. Gregor also portrays another existentialist idea through Kafka’s writing. The belief that there are things that are irrational and illogical is a central point in the novel. The obvious issue that defies the bounds of the real world is that of the actual transformation of Gregor. Kafka
speaks of the change with such ease that he makes it seem as though such a bizarre event could in fact take place. “The existential mode of analysis thus remains basically indifferent to the classical distinction between possible and realized, real and unreal worldism and accordingly does not know the explicit problem of objective reality,” (Bense). The change is tragic in the story, as it hurts not only Gregor, but also the whole family. However, some good does come out of the situation. “With the metamorphosis, a principle of alienation, the "pure self"... takes possession of Gregor, automatically topples the usurpatory son from his position of power in the family, and returns the father to his former task,” (Sokel). Where Gregor used to have to work and care for the family, the metamorphosis forced the father to go back to work, along with the sister and the mother doing random jobs. Aside from the sister, the father should be the breadwinner of the family, not the son. For the two to switch places in fact shows justice for Gregor. He has already worked many hours to take care of his family at his own individuality’s sake, and now it is time for his family to return the favor. The situation also causes a few problems within the family as well. Grete takes on the responsibility of caring for Gregor in his bug state, doing things such as cleaning after him, putting food out, and moving his furniture in order to enable him to move around easier. Unfortunately, Gregor’s mother refuses even to come into his room except for one time, showing how much pain she feels for losing her only son in such a way. Gregor himself loves his mother, and a possible Oedipus complex is present, which would explain some of his psychological problems such as dealing with stress. (Kaiser). On the other hand, Gregor and his father do not seem to be in good favor with each other. The father is likely angered more at the fact of his having to return to work and having lost a moneymaking child than he is at actually losing a son. The tension builds between the two enough that Gregor’s father throws an apple into the back of Gregor. The apple partially paralyzes him and brings about his death much sooner. Due to the
problem, a large burden is placed on each of the family members. However, the weight that had formerly been placed on Gregor’s back was now on his father, mother, and sister’s back. The new burden placed on Gregor’s back was one of pain, sorrow, and the hatred of himself for forcing his family to take care of him. He felt so depressed from these things that he decided to stop eating completely in order to kill himself, believing that it would aid his family and take at least some of the burden off of their shoulders if he was not burning through their resources without supplying any money to make up for it. Kafka brings this up because as horrible as it may be, it is true that the family was much better off without Gregor than with him. The entire family, by the end, did not feel as though the giant insect taking up a room in their house was Gregor anymore. They felt that he was simply not part of the family, and when he died, the family grieved, but soon found the good in the situation. The weight, they felt, had been lifted from their shoulders. A perfect example of existentialism in the novel is in fact Grete. A central theme to existentialism is to take on responsibility without the need to be told by laws or rules to do it. By taking care of Gregor, Grete fulfills this requirement. She makes decisions which benefit the whole of the family, and that defines her nature as a kind and responsible person. She puts her family first, but unlike Gregor, she willfully completes the tasks and does not restrain her individuality. She maintains her uniqueness through her playing of the violin, something of which she excels at in Gregor’s eyes. However, in the eyes of some men who are renting out part of the house, her talent is nothing special. Gregor becomes enraged at this disrespect, reveals himself from his room, and advances upon the men. Gregor’s father attempts to shield the creature from the intrigued gentlemen, knowing what may come of the situation. Before Gregor realized what he was doing, his instincts took over in his attempt to protect his family. His instincts have always been to try to do what is best for his family, but a growing
problem throughout the story was simply the ever-increasing disconnect between his conscious mind and his sub-conscious mind. The conscious mind creates Gregor’s human thoughts, where he uses logic and reason to make decisions. The sub-conscious mind contains the instinctual habits which Gregor’s bug-like form uses to react to events. “‘The Metamorphosis’ consists in the self’s gradual reduction to its most vital center – its self-consciousness,” (Freedman). This “self-consciousness” which Freedman refers to is the instinctual mind of Gregor Samsa. Existentialists believe that social perceptions do not control the individual. The conscious mind is the one that contains a knowledge base of these social principles. Therefore, the author must imply that the sub-conscious mind controls the individual and uses instinct and impulses to make choices. The impulses which overtook his mind and led him to advance upon the roomers only ended in disaster for the family, as the once curious men soon become horrified, give notice of their leaving, and proclaim that they shall not pay for staying in the house. When Gregor realized his mistake, his shame overtook him and will to live diminished even further, and soon there after the injury he sustained from his father began to take a fatal turn. It could be argued that “The Metamorphosis” is simply a metaphorical perception of the main character’s surroundings. However, according to Friedrich Beissner, “It would be wholly impossible for the writer even to intimate that this metamorphosis is only the delusion of the sick hero...” Beissner believes it would contradict Kafka’s nature as an existentialist to do such a thing. This is because it would imply that Gregor is actually living in a realistic world, when existentialism is an individual in a hostile environment. Therefore, it would destroy the entire meaning of the book to infer that Gregor Samsa’s transformation was simply a dream. In contrast, though, the bug could in fact be a metaphor. Wilhelm Emrich argued that the insect is actually the “self…a nightmare that cannot be a reality.” This could incorporate the first line of
the story, in which Gregor Samsa woke from his troubled dreams. The rest of the story could then be a flashback, retelling the events of the dream. In a nutshell, however, “The Metamorphosis” helped to define existentialist ideas throughout the world. Franz Kafka portrayed his own views in his book, establishing a part of the new philosophy. He used bizarre occurrences to outline his own beliefs, while not subjecting the reader to blatant advertisement. Kafka used his main characters to outline his point as they progressed throughout the story, especially using Gregor’s tragic transformation to reveal why existentialist ideas were so important. A genius at his craft, Franz Kafka’s work will continue to baffle readers and interest philosophers until the end of time.
Works Cited Beissner, Friedrich. Der Erzahler Franz Kafka. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1952. Print.
Bense, Max. Die Theorie Kafkas. Cologne and Berlin: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 1952. Print. Emrich, Wilhelm. Franz Kafka. Trans. Sheema Z. Buehne. N.p.: Frederick Ungar, 1968. Print. Freedman, Ralph. Modern Fiction Studies. Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue Research Foundation, 1962. Print. Kaiser, Hellmuth. Imago. N.p.: S .Freud, 1931. Print. Sokel, Walter H. Franz Kafka: Tragik und Ironie. Munich and Vienna: Albert Langen, Georg Muller, 1964. Print. Webster, Peter Dow. American Imago. Ed. George B. Wilbur. N.p.: n.p., 1959. Print. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 7th. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972. Print