I just finished Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” What a fucking story. I’ve read a lot more Kafka in the past year or two, and I think he has become my favorite fiction writer of all time. He writes and understands themes I think about a lot: alienation, meaninglessness, and death.
Somehow though, I had never read “The Metamorphosis” despite it being his most famous short story. If you don’t know the premise, it’s fairly straightforward: one day the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up and finds that he has transformed into an insect. His parents and sister are terrified of him but continue to house and feed him. He loses his job. His family becomes broke because Gregor, who can no longer work because of his condition, is the sole breadwinner. In the end, Gregor starves himself to death because his family is suffering and hates him. His sister, in particular, spew vitriol at him.
A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that the story has many, many interpretations to it. But I’m going to ignore that all, and just free write my thoughts. My first instinct is that Gregor’s transformation is primarily about the alienation of the modern world. It is a theme Kafka continually refers to, including his most famous book The Trial. As Kafka was writing, modern intellectual thought was changing. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, and he was right. Modernity and science had killed him. Now the modern man was alienated from God. And Freud was claiming that the unconscious was far more influential on our behavior than we realized. For Freud, we had to repress man of our instincts, primarily sexual instincts according to him, because we needed to live in the modern world. But that meant being alienated from our animal natures.
In addition, the modern bureaucracy of the state is dehumanizing and alienating and somehow eschews personal responsibility. Kafka in this way was prescient. He died in 1924 but saw the rise of Nazi bureaucracy and efficiency coming. He saw the way that people just followed orders, no matter how brutal, in the name of the state. This was a theme of The Trial. And it returns in “The Metamorphosis.” Before the events of the book, Gregor is hardly a human being. His only cares appear to be his work and providing money for his family. His sister’s musical career is of particular interest to him, and the only thing that stirs his heart. But as Gregor says at the beginning,
“O God,” he thought, “what a demanding job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road. The stresses of trade are much greater than the work going on at head office, and, in addition to that, I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food, temporary and constantly changing human relationships, which never come from the heart. To hell with it all!”
Gregor has lost his humanity. God is dead. He is a slave to his work, so much so that his boss comes to his home and demands to know where he is, despite the fact that Gregor has not missed a day of work in 5 years. And because of the alienation he feels, Gregor transforms into something less than human: an insect.
Additionally, Kafka also seems to lament the loss of autonomy. Gregor has no freedom. He may not have shackles, but he is some respect he is a slave. He does only what other people tell him. After his transformation, Gregor only becomes more beholden to others. His family must bring him food. He cannot leave his room because he will scare others. He is not human in a literal sense but also as a metaphor. Gregor in some ways is all of us, without freedom, without joy, without purpose.
It says a lot that Gregor dies at the end of the story, and his family acts like nothing has happened and spend a day out together, having the best day they’ve had in quite a long time. The only woman who sees Gregor clearly is the charwoman. The charwoman is not afraid of him, perhaps because she understands what is happening. She looks at the insect in the face and does not back down. The charwoman in my eyes is a metaphor for the truth and perhaps literature as a whole. I’m unsure of Kafka’s views on art, but my feeling is that Kafka thinks that art and literature are incredibly important to keep your humanity, a view which I share. Without art, we are nothing but automatons. We are just a means to make more money for people. Capitalism has won in that way. And with the death of God, that means that there is no meaning outside of work. It is a bleak way to look a the world. But art shows us a different path. It is here where we can be human again. It is here where we can be more than output. The charwoman in my view is art. Despite Gregor’s death, she is the only one able to give Gregor back his humanity.