The question of what makes a person a person has been a central one of philosophy since time immemorial. Past ideas have speculated that something known as a "soul" which is supposedly the keeper of one's personality, and a person's body, that thing which we recognize externally and that tells us apart from one another, determine who we are. While both are interesting ideas, they lack specificity. After reading Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, we are able to address the idea of personal identity from a more sophisticated viewpoint by discussing the two criterion--put forth in the story--that 1) even though a person's "identity" remains fixed over time, that identity should be known as existing in a relationship with others; and 2) while humans do indeed live their lives embedded in a social context, they always retain an individual will and means.
The Metamorphosis presents us with the protagonist Gregor, who is suddenly turned into an insect, causing problems for himself and those around him. To understand how this happens is to understand that, according to the first criteria, humans are beings who live their lives in relationship to others. According to researcher Peter Fonagy, all we know, do, say, and think exists in a social context. We develop the capacity for language only with the nurturing presence of others: interactions, thoughts, feelings, aspirations--all are created through language as a social construct (Fonagy et al., 1991). Our personalities, distinct though they may be, are distinct from one another. We are inseparable from others. A further explanation of this relational nature is made by psychologist Tom Warner:
ââ‚¬Å“We are what others have made us, by means of the processes of
socialization. What we do is what we are silently guided to do by
the expectations of intelligibility and propriety, the assimilation of
which has made us the persons that we are. We do it in order to
acquire legitimacy in the estimation of others. This is true even
though we may never realize that such expectations are the sources
of our desires and choicesââ‚¬"even though we misguidedly may feel
we are acting from inner convictions without regard to what other
people think. For we acquired the convictions as part of the process
of social construction in the first place." (Warner, 1986)
When the status quo is upset in the context of these relationships, alienation can result. This alienation that Gregor feels from his family, and his family from him, is the key concept throughout The Metamorphosis. At first the family feels that he may get better. The mother says, at the prospect of moving his furniture out: "Doesn't it look as if we were showing him, by taking away his furniture, that we have given up hope of his ever getting better....?" (Kleiman & Lewis, 1990). The family seems to be reacting out of sorrow and regret, but this later turns into indignation at their circumstances, as the earlier hope appears to be guided not by their selfless love of him, but rather by the money he provided for them: "They simply got used to it, both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted..." (Kleiman & Lewis, 1990). The inability to continue paying money to the family leads Gregor to feel that he will be ostracized, an event that does indeed come: "We must try to get rid of it," his sister now said explicitly to her father, since her mother was coughing too much to hear a word, "it will be the death of both of you, I can see that coming. When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can't stand this continual torment at home on top of it. At least I can't stand it any longer," (Kleiman & Lewis, 1990). Who is to blame for this alienation? The two criterion offer up the possible culprits.
Criteria #1 states that we live in social contexts of trustworthy and non-trustworthy relationships. Presenting us with the latter, Kafka shows that the "consideration" as demanded by Mr. Samsa from his family does not represent a justified parental request, but rather is exploitation, coercion, and deception masquerading as consideration. This concept that people love others unconditionally is shown by Kafka to be illusory: They did not love Gregor for himself, but rather loved what he did for them. The reader learns that although Mr. Samsa's business went bankrupt, some money survived the bankruptcy; that Mr. Samsa is capable of working, as is his asthmatic wife; and that the household still maintains a large apartment and employs a maid and a cook. Kafka provides information that reveals how warped is the Samsa notion of consideration. Because Gregor shares in these basic family assumptions, the reader forms a different conception of Gregor than Gregor has of himself. Yet achieving an empathic stance toward Gregor--or his family--is not easy.
The reader wants to find a "villian" in the story, one that can be blamed for this "loss of self" that happens to Gregor, but this is easier said than done. Psychotherapist Jerome Gans writes that Kafka's story is one that includes misleading assumptions, perversion of traditional ideas, intricacies of deception, and projective identification in families--all tinged with irony and paradox--thus making the search for that villian difficult. Gradually the reader comes to question whether in fact Gregor is a passive victim of his family's unfortunate circumstances or, more probably, someone who blames the world for his own unacknowledged inadequacies (Gans, 1998). At first, we might feel sorry for Gregor, just as one feels sorry for any victim of a catastrophe. But sympathy is not empathy. When the chief clerk shows up at the Samsa household and harshly criticizes Gregor and his work, Gregor's family oscillates between concern for their son's predicament and the fear that Gregor will lose his job and they, in the process, their financial support. Given the apparent disabilities of the various family members, their concerns at first seem natural. Yet later on it's Gregor's family with their attitudes and behavior that seem to become more offensive than Gregor himself. When his father hits him with an apple and paralyzes him, and when sister Grete insists that Gregor is not Gregor but an "It", the family becomes downright terrifying. As the story progresses and their exploitation of Gregor becomes more obvious, we again may feel sorry for him--but as the story further reveals Gregor's capacity for self-deception (criteria #2)--we later become impatient with Gregor, eventually
repelled by his pusillanimity. We come to realize that his metamorphosis into a bug--and a debilitated one at that--leaves him with the same characteristics that existed before the metamorphosis: annoying, loathsome, brittle, and easily crushed.
With an evenhanded evaluation of how Gregor and his family both came to find themselves in this situation, we can ponder the two criterion presented earlier in answer to whom or what makes a person. What we see is that how we might respond in times of emotional despair and physical exhaustion--and how these burdens would affect those we interact with--are vital and demonstrative in giving us our feeling of "self" (criteria #1); and that apparently for many people like Gregor those pernicious arrangements, as awful as they get, can easily become more important and preferable to otherwise remaining unattached and disconnected--and that human attachment, no matter how stressful, can take priority over being true to one's self (criteria #2). In selecting for Gregor's metamorphosis a creature as loathsome as a cockroach, Kafka captures the human tendency to avoid, judge, or even retaliate against human behavior that disgusts us, showing the paradox of the Samsa catastrophe: That Gregor, by his own choice, is treated no less respectfully after his metamorphosis than he was before it. If Gregor himself believed that he was less than human, then no one saw fit to argue.