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Franz Kafkas story "The Metamorphosis" stands as the crowning achievement of a man who knew the spirit, wounded, lonesome, and impotent, of the modern man. It is the story of Gregor Samsa's discovery that he has been nothing more than a host to the parasitical feedings of a family that either loves him only mechanically or not at all. Waking to find himself transformed into the mere dung beetle he actually always has been in the sight of his family and the world, Gregor discovers firsthand the limitations of his status within his family and society. Emerging from his transformation are resentments that come when those who have grown used to living off of the good will of another find their host inexplicably unable to further satisfy them. Gregors feelings of isolation, which have been growing for some time, find actual form in his new state. His lowly stature becomes the excuse for his being pushed farther and farther out of the family whose care he has sacrificed his life. In the transformation of Gregor Samsa and his ensuing alienation and isolation from the world he once knew, Kafka attempts to show the individual human experience at its most basic. Kafka uses the example of Gregor's transformation from a mindless drone of obligation and social expectation to an anomaly of nature to illustrate the fear of being cut from the group that is society and left adrift and at the mercy of individual fate.
Kafka begins his tale with the Samsa family in various states of decline. Gregor's father is a failed businessman, who has saddled the family with a large debt, has "gained a lot of weight and as a result become fairly sluggish" (Kafka 21). Mrs. Samsa, for her part is asthmatic-with the insinuation that it's psychosomatic-to the point of being unable to live a normal life; so much so that "she spent every other day lying on the sofa under the open window, gasping for breath" (Kafka 21). While Grete, the little sister upon whom Gregor dotes, is accustomed to a life of "wearing pretty clothes, sleeping late, helping in the house, enjoying a few modest amusements, and above all playing the violin" (Kafka 21). The case can easily be made that the Samsas are a slothful, lazy family, while Gregor exists in stark contrast. He is hard working, spending "practically the whole year round" (Kafka 13) on sales trips and healthy, having not missed a single day of work in five years (Kafka 5). This sharp difference keeps Gregor distanced from his family, but it is necessary to his understanding of the world around him that he must take care of them and provide for them.
Despite Gregor's positive attributes, Kafka nevertheless attempts to establish the status and nature of Gregor Samsa as a representative of the sacrifice of individuality to capital and profit and thereby creating the possibility for the beetle metaphor to emerge. Corngold writes the character [Samsa] is no longer separated from the metaphor (85-56). Only through someone such as Gregor can Kafka truly make a decisive commentary on the lonesome nature of individual man, for not only is Gregor's self lost within the bustle of the outside world but also within himself. So deeply set into the role of provider for his family, Gregor's inner self has become completely suppressed. Kafka chooses to illustrate the breakdown of Gregor's will. The feelings of this hardworking but slow to advance clerk who has been dragged down by society in such a manner that he can go no lower in his own esteem, in the initial realization of his transformation. The change in Gregor is sudden, "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin" (Kafka 3). There is no vagueness in the metaphor's intention, instead Kafka is loudly proclaiming the perversity of such a change in self which finds expression in the derisive phrase "monstrous vermin" (3).
However, it would be incorrect to assume that the judgment on the transformation is the author's but rather is ruled by the perception and interpretations of the ill-fated Gregor, who grows increasingly isolated from the world. When Gregor physically becomes the beetle his perception of the world changes irreparably, this change is best illustrated in the metaphor of the beetle itself. As Stanley Corngold explains, the story's meaning "originates in the transformation of a familiar metaphor into a fictional being having the literal attributes of this figure" (80). The literal nature of the story, as presented largely through the eyes of the metaphor itself, deprive the reader of the natural elements of the metaphor and in that the reader is no longer able to separate from the metaphor or given reality of being like but not exactly the thing to which it is being compared (Corngold, 85-86). In the actualization of the metaphor with Gregor's transformation and the perspective of his growing alienation from the world, he becomes vermin.
Having become in his transformation bug, Gregor's isolation becomes absolute. Hartmat Binder says that "[Gregor] is locked up in his room and mishandled by his father as result he waste away (175). Binder means that Gregor is isolated and exiled from his father as well as his whole family who are disgusted over what Gregor has become, or rather how he has become what the family always considered him. He is isolated from his mother by her revulsion at how far he has fallen and he is isolated from Grete by the reality of what his ended patronage means for her lifestyle. However, Kafka doesn't stop there, for in the act of immediately dehumanizing Gregor, Kafka isolates him from the reader as well. Unable to fully relate to the inhuman creature, who grows increasingly more inhuman as the story progresses, the reader is left only the option of empathizing with the feeling of the creature. Thus, the reader is cut off from the remaining characters as well, becoming isolated in the emotions of Gregor.
Prior to the transformation, Kafka ties Gregor's unfailing health and work ethic as a direct opposition to the moral and physical failings of the Samsa family, which are inferred to be a product of Gregor's benevolence in taking on the full responsibility of the family name in the outside world. This is further illustrated by that when Gregor has his fortune reversed, when he becomes a dung beetle, his family becomes hardworking and industrious, even to the point that Gregor's eventual death leaves them robust and happy, with career prospects that are "exceedingly advantageous and especially promising" (Kafka 42). It is as though Gregor, having brought them low by working hard in a menial job which dehumanizes him, quite literally to the point where he is no longer human, must atone for his actions by having his own humanity obliterated. It is only through his absolute degradation that the family can be free of him and excel in life.
The fact that Gregor's wrongdoing seems nonexistent, except in the minds of his family, only goes on to confirm the metamorphosis as atonement. Iris Bruce further supports the idea of Gregor atoning through his metamorphosis by noting that such a theme is a staple of the Yiddish mythology of which Kafka was exceedingly fond (108-109). Bruce states, "The experience of displacement and repeated "punishment" demanded aâ€¦religious explanation. Hence the concept of metamorphosisâ€¦charged with biblical notions of transgression, punishment, exile, and redemption" (109). Gregor is thus, in a very traditionally Jewish sense, a stranger in a strange land, cut off by his very existence from all others, the victim of "an unnamed god who has arranged it all for his amusement" (Corngold, Preface ix). Separated from the herd, he becomes once more an individual. In Gregor's individuality, he becomes vulnerable and is forced to confront the very isolation which he has attempted to stave off by becoming a part of society. With Gregor's transformation, the family and social dynamic is entirely flipped, with each reversed role pushing to further ostracize Gregor. As he moves farther within himself, his family unites against him and aligns itself with the comfort of the outside world. In the sense of his having been caregiver, Gregor becomes entirely dependent upon the very sister who he had sought to entirely care for throughout his role as patriarch. However, as Nina Pelikan Strauss points out, Grete rejects her role of caregiver, not initially, but more and more so as she transforms into a sort of replication of what Gregor had once been (127-131). Free from his benevolent maintenance of her docility, Grete develops into a successful clerk, and the voice of strength in her family, even to the point where she declares that Gregor must be gotten rid of (Kafka 37). In the end, by becoming alienated from not only his family but also society, Gregor at once reclaims himself and allows his family to equally save themselves from their own internal isolation.
In this manner, Gregor's death becomes the ultimate actualization of the absolute isolation of the individual in the world. In his attempts to approach his family, Gregor comes to realize that his individual difference prevents him from being one with the world or his family. Gregor make one last desperate attempt at regaining some place in his family and some bit of his humanity, by crawling from his room with the intent of begging Grete to care for him again (Kafka 36). Instead, once again his presence brings nothing but misfortune and it spurs Grete to conclude that if he is in fact her brother then he should rid them of himself. As Kevin W. Sweeney points out, Gregor's fantasy of protecting Grete and even letting her know how he had planned to give her the momentum to pursue her life as she wished-at conservatory-is only fulfilled in his decision to let himself die (152). It is his existence that brings his family low, time and again, so it is only right that the way he can ensure their happiness and success is to cease to exist. In the end, Gregor's separation from society and the broken bonds of his family embodies the true nature of the individual as alone and alienated. Once the tenuous bonds of society are broken, those of obligation and affection, man is left isolated in his individuality.
Isolation and alienation are two apparent and prevalent themes throughout "The Metamorphosis". As such, they have been commonly explored from varying angles. Within the context of a Marxist-feminist reading, Gregor emerges as a man out of sync with his time. He is at odds with the patriarchal and capitalist society, loathed by his father and distrusted and exploited by his boss (Strauss 126-140). As such, his transformation becomes a physical realization of his place in that society. A historical criticism, as given by Iris Bruce, highlights the undertones of Kafka's experience as a Jewish man in a land which sought to push him to the side and ignore him; she notes the ways in which Kafka uses the traditional Jewish folklore narrative to fit his own view of redemption and punishment through loss of the self (107-125). Sweeney, approaching the story from the psychoanalytic perspective, illustrates the three distinct attempts by Gregor to illustrate the ways in which he slowly loses not only his family and his place in society, but eventually loses his sense of self. Gregor is "a 'shadow being' trying fantastically to maintain itself in a disintegrating family relationship" (152).
While each study has been provocative and unique in their understanding of Kafka's tale of Gregor Samsa, they fail to address that central sense of the individual conceived outside the restraints and definitions of society. In Gregor's isolation within his family and society, as well as his physical alienation from humanity, Kafka dramatically shows the struggle of the individual. As a clerk, working and traveling across his country, Gregor never truly lives for himself or within himself. He is part of a larger construct of society. He is in fact a realization of the capitalist attitudes of the time, part of a lower-middle class mass that lives to serve. Gregor is in service to his family and to society as a whole. With these roles he tries to fit himself into preformed molds. When he is transformed into a dung beetle, Gregor is flung from his role in society and his family. He becomes isolated within himself, just as his family moves forward to fill the void of his absence in society. While he at first attempts to hold onto the bonds of his family, Gregor's difference effectively shuts out the world and he is stripped of all but himself and in the end dies resigned to his fate. By showing the world through the insect eyes of Gregor Samsa, the sad and lonely world of a man who has been reduced to vermin by the parasitical lives of society and family obligation, Kafka creates a compelling appraisal of the isolation of the soul and the alienation of the individual in modern society.