Exploring Existentialism As A Thematic Element English Literature Essay

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Existentialism is a thematic element in myriad short stories and novels. The tenets of the philosophy of Existentialism are quite easy to apply to works of literature and are great vehicles to get the point of a particular story across. This is certainly the case in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The Metamorphosis is more novella than philosophical treatise to be sure but nevertheless, the bleakness of the work conveys the overall feelings of despair, alienation from others, absurdity, search for meaning and alienation of one's self; many of the ideas surrounding the canon of existential philosophy. Kafka does this not by summarizing existential philosophy but rather by expressing the tenets through the interactions of his characters. I intend to examine the existential quandaries raised by Kafka's dreary masterpiece.

Alienation is a thematic artery that runs through Kafka's dark work. Alienation also happens to be an idea that is paramount to the existential school of philosophical thought. In particular, alienation of self occurs obviously in that Gregor's whole persona was tied up into his job and the fact that he was "set for life with the firm" [3] and the fact that in large part this section of his "self" was being torn down and ultimately removed from the equation thus literally and figuratively putting his new self in strict segregation from his old sense of self. The fact is that in his new form very little of his former self, physically, professionally, metaphysically…etc remains.

"…he felt very proud that he had been able to provide such a life for his parents and sister in such a lovely flat. But what if all the peace, all the comfort…came to a terrible end? Rather than lose himself in such thoughts, Gregor crawled about the room" [4] 

As Gregor slowly comes to the conclusion that very little is the same about him except perhaps his mind it becomes apparent that the part of his sense of self that was tied into his being a provider and a "worker bee" is now but a distant memory. The existential alienation of self is apparent.

One must also consider the element of existential thought which holds the strongest correlation with Metamorphosis; alienation from others. The text of Metamorphosis is awash with references to and allegorical evidence of Gregor Samsa's alienation from his family. Gregor felt shame and grief for his newly acquire incapacity to provide for his family [5] , this being his only real strong family tie would undoubtedly soon enough feel the sting of his family no longer looking to him for financial support. Yet another aspect of Gregor's transformation that contributed to his alienation from others was his voice. Even if he wanted to address his family, explain or even thank his sister he was unable to do so. The alienation Gregor felt is illustrated perfectly by his altercation with his father, who when Gregor was working and providing would have greeted his son at the door upon his return [6] was now throwing apples at his grotesque body. It is also obvious that the physical transformation of Gregor would certainly provide a jumping off point for disdain which was already present pre-bug and cultivating exponentially post-bug. The referencing of Gregor as an "it" is indicative of both his dehumanization as well as the existential turmoil presented as time goes on. "we must try and get rid of it…it will be the death of your two.." [7] These words coming from Grete, Gregor's sister, are telling indeed due to the fact that his since was his caretaker to an extent. There is an obvious "use against him" kind of vibe that is permeating the ranks of his family, from his sister on up. There is an element of fear to some of the family's interactions with Gregor. There is a good example of this in the book wherein Gregor, having witnessed most of the articles from the room in which he dwelled be removed, makes a move to protect a picture hanging on the wall from being taken. No longer able to bridge that gap between himself and his family members, Gregor bears witness to his sister Grete making moves to 'protect' his mother, who is now completely estranged from him, from the horror of interacting with her son the monster bug. [8] There is simply no question that throughout the The Metamorphosis, Gregor experiencing varying degrees of loneliness and despair from becoming increasingly alienated from his family and himself.

The prose surrounding the death of Gregor is also very indicative of the existential view of absurdity and death. When Gregor is discovered to be dead in his room by the Charwoman, the actions of his family really brings home how little they really cared for their son to begin with. "Existentialists closer to the nihilist tradition view death as preferable to life, which is full of despair and frusteration." [9] The nihilist view of death is brought to light when Gregor's father offers his commentary on the death of his son; "Well…Thanks be to God" [10] This, in my opinion really shows that Mr. Samsa is truly happier that his son is passed on rather than alive, for perhaps now he and his family can find respite from coexisting with this monstrous bug. The existentialist view of death states that death is construed as the final relief from the horrible suffering of human existence [11] . This is certainly the case with Gregor. Through the entirety of the book Kafka has made reference to his suffering whether indirectly or directly, how can it be then that one views the death of Gregor as anything other than a nihilistic release of the burdens of suffering. The absurdity of the fact that after the death of their son or brother as it were, the family very swiftly turns their attention to the petty goings on of their own lives is telling as to where their concerns lied in the first place. There is little grieving if any in response to the death of the bug Gregor. Given that grief is the expected response to the death of a loved one, their reactions show that Gregor was more burden and less loved one, his death being a lifting of a burden on the family. The fact that Grete, whose brother has died very recently, is painted as a supple, beautiful young girl whose family's main concern is whether or not it will be time to find her a husband is further evidence that they took Gregor for granted when he was human and providing for them, furthermore could care less now that he is dead.

Kafka has truly painted a literary portrait with strokes of suffering and splatters of hopelessness and futility of existence. A truly existential novella, The Metamorphosis tells the story of a hapless working man turned dehumanized bug that ultimately dies after a painful and torturous existence. His death is seen as a release for him, and his family by the reader and one cannot help but to have some semblance of sympathy for the bug and disdain for his self-absorbed family. Kafka has very aptly employed the existentialism philosophy in the telling of this tale insofar as it really hammers home how futile pursuit of material wealth as a means to an end can be.