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Albert Camus's The Outsider and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis both considered to be literary masterpieces challenge the doctrines associated with man's existence in a particular society who decides these social norms. This essay discusses about the characters Mersault and Gregor who are a marked contrast to the conventions of the society. Their behavior conflicts with the image of a normal man and shows that they do not follow the social conventions. The Outsider narrates the tale of a man who lives his life on his own whims and fancies and is detached from normal society, the consequences of which is incarceration that Camus portrays as ludicrous. In The Metamorphosis, the protagonist Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a vermin, thus metamorphosing his life eternally and how it influences him to acquire a fresh perspective of his family and social beliefs contrary to what he adhered to earlier.
Gregor and Mersault find it difficult to come to terms with these social beliefs and life becomes miserable for Mersault by virtue of this after his mother dies and Gregor, after he is physically transformed all at once into a vermin. The death of Mersault's mother does not concern him .Consequently, he does not show any signs of mourning or has scant interest in attending his mother's funeral instead wishes that he was at his home in bed. When Mary Cardona asks Mersault to marry her, his disinterest in marriage is indicative of his disbelief in the institution of marriage as a social commitment. Similarly, his friend Raymond who does not have any respect for women shares cold and detached personalities with him who remain aloof from the society they are set in.
Though Gregor and Mersault do not share similar personalities, their predicament is remarkably the same. They find themselves caught in situations where they respond in a way that suggest their mental instability. When on the one hand, Gregor is mentally sane but notices a radical change in his family's attitude towards him after this physical transformation, on the other hand, Mersault who is physically capable is internally disturbed and depersonalized; he is incapable of reacting to social norms. He is an escapist and cannot relate to these norms. He has spiritually estranged himself from the society he lives in and does not belong to it.
1"Immediately after my arrest I was questioned several times. But it was only a matter of finding out who I was, which didn't take long. The first time, at the police station, nobody seemed interested in my case. A week later though, the examining magistrate eyed me with curiosity. But to start with he simply asked me my name and address, my occupation and my date and place of birth. Then he wanted to know if I'd chosen a lawyer. I confessed that I hadn't and inquired as to whether it was absolutely necessary to have one" that is treated as the nucleus of the story. After Mersault commits a murder and is imprisoned, he gets several chances to change his life and restore some sense of balance in it, but change is something that Mersault hated."
A self centered and emotionless character like Mersault did not believe in a life based on societal norms. When tried to be taught sobriety he misconstrues everyone. Likewise, Gregor is also a detached person, before being transformed into a vermin. He did not have many friends and had always been a loner by nature. Gregor's whole life turns upside down after transforming into an insect. Before this physical transformation he worked as a salesman who looked after his family and their needs to the best of his ability, but he felt desolate as he felt that his life hinged upon the fact that he was the sole breadwinner of his family. His family does not outright reject Gregor after he turns into an insect but gradually they disapprove of his existence and start maintaining a distance from him.
2"he believed he had to provide his family with a pleasant, contented, secure life by sacrificing himself, by selling himself to his business. The reciprocal relationships are based upon secret calculations and compromises, the consequences which are no longer suspected by anyone."
Kafka describes Gregor as an individual who does not want to lead his life based on a certain set of social norms. However, as he is placed in a coercive situation, his transformation into a vermin may be the result of this deep rooted dissatisfaction.
From a psychological point of view, both Mersault and Gregor feel neglected at an emotional level and this greatly impacts their existence in their respective societies. They tend to coil up into their own selves and refuse to submit themselves to conventions. There is an emotional vacuum in both of them which cannot be fulfilled by conventional social norms. Mersault particularly is of delinquent nature and is not capable of displaying emotions like love, happiness and care; he can be coined as the perfect sociopath. The burning question here would be what role the society has to play with the state of mind that Mersault and Gregor have. They both fail to connect with their fellow human beings at a fundamental level. Gregor is an alien among his own people and Mersault is a social outcast. The mental state of Mersault and Gregor (after his being transformed into a vermin) is that of rebellion; they are seeking an individual identity of their own and are finding the society around them and its mechanism clichéd and one sided. Hence their mind revolts against this existence and they decide to combat it. Had Gregor not been transformed into an insect he would never have seen the true colours of his family and the society he lived in. Mersault has already given up hope on his social existence. He feels that he does not belong to this world and his state of mind does not give him any hope. He is too despondent of his own life which is the reason that he does not even raise any objection to his death sentence. In the end, Gregor too dies a pitiful death; he dies an insect's death because he was no longer of any use to his family, he was an encumbrance to them and he was at the end of his tether living on their pity.
The Outsider and The Metamorphosis present this element of "alienation" synonymous with the writers that are perceived to pervade society in general. Camus and Kafka, both are existentialist writers and through the delineation of their characters they ask serious questions to the architects of 'society'. Does the society always have to have an upper hand in deciding how our social conduct should be? Do all social conventions benefit the human race or are they thrust upon us?
The Outsider, in short, is a classic dreamlike fable of how our life would be affected if we defy our social existence and turn blind to it. The metamorphosis of the lead character in The Metamorphosis pitted against stability of the societal conditions challenges the set of behavioral models and rules that are assimilated within the society. Both Kafka and Camus force their readers to think about life and human existence from an uncannily different point of view and not succumb to social conventions that are forced upon us generation after generation.