On Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

Franz Kafka can be considered as one of the most significant figures of modern world literature because of his disturbing and symbolic fictions, which demonstrate human despair and oppression in the twentieth-century society.  His novella “Metamorphosis” is a clear illustration of a person’s struggle for freedom and search for identity amid the harsh environment of the capitalist society.  Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect may be read as a physical manifestation of the dehumanizing effect of the industrial society upon an individual.  Gregor, who became a reluctant slave to this system, lost his humanity through the constant pressures put on him by his work and his family and, thus, became an insect.  However, towards the end of the story, it was his metamorphosis, ironically, which led him back to his humanity.  This paper intends to trace the loss and return of Gregor Samsa’s humanity through Karl Marx’s theory of “constant and relative drives.

Marx’s dynamic psychology is based on the primacy of man’s relatedness to the world, to man, and to nature.  He believes that man is naturally driven by passions or drives that are unknown to him.  These drives are comparable to Freud’s id, the pleasure principle, and superego or the reality principle.  However, while Freudian psychoanalysis, which is based on the model of the isolated homme machine, states that “drives are fed by inner chemical processes” (72),  Marx maintains that man’s passions and drives may be influenced by the social environment in which he is a part of (71). According to Marx, there are two types of human drives: the “constant or fixed” drives and the “relative” drives.  The constant drives “exist under all circumstances and […] can be changed by social conditions only as far as form and direction are concerned” (71).  These drives may be seen as natural desires that every individual is eager for.  Examples of these constant drives are cravings for the basic human needs such as food and water.  The need for love and freedom can also be considered as constant drives.  Meanwhile, relative drives “owe their origin only to a certain type of social organization” (71).  Relative drives or appetites are needs which are socially-conditioned.  Every person’s relative appetite is a product of a certain society in which s/he is a part of.   Greed, guilt, and pride are some examples of relative drive.

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Marx links the relative appetites to “certain social structures and certain conditions of production and communication” (71).  He believes that most human motivations are determined by the process of production.  Each culture or class in a society produces its own social structure and social character.  The social structure, then, determines the relative drives which should be fostered or repressed in order for the society to function properly.  “What is repressed depends on the system of the social character” (29).  For instance, a capitalist society will produce a social character in which value for labor, time, and money are promoted while idleness is suppressed.  This is the type of society in which Gregor finds himself in.

In “Metamorphosis”, the interplay between the “constant” and “relative” drives within Gregor produces what Marx defined as a “crippled, fragmented man”—a human without his humanity and an insect with human emotion and sensitivity (70).  In the first part of the novella, Kafka clearly pictured his protagonist as an overworked and overstressed member of the capitalist system. Gregor Samsa is portrayed as a commercial traveler who is always besotted by the troubles of “constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends” (Mack 855).  With this kind of work that he has to do everyday, it becomes impossible for Gregor to find time for himself anymore.  His mention of “casual acquaintances” who never became “intimate friends” shows the status of his social life.  His mother also mentioned how “the boy thinks about nothing but work. […] he never goes out in the evenings and […] has stayed at home every single evening” (859). Gregor’s job deprives him of his need for human companionship, which then results to his alienation.

The need for love and freedom are just some of the constant drives that Gregor Samsa has been repressing because of his job. Since Gregor belongs to a capitalist society, his “fixed appetite” for love and freedom must be repressed in order to give way to the demands of his work.  This repression is beneficial for the society since it maintains the proper functioning of the system.  However, this suppression is detrimental to the individual.  Marx visualized the “pathology of normalcy, the crippledness of the—statistically— normal man, the loss of himself, the loss of his human substance” (Fromm 75).  According to him, if man “does not relate himself actively to others and to nature, then he loses himself, his drives lose their human qualities and assume animal qualities, and […] since he is no animal, he is sick, fragmented, crippled human being” (75).  This is shown through Gregor’s transformation.  Because he continuously suppresses his need for love, recognition and freedom—freedom from work and family responsibility— in favor of his alienating career, he ceases to become human and turns into an insect.

Gregor’s metamorphosis may be seen as a physical manifestation of his loss of humanity, his alienation from his family and the society, all of which are brought about by his dehumanizing job.  Before he became an insect, Gregor’s focus is entirely on his work and his responsibility towards his family to the extent of ignoring himself.  Gregor is already alienated, not only from other people, but even to his own body that a sudden change in his form does not inspire any strong feeling of surprise or fear in him.  “Gregor really felt quite well, apart from a drowsiness that was utterly superfluous after such a long sleep, and he was even unusually hungry” (Mack 856).   Gregor coolly observes that he now has “numerous legs, hard, armor-plated back, and a dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments” (854).  But he did not feel any astonishment at the fact that he was turned from a human to an insect overnight.  Instead his thoughts were still centered on how to catch up with the next train on his way to work.

Gregor’s metamorphosis may also be seen as his form of escape from his exhausting profession.  He hates his job and wishes to get away from it.  His metamorphosis has given him the ability to do so.  By becoming an insect, Gregor gains both his freedom and the right to avoid guilt since his metamorphosis is not his fault; his freedom is forced on him.  However, after his metamorphosis, Gregor is still imprisoned literally and psychologically; literally, because he is now locked up in his room away from the sight of his family and other people; psychologically, because he still remains a slave to his family.  Whereas before he was enslaved to his work by his duty to his family, now he is imprisoned by the guilt that he feels for his inability to financially support his family.  “At first, whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor […] felt so hot with shame and grief” (871).  Gregor realizes that his freedom from his job resulting from his metamorphosis is equivalent to his family’s destitution and this is the reason why he is racked by guilt.  This is contrary to his pride before when he was still the breadwinner of the family.  “He felt great pride in the fact that he has been able to provide such a life for his parents and sister in such a fine flat” (867).  The pride within Gregor becomes the substitute that he gets for the loss of his freedom and humanity due to his job.  Now that he gains these two, the pride that he once felt was replaced by guilt.

Another example of Gregor’s psychological imprisonment is seen through the behaviors that are exchanged between him and his family after his metamorphosis.  Gregor realizes that it is natural for his parents and sister to be repulsed by his new form.  When Grete once “jumped back as if in alarm and banged the door shut” after finding Gregor gazing out the window, he realized “how repulsive the sight of him still was to her, and that it was bound to go on being repulsive” (872).  His parents who, before he became an insect, were so eager to come into his room are now contented to listen to Gregor’s whereabouts through Grete.  These kinds of reactions coming from his family made Gregor admit the dreadfulness of his recent transformation.  Not only did he cease to contribute to the economic development of his family, by turning into an insect incapable of work, he also became a source of revulsion for them.  This becomes another reason for him to feel guilty.  And because of this, Gregor does all he can so as not to be a burden and nuisance to his family.  He cannot go outside his room for fear of being seen by someone.  He cannot make any sudden loud noise because then his parents would wonder what could have happened to him.  Even in his own room, he has to hide under the couch every time his sister comes in.  “He must lie low for the present and, by exercising patience and the utmost consideration, help the family bear the inconvenience he was bound to cause them in his present condition” (867).  Through these examples, it is evident how Gregor, in spite of the “freedom” that he is supposed to acquire after his metamorphosis, still remains alienated and imprisoned by the society.

According to Marx, “if the circumstances under which [the] individual lives permit him only the one-sided development of one quality at the expense of all others […] the result is that this individual achieves only a one-sided, crippled, development” (76).  Gregor’s position as the provider of the family enables him to develop his self-worth as evidenced by the pride that he felt as he sees the “quiet life [his] family has been living” (867), but at the expense of losing his humanity.  Gregor was forced by familial and economic duty to repress his need for love and freedom in order to become a more effective member of the workforce.  Thus, while he took pride in his position as the main source of income for his family, deep inside he feels isolated and deprived of love.  His “one-sided crippled development” remained the same even after he became an insect.  His metamorphosis, which is supposed to give him the freedom that his work robbed from him, made him feel guilty.  This guilt, born out of his freedom from work, ironically becomes the reason for his imprisonment.  Gregor Samsa becomes a symbol for people living in the modern age, who are trapped in the conflict between freedom and one’s responsibility for oneself on the one hand, and guilt and the demands posed by society and family on the other.  A person cannot be free without guilt, yet one cannot fulfill one’s obligation to others and remain true to oneself.

Marx believes that “man is potentially not only capable, but in need of relating himself to the world, and in order to be human and to be cured, he needs to restore this potential of a healthy and not pathological form of human functioning” (75).  Gregor’s lack of humanity, seen literally in his new body, is a result of his alienation from his society and the repression of his human constant drives.  However, towards the end of the story, Gregor gradually regains his humanity with the help of art.

According to Marx “it is love which teaches man to truly believe in the world of objects outside of him” (77).  Struck by the music of the violin and the recollection of his humanity, Gregor, once again, feels love and tenderness for his family.  He realizes that he must sacrifice himself again so the sake of his family’s happiness.  When his sister made up her mind to “get rid of it”, ceasing to believe that Gregor, the insect, is her brother, Gregor decided to leave his family. Gregor realized that his family’s well-being is more important to him than his own freedom.  His concern for their happiness and his willingness to sacrifice himself is what makes him human despite his current physical form.  At this point, Gregor has, here, found his human identity which he was not able to find previously.

In “Metamorphosis”, Kafka was able to clearly illustrate the crisis of the modern man.  “Nowhere is the anxiety and alienation of twentieth-century society more visible than in his stories of individuals struggling to prevail against a vast, meaningless, and apparently hostile system” (Lawall 1996).  The irony of Gregor’s condition—the loss of his humanity in spite of his human form, and its restoration only after he became an insect—is the same ironic situation that most people in the contemporary capitalist society experience.