2023/02/06 - 04:22

(SP:) The Dependence and Freedom of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

by Elizabeth McCarty

One of Franz Kafka's most well-known and most often criticized works is the short story, "Die Verwandlung," or "The Metamorphosis." "The Metamorphosis" is most unusual in that the first sentence is the climax; the rest of the story is mainly falling action (Greenburg 273). The reader learns that Gregor Samsa, the story's main character, has been turned into an enormous insect. Despite this fact, Gregor continues to act and think like any normal human would, which makes the beginning of the story both tragic and comical at the same time. However, one cannot help but wonder why Gregor has undergone this hideous transformation, and what purpose it could possibly serve in the story. Upon examination, it seems that Gregor's metamorphosis represents both his freedom from maintaining his entire financial stability and his family's freedom from their dependence upon Gregor.

Long before the story takes place, Gregor Samsa's father had a business failure that left him deep in debt. His son, Gregor, works as a commercial traveler for the company to whom he owes money; in effect, Gregor is slowly working off his father's debt. Gregor is not happy with his job, which Greenburg calls "degrading" and "soul-destroying," but believes that his family's existence depends upon him "sacrificing himself by working at this meaningless... job," and so he continues (274). Heinz Politzer goes far enough to say that Gregor is a slave to his boss (276), which would imply that there is no escape for Gregor- at least, no conventional escape.

However, Gregor does escape from his life of indentured servancy- by becoming a giant insect. Walter H. Sokel explains the effect of the metamorphosis on his occupational position.

The metamorphosis has intervened and made [work] impossible. It accomplishes, as we can see, in part at least, the goal of Gregor's longed-for rebellion. It sets him free of his odious job. At the same time, it relieves him of having to make a choice between his responsibility to his parents and his yearning to be free. The metamorphosis enables Gregor to become free and stay "innocent," a mere victim of uncontrollably calamity. (265)
Here, Sokel states that Gregor, through his transformation, has solved his biggest problem. The company does not accept illness, so he could not escape work by feigning (or truly being stricken with) sickness. Taking on his current bug form is the only real way to completely free himself from his job. In effect, Gregor makes a deal with the devil- he is released of his servitude and family responsibility guilt free, but must live out his remaining days as a giant insect. Freud stated that there were no accidents, but simply acts springing from unconscious motives. If this is true, then Gregor's metamorphosis could be considered his self-punishment and guilt for wanting to quit his job (265-266).

This metamorphosis also marks Gregor's freedom as an individual. Throughout his entire life, he has let other people make his decisions for him (Greenburg 274). This is the first occurrence in his life over which no one (including he) had any control. This metamorphosis allows his hidden self to emerge, the self that had been stifled for so many years (Friedman 270). Gregor is no longer the head of the household or the working man, but a creature representing his true personality (Parry 263). Gregor was never really "alive" as the head of the house. Even if he had eventually paid off his family's debt, by that time his life would have been wasted (Friedman 272). But in actuality, Gregor's death comes not as a human but as an insect, when the family he once support and came to rely upon completely neglects him (Parry 264).

However, there is more than one point of view represented in this story. Gregor's family also plays a key role and is not entirely antagonistic. Kafka shows not only a metamorphosis in Gregor, but also in his mother, father, and sister as well. At first, Gregor's metamorphosis brings out hate and fear in his family, despite everything he has done to help them (Landsberg 259). However, as the family adjusts to Gregor's metamorphosis, they adjust their lives accordingly. They had grown lethargic depending upon Gregor, but now they must learn to once again take care of themselves. The family gradually becomes independent of Gregor; unfortunately, for this to happen, Gregor had to become a hideous insect. Kafka knew that the family had to want its independence from Gregor but still be guiltless in attaining it; the only way to make this work was to make Gregor repulsive to them (Friedman 270-71).

As the Samsas become more independent, they neglect Gregor more and more as he begins to deteriorate and die. The more independent they become, the more anxious they are to get rid of him (Friedman 270). Mr. Samsa, once completely dependent on his son for all financial support, was brought back to life. He raises his stature once again to reclaim his spot as the man of the house while Gregor withers and dies (Parry 264). Just as the family becomes completely independent and decides that Gregor is more of a nuisance than they can continue to endure, Gregor dies. Friedman observed that this is because Gregor had to be sacrificed for their rebirth (271). It is as though there was a balance of dependence in the house- before Gregor's transformation, he was the bread winner but still dependant on his family for several things, such as shelter and love. However, after the transformation, Gregor's family becomes completely independent, since they need nothing from Gregor, or he has nothing to offer them. Since, finally, he serves no purpose, it is only fitting that he (peacefully) pass away to leave his family their newfound freedom.

Consequently, Gregor's transformation was much more than just a physical transformation. It was a means of liberation for both Gregor and his family. Since Gregor was a bug, he was no longer able to work, thereby freeing himself from the bondage of his father's debt. Since Gregor could not work, his family had to get jobs, thereby freeing themselves of their dependence on Gregor. Kafka magically makes a completely unrealistic tale realistic, making the reader abandon all defenses and become engrossed in this tale. The characters become real people with real problem, and the reader's concerns for them extends far beyond the bittersweet ending of the story. Gregor's metamorphosis was necessary for his freedom, as his death was necessary for the family's freedom. Gregor may have passed on at the end, but the last line of the story- "And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet and stretched her young body" (DiYanni 213)- give us hope for the rest of the Samsa family and for their future as they return home.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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