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In Franz Kafka’s short story, Metamorphosis, the idea of existentialism is brought out in a subtle, yet definite way. Existentialism is defined as a belief in which an individual is ultimately in charge of placing meaning into their life, and that life alone is meaningless. They do not believe in any sort of ultimate power and focus much of their attention on concepts such as dread, boredom, freedom and nothingness. This philosophical literary movement emerged in the twentieth-century, when Kafka was establishing his writing style in regards to alienation and distorted anxiety. A mirror to his own personal lifestyle, this story follows the short and sad life of a man unable to break out of the bonds society has placed on him. These bonds are not only evident in the work place, but at home too. Being constantly used and abused while in his human form, Gregor’s lifestyle becomes complicated once he becomes a giant insect and is deemed useless. Conflicts and confusion arise primarily between Gregor and his sister Grete, his parents, and his work. Each of these three relationships has different moral and ethical complications defining them. However, it is important for one to keep in mind that Gregor’s metamorphosis has placed him into a position of opposition, and that he has minimal control over the events to take place. Conflicts will also occur between family members as they struggle with the decision of what to do with Gregor. In the end they all come to the agreement that maintaining his uselessness is slowly draining them and they must get rid of him.
Grete is a character who appears to have the most tolerance for Gregor shortly after his metamorphosis. Gregor was apparently rather fond of his sister and had hoped to finance her education in a conservatory. He was also rather mesmerized with her violin playing. His inability to follow through with these planned acts of kindness may have led to a faster deterioration of Grete’s maintenance of Gregor’s room. Although she could never get used to Gregor’s new freakish appearance, she was his sole provider throughout his life after the metamorphosis:
“It would not have surprised Gregor if she had not come in, as his
position … she actually jumped back and shut the door; a stranger
could easily have thought Gregor had been lying in wait for her
and meant to bite her.” (28)
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“But even if the sister, worn out by her job, ceased to ten to him as
she used to, there was no need for the mother’s intervention or for
Gregor to be at all neglected.” (40)
Ironically, the individual that was the most compassionate at the beginning of his metamorphosis becomes the least compassionate in the end. With a statement as simple and blunt as:
“We have to try to get rid of it.” (46)
Grete convinces her parents into coming to some sort of finalization and Gregor loses all will to live. He dies that very night and it would not be harsh to assume that this is due to the cold, societal reasoning of his sister. Kafka uses Grete to prove that unconditional love does not exist, or at least, cannot uphold itself. Grete cannot maintain Gregor’s life once she becomes sure that all her time and care will amount to nothing.
Grete’s final viewpoint of Gregor is mirrored by her father, but in a much more violent manner. Gregor’s father quickly assumes the societal role of “protector” of his daughter and wife, deeply misunderstanding Gregor and his intentions. There is a large conflict between the two in regards to understanding each other’s true intent.
“ ‘Mother fainted, but she’s better now, Gregor’s broken out.’
‘Just as I expected,’ said the father. ‘I keep telling you, but you
women just wont listen.’ ” (34)
This is also extremely evident when the father says:
“She’s absolutely right… if only he could understand us.” (46)
At this point in their lives, the family is trying to function as a smooth running family, each with a basic purpose and intent in life. They have re-conformed their lives after the metamorphosis to fit back into society and hide this glaring image of uselessness and disgust. Gregor is un-wittingly bringing up these ideas of existentialism that the family cannot stand to face. Both mother and father bury themselves in their work and try to forget their son. The mother says constantly that she wishes to see Gregor, but makes little effort to aid in Grete’s daily clean up of the room. When she does see him, she always collapses in fright. Despite this, the mother is able to overcome however terrible Gregor may appear, and however heavy the social pressures are, to protect Gregor from his father’s wild rampage with the apples.
“She begged the father to spare Gregor’s life.” (36)
These efforts prove fruitless, just like Grete’s, in the end. She also agrees with the family’s conclusion that Gregor’s useless nature can no longer be tolerated.
The arrival of the head clerk at the Samsa household is proves to be a rather intense moment for both family members and Gregory newly transformed. The head clerk is a clear symbol of Gregor’s workplace and the kind of atmosphere he works in. Kafka uses this character to his advantage by annoying the reader with long obnoxious speeches while Gregor struggles to just make it to the door of his room. The threats and pressure put on Gregor causes him to disregard his present condition as a large bug and worry more about getting to work instead:
“Mr. Samsa,” the head clerk... and neglecting—I just mention this
in passing—your professional responsibilities in an outrageous
His work only values him as they would a machine. The boss stands on a desk to talk down on them, showing his superiority to his employees. Gregor works long hours and deals with a long commute. All of this is done to pay off a debt that is not even his. I this way his family exploits him for their own personal gain. His family proves to be greedy, self-centered individuals who only valued Gregor while he was able to support them. They back up the efforts of the head clerk to coax him out of bed for fear that he may lose his job. Gregor understands that his worth in the family only comes from the money he brings in, but he only knows this at a subconscious level. He refuses to see his family as being at fault and focuses his dislike on the head clerk.
“Did the head clerk himself have to come, and did the whole
Innocent family have to be….” (12)
Because of the need to comply with the rules of society, Gregor feels he must keep his job as a sales man, despite the treatment he suffers from. Having never missed a day of work previously, it is appalling to consider the speeches of the head clerk as true. For something as simple as missing the beginning of a single day of work to receive reprimands such as this:
“I see your incredible obstinacy and have completely lost any
desire to intercede on your behalf….” (14)
Conflict arises when Gregor exposes himself and rushes after the head clerk to scare him out of his house. This is one of very few instances where Gregor (as a person inside an insect shell) actively, and with purpose, rebels against the circumstances he disagrees with. Once Gregor comes to terms with the severity of his condition the thought of work, which was previously so prominent in his mind, disappears.
Existentialism requires an individual to rise above the depressive conditions of humanity through personal articulation. The metamorphosis of Gregor allowed him to recognize the fact that he was being suppressed by society. His exterior form caused his family to question their own lifestyles and re-adapt, shunning that which was useless to them. Kafka’s book, Metamorphosis, causes readers to question their own lives to this very day in regards to living with purpose and intent. Doing so may cause conflict as one fights against the will of society, but with it comes liberation and a whole new understanding of existentialism.