Saturday, September 17, 2011
Essay on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us...We need the kind of books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” – Franz Kafka.
The statements quoted are very apt as “The Metamorphosis” is like an axe that shatters and destroys the hard and frozen sea that we all call life. In the tradition of the greatest Existentialist Philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Soren Kierkegaard, “The Metamorphosis” is a story that deals with the reality, or even the absurdity, of the human existence. For some of us, life is all about the monotony of work. Life is all about working so that there is enough money to buy food and so that the next day one has the strength to go to work once more. For some us, life is all about supporting our relatives who consider us important only insofar as we are able to help them with their needs. For existentialist philosophers this monotony in life is like an endless cycle. One in which is there is no escape except the realization that we are trapped in this cycle.
“The Metamorphosis” attempts to awaken us and make us realize the absurdity of human life. The absurdity is evident in the following themes of the story. The first is the economic effects on relationships with people. The reality is that people need to work. Oftentimes, a person does not only work for himself but for other persons as well. The worse part is when a person ceases to work for himself but only for other people, like his family. The question is does the people whom a person supports and provides for their needs see him as human being who also have his own needs. Is his contribution the family being recognized as an act of kindness or does the other members of the family see this as an act of duty to them?
Secondly, the absurdity is evident in the theme of family duty. Up to what extent is a person obligated to support his family? Should the needs of the family come first before the person’s personal needs? What is the extent of duty of the other members of the family towards the sole provider? What if the sole provider gets sick can he expect the same act of kindness he gave from his family?
Thirdly, the absurdity is evident in a person’s alienation. The society can be very unforgiving and oppressive to some people as people have to compete with each other in order to survive. Because of the immense competition for survival, oftentimes people get lost in the struggle. In the process they are alienated not only from their family, from their job, from their friends and even from themselves. One forgets to notice that he has changed, his family has changed, and his employers have changed.
The title of the story “The Metamorphosis” is actually a misnomer. A closer reading reveals that there is actually no metamorphosis that took place. Merriam-Webster defines metamorphosis as the “change of physical form, structure, or substance especially by supernatural means; a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.” While there seems to be a change in the appearance of the story’s main character, it is evident that physical change is not the center of the story.
While reading the story, the reader will immediately conclude that the story does not dwell on how Gregor Samsa physically transformed to a giant bug. In fact, it is surprising that the main character was hardly interested about how he physically transformed instantaneously into bug and instead he immediately accepted his situation. If the physically transformation is not issue in this story, then the only conclusion is that it is something other than the physical transformation but a mental one.
Gregor Samsa did not actually turn into a bug but rather he was only awakened to the reality that he had been a bug for a long time. He reached a state of awakening or realization. Just like other insects which are purposely designed by nature to work for the survival of the entire colony, Gregor Samsa has been living a life of an insect as he himself had been working for the survival of his family. In the process he lost sight of his relationship with them. He has no friends. He hates his boss, his work and his colleagues. He has no life. He does not even have a pleasant relationship with his family. He could not even see the external world as he attempts to look at it through the window. He realizes that he had alienated himself from his society and from himself. The real transformation actually happened is in his mind as he was awakened to the reality that he has been a slave of his family.
The concept of power was also evident in the story. It is very ironic because before Gregor Samsa’s awakening, he is supposed to have a position of power and authority within his family. As the sole provider and earner for the family, he is obeyed by the members of his family. Money translates to power in the household of Gregor Samsa. He is the one who made the decision for the family. However, it is clear that the power being discussed here was only superficial as he is only seen by his own family as a person who delivers the fat paycheck for the family’s survival. Until his realization that he was a bug, he actually did not hold any power in the family.
Eastern philosophy deals with the concept of Samsara and Nirvana. For the Eastern philosophers we are trapped in a Samsara or the constant transmigration of souls where our souls transfer from one body to another as a form of punishment for our past sins. What a person does in his previous lifetime will determine the body or form that he will take on his next life. Thus, if a person lives a sinful life in the past, he can expect that he will have a lower body or form for his next life. If a person lives a sinful life then he may become an insect in this next life. The goal of the human life, therefore, is to do great things during his life so that the ultimate death will be attained and the transmigration will finally cease - Nirvana.
I think Gregor Samsa is trapped in the endless cycle of life before his metamorphosis or awakening. He has been living the life of everyone else which is very monotonous and routinary without even knowing the essence of his existence. The paradoxical part is that Gregor Samsa achieved Nirvana after he noticed his physical transformation. He achieved power after he changed into a bug. It may be true that he had difficulty even getting up on bed. It was also true that his metamorphosis was also followed by the loss of his job. It may be true that Gregor Samsa became a burden to his family after he lost his job. Though his family saw him as a mere pest after his transformation, it is my view that it is at this point where he achieved real power – Nirvana.
At this point, the family began to look for work. His father began to take care of the family. His mother, father and sister acquired their own jobs and began helping around the house. Communication around the household likewise improved – something which was lacking before his physical transformation. We could after all reach Nirvana.
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