”The Metamorphosis“ by Kafka presents readers with an intensely claustrophobic and absurd premise featuring a protagonist that is so used to living like an insect and so consumed with guilt that these elements of his life finally take over and lead to his demise. In this world Kafka creates, Gregor lives like an insect even before his metamorphosis and this theme is developed at the beginning of the story when he wakes up to find that he has become what he most resembled in his life.
The idea of guilt and scurrying about to please others figures prominently in this text and it is useful to look at the ways in which a compounding sense of guilt leads to Gregor’s final resignation to death in Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis. For a man that had lived his life scurrying about, trying not to be noticed, and providing for the rest of the hive, to be shut off from this world that gave his futile actions meaning leads to his end. The claustrophobia of always being monitored, regulated, and working (in constant insect-like fashion) only adds to Gregor’s feelings of guilt in “The Metamorphosis” and responsibility and in the end, it seems that Kafka is making a rather overt statement on the nature of middle-class life.
Gregor incites a great deal of pity from the reader throughout “The Metamorphosis”, especially since it seems that he is doomed to being the insect that he has literally become. He describes his job, almost in an off-hand way, in between surveying his freakish new body. “What a fate, to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the greatest suspicion” (74) he thinks to himself and the reader is aware for the first time out of many to follow that Gregor is truly consigned to a particular fate. His father’s business has failed and his mother and sister are relying on him for financial support. If he fails to get up for work he feels guilty because he needs to make money and worse, if he misses the train, his boss comes. In an incident that further emphasizes the absurd nature of this claustrophobic household, the boss actually shows up and makes a speech and Gregor knows, even before he comes, as stated in one of the important quotes from “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka that, “The chief himself would be sure to come with the sick-insurance doctor, would reproach his parents with their son’s laziness and would cut all excuses short” (70). There is a constant pressure on Gregor to provide, both for his family and his job and after so much tyranny, so many people regulating his life, he has become a little insect, busying himself aimlessly, but for the sake of his brood.
In some senses, it is not surprising that Gregor should wake one morning to find that he is an insect and in fact, in “The Metamorphosis” the reader is provided with enough clues to decipher the meaning of this immediately after being informed of his grisly metamorphosis. Before the transformation, Gregor lived like an insect, always scuttling about and kowtowing to greater pressures such as familial guilt and responsibility as well as a servile sense of duty to his soul-sucking job. His description of his profession can be equated with an insect’s daily habits and he states, “Traveling about day in and day out. It’s much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the office in the office and top of that, there’s the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends” (68). Just as insects travel about all day, busying themselves yet at the same time achieving nothing, Gregor scuttles through his day, occasionally running across another insect and eating morsels as he finds them.
This is a rather pathetic existence and the reader soon learns that much of Gregor’s ability to live in this manner is based on an overriding sense of guilt and duty—a sense that is so strong it literally transforms him into a personification of inane activity and hopeless subservience to fate. His fate, it seems, is to provide for his family and there are several instances in which he laments his inability to provide for his mother, father, and dear sister. The narrator states, revealing one of these themes in “The Metamorphosis”, “Gregor’s sole desire was to do his utmost to help the family to forget as soon as possible the catastrophe which had overwhelmed the business and thrown them all into a state of complete despair” (95) and this sense of blind duty compels him to work a meaningless, menial job that has both figuratively and literally turned him into a filthy, scuttling, and helpless insect. While this is true on a more basic level, the root of Gregor’s problem stems from a deep-seated feeling of guilt, an emotion that eventually leads to his demise. By the end of the story, Gregor has completely lost his purpose and for a man that once existed simply as a utilitarian creature (again, like an insect since he lives only to fulfill his duty to the group). At one point, his feelings of uselessness are described as, ““Gregor was now cut off from his mother, who was perhaps nearly dying because of him; he dared not open the door for fear of frightening his sister, who had to stay with her mother, there was nothing he could do but wait; and harassed by self-reproach and worry he began to crawl to and fro” (109) and it is clear that the guilt of being useless is mounting and leading to his resignation in the face of death.
In many ways, The Metamorphosis by Kafka seems to be criticizing the values of a middle or working class society that is so invested in their finances that they forget to be human. The jobs they work are thankless and rather useless, the bosses they work under are tyrants, there are always dependents and new things to work for, thus never allowing rest. Gregor, while trying to conform to this model of middle class society, at least for the sake of his idealized family, lost his humanity in a very literal way and thus all the scenes of hopelessness, futility, inability to community, and loss of a sense of reality are all symptoms of a greater societal problem. In the end it was the guilt of not being able to fulfill these many roles that was the end of Gregor, but the transformation itself was the result of a life that was lived in only a utilitarian sense.
Other essays in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Character Analysis of Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” • Transformation & Narration in Metamorphosis, Gulliver’s Travels and The Death of Ivan Ilych
Source: Kafka, Franz, Trans. Willa Muir. The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1948.
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