Alienation and The Loss of Autonomy: Thoughts on Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
I just finished Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” What a fucking story. I’ve read a lot more Kafka in the past year or two, and I think he has become my favorite fiction writer of all time. He writes and understands themes I think about a lot: alienation, meaninglessness, and death.
Somehow though, I had never read “The Metamorphosis” despite it being his most famous short story. If you don’t know the premise, it’s fairly straightforward: one day the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up and finds that he has transformed into an insect. His parents and sister are terrified of him but continue to house and feed him. He loses his job. His family becomes broke because Gregor, who can no longer work because of his condition, is the sole breadwinner. In the end, Gregor starves himself to death because his family is suffering and hates him. His sister, in particular, spew vitriol at him.
A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that the story has many, many interpretations to it. But I’m going to ignore that all, and just free write my thoughts. My first instinct is that Gregor’s transformation is primarily about the alienation of the modern world. It is a theme Kafka continually refers to, including his most famous book The Trial. As Kafka was writing, modern intellectual thought was changing. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, and he was right. Modernity and science had killed him. Now the modern man was alienated from God. And Freud was claiming that the unconscious was far more influential on our behavior than we realized. For Freud, we had to repress man of our instincts, primarily sexual instincts according to him, because we needed to live in the modern world. But that meant being alienated from our animal natures.
In addition, the modern bureaucracy of the state is dehumanizing and alienating and somehow eschews personal responsibility. Kafka in this way was prescient. He died in 1924 but saw the rise of Nazi bureaucracy and efficiency coming. He saw the way that people just followed orders, no matter how brutal, in the name of the state. This was a theme of The Trial. And it returns in “The Metamorphosis.” Before the events of the book, Gregor is hardly a human being. His only cares appear to be his work and providing money for his family. His…