Conflict and Alienation in Kafka's Metamorphosis

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In Franz Kafka's novella, The Metamorphosis, the protagonist (Gregor Samsa), is engaged in a struggle against his oppressors, while at the same time he tries to accommodate the very social structure that is ruining his life. Gregor's family is abusive, yet he constantly forgives them. He is truly altruistic–he works like an animal in order to maintain his family's material comfort. His only dream is to send his beloved sister to the music Conservatory. Gregor is constantly hungry, but "not for these things" (Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, hereafter known as KM). He longs "for nourishment other than food, for an emotional sustenance derived from an active involvement with his family" (Sweeney 152). Simultaneously, he rebels against the role of the "sacrificial son" (Santner 198). It turns out that Gregor is not completely passive in the face of authority. He actively despises his boss, to whom he longs to "[speak] my piece from the bottom of my heart" (KM 4). Toward the end of his life, when he has become so visually revolting others cannot bear the sight of him, he creeps across the living room in front of the boarders. At this moment he briefly relinquishes his concern for others, and thinks "It hardly surprised [me] that lately [I] was showing so little consideration for the others; once such a consideration had been [my] greatest pride" (KM 35). Internally, Gregor seeks to rebel; his innermost thoughts reflect Kafka's ideals. Externally, though, he feels forced to submit to the expectations of his family, his boss, and society.

The Metamorphosis is a representation of people's alienation from society and their inability to have autonomous power over their lives. Kafka, like other writers of his time, was going through an existential crisis. He questions the meaning of life, and the futility of being just a cog in a wheel. In 1963, activist Roger Garaudy said at a convention: [Kafka] awakens in people the consciousness of their alienation; his work, in making it conscious, makes repression all the more intolerable... With all his might he hates the apparatus of repression and the deception that says its power is God-given. (Dodd 132)

Kafka, through his representation of Gregor, reveals the human struggle against bureaucracy and oppression. Gregor's abuse by and disconnectedness from his family parallels the way he is treated at work. While Gregor struggles to fit into the "system", he finds himself becoming more isolated from it.

Gregor is bound by rules that crush his spirit. One morning, he wakes up changed into a "monstrous vermin," and realizes that he possesses a completely nonhuman body. Just as bad (in his mind), he has overslept and will be late for work. Gregor considers saying that he was sick (although he had not been sick in all the five years he had worked for the firm), but knows that it would not make matters any better, because:"[t]he boss would be sure to come with the health insurance doctor, blame his parents for their lazy son, and cut off all excuses by quoting the health-insurance doctor, for whom the world consisted of people who were completely healthy but afraid to work" (KM 5). Gregor's livelihood relies completely on this bureaucratic insurance doctor who holds no sympathy for his patients. Although this doctor is a completely negative force, Gregor almost sides with him. He thinks (of the doctor) "And, besides, in this case would he be so very wrong? In fact, Gregor felt fine..." (KM 5). He then attempts to get out of bed and go to work, despite his bug-like state.

Gregor is so enslaved by his job that he hardly considers having changed into a bug to be an issue. As critic Nina Pelikan Strauss writes, "Gregor is so conditioned to an identity in which he must be sold and must sell that despite the discovery of his new insect body, he continues to agonize about missing a day of work, being ‘fired on the spot,' and about the debt he owes his boss"...
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