What It Means to Be Human, pt. 2

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

Introduction

Following my post discussing a few elements of Tolstoy’s short story, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” I wanted to address similar concerns in another piece of literature I read. This story is also from another country, now the modern-day Czech Republic. Much like Tolstoy, the author explores the nature of humanity through the eyes of one man–what it means to be human–although he actually falls into the modern Romantic period of European literature.

Allow me to introduce you to Franz Kafka, born July 3, 1883, into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family living in the area of Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary. The author of many recognized works, Kafka records his dreamlike inner life and sheds light on several failures of modernity. The particular novella we’ll be exploring today is Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and it’s portrayal of communication in relationships and human interaction. 

Before Reading Any Further…

If you aren’t familiar with the story, or what to learn more about the author, click the following links. Please note, the translation of “The Metamorphosis is not the exact one cited in this article. 

Communication and Relationships

Kafka explores the importance of communication and relationships to human beings in “The Metamorphosis,” revealing their necessity for meaning, humanness, and investment. Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman who awakens one morning to find himself metamorphosed into a giant dung beetle. Surprisingly, he does not react with shock, but accepts the condition and concerns himself with getting to work on time.

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 2

Meaning and Humanness

Notably, Kafka associates language with one’s meaning and humanness, as a connector between individuals. A foreboding image arises in the reader’s mind early on when he learns that Gregor’s voice has changed. It is unmistakably his “old voice, but not it had been infiltrated as if from below by a tortured peeping sound that was impossible to suppress”; this vocal metamorphosis signifies a sharp break from human relationships for Gregor (1882). Language, particularly being able to speak the same language, is necessary for interaction.

The purpose of language and words is to reflect reality truthfully and facilitate community. Kafka implies that, without relationships and human interaction, we wither away and die; since we are by nature communal beings, one becomes less human without communicability. Gregor has, in the past, abused his power of speak, preferring to just sit at the table with his family, “quietly reading the newspaper, or else studi[ng] the timetables” rather than engaging in conversation (1885).

Nevertheless, a simple awareness of the ability to converse provides a certain confidence and is a vital element of being human. When he learns that the others “were no longer able to understand his words,” Gregor finds courage and conviction in knowing that “they were now convinced that things were not right with him and were prepared to offer help” (1887). As a result, he feels drawn once more into “the circle of humankind” as he awaits the doctor and the locksmith (1887). To ensure a clear voice, he “cleared his throat a little,” although he no longer trusts himself to judge the sound of his voice as human or not (1887).

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 3

Value and Investment 

Similarly, “The Metamorphosis” suggests that relationships are a means by which we show our value to others and through which we can invest in others. Gregor, although he dreads his work, is a dutiful, self-sacrificial young man. He has willingly spent the last five years as a traveling salesman to pay off his parents’, specifically his father’s, debts. Even as a dung beetle, “Gregor was still here, and abandoning his family was the farthest thing from his thoughts” (1885). He takes great pride in having been able to give his parents and sister such prosperity and contentment.

Initially, Grete’s compassion and care for Gregor appear as a reciprocation of his investment in the family. However, she eventually treats her brother as an animal. Grete’s cleaning of Gregor’s room could not “possibly have been done any more perfunctorily. Great streaks of dirt extended across the walls, with balls of dust and rubbish lying scattered about” (1894). Similarly, Gregor’s father fails to invest in his son and treats him like garbage.

In contrast, Gregor not only provides for the family but even wishes to send Grete to the Conservatory, a “lovely dream whose realization was unthinkable” to Grete but which Gregor is determined to make reality, despite the “considerable costs this would no doubt entail” (1895, 4). Ultimately, genuine relationships serve to take one out of oneself and to destroy isolation, instead encouraging love and community. Relationships matter because they make one human.

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 4
Photo by Helioscribe

Breaking the System

As I’ve already mentioned, the significant plot twist in “The Metamorphosis” is the fact that Gregor morphs into a dung beetle within the first couple of paragraphs. Kafka intentionally breaks the system of communication to reveal the essential humanness of language and the dehumanization that comes when one can no longer speak. 

Gregor Samsa experiences difficulty in relating to others, as a result of a preoccupation with work, a lack of communication, and fear. Nina Straus notes that the story is about invalidation of oneself and others, and does nothing but offer us a vision of how we do it: Gregor invalidates his family, his father invalidates and attacks Gregor, and his sister invalidates and dehumanizes Gregor.

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 5
Photo by Anqi Lu on Unsplash

Utilitarianism: Duty Over Relationships

One of the significant ways the family demeans one another is through their utilitarianism. The Samsas value duty over relationships; work defines one’ identity and value as an individual.  Shortly after waking and discovering that his transformation, Gregor reflects on his life as a traveling salesman, noting how superficial and transitory his relationships have become as a result of his constant traveling. It is “day in and day out on the road” with “human intercourse that is constantly changing, never developing the least constancy or warmth” (1881).

Later, Gregor recalls how his pride at supporting his family faded once his parents “had grown accustomed to this arrangement,” thus invalidating their son’s personhood and any community they could have (1894). As a result, Gregor felt emotionally distanced from them. Gregor’s parents never learn of “his conflict and of the sacrifice he had made for their sake” (Shaland).

The alienation caused by Gregor’s metamorphosis appears as a mere physical extension of the alienation he felt as a human. Gregor has been so conditioned to an identity in which “he must be sold and must sell” that he agonizes about missing work, being “sacked on the spot,” and paying a debt, rather than his metamorphosis (Straus). The family’s utilitarianism, using work as a standard for determining one’s value, destroys any genuine community.

Furthermore, the domineering Herr Samsa degrades and even attacks his now useless son with a cane, a newspaper, and apples. Familial relationships should be about loving one another unconditionally, not based on the amount of income one earns. In the end, since he cannot serve a purpose for the family by bringing in revenue, Gregor feels confined to two options: death or appeasement of his family. As Irene Shaland remarks, “The terrible truth was also the realization that even the most beautiful and most tender relations between people were founded on illusions.”

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 6

Lack of Language

Another way brokenness infiltrates relationships in “The Metamorphosis” is a lack of communication. Gregor is no longer physically human. In his new form, he is unable to go to work, and his voice is so altered that he cannot even communicate with those around him; Gregor is talked over, not to. After hastily blurting out a response to the general manager’s accusations, Gregor stops and listens: “Did you understand a single word?” is the manager’s answering query (1886).

Gregor, while possessing his mind, loses his ability to speak and thus loses an element of his humanity. He stays almost exclusively in his room with the door closed and has limited contact with others. At most, Grete spends a few minutes in the room with him, during which time Gregor hides under the couch. Since he cannot speak, He cannot inform Grete what food he likes, whether he is thirsty, how he wants the furniture arranged, or even his plans to send her to the Conservatory.

When Grete and his mother begin clearing his room of furniture, Gregor finally understands the natural connection between language and humanness. He realized that “the absence of all direct human address, combined with the monotony of life in his family’s midst, must have muddled his understanding” if he wishes to forget his “human past” completely (1898). Gregor’s metamorphosis physically separates him from the human race and isolates him emotionally and communally. His room becomes a prison of sorts, a fitting den for the monstrous entity of a rational dung beetle.

Fear and Shame

Finally, there is the issue of fear and shame. It is a pity that Gregor cannot leave his bed, go to work, that his voice fails him, that he must be fed, that he stinks, and must hide his disgraceful body. This shame comes from seeing himself through other’s eyes. When the general manager demands to see Gregor, Gregor first finds that he cannot speak. Painfully, he succeeds in opening his door with his toothless mouth but only frightens his manager, who flees over the vestibule “as if some all but supernatural salvation awaited him there” (1889). His mother “senselessly retreated” from her son into the arms of Gregor’s father; the father “shaded his eyes with his hands, and wept until his mighty chest shook” (1889, 88).

This first emergence from isolation, followed by a brutal shove from his father that forces Gregor back inside his room, denotes the climax of the story’s first section. In the two remaining sections, Gregor emerges from his prison briefly, each time accentuating the horrible chasm that separates him from his family. The family reaches a point where they recognize that Gregor, despite his current lamentable, repulsive form, is a member of the family who should not be treated as an enemy, “for family duty dictated that the others swallow down the disgust he aroused in them and show him tolerance, only tolerance” (1902).

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 7
Total Dehumanization

Finally, Grete, who has hitherto been the source of greatest sympathy and service for Gregor, convinces her parents that they must “let go of the notion that this thing is Gregor” (1909). The real disaster is not her brother’s metamorphosis, but that the Samsas have believed that the dung beetle is Gregor for so long. If it were Gregor, it would have left; but they still have “this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter” (1909). Gregor, who slaved for his family’s sake, is now an offensive presence, unworthy of everything except sacrificing his life.

The story begins with the family and the reader understanding that Gregor is not merely a giant dung beetle, but himself, their son and brother; his rationality inspires sympathy for his humanity and horror of his monstrosity. Quickly, though, the Samsas’ fear descends into hatred. The total effacement of the human occurs when Gregor dies. Now he is just “Gregor’s corpse” (1911).

what it means to be human, pt.2, image 8
Photo by Mandy von Stahl on Unsplash

Conclusion

The conclusion of “The Metamorphosis” undoubtedly reveals that community, language, and love are essential components of humanness and meaning in life. The misery of modernity and its dehumanizing effects suffuse the story. In his literature, the reader catches a glimpse of Kafka’s real life: full of anxiety and despair, a character seemingly impotent in the face of an overpowering prohibitive father-figure, doomed to unhappiness.

The source of Kafka’s intense despair and loneliness, according to the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “in a sense of ultimate isolation from true communion with all human beings—the friends he cherished, the women he loved, the job he detested, the society he lived in—and with God, or, as he put it, with true indestructible Being.”

Through Gregor, the reader experiences the ultimate end of modernism and, arguably, postmodernism. We find a man suffering in body and spirit, searching desperately within himself, for some purpose, security, and self-worth. When modernism destroys Absolute Truth and mocks religion and God as crutches for the weak, can man survive as “man”?

But that’s a topic for another post. For now, let us agree that isolation and social estrangement are naturally opposed to what it means to be human. In other words, “it is not good for man to be alone.” We cannot allow the tensions of modern life–of which there are many–to decimate our relationships. Without self-sacrifice, service, and love, we are no better than wild beasts, following the rule of “kill, or be killed.”

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Trans. Susan Bernofsky. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner. 9th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. 1880-913. Print.

Shaland, Irene. “Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.” Theatre Journal 41.4 (1989): 549-51. JSTOR. The John Hopkins University Press. Web. 8 Apr. 2017. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 3208024>.

Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Transforming Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.” Signs 14.3 (1989): 651-67. JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. <http:// www.jstor.org/stable/3174406>.

Leave a Reply