A Psychoanalytical Criticism of The Metamorphosis
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The deeper meaning of “The Metamorphosis”, by Frank Kafka, can be interpreted in many ways depending on critical theory is used to examine it. From a feminist criticism, one can observe how Gregor’s dominance as a male diminishes after he becomes a bug as his sister’s strength and role in the family grows stronger. From a biographical criticism, one can compare and contrast the traits of Gregor and the people around him with that of Kafka’s own life and his relationships. However, the focus of this essay will be applying a psychoanalytical criticism to the characters in “The Metamorphosis”, using the studies of Sigmund Freud to approach the understanding of the story.
If we look at the characters in “The Metamorphosis” as whole from a psychoanalytical point of view, the Samsa family as a whole can be seen as the mind and each member representing different components of it. The Mother represents the impulsive part of the mind that operates only along the lines of self pleasure and does not take into account of any consequences; the id. Gregor’s sister, Grete, represents the portion of the mind that aims for perfection by acting on morals and punishing misbehavior with feelings of guilt; the superego.
The Father represents the logical portion of the mind that acts accordingly to reality in order to meet the needs of both the id and the superego in realistic ways; the ego. The mind as a whole, which consists of the Mother, Father, and Grete, will be tested throughout the story as they are under constant stress and pressure by the stressor: Gregor. In “FREUD: A Very Short Introduction”, Anthony Storr describes Freud’s perceived structure of the mind; “Freud’s model of the mind consisted of three parts: ego, id, and superego,” (Storr). The id is described as primitive, unorganized, and emotional: ‘a realm of the illogical’ (Storr). In Freud’s own words, “It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of instinctive needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle,” (Freud).
The id can be seen as the “devil” on one’s shoulder when trying to make a decision and will try to influence the user act on instinct and pleasure. In “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor’s mother represents the id of the mind by always showing a desire to love, care for, and protect her son even when it’s not always the appropriate thing to do. From the beginning of the story, Gregor’s Mother’s actions already show that she is very protective of her son, especially when Gregor’s boss comes to their house to find out why Gregor is late for work. She tells the boss, “He isn’t well, believe me, sir. How otherwise would Gregor miss a train! The boy has no head for anything but business. I’m sure he’s not feeling well,” (Kafka). In this situation, the impulsive choice of the mother would be to protect her son from being scolded or even getting into trouble with the boss, but the logical choice would be to let Gregor deal with his problem on his own so that he can learn from the experience and remember to not let it happen again. However, Gregor’s Mother’s decision to act on impulse and motherly instinct shows that she is a representation of the id in the mind. On the other hand, Grete represents a part of the mind that is opposite of what the Mother represents; the superego.
With the id acting on instinct and impulse for self pleasure, the superego strives for perfection by abiding by strict morals and codes and making one feel guilt whenever there is a slight feeling of succumbing to the desires of the id. Storr gives an example explaining how the superego can influence someone; “The superego can be regarded as the product of repeated conditioning by parental injunctions and criticism: for example, ‘You must clean your teeth after breakfast,’ may become so ingrained a command that the adult who has long ago left home continues to feel uncomfortable if he does not obey it,” (Storr). Grete, like her mother, obviously cares very much for Gregor and is also terrified by his new transformation, but unlike her mother, she tries very hard to hide her fear in order to keep feeding and tending to Gregor’s room; “His sister, almost fully dressed, opened the door from the hallway side and looked in uneasily. When she noticed him under the couch, she received such a fright that, unable to control herself, she slammed the door again from outside. But, as if regretting her behavior, she immediately opened the door again,” (Kafka).
At the sight of Gregor, Grete succums to her fear and shuts the door after seeing him, but immediately regrets the decision and feels guilty for seeing her brother hideous creature, if only for an instant. Insect or not, Gregor is still Grete’s brother and she believes that the right thing to do is to keep on loving him and taking care of him, emphasizing her role as the superego. The ego is the part of the mind that represents consciousness. It employs reason, common sense, and the power to delay immediate responses to external stimuli (Storr). When making a decision, the ego balances out both needs of the id and the superego. In Freud’s own words, “It performs that task by gaining control over the demands of the instincts, by deciding whether they are to be allowed satisfaction, by postponing that satisfaction or suppressing their excitations entirely,” (Freud). Being a stereotypical earnest father, the Father’s words and actions throughout the story consistently show a hint of the ego nature, constantly balancing the welfare of the family and the issue of Gregor’s transformation.
The Father’s representation of the ego is particularly obvious when he starts working again in order to support the family financially and has to act hostile to Gregor in order to keep the rest of the family safe from him. Gregor describes his father, who used to be an old and weak man, after he started working again; “Now, however, he was perfectly erect, dressed in a tight blue uniform with gold buttons, like those worn by messengers in banking houses,” (Kafka). After the Mother being scared by Gregor, the father immediately rushes to Gregor’s room in order to punish him for frightening his Mother. In his attempt to punish Gregor, the Father is ruthless first, but shows mercy in the end; “A weakly thrown apple grazed Gregors back, but rolled off harmlessly. One that flew right after it actually penetrated Gregor’s back. He then saw the mother run over to the father, she begged him to spare Gregor’s life,” (Kafka).
In all honesty, no Father wants to hurt their own son, weather it be emotionally or physically. By immediately taking up a job and throwing an apple at Gregor’s back, the Father hurts Gregor emotionally because he sees him as worthless and unable to provide for the family and also physically when he lodges an apple into Gregor’s back. Deep down, I presume that the Father just wants to keep on staying at home without working and have Gregor as part of the family again, but because his priority is the welfare of the family, the Father sees his duty as needing to protect the family from any kind of arm. This includes financial instability, which he does by getting a job, and any emotional stress, which the Father tries to prevent by pushing back Gregor into his room and punishing him. Although it may not be what he really wants to do, the Father’s ego intention to protect the family at all costs and also keep balance forces him to make decisions that cannot fully satisfy both the id and superego.
At the end of the story, when Gregor’s life comes to an end, so does the sadness of the family. They would not have to worry about taking care of Gregor anymore and their financial troubles would also be solved because all three of them jobs with promising futures and decided to move to smaller and cheaper apartment; “The jobs that all three had were thoroughly advantageous and particularly promising for later on. Naturally the greatest immediate improvement in their situation would result easily from a change of apartment; now they would take a smaller and cheaper, but better located and in general more practical, apartment than their present one,” (Kafka). The elimination of the stressor finally allowed the mind to function peacefully.
Using the psychoanalytical theory to understand “The Metamorphosis” is a very effective tool in deciphering the deeper meaning of the story. Observing the family as if it was someone’s mind the behavior of each character as if it was a part of the brain shows not only how the such contrasting characters interact with one another, but also gives us an insight on how our own minds go through negotiations and stress when making a decision or bothered by a stressor. Freud’s theory of the id, superego, and ego provide us with an interesting way of examining Frank Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”.
Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Kahn, Michael. Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the Twenty First Century. New York: Basic, 2002. Print.
Storr, Anthony. Freud: Anthony Storr. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.