Review Novel The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka That Paints a Tragic Tale of Loss of Value and Humanity Caused by Unemployment
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The famous novel The Metamorphosis (1916) by Franz Kafka is highly contested as a novel open for a myriad of kind of interpretation. The classic tale of a man, Gregor Samsa, waking up to find himself in the form of an insect leaves some obvious question marks in terms of intended meaning. This paper aims to analyze the fictional events of The Metamorphosis with the perspective of economic Marxist theory, citing excerpts from The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie Towards the Proletariat (1845) and The Communist Manifesto (1845). Under the perspective of Marxist theory, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis provides insight into the class structure of society with Gregor Samsa representing proletariat struggle in stark opposition to his unnamed manager representing the bourgeoisie. This dynamic suggests that the wealth of a human being, in a capitalist society, is inherently linked to his or her ability to produce an income. Once Gregor is no longer able to produce this income, he is as valuable as an insect and in this case, takes the actual form of one.
In order to make this argument, the primary assertion is to demonstrate the presence of an unfair class system in the novel. These class differences are highlighted rather vividly. From the beginning of the narrative, the reader is aware that Gregor Samsa is burdened with the profession of a travelling salesman. He is tied to this job since he bears the responsibility of paying off his father’s debts and providing for his family. Clearly, he is working class and his family resides in a small apartment. However, he is very aware that the struggles of his life would be alleviated by a more high class standing, “The stresses of trade are much greater than the work going on at head office,” (4). Gregor is aware that he is overworked and chained to a cycle of being subjugated to the lower class. In the lens of Marx, he is the proletariat. This can be understood under the lens of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ book of political theory The Communist Manifesto (1848). The manifesto defines proletariat as, “the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live,” (Marx & Engels, 769). Gregor is completely tied to this definition. Furthermore, he perceives his future in terms of income, “I haven’t completely given up that hope yet. Once I’ve got together the money to pay off the parents’ debt to him—that should take another five or six years—I’ll do it for sure. Then I’ll make the big break,” (5). Gregor perceives life as a means to an end, planning in terms of paying off debts. His life is characterized by these material goals.
In the other class of the system, the owner of the means of production, is represented by the manager in the narrative. The manager, who remains unnamed, is a typical member of the bourgeois class. Marx and Engels define ‘bourgeoisie’ as the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour (Marx & Engels, 769). The manager does not hold back from personally embarrassing and scolding Gregor for his tardiness despite his loyalty and perfect attendance for years (11). This evil behavior is due in part to his social status. He objectifies Gregor as a commodity of his business and does not value him as a human being. Furthermore, in the eyes of the manager, Gregor’s lower class status allows the manager to treat him as less than.
Class structure, however, has implications much more relevant than simply poor or rich. The class dynamic as retold above has direct interplay with self worth in the narrative. Meaning, the worth of a character in the novel is tied to his or her ability to produce income. This idea is best displayed when analyzing Gregor’s transformation into an insect form. When Gregor transforms, he loses his “humanness”. To society, Gregor completely lacks the physical characteristics that classify him as man. However, the first worry of Gregor’s is not one of aesthetic beauty; rather, he feels worthless at his inability to work and frightened he will not be able to perform. He complains, “I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food,” (4). The idea of waking up as an insect and the first thought being about catching a train for work is absurd; however, it is the reality in a capitalist society and a necessity for Gregor. Marx in the German Ideology (1845) explains this as a loss of humanity due to a loss of production of subsistence through labor, “They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation,” (Marx, 1845). Marx describes that the bare difference between animals and humans is this means of subsistence. In this sense, Gregor has lost all value that has made him human.
This loss of value to the outside world is explicit in Gregor’s interactions with his manager, the manifestation of the bourgeriouse. When the manager observed Gregor as an insect, there was not a hint of concern. Rather, he was disgusted by his state and did not even bother to alert the medics or a family member of such an emergency (15). Engels described this typical treatment of the proletariat class in his manuscript The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie Towards the Proletariat (1845). He says, “We have seen in the course of our report how the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat in every conceivable way for its own benefit! We have, however, hitherto seen only how the single bourgeois maltreats the proletariat upon his own account,” (Engels, 1845). This treatment is classic class structure, according to Engels. Since the manager can no longer exploit Gregor, he does not care what happens to him since he is no longer of any practical, beneficial use.
Nonetheless, it is not only the privileged class that sees Gregor as devoid of value. Gregor’s own father, of whom he had been working so diligently to support, felt no sympathy for his transformed body. On one occasion, when Gregor left his room, his father went as far as to wound him severely. “From the fruit bowl on the sideboard his father had filled his pockets, and now, without for the moment taking accurate aim, was throwing apple after apple,” (51). While his mother had some more sympathy than he did, this interaction can be understood through a fiscal frustration. Gregor’s father had a certain expectation of debts to be paid; however, Gregor can no longer be of this use. In this way, all “love” is now lost and he treats his son as less than an animal.
The ending of the novel is a result of more than simply a lack of social value in society. The final moments signify the lethal, evils of capitalism as a result of social alienation and an unforgiving class system. Tragically, without means to produce income and exist as an active member contributing to the economy, Gregor dies. The overall dismissiveness of the death is exemplified by the cleaning women’s announcement, “Come and look. It’s kicked the bucket. It’s lying there, totally snuffed!” (72). Moreover than simply being dismissive, Gregor’s parents thanked God for his death. Comments were made about his emaciated figure, suggesting that malnutrition contributed to his death, “Grete, who did not take her eyes off the corpse, said, ‘Look how thin he was. He had eaten nothing for such a long time,” (73). This subtle detail has frightening implications about capitalist society. Devoid of any access to income, unemployed individuals are unable to survive in a society that does not even promise basic necessities without an income. Gregor, in his transformed state, was unable to work and in a capitalist class structure, that is a death sentence. Due to this death, Gregor’s parents were thrilled about the future economic benefits and freedom of the burden of his existence. The last pages of the novel paint a picture of his parents fantasizing about what an economic asset Grete’s husband will be to them.
In contrast to the Marxist lens, one could reject this analysis with the counterargument that it less about class structure and more about loss of identity. Meaning, the dehumanizing behavior of Gregor’s manager and family members is a result of the loss of connection between who he was and who he is in his transformed state. With this line of thought, the argument could be made that the economic loss was simply a feature of the novel that reflects the realistic order of things. Furthermore, one could argue that the form of an insect is both frightening and disturbing for people to digest. This combination would be the probable reason for these behaviors, according to this line of thought.
In reference to this argument, the missing factor is the absolute, repetitive fixation on income as a common theme throughout the novel. This fixation on income is the reason behind the use of Marxism in this analysis. The first interaction detailed in the novel is between Gregor and the manager. The manager’s concern is not of a loss of his employee’s identity; rather, as a loss of a productive worker. This in itself disproves the counter-argument since the two had been involved with each other for many years; therefore, any nostalgia for Gregor would have logically been expressed. More shockingly, this experience of his family shows how little interest they had in losing their son. Once again, their disinterest in Gregor and his transformation revolved around economic concern. The reiteration of this theme asserts a connection between class struggle and the plot itself. Moreover, if the identity theory was true, there would be some sort of discussion about missing the old Gregor for his personality attributes rather than his fiscal assets.
Under the Marxist lens utilized in this paper, The Metamorphosis paints a tragic tale of loss of value and humanity caused by unemployment. The class structure in the novel sets the ideal setting for such tragedy to transpire. Without any means of income, Gregor soon loses all value to those around him and pays the ultimate price. Despite the mystical events necessary for a human being to wake up as an insect, there is nothing non-fiction about the struggles caused by unemployment and being chained to a low class system.