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How Might Kafka’s Metamorphosis Be Read As A Study Of Identity?

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The concept of ‘identity’ is defined as who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others . Throughout his 1915 novella The Metamorphosis , relationship between the identity and the motivations of Kafka’s characters plays a major role in the narrative. The Samsa family’s attitudes towards work are arguably linked to Marxist ideology, as previous breadwinner Gregor is first characterised by his slavish devotion to his work, and then lack of humanity in his insect form when he loses the ability to do said work. The family are structured similarly, with the parents and younger sister Grete acting as a single unit in their exploitation of Gregor until he becomes no longer useful, akin to how a capitalist employer would exploit their worker for labour. Gender identity also plays an important role, as it dictates the approval characters are given for their behaviour and interests. Gregor’s confinement and switch from the masculine role of salesmen to traditionally feminine interests such as his sister’s music and the décor of the room parallel his downfall in power to his previously weakened father who regains his role as patriarch.

Fundamentally, Gregor is positioned as the working-class man exploited by a capitalist system. He is, as commented by critic Ossewaarde, an organization man (Ossewaarde 4) who expresses discontent when describing his job as ‘strenuous’ and ‘stresses’ almost constantly when he is first unable to make it on time to his job (Kafka 460). However, he still has ‘nothing but his work’ (Kafka 466) and is inherently too powerless in the social hierarchy to express these complaints outside his inner monologues in fear of being fired. The employers themselves are characterised by Kafka as upper-class exploiters described by Gregor continually ‘talk down’ to their employees (Kafka 460). They engage in an almost parasitic relationship preventing him from living a fulfilling creative existence, whilst simultaneously increasing their wealth through his labour. He expresses wishing to confront them ‘from the bottom of his heart’ but is unconsciously trapped by the debt of his parents for ‘five or six years’ at least (Kafka 460). Ironically though, he does seem to be somewhat aware of this restrictive cycle he is stuck in, describing his co-worker as the ‘bosses’ creature; spineless and stupid’ (Kafka 461). In reality though, it is he who lacks the capability to escape the ‘exhaustive obligations to his superiors’ (1004 Ossewaarde) both mentally prior to the transformation and physical afterwards when he becomes without intelligence and literally without a spine as an invertebrate creature.

The titular metamorphosis itself could in fact be seen as a liberating point for Gregor. His power to produce that dictates his humanity are so diminished that he is removed from the pressure to keep up in the ‘rat race of a capitalist society’ as described by Duttlinger (36), this arguably allowing him to pursue the culturally meaningful existence he previously desired free from the exploitations of the outside world (Ossewaarde 1008). His freedom comes at a price for the rest of the Samsa family however, as they must now enter the same cycle of class subjugation to make up for the loss of Gregor; the need for a sustainable income is never-ending. A new hierarchy of the household must be established, with Gregor’s father taking the role of bank messenger so passionately that he sleeps in his uniform – even in his private sphere he is ‘waiting for his boss’s voice (Kafka 495). This association between uniform and power is a reoccurring theme throughout the novella, with Gregor’s uniformed photograph described as ‘commanded respect’ (Kafka 471). Kafka’ inclusion of this photograph serves as both a tragically ironic reminder of Gregor’s previous strength and confidence as well as highlighting his father’s own rapid transformation into a man possessing these qualities. The female characters of Metamorphosis are likewise forced to fill the space left by Gregor, although in more domestic forms. Despite the inherently gendered and limited nature of the working sphere towards women, the uptake of these roles allows them to gain greater authority in the narrative, especially towards the treatment of Gregor. Grete arguably emulates the previous role of Gregor the most as she ‘takes on the role shop assistant’ (Kafka 494) but rather than becoming ‘dictated by bureaucratic procedures and timetables’ (Ossewaarde 1008) as her brother, she ‘[blossoms]’ when given new responsibility (Kafka 511). Together the remaining family are a unit against the threat of bankruptcy and social ruin caused by Gregor’s transformation.

Leading on from this, it could be said that Kafka identifies the Samsa family as a working Marxist system in themselves. The influence on Gregor from his parents appears as inherently manipulative and parasitic as his employers even before his transformation where he ironically becomes a literal parasite. They had ‘simply gotten used’ (Kafka 482) to the income he provided, leading to a one side relationship where Gregor felt his ‘sole concern’ (Kafka 481) was to devote himself to his family– and similarly to his relationship with work he, ‘provided gladly’ both his income and the time he would use for developing a life in the outside world. Gregor’s personal sphere is heavily impacted by this, as he ‘holds back for his parent’s sake’ (Kafka 460), has romance as only ‘a fleeting memory’ (Kafka 497) and in general is implied to have felt isolated even before his transformation. The treatment of Gregor by his parents and sister as a response to this support is suggested by Kafka to be similarly insincere, as although his response to their poor treatment is usually ‘gentle and forgiving, his behaviour timid and submissive’ (Duttlinger 40) the ‘special warmth’ he expect as thanks for his intensity at work was never received (Kafka 482).

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The metamorphosis itself acts as somewhat a turning point for this passive nature. In his insect form Gregor is liberated to act on his own primal and often selfish desires whilst the family are forced into their working roles to support something incapable of giving thanks. However, in contrast to Gregor’s previous subservience, they react with neglect and eventually violence towards him alluding once again to the exploitive power to harm superiors have over their workers, as condemned by Marxist theory. His father in particular is the least tolerant of his son’s new form and regularly misinterprets Gregor’s behaviours as violent (Kafka 483). This is somewhat ironic as previously he himself had allowed Gregor to misunderstand and distort the family’s debt in his mind leading to his downfall as a faceless member of the capitalist rat race. The family appear to place money above all else in their social hierarchy, with the three lodgers becoming of importance just by providing them with a steady income. Gregor is once again relegated to the bottom as the lodger’s presence is given favour when it threatens his safety – even his death is a humiliation also as the maid, (another person at the bottom of the social hierarchy), is the one to find him and dispose of his body. Arguably, the Samsas are portrayed more negatively by Kafka than the actual ‘monster’ Gregor.

In terms of gender identity, Kafka’s female characters are primarily shown through the masculine lens of Gregor’s narration, this often leading to incorrect assumptions about the meaning of their behaviour. Gregor’s mother is characterised as tragically humorous, as she is described ‘collapsing amid her spreading petticoats’ (Kafka 471) and continually fainting in her grief and confusion over the whole situation. Female characters are also included indirectly by Kafka through Gregor’s photograph, who often has a larger role as an inanimate object than the actual women of Metamorphosis. She represents female sexuality in a 19th century context – existing passively for men to find attractive in her ‘handsome gilt frame’ (Kafka 459). Gregor’s apparent sexual repression is also channelled through her, as the description of her figure as ‘upright’ and ‘swathed in fur’ (Kafka 491) is considerably more erotic than his brief encounters he has with real women.

The character of Grete similarly to her mother is often reduced to a purely impulsive character despite the ‘hard-won self-confidence’ she has gained. Her position as ‘expert’ towards Gregor and the attention she initially gives towards his wellbeing are dismissed as ‘childish defiance (Kafka 488)’. However, she is able to somewhat gain maturity and independence – this is suggested to have occurred due to the absence of Gregor who often expresses his affection for her, but also a stifling influence over her behaviour. As an insect, he often exaggerates her care, describing how she left him ‘to make him more comfortable’ and cared for him, despite this obviously being due to her own discomfort towards him. He planned to send her to a music school although she herself expresses little interest in music herself and her playing is described as neither ‘beautiful’ or ‘entertaining’ Arguably, Gregor’s interest goes beyond familial affection to a bizarrely erotic level as he expresses wanting to ‘kiss her throat’ at the sound of the violin, with Grete’s freedom suffering greatly from this (Kafka 502).. Even at the end of the novella her maturity and confidence in dealing with the whole Gregor situation is only rewarded by her parents choosing it ‘time to seek out a good husband’ for her – a new wave of male control is seen as an achievement for her independence (Kafka 511). Ironically, the character of Gregor becomes also restricted by patriarchal society– as he loses his humanity, he loses the power associated that was associated with his masculinity. This allows him to focus on creative interest stereotypically associated with women such as music and contemplating the love he has for his family. However, although he appears to be liberated from the stress of earning a living, Gregor is now socially and physically isolated. He becomes isolated to his room in a way comparable to historical treatment of women, as those deemed as hysterical or differing from social norms were often confined in the same fashion. The figure of the painted owned is suggested to even have dominance over him, with her erect posture while his own body deteriorates alone in his room. The theme of femininity is often a prison for the women of the Samsa family more so than Gregor’s transformation.

Masculinity and the pressure on the Samsa men to conform to it is often a cause for struggle in the narrative. Critic Sokel suggest that to ‘Gregor’s relationship to his father thus represents an exact paradigm of the worker’s exploitation by his capitalist employer, as described by Marx’. In turn, when he can no longer produce Gregor is treated as less than human by his father. The power struggle between father and son begins even before the metamorphosis, as Gregor’s promotion to salesmen gives him power over the family to displace him as patriarch. Gregor’s transformation exaggerates this, as the two are unable to co-exist with each other and all interactions end in violence. Physical form is shown to be of importance by Kafka as Gregor’s form after the transformation is diminutive, described as ‘pitifully thin’ and his behaviour as ‘quiet’ – his appearance now matches his defeated attitude (Kafka 459). The contrast between the ‘exhausted’ father under Gregor’s care, and the ‘huge’ man who asserts his dominance with ‘utmost severity’ over insect Gregor is evident (Kafka 492). This not only highlights the roles reversal that has taken place but how Gregor underestimated his father previously as he now dominates physically at the same rate Gregor’s insect body deteriorates ‘like an ancient invalid’ (Kafka 494). Masculinity is suggested to be earned through work and supporting the family, with failings to do so going against social norms and pushing the man further down the social hierarchy. Gregor only becomes distressed over his transformation when ‘his consciousness of work and organization is gendered once he realizes that he no longer has the body to work’ as stated by Ossewaarde (1008). When he becomes further distanced from his masculinity, he becomes more concerned about abstract animal concepts such as crawling on the walls and therefore begins to lose his humanity. Gregor’s lack of masculinity is finally restored as he chooses, in a dominant move, to die with Grete finally referring to him as a ‘he’ rather than an inanimate ‘it’ (Kafka 508). In relation to the Samsa women, masculinity is used to control and characterise them as inferior. Gregor’s mother is condemned as ‘not understanding’ the majority of the situation (Kafka 482) while Grete is congratulated for no longer being a ‘rather useless girl’ (Kafka 485). As a collective, the two are dismissed as weak by Gregor and told ‘you women don’t want to listen’ by his father (Kafka 491). They are even restricted from understanding the outside world as the newspaper is read to them by Gregor’s father. In the family’s reaction to Gregor’s behaviour, direct, masculine aggression usually overpowers the women’s concern for his wellbeing.

Overall, Kafka writes the Samsa family as primarily controlled by their respective identities in public and in private. Capitalist systems of work as described by Marx theory allow for exploitation of the men’s pressure to earn a living, whilst women are restricted to domestic roles of work only, this barring them from gaining power and social status outside the house. The family aims to conform to these norms of gender and capitalist behaviour but are ultimately prevented from doing so by the metamorphosis. The roles of man and woman, young and old are totally subverted by Gregor’s metamorphosis, allowing for freedom in Gregor’s interests and the liberation of Grete. This freedom however is always one sided however, with their parents forced into the roles left by Gregor against their will. Ultimately, Gregor’s death is the only way of restoring peace to the household, as the abnormality that drives them to violence and mistreatment dies with him also.

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How Might Kafka’s Metamorphosis Be Read As A Study Of Identity? (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-might-kafkas-metamorphosis-be-read-as-a-study-of-identity/
“How Might Kafka’s Metamorphosis Be Read As A Study Of Identity?” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/how-might-kafkas-metamorphosis-be-read-as-a-study-of-identity/
How Might Kafka’s Metamorphosis Be Read As A Study Of Identity? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-might-kafkas-metamorphosis-be-read-as-a-study-of-identity/> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2022].
How Might Kafka’s Metamorphosis Be Read As A Study Of Identity? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Dec 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-might-kafkas-metamorphosis-be-read-as-a-study-of-identity/
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