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Human Vermin: Self-Image and Parental Alienation

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The masked anxiety in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ is a rooted trauma from parental alienation which transforms Gregor’s self-image from human to bug. The behaviors in the narrative are mirror images of the author’s life and are reminiscent of his feelings towards his father. This parental alienation experienced during Kafka’s interactions with his father is further demonstrated by Gregor’s parents in the text. The self-neglect Gregor faces while being a dutiful slave-like character who is treated like vermin by his family literally transforms him into such. Therefore illustrating the intent of the narrative is to portray the trauma of parental neglect and poor self-image caused by these traumas.

The pressure Gregor feels, due to the obligations to his parents, sets him on a lower level than the rest of the family. They tower over him like gods tower over humans, yet they are human. This causes Gregor to shrink lower than his true nature- to the level of an animal. Kafka had no great duties to his father in life but felt judged by others. This made him feel like dead weight on his family much like the character Gregor thinks he is an inferior object to his creator. Both seem to believe they have failed to prove themselves useful to their loved ones. However, the animal body serves as a tool for Kafka to disassociate his mental upset and distance himself from the self-torment he feels. As an insect, he can feel whole. In letters written to his virtual love Felice, Kafka admits, “When I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin” (62). Similarly, it seems as though Gregor instead of feeling angry towards his father’s deception replaces the emotions he has with self-loathing and guilt due to his father’s unrelenting disappointment. This type of family aggression most likely followed Franz to adulthood and manifested in his telling of the metamorphosis. In Kafka’s ‘Letter to My Father’, he says “Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and—oddly enough—self-pity” (Kafka, Franz. Letter To My Father, pg. 5)

Parental alienation is described as a child’s reluctance or refusal to have a relationship with a parent. One can see that Kafka’s letter to his father is a summary of how he rejects his father’s treatment. This form of alienation is caused by the parent’s “instrumental aggression”. This is aggression that is intended to target and hurt their offspring. Including unplanned attacks without the intent to influence the child that usually happens when a parent is provoked. This is usually the case when a toxic parent refuses to see that their method of parenting is harming the child. According to a peer-reviewed journal, ‘Parental Alienating Behaviors: An Unacknowledged Form of Family Violence’, authors say “With instrumental aggression, the target is essentially hurt in the process of the aggressor trying to obtain their goal” (Harman, Jennifer J., et al. 2018).

Kafka’s alienation of his father is likely what caused him to act the way he did in his self-portrayal of Gregor and the insect. Harman adds, “When the child rejects a parental figure, their behavior is often accompanied by a lack of overt ambivalence, guilt, or remorse for their rejection” (Harman, pg.1276). The guilt Kafka feels from his father is a transferred impression to the family dynamic in the narrative. The goal of the parents in the Metamorphosis is to use Gregor as a financial gain. This instrumental aggression is what causes their son to dissociate into his animal form. In, ‘From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function of Self-Alienation’ in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Sokel relates: “Marx observes, “produce only under the compulsion of physical need. Man, on the other hand, produces even when he is free of physical need, and only in this freedom is he humanly creative. . . . Such production is his active species being. By virtue of it, nature itself appears as man’s creation and his reality” (Sokel, 1983. Pg. 216).

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Notably, in Gregor’s situation, he is only permitted little freedom from the responsibilities he has in the family. While his mother tells of how good of a worker he is, she explains Gregor has very little downtime because he is always busy. His role is to perform work for the needs of the household such as relieving debt that is not his own and to bring in money that is then relinquished. The only decent relationship he has early on is his connection to his sister, Grete. Gregor’s father is powered by the insatiable goal of using his offspring in this example of instrumental aggression. The character’s self-sacrifice and exploitation are what separates him from his humanity. (Sokel, 1983. Pg, 223). Moreover, when Gregor is transformed into an insect and realizes he is unable to keep up his duties he suddenly feels like a burden. He loses his self-worth because the only worth he had before the event was completing his tasks, yet they are no longer accessible. Instead, Gregor is then the object of his family’s shame replacing the former debt of his father.

Not only does he feel guilty for this, but perhaps feels guilt in not being able to send his sister to a music school as he intended. He was formerly close with his siblings, but Grete is seen mostly feeding Gregor moldy food and then reporting back how much he has eaten. Due to the rejection of his parents, Grete becomes his primary caregiver. When she sees he likes to crawl on the walls she removes furniture so he has more room, also it is noted she hates to look at him. Possibly indicating that she is ashamed to see her brother in his vermin form. Or that she realizes Gregor is no longer his past self she becomes indifferent to him and strips their relationship of its former meaning and enforces her new role.

When Gregor is exposed to his mother and causes her to pass out, Grete attempts to discipline him which causes him to escape the room. Later, Grete’s miscommunication to her father of the incident ends up in him being wounded with an apple by his father. Although this miscommunication hurts Gregor, Grete is indifferent to him and does not acknowledge him as her sibling but also as vermin. Not only is Gregor receiving Instrumental aggression from his parents but also his sibling who insists he is under her control. Her new role in the family is demonstrated when Gregor scares away their borders, causing them to lose the rent money. She insists that her family must not see the insect as their family but only as a burden. This finalization of character is what puts an end to Gregor. The story is an example of self-alienation, most probably caused and inspired by Kafka’s real-life events with his father.

The incompletion, guilt, and self-loathing Franz Kafka had adapted to during his life, is a demonstration of what parental neglect can do to its target. Moreover, this neglect can directly influence one’s self-image, worth, and development.

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Human Vermin: Self-Image and Parental Alienation. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from
“Human Vermin: Self-Image and Parental Alienation.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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