A Psychological Analysis And Process Of Alienation In Kafka’s Metamorphosis

The story of The Metamorphosis is easily told. It is the story of a travelling salesman by the name Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning transformed into a hideous and monstrous vermin; he of course retains the human faculties of thinking and feeling, he is held prisoner and hidden by his family in his room. Finally he slowly goes to his ruin and annihilation. From this bare and sketchy outline it is clear that like almost all other works of Kafka The Metamorphosis also has to be read not as an instance of realistic writing but as an allegorical piece. The story depicts a situation which should be seen as a poetic image which has an emotive appeal and immense interpretative possibilities. This Study attempts to examine Kafka’s work from philosophical and psychological perspectives. Specifically the works will be seen as Existential and psychological allegories.

The first sign of alienation which happens to gregor is his reaction to his physical change. Gregor Samsa feels that he has been treated as a lowly insect and comes to feel that he is one: the story makes the leap from “I feel like an insect” to “I am an insect.” Whatever the causes, Gregor’s feeling is rooted in the collapse of his nature between impersonal self (outside) and I (inner self). This collapse can be accepted in the realm of dream. For Gregor Samsa does not at all desire such a transformation into an animal. On the contrary it happens to him suddenly - a frighteningly incomprehensible and strange occurrence.

Gregoe is far from identifying his ego with a beetle. It is true that he too, precisely, is in a state of unresolved conflict between work and ego. Gregor vacillates between two spheres. On the one hand, he is ruled by the rational, plan-making considerations related to his work: he wants to get up and carry on his business trip. “Just don’t stay in bed being useless,” Gregor said to himself. On the other hand, however, he curses his work, “the upset of doing business,” the ‘torture of traveling,’ and he ponders, “How about going back to sleep for a few minutes and forgetting all this nonsense.” This “nonsense” refers to his metamorphosis into the beetle that inwardly he in no way accepts, but actually wants “to forget” in his sleep.

Gregor can look upon the dream metamorphosis only as a negative phenomenon that disturbs his daily work routine. The beetle acquires frightful characteristics; it becomes a “monstrous vermin” that is of no help to him but merely hampers him. When Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning from unsettling dream, he finds himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin ... “what happened to me?” he thinks it was no dream. Gregor, thus, is in a waking state. The transformation that had taken place in his dream — characteristically in “unsettling” dream — suddenly overtakes Gregor upon his waking, as an incomprehensible occurrence that has “happened to him,” something that he accordingly, did not want, let alone, long to happen. He shakes it off as “nonsense” and reflects for a long time and in detail upon his strenuous career, upon his relationship to the head of his firm and he considers whether “he can now still catch the seven o’clock train. 

It does not enter his mind at all that he could perhaps be hindered in his business trip by his transformation. At the outset this consideration is beyond the scope of his imagination. For him the metamorphosis is non-existent. He remains rooted in the realm of the impersonal ‘one’. The “self” is a burdensome verminous bug, a monstrous creature of a nightmare that can not be real. In conflict with his job, he feels the estrangement, the missing “intimate” associations with people. What is more, he ponders on the idea that he would like most of all to “have quit long age.” Only his concern for his parents, who have to pay back a large debt they owe the head of his firm, has prevented him until now from having marched up to the boss and in Gregor’s own words, spoken my piece from the bottom of my heart! He would have fallen off the desk!… Well, I haven’t given up hope completely; once I’ve got the money together to pay off my parent’s debt to him- that will, probably take another five or six years – I’m going to do it without fail. Then I’m going to make the big break. But for the time being I’d better get up, since my train leaves at five.

There can be no doubt that this conflict, between his occupation and his desire to make the final break and become self-reliant and independent, was the cause of his “unsettling dreams.” Since the pressure of the moral obligation of his occupation prevails in this conflict, and since the fulfillment of his desire to become a self of his own is put off for five to six years, this desire must of necessity be felt as disturbing and as running counter to his work. The possibilities that offer themselves in the “dream” are simply to have the “self” remain in bed and freely and independently direct all the goings-on outside in the world, without being pounded to bits in the hustle and bustle of business which Gregor cannot accept. And the meaning of this terrible “metamorphosis” rests in the very fact that this “irremovable” self, the self that is “not to be got rid of,” this reality of the ego that struggles against the impersonal “one”, suddenly invades Gregor’s concrete daily reality, too, in a shocking manner. The seemingly fantastic unreality of this “vermin” is actually the supreme reality from which no one can escape.

What is new in Kafka’s creative writing and view of the problem is his realization that the ‘Law’ of man’s alienation remains hidden from modern man. Man has become the slave of the unknown law of the impersonal ‘one’ to such an extent that he does not know about his own self or his inner life any longer at all, he represses it and cloaks it again and again by means of calculations. Gregor, it is true, feels extremely uncomfortable in his business life, he senses the conflict through and through, but he believes, in turn, that he can get the better of it by means of mere calculations of a business nature. He calculates that when he has saved the amount of money he needs for his parents, he can then at last make the ‘final break’ and take the leap, and get away from his business firm. But he has no idea at all of where he will actually leap, of what potential forms of existence he would like to actualize. His own inner being remains alien to him. It is for this reason, therefore, that Kafka gives it a form that is quite alien to him, the form of a verminous creature that threatens his rational existence in an incomprehensible manner.

The most gruesome aspect of Gregor’s fate is not his metamorphosis. But the blindness with which everybody treats this transformation. Gregor will not admit it. “I’ll get dressed right away; pack up my samples, and go.” His parents and his sister do not understand it. The self is what is absolutely alien, void and non-existent, not only in the world of business but also in the world of the family. To be sure, his mother and sister love him dearly. In a touching manner they try at first to improve his condition, to surmount their feelings at the sight of this vermin, to take care of him, to protect him, to see to the comforts of life for him, to preserve or once again evoke what for them was human and lovable in him. But the terrible truth of this short story is the realization that even the “most beautiful”, most tender relations among people are founded on illusions. No one knows or suspects what he himself “is” and what the other person “is”. Gregor Samsa’s parents, for instance, never had any inkling of this conflict, of the ‘sacrifice’ that he was making for their sake; “His parents did not understand this too well; in the course of the years they had formed the conviction that Gregor was set for life in this firm.” They had never dreamt that there was trouble brewing within Gregor, that something had been ‘out of order’ long before the eruption of this inner sickness in the form of the metamorphosis. They did not know that the essential in man can actually be concealed, distorted and destroyed if he is provided with no more than the ‘necessaries of life.’ Now that the distortion assumes visible features, they are at a loss and feel their son to be a ‘foreign body.’

By the same token, however, Gregor had also been mistaken in his relations with his family. “What a quiet life the family had been leading;” Gregor said to himself. He believed he had to provide his family with a pleasant, contented, secure life by sacrificing himself, by selling himself to his business. Through his ‘sacrifice’ Gregor had distorted his own self. But his sacrifice was meaningless. In reality Gregor’s parents did not need the sacrifice at all. His father possessed more money than Gregor knew about. According to this interpretation, despite the negative meaning of sacrifice, it has a positive meaning too. When the beetle Gregor hears his sister playing the violin, there is this decisive statement. “Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.” Here the meaning of this transformation into an animal first becomes clear. The matter at issue is the “unknown nourishment” that does not exist on earth. As an animal he is at the same time more than an animal. His alienation had the purpose of awakening in him the ‘longing’ for this ‘nourishment.’ The final intent of Gregor’s metamorphosis into a beetle is the escape into freedom, that longing for man’s ‘unknown nourishment.’ However, as his longing for music and for the unknown nourishment has already shown, Gregor finally does nevertheless free himself from his enslavement to the empirical world. His death is not merely a meaningless annihilation, but a liberation or realization. Gregor says, ‘yes,’ to his own death. He dies reconciled with himself and with the world.

He thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection until the tower clock struck three in the morning. He still saw that outside the window everything was beginning to grow light. 

It is no longer possible to understand this ‘self’ psychologically, as a determinable psychic state that can be explained in terms of the realm of feelings, wishes, hopes, dreams, striving, etc. Somewhat in the sense, perhaps, that in conflict with his business occupation there arises a series of ‘inner’ emotions, ideals, and goals which now represent, as it were, Gregor’s actual self which until now had been suppressed. Since Gregor has nothing but revulsion for the beetle such a sympathetic view of the metamorphosis is out of question. Besides, in that case, it would be altogether impossible to understand how such an inner life could assume, of all forms, the form of disgusting verminous insect. Even in the view developed by us, it is a matter of perversion of the self, since this self is suppressed or opposed by Gregor and must assume negative characteristics; therefore such a positive/sympathetic psychological interpretation is not possible. But the story makes neither a positive nor a negative statement about the transformation.

The metamorphosis is not of spirit, mind, or character. And this is precisely Kafka’s contribution to the literature dealing with the dichotomy of man’s heart and mind. Psychological interpretations of the story have to take this into account. The beetle remains something “alien” that can not be made to fit into the human world. It is “The Other”, “The Incomprehensible”, pure and simple, beyond the reach of any feeling or imagining. That is why Kafka instructed his publisher to ensure that the illustrator did not draw any specific insect on the cover page for the vermin of Gregor is something that can not be drawn. It is not only from the view point of the pictorial art that the insect can not be drawn but also from the view point of imitative art. It is only then that the beetle image contains truth. In this sense truth and the self are identical. The “self” is inexplicable, pure and simple. The beetle embodies the world beyond our conscious as well as our unconscious imagination. The animal, although it is nothing but man ‘himself,’ is the absolute disaffirmation of the so-called ‘human world.’ The cleavage between the world in which Samsa lives and Samsa's beetlehood is the cleavage between ‘imagining’ and ‘being.’ Since for Kafka the world beyond ‘imagining’ is in man himself, since there is no ‘beyond’ exterior to man, the ‘image’ the ‘parable’ of this beyond is necessarily an earthly image that is unearthly and that at the same time cannot be ‘drawn.’

The paradox of these circumstances is the reason why Kafka represents such beyond in the form of things or animals that incomprehensibly break into everyday existence, causing bewilderment and fright. It is interesting to note the difference in the use of the beetle image with reference to Raban and Samsa. If the self is represented as the beetle, Raban saw the world from the vantage point of a tranquil self.

To him the world naturally appears intolerable and disgusting. Samsa on the other hand wishes to remain in the world. For him therefore the tranquil self must appear as a terrible monster. That is why what for Raban is a beetle is for Samsa a monstrous vermin. Both the views can be defended as long as one remembers that for Kafka both together constitute human life. Kafka criticizes and affirms both. It would be wrong to interpret Kafka only through Raban’s or Samsa’s viewpoints. Both cross one another just as the names of both Raban and Samsa are cover names for Kafka himself. Only when both the images of the beetle are taken into account will the full import of Kafka’s meaning become apparent.

The Metamorphosis is a good example for portraying the riskiest moment (awakening). Kafka said thatman is confronted by a world of impossible dimensions and he cannot but despair of comprehending its overwhelming and mysterious forces in the best form of surrealism. All he can do is to test his own capacity for understanding the real self (unconscious). Each fateful confrontation of the antagonist, self (unconscious being ) and world (ontology = the world of beings), brings with it hosts of mutually exclusive, indeed, paradoxical relations, riddles which seem to clarify but which eventually confound even further man’s impossible task of penetrating the puzzling relations of his world. These “riddles” are philosophical and theological, psychological and social; they extend to all spheres of human existence involved in man's search.

Thus, with the loss of his world and of his position as bread-winner, which he unconsciously rejects in the course of the metamorphosis, Gregor loses the foundation on which his existence has been built up. The realization of this loss of foundation brings, with it both a deep feeling of anxiety and a bad conscience: the being that has lost 1606 Kohzadi et al., 2012 its foundation sees itself as “vermin”; the terrifying outward appearance is in itself the result of an unconscious selfpunishment. In fact, Gregor-inside-the vermin dreads the anxiety and the bad conscience to the point that he eventually desires his own death. However, since Gregor is now the materialization of his unconscious or pure self, banishing the creature amounts to killing Gregor altogether, that is, a complete and sustainable manner of being necessitates the harmonious coexistence of the Ego and the Other and the suppression of either of the poles can only result in un-being. So in his death he is both extinguished and set free and it is parallel with the family's liberation.

The father’s assumption of authority by becoming a uniformed bank-messenger is the most obvious illustration and Grete’s yawn of freedom neatly ties the story to the transformation of the beginning. Yet this very conclusion has pushed us to the point of absurdity - reached by the simultaneous creation and dislocation of a particular world in which contradictory solutions, like constriction and freedom, obliteration and awareness of existence, equally apply.

Works cited

  • Kafka, Franz. 1947. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir London: Penguin Books, pp: 1, 1, 2, 31, 2-3, 88, 89, 130, 136.
  • Brod, Max (ed.).1985. Briefe, New York: Schocken Books, pp: 384-85.
  • Laing, R. D. 1965. The Divided Self, London : Cox & Wyman Ltd, pp.46, 17.
  • Jung, C. G. 1963. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, New York : Random House Inc, p. 401. 
16 December 2021
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