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Self-Alienation in a Capitalistic Society

Discuss about the Structure and Function of Self Alienation.

A novella by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis is one of the most recognized, seminal works of fiction, published in the year of 1915, that depicts the horrendous and yet absurd transformation of the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa (Rhodes & Westwood, 2016). However, what strikes to be more absurd here than the horrendous transformation of Gregor, is the transformation of Gregor’s sister Grete, and the entire family, who push helpless Gregor to the path of self-alienation, misery and ultimately death. In the post modern era, the literary discourse has primarily revolved around the trauma and existential pain of isolation of the protagonists, in a materialistic society, where the family values, social norms or ideal virtues are deemed to be futile rituals. Marxism and Existentialism, depicted a human as an alienated being, unable to seek out any distinct meaning in life, deprived of the essential humanity that defines man, and is estranged from the community at large (Sokel, 1956). Accordingly, it would be discreet to consider the transformation of Gregor into a vermin, as a literary metaphor of an alienated man, who has lost his human identity, while working in a mindless society, having lost the meaning of family life.

In the works of noted literary artists, such as Feuerbach, Schiller or Marx, man has continually being reiterated as an isolated, self-alienated being, who has lost his meaning in life, while residing in a materialistic society that relies on the exploitation of labor. According to Marx, a work should be done for the sake of one’s own pleasure that helps a man to distinguish his productivity from animal productivity. In a materialistic, profit-driven world,  a human is compelled to work for longer hours, against his pleasure and he has to work mechanically, without using his creative instinct. In the story, much before the physical estrangement of Gregor occurs from his bodily being, the reader can understand that he has been estranged from his own self, owing to the fact that he has been pre-occupied in his all-consuming work. Marx has earlier already spoken of the “externalization” human being encounters, in a solely materialistic, capitalistic economy, whereby a human being loses the essence of his being, and is dwindled to a merely mindless animal. The Marxists already claimed that a work done for the pleasure of the doer can be a liberating experience, and yet if the work is being forcefully imposed upon someone out of economic necessity, then the worker is essentially alienated not only from the society, but he is also estranged from the humanity at large. Thus, as pointed out by critics, that Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a vermin “presents self-alienation in a literal way” (Sokel, 1983). In the story The Metamorphosis, the protagonist himself has been found to complain against the burden of his unbearable work, and instead of feeling engaged, he feels alienated, exhausted and oppressed. He exclaims with utmost self-pity, "…what a grueling job I've picked! Day in, day out - on the road”, although at the same time, he seems to be obsessed with the materialistic aims in life, as he is also found to feel proud “that he has been able to provide such a life in so nice an apartment to his parents and sister” (Sokel, 1983). In fact, there is no gain stating that “Gregor’s metamorphosis literally enacts the “loss of self”” (Sokel, 1983 pp 487). However, a human being is supposed to be self-liberated, free to choose his life, make his own decisions, and think creatively, while cherishing a free, self-chosen life, and Kafka’s Gregor is just another man in a capitalist economy, whose life is run by machine, clicks and watches. The grandeur of the human life finds no expression in today’s world, and consequently Gregor was transformed into a pest much before the metamorphosis occurred. Gregor, after the metamorphosis stands unsteady, unable to control his legs, and he stands representative of the men of a capitalistic society, where each human being has lost their meaning or control in life, and are merely driven and domineered by the mechanism of a materialistic society. In the story also, one can find Gregor’s boss everywhere, barging in his personal domain, vehemently questioning and criticizing his parents’ child rearing skills with the “worker” wriggling and writhing under the interminable oppression of the society.

Alienation from Family and Community

The metamorphosis of Gregor is likened to a test whereby Gregor intends to examine their love and integrity of his family members towards him, and his tragedy lies in their inability to pass the test. Kafka unveils a world, that is relentless and monstrous in its insensibility to anything that fails to offer monetary benefits to the residents of the society. Despite the intense dissatisfaction of Gregor with the work he does, he strives to continue his hated bondage for the sake of repaying his father’s debt, which his father owes his employer. However, as his metamorphosis intervenes with his job, Gregor yearns more and more for human contact, and yet his parents start alienating start losing their empathy for the burdensome insect. Apart from the literal dehumanization of the protagonist, the metaphorical dehumanization that Gregor’s family undergoes is being starkly portrayed in the story. While the father inflicts wound on Gregor with an apple that literally rots and festers in his flesh, his sister tells his parents how his burdensome brother should die. As it is evident that in Kafka’s world, “ love fails to overcome horror, and the “beauty” condemns the “beast” (Sokel, 1983 pp 204). A capitalistic society that is driven solely by materialistic concerns, will tend to replace humanity by monetary concerns, and the same holds truth for Gregor’s family (Straus, 1989). As long as Gregor was working hard enough allowing his sister to dress nicely and sleep for longer hours, the sister was supportive of her brother. As soon as the brother, so far working hard, loses his capacity to appease the needs and desires of the family, the family turns back on him. As soon as the brother ruins the violin concert of Grete, the sister refuses to empathize with Gregor and insists his parents that he requires to be disposed like any household insect.

The Marxists themselves had earlier stated that in a capitalist society, driven by money and mercenary motives, the cessation of love, humanity and empathy leads to the death of familial ties as well. While Gregor has been pre-occupied in earning money for offering a luxurious life to his family, he has been losing attachments and bonds, and he realizes the same only after his metamorphosis. In a capitalistic society, love and integrity within the family start losing significance, as the son emerges to be a mere instrument of earning money. The stark oppression of the society impose inhuman pressure on the family members, who must survive or die, in absence of money. Gregor’s father gets himself in debt, and his financial crisis robs him of any sense of humanity. He starts behaving ruthlessly with Gregor, giving him “a hard blow”, throwing apple at him that gets “imbedded itself in Gregor’s back”. With the metamorphosis of Gregor, and his loss of humanity, the entire family starts losing humanity and changes the attitude towards Gregor. Though their metamorphosis in attitude occurs slowly, their loss of human conscience nevertheless kills the protagonist. Even after the shocking death of Gregor, his family apparently shows no grief, and in his funeral, they are found to express the belief that they would be able to lead an easier life, being relieved of the burden. In an insect’s disguise, Gregor emerges to be a human being, while his family members, despite being humans have been behaving as insects, with the loss of their human conscience. The family turns dysfunctional, as Gregor’s beloved sister states with utmost indignation: “Such an animal cannot live with people…” (Kafka, 2014). Thus, the value of a human being is apparently reliant on his ability to provide mercenary benefits to his family, failing which he is reduced to a mere burden. The values of love and fidelity are central to the concept of a family, and yet even for the mother of Gregor, it is being observed that her feeling of fear and revulsion takes over her maternal impulse.

To conclude, it should be remembered that although the tale emerges to be an absurd story of a man getting transformed into an insect, the transformation of a young man into an insect suggests the impersonal and absolutely dehumanizing structure of class relations. Gregor emerges more as a proletariat rather than the son of the family, and consequently his only way of survival is possible by working laboriously. Despite his utter discontent with his work, he keeps on working hard to pay off the dues of his father, and yet the sudden transformation, in life diminishes his value in his family. As an instrument in a capitalist society, his family as well as his life abandons him, while the readers are left with the horrid truth, that a man has no personal value, and his value and respect within his family, lies in his exchange value. Not only the manager of Gregor abandons him, an action truly representative of his bourgeois class, but his family also abandons him, reiterating what Marx and Engels already stated: “…the bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation".

Reference List:

Kafka, F. (2014). The Essential Kafka: The Castle, The Trial, Metamorphosis and Other Stories.

Sokel, W. H. (1956). Kafka's" Metamorphosis": Rebellion and Punishment. Monatshefte, 203-214.

Sokel, W. H. (1983). From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function of Self-Alienation in Kafka's" Metaphorphosis". The Literary Review, 26(4), 485.

Straus, N. P. (1989). Transforming Franz Kafka's" Metamorphosis". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14(3), 651-667.

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