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In The Metamorphosis, German novelist Franz Kafka warns that capitalism harbors inevitable changes that will result ultimately in loneliness and horror. He does so with a prophecy that women will replace men in the 20th-century workforce, to their detriment.
In Part I of this novella, Gregor Samsa is a harried traveling salesman that runs back and forth, hawking fabric to support his parents and sister, Grete. He runs for his life, scrounging whatever he can find to eat, like an insect. Exhausted from this rat race, he oversleeps and awakens to find himself "changed into a monstrous vermin" that scurries to and fro. He is transformed, through workaholism, to embody the popular notion that a salesman is a scurrying bug.
Exhausting himself as a provider, Gregor becomes a non-entity. He is invalidated by the business that defines him as only a replaceable cog in a machine. While a hard exoskeleton traps insect-Gregor, he was imprisoned already by his job and parents' debts. He ran too hard to meet the demands of business, reducing himself to a serious condition in which he could work no more.
Capitalism harbors work-related obsessions and increasing rates of stress-related diseases. Some of these lead from dietary mistakes, such as hurrying to eat whatever is available. Food, eating, and starvation in The Metamorphosis represent life, death, guilt, and withheld love. While the Samsas depended on Gregor as sole support, they trapped him into workaholism, through which he succumbed to an irreversible illness (his insect transformation). Grete takes over as provider and leaves food for Gregor, but in decreasing quantities and qualities, so work leads ultimately to Gregor's death.
Hunger for Love
In Part II, Gregor's condition provokes his idle parents to work, frenetically sewing piecework, and becoming a bank messenger that must now run back and forth. Grete replaces Gregor as the running salesman of the family. The Samsas all scurry with the ambition that Gregor formerly displayed, but Gregor can now scurry only across the floor. They all scurry, but only Gregor looks like an insect. His family was parasites all along when he was working; and while he still feels and thinks like a human, the Samsas turn away in their newfound ambitions and become as emotionless toward him as insects.
Grete as a provider becomes disenchanted with Gregor's care and begins kicking some food into him daily, finally telling a servant to take over. Gregor feels anger and then guilt about Grete's declining responsibility for him. He becomes depressed, eats less, and finally stops eating altogether in an attempt to stop "bothering" the family, "for really, they were suffering enough as it was." Gregor also realizes as an insect that his hunger truly is for love rather than food: "He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for was coming to light." Unfortunately, as Gregor loses his taste for food, his family loses their taste for him.
The revulsion he evokes leads to his mother's ill health and his father's violence. Mr. Samsa chases him with sticks, rolled up newspapers and even fruit "now pitching one apple after another." An apple lodges in Gregor's back forever in an act of abuse: instead of caring for family members, an abuser hurts them, often via withholding food, money, and love. In this case, Gregor is ironically injured with the very food that he cannot enjoy.
In Part III of The Metamorphosis, the Samsas take in three lodgers, because their own jobs together do not equal Gregor's previous income. The Samsas kowtow to the three men and eat in the kitchen, while the boarders dine in the place of honor in the parlor. Meanwhile, Gregor, who once supported the entire household, is alone in his room, starving.
One evening the lodgers complain loudly about Gregor's appearance and Grete screams that Gregor ("it") must go from the house, so he sadly returns to his room and dies. The next morning, the Samsas are relieved to find him dead, evict the lodgers, and go sightseeing. What is particularly even shallower is that Grete suddenly looks beautiful to her parents and ripe for marrying into a rich family. Thus, Gregor's invalidation by business and the family led to the validation of Grete, but not as a person. She is only a vehicle to link the Samsas to money. Horrifyingly, Gregor is dead and hard-working Grete is now only an object, while the parents continue as parasites.
Throughout The Metamorphosis, industrialism is expressed in a precise technical writing style using the themes of work, buying power, and dehumanization through working too much. All this makes the story seem very factory-like as it warns us to find meaning aside from work and to beware victimization, parasitic relationships, and abusers. However, these are exactly the issues we face today, and Kafka's prophecies are correct 100 years later.