Marxist Theory in The Metamorphosis

by , 2004

On the surface, Franz Kafka's 1916 novella, The Metamorphosis, seems to be just a tale of a man who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect. But, a closer reading with Marx and Engel's economic theories in mind reveals an overarching metaphor that gives the improbable story a great deal of relevance to the structure of society. Gregor Samsa, the protagonist, signifies the proletariat, or the working class, and his unnamed manager represents the bourgeoisie. The conflict that arises between the two after Gregor's metamorphosis renders him unable to work represents the impersonal and dehumanizing structure of class relations. The metaphor of the story can be divided into three main parts (although they overlap within the story.) First, Kafka establishes the characters and the economic classes which they represent. Then, he details Gregor's metamorphosis and the way in which it impedes his labor. Finally, he describes the final results of the worker's inability to work: abandonment by his family and death. Although a man cannot literally be transformed into an insect, he can, for one reason or another, become unable to work. Kafka's novella, therefore, is a fantastic portrayal of a realistic scenario and provides us with a valuable insight into the struggles between economic classes.

Within the first few pages of the novella, we as readers quickly discover Gregor's role as the proletariat in the story. He is forced to labor as a traveling salesman, trying to support his family and pay off his father's debt from a failed business venture. While lying in bed, he comments on his life as a traveling salesman, "Day in, day out--on the road... I've got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours..." (Kafka 4). The words he chooses to describe his job, "torture," "worrying," and "miserable" dramatically show his discontent with his daily labor. But, he has no option other than to continue working at his monotonous job because he is a member of "the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live" (Marx and Engels 769). Gregor knows that his only means of survival is to continue laboring, even though the labor gives him no benefit other than a meager paycheck. He says, "If I didn't hold back for my parents' sake, I would have quit long ago" (Kafka 4). It is only economic necessity that keeps him going to work everyday. Conflict exists in Gregor's life between his human desire to work for his own direct benefit and the economic demands that alienate him from his labor by forcing him to work for someone else.

Soon after meeting Gregor, we are introduced to his manager, a typical member of the bourgeoisie or "the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social-production and employers of wage-labour" (Marx and Engels 769). The anonymous manager is portrayed as demanding, insensitive, and impersonal. The simple fact that he is not given a name by Kafka signifies his lack of humanity. Gregor says that the manager "sits on the desk and talks down from the heights to the employees" (Kafka 4). He acts as though he is superior to the workers because of his advanced economic position. His only concern seems to be the production of his workers. When Gregor is a few hours late in getting to work after five years of being on time everyday, the manager travels to his house to personally reprimand him. Because, as a member of the bourgeoisie, the manager has no labor of his own to perform, he has the time to travel all the way to Gregor's house just to scold him. Kafka's portrayal of the bourgeoisie manager makes him unlikable. We are led to become more emotionally attached to the insect Gregor than to the human manager.

Gregor's metamorphosis into a "monstrous vermin," the novella's main conflict, serves as a metaphor for any type of impairment that renders the worker unable to work (4). The specific characteristics of Gregor's insect form are relatively unimportant to the understanding of the class struggle that is taking place. Because of this, the narrator's description of the bug is rather vague. Instead, what the story focuses on is the way in which Gregor's value a laborer diminishes when he is unable to work. After he has lost his value his manager, family and even his life abandon him and leave him to a miserable, solitary death.

The first to abandon Gregor was the manager, the bourgeoisie. According to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie "has resolved personal worth into exchange value" (771). As soon as the manager saw that Gregor in his transformed state, he fled the house and never returned or sent any word to the family. An obvious interpretation of this is that he was afraid of the insect form Gregor had taken. But, in relation to the metaphor of the story, his realization that Gregor was unable to work caused him to calculate that the Gregor no longer had any value and therefore he abandoned him. To the bourgeoisie, the worker is worth nothing more than his labor. Therefore, without any labor to offer, Gregor was worthless and expendable. The manager ran from the house without any concern for or attachment to Gregor, the proletariat.

After Gregor becomes unable to support his family financially, they all eventually abandon him as well. Marx and Engels state that "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation" (771). The Metamorphosis serves as an example of this by showing that when Gregor was no longer able to provide his family with money, his relationship with them was severed. Gregor's father, with whom he had little emotional attachment, was the harshest in dealing with Gregor. He never offers to help his son in any way after the transformation. Upon first seeing his transformed son, he "clenched his fists, as if to drive Gregor back into his room" (15). Then, one day when his son is trapped outside of his room, he attacks him by throwing fruit. Although this scene sounds almost comical, the apple that he threw left Gregor with a "serious wound, from which he suffered for over a month" (40). It is ironic that after years of working a job he hated to pay off his father's debts, Gregor is so quickly discarded by his father as soon as he can no longer earn wages. The complete breakdown of the relationship following the removal of earned wages shows the way in which the relationship was based solely on money.

Although not as harsh at first, Gregor's mother and sister eventually turn on him also. Grete, his sister, is particularly nice to Gregor directly following the metamorphosis. When, "during the first two weeks, his parents could not bring themselves to come into him," Gregor's sister was the sole visitor of Gregor (31). She brought him food and cleaned his room for him everyday despite being made very uncomfortable by his frightening appearance. Eventually, his mother visited his room as well, to help Grete move the furniture out into the hall. In addition to this, "she begged for Gregor's life" when his father was assaulting him with apples (39). But, as time dragged on without any financial support coming from Gregor, the affection of his mother and sister gradually dwindled down to non-existence. Finally, Grete says to her father, "It has to go," referring to Gregor (52). She has become so indifferent to her brother that she calls him an "it." Then, she says that if the bug was really Gregor, he would have "realized long ago that it isn't possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will" (52). Her belief that the bug is not really her brother is obviously explainable by the fact that he is an insect. But, in respect to the metaphor of the story, Gregor ceased to exist as a person when he became unable to work. Because the family's relation was based solely on shared wages, the removal of those wages also removed the relationship. She states that the human thing for the non-working Gregor to do would be to leave the family so that he would not be a financial burden.

The eventual result of Gregor's metamorphosis, and the corresponding inability to labor, was his death. Being unable to feed himself, Gregor's fate was dependent on the charity of his family, which eventually became meager enough that he starved to death. The cleaning lady came upon his corpse one morning and quickly informed the family. Upon hearing the news, they did not show sadness, but instead relief. Mr. Samsa's comment was, "Well... now we can thank God!" (55). He was happy to be freed of the economic burden of supporting his son. Instead of mourning, the family decided to travel to the country to enjoy the warm sunshine. And instead of reminiscing about their lost son, they spoke of the economic benefits of his death and of their future financial plans. Because of his inability to work, Gregor had become worthless to the family and would not be missed. No matter how much they may have loved him while he was an asset, they could not love him while he was a liability. Economics superceded any emotional attachment in the family. As the parents sat on the trolley with their daughter, thinking about her upcoming marriage, they were certainly thinking about the economic benefits that her future husband would bring them. And, although it remains unsaid, we can assume that even though the whole family was sitting so happily on the trolley that afternoon, Grete would be abandoned by her parents, just as Gregor was, if circumstances came up that made her a financial burden instead of an asset.

Although the exact story told in Kafka's The Metamorphosis could not occur outside the realm of fantasy, it represents the very real scenario of a worker being abandoned by his employer and family after becoming unable to work and support them financially. By looking at the novella from a Marxist perspective, we see that the underlying theme of the story is a conflict between proletariat and bourgeoisie. Because economics supercede everything else in capitalistic society, a citizen who is unable to labor and earn wages is quickly abandoned. And, the result of this abandonment is often (as it was in Gregor Samsa's case) death.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto.; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 769-773.