The fate of the impoverished and the sick depends on the judgment and fickle temperament of society. If once respected because of financial capability, those that are suddenly disabled can be labeled as useless while prior efforts are harshly considered by some as negated. The poor and disabled are then thought of as a lower species, like the vermin which Gregor has metamorphosed into. In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa not only loses his human form, he also loses his capability to provide for his family as the breadwinner.
His family has already been shunned or belittled by some because of their poverty, but his “illness” further aggravates their situation and status in life. Though an industrious young man, his company still regards him with mistrust: “Well then, what if he reported in sick? But that would be extremely embarrassing and suspicious, because during his five years’ service Gregor had not been sick even once (Kafka). As a poor man with many debts, he cannot afford to miss a day even the day when he has taken another form. If during the time that he is still healthy Gregor is thought of by his family as heaven sent, his metamorphosis transforms him into his family’s burden.
Gregor Samsa is a man who knows his responsibilities, but he transforms into something that renders him useless without any explanation as to why. He simply metamorphoses into the form of an insect or vermin even though he is a man that cannot be called a vermin even in the metaphorical sense; he is a man who prioritizes his family’s welfare before his own as he struggles to provide them their daily necessities.
He is just an example of how bad things can actually happen to good people. This contradicts the rich man’s notion that the poor has been justly punished for certain evils, like sloth. Poverty and illness can happen to any person, good or bad. This does not, however, change the way people generally treat one another on the basis of social status. Nevertheless, what has happened to Gregor removes what little dignity he has – being able to work for his family. He is now not only inferior to other working people but also inferior in species to everyone else, including the members of his family.
Gregor is eventually seen as a burden even by his sister, Grete who initially has been the most caring among his family. “If it were Gregor, he would have long ago realized that a communal life among human beings is not possible with such a creature and would have gone away voluntarily. Then we would not have a brother, but we could go on living and honor his memory. But this animal plagues us (Kafka). Grete believes that Gregor will never wish to give any problems to her and their parents.
The metamorphosis of her brother into a different form, and therefore into a status that is unhelpful to the family’s wellbeing has in turn changed the way Grete and her parents view him. They no longer believe in his humanity and in his remaining the Gregor that they know and love. Though the promise of “in sickness and in health” is usually uttered in weddings, a promise between a man and his wife, family members are expected to have the same albeit unspoken devotion toward each other. The strange illness of Gregor Samsa has resulted into a total metamorphosis of his own life. His life has been spent caring for his family tirelessly and when the time for them to take care of him has come, they have declared him a burden.
Since karma is the least of the possible reasons for the metamorphosis of a main character that is as upright as Gregor, Kafka must have intended to illustrate how people who are considered useless are treated. The good things that they have done prior to whatever major, destructive change in their life are no longer given worth. Especially for people who are still struggling to make ends meet, like the Samsa family, the change can completely destroy their lives. Grete must have honestly thought that her view will be shared by her brother if he were still living; Grete believes the real Gregor to be dead, replaced by a mere insect which has been causing her family trouble.
On the other hand, Gregor has always felt that his sister knows him best but during the course of his new life as an insect, she has been undergoing a metamorphosis of her own: Grete is coming into her own as the only child turning into a young woman. There are changes in the rest of the family as well. They are more active and are able to work for a living instead of merely depending on Gregor. This reversal of role, however, is cruel because given the position of provider, the rest of the family is unwilling to continue providing for someone like Gregor who is unable to contribute. Gregor is like an invalid nobody wants to continue feeding or a person on life support nobody wants to pay for anymore.
Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” invites many questions and musings because readers often question the extent of a literal metamorphosis, welcoming many philosophical and symbolic interpretations. However, even if the novella is completely literal the treatment of people who have met misfortune is clearly demonstrated. No matter how many good seeds are sown by one person, there is still a possibility of being abandoned at a time when he is either impoverished or severely ill.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Charter, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction Compact Fifth Edition. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999. 439-472.