The Loss of Humanity – Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” Essay Sample
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The Loss of Humanity – Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” Essay Sample
Language forms the basis of civilization. Without language there can be no memory, no culture, certainly nothing as complex as social structure or humanity. In Franz Kafka’s, “The Metamorphosis” the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, loses part of his speech faculty. In fact, he turns into a bug and, as his capacity for language slowly deteriorates even his mind and personality begin to seem less human. Gregor’s transformation obliges the rest of his family to change, in order to support themselves once it is clear Gregor is not going to recover from his affliction. In the end the tragedy lies, not with the death of Gregor, but in the life it is obvious his sister Grete will be forced to live, taking Gregor’s place.
When Gregor Samsa first wakes as an insect he still has his entire capacity for language, and can make himself understood to his family on the other side of his bedroom door. Very rapidly, however, he loses his ability to speak; at first he has to strain to be clear, placing large spaces between his words and speaking very slowly, until at last this fails him too, and he can no longer be understood by anyone. This loss of language is the direst part of Gregor’s transformation, because once he loses the ability to communicate with those around him, they very quickly begin to forget that he was once human. The family only sees Gregor as human while he can interact with them. Gregor is defined by his loss of language, and he is found repulsive and shunned. His inability to explain himself leaves a hopelessly large gap between him and his family members.
Once language is lost in any human, they become less than human, or considered so. Gregor manifests this with his literal metamorphosis into a giant insect. It seems though, that Gregor loses only half of his capacity for language. Although his family assumes he has lost the ability to communicate entirely, he is still able to understand what he hears. He actually strives to hear them, “But although Gregor could get no news directly, he overheard a lot from neighboring rooms, and as soon as voices were audible, he would run to the door of the room concerned and press his whole body against it” (7). In the beginning of his new life as a bug Gregor yearns for human contact, still defining himself as human. His parents, having never been close to him, and having thought of him only as a breadwinner for several years, readily accept his new role as burdensome insect:
Gregor’s father… seized in his right hand the walking stick which the chief clerk had left behind on a chair… snatched in his left hand a large news paper from the table and began stamping his feet and flourishing the stick and the newspaper to drive Gregor back into his room. No entreaty of Gregor’s availed, indeed no entreaty was even understood, however humbly he bent his head his father only stamped more loudly. (4)
Grete however, having stayed close to her brother seems to understand that he needs her, without communication, or perhaps through a different type of language. Instead of speaking a human language, Grete and Gregor speak an emotional language. This is evidenced in Gregor’s reaction to the night Grete performs on her violin for the lodgers. Gregor thinks,
Was he an animal, that music had such an effect on him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it.(21)
Grete’s ability to play violin so beautifully implies that she is of an artistic temperament, she can understand music, a language in itself, so how could she not understand Gregor’s more primal language, being so much more intimately connected to him than the rest of the family?
When language is lost however, certain misfortunes do arise in “The Metamorphosis.” Gregor’s treatment from his family becomes increasingly worse, to the point where even Grete neglects him.
His sister no longer took thought to bring him what might especially please him, but in the morning and at noon before she went to business hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot, any food that was available, and in the evenings, cleared it out again with one sweep of the broom, heedless of whether it had been merely tasted, or- as most frequently happened- left untouched. The cleaning of his room… could not have been more hastily done. Streaks of dirt stretched along the walls, here and there lay balls of dust and filth. (16)
His father does not neglect, but mortally wounds Gregor, by throwing an apple into his back, and allowing it to fester there. Gregor’s linguistic demise can, from this evidence, be interpreted to signify his progressive isolation from human society, and from humanity itself.
In the context of Kafka’s story, “The Trial” it is possible to equate the death of language with actual death. “The Trial” puts its protagonist on trial for his life, for a crime that is never stated, under laws that are never articulated. It is most commonly thought of as symbolizing the innate oppression of the individual in modern society, but language is simply the ability of the individual to define him or herself. “The Metamorphosis” puts its main character on trial, in front of a jury of his family and peers, but does not let him speak, to defend himself. Thus he is condemned without his side of the story being heard by anyone but the reader.
Gregor’s transformation is not the only change in “The Metamorphosis.” His family structure, as well as each individual member of it, changes as much, if not more, completely. Once Gregor is no longer paying for everything for the family, they are forced to think of how they will pay rent, buy food, and basically, survive. In response to this the father decides that, although he has put away some money, the family could not live off it for more than a year, and “money for living expenses would have to be earned” (11). This leads to a change in every family member. Gregor’s father changes completely and astonishingly:
Gregor drew his head back from the door and lifted it to look at his father. Truly, this was not the father he had imagined to himself… And yet, and yet, could that be his father? The man who used to lie wearily sunken in bed whenever Gregor set out on a business journey; who welcomed him back of an evening lying in a long chair in a dressing gown; who could not really rise to his feet but only lifted his arms in greeting, and on the rare occasion that he did go out with his family… walked between Gregor and his mother… muffled in his old greatcoat, shuffling laboriously forward with the help of his crook-handled stick… Now he was standing there in fine shape; dressed in a smart blue uniform with gold buttons… his onetime tangled white hair had been combed flat on either side of a shining and carefully exact part. (14)
The same happens with each of the women, “they were now mostly very silent… his mother, bending low over the lamp, stitched at fine sewing for an underwear firm; his sister, who had taken a job as a salesgirl, was learning shorthand and French in the evenings in hopes of bettering herself (15).” Each of these once lazy, sickly people, upon being forced to support themselves, changes drastically.
The tragedy of “The Metamorphosis” lies not in the death of Gregor, for the story does not end with his demise; the real tragedy lies in the future of his sister Grete. The last lines of the story,
While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, at almost the same moment, they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity, that in spite of the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a god figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of the journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her body. (23)
This last passage implies that although Mr. and Mrs. Samsa have realized that they can care for themselves, they still would rather live off of their daughter, much the same way they did with their son, regardless of her feelings.
“The Metamorphosis” is an indictment of human greed and sloth; angered by the loss of their provider, Gregor Samsa’s family grows increasingly abusive and neglectful, and without the ability to verbally (or, indeed, physically) defend himself Gregor is left to sink deeper and deeper into despair before finally dying. Without language, Gregor’s huamanity, and hence his basic human rights – to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of whatever goals he desires – is abrogated. Upon his death the Samsa family, though apparently able to provide for themselves, wish to continue to parasitize their offspring for their continued leisure, an ideal confirmed by the final lines of the story.