The Individual's Sense of Worthiness and the (Mal)Formation of Identity in Kafka's Metamorphosis
Much of literature in the modern era, from the dawn of industrialization onward, is concerned with the nature of man's identity within the framework of modern society. One could argue, of course, that the position of man in the complex strata of the universe is ultimately the question at the heart of all literature, art, and even religion; even cave paintings tend to place man in a certain position to other natural elements, and the quest to correctly identify man's place in a variety of settings is observable in the aesthetic and ritualistic art of many ancient civilizations. Mankind's obsession with itself is thus not exactly new, nor does comment on the fruits of this obsessive contemplation tend to be revolutionary.
What is new in regards to modern literature and sensibilities is the idea that man does not truly have a fixed place in the universe, but rather that everything is constructed and ultimately artificial. This has meant different to different authors, and different periods in the literature of the modern era have been typified by the conclusions of authors and critics concerning the nature of man's identity as it is constructed in various texts. Ancient and pre-modern literature, art, and religion defined man's place in society, reflecting the certainties that these societies held regarding such positions; modern literature does not so much define man's positions and identities in society so much as it questions them and demonstrates their constructed and artificial nature in a world consumed with artificiality.
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is one of the most famous works concerned explicitly with the issue of identity n an industrialized and capitalistic world. Through his absurdist lens, Kafka examines the utter pointlessness of human existence for its own sake in a society that judges not based on internal worth, but on external productivity alone. It is not really whether or not this type of judgment is fair that Kafka is concerned with, as notions of fairness and justice are completely alien to an absurdist depiction of the world. When nothing has real meaning, nothing has real value or moral weight, and thus all persons are ultimately worthless. The only thing that makes a person worthwhile, in this view, is what everyone else agrees makes them worthwhile, and only external value (i.e. The ability to produce wealth, in a capitalist society) has been agreed upon in this regard by modern society.
The basic plot outline of Metamorphosis provides ample evidence of Kafka's philosophy of life and identity in the modern age. Gregor Samsa, a young salesman that supports his mother, father, and sister on his income, wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a large insect, much like a cockroach. Unable to go to work, his family at first manages to tolerate him, but he is subjected to violent fits of temper that ultimately cause him great injury, a total lack of respect due to his inability to functionin the world, and a complete displacement form his family and former identity. It is eventually determined that he cannot even truly be Gregor anymore, because Gregor would not have been such a burden on his family.
It is this last point that is of supreme interest for the discussion here. Gregor's family reflects that he had always been an asset to the family, and that he would not have allowed himself to become a burden. If this was indeed still Gregor underneath the insect's body, it is rationalized, he would have left long ago so as to remove the burden that he was presenting to the family, therefore the bug is not Gregor. The implications of this rationalization go further than they appear at first glance; by determining based on his behavior that he simply cannot be Gregor, the family is essentially robbing him of the last shred of his identity. His personhood and worth as a human being are completely eradicated because his family's perception of that human identity does not permit his current situation and behaviors. Without acting like the productive and un-burdensome Gregor Samsa that they were expecting, his family ultimately refuses to acknowledge his basic humanity.
There is an interesting turn after Gregor has exited this scene and essentially awaits his imminent death, however. After his sister has bolted the door to his room behind him -- the door that heretofore had remained open a crack to allow Gregor some participation in the life of the family -- Gregor feels, "that he must go away even more strongly than his sister" (79). That is, Gregor realizes the truth of what his family is saying, which at once confirms and rejections there conclusions. there is still the same basic humanity at work in this creature, and its consciousness is that of Gregor Samsa, yet even this consciousness has come to the conclusion that it is worthless and must move on in order to stop being a burden.
The great irony here is that Gregor Samsa is obviously still a being with a great deal of feeling and compassion, as evidenced by his initially being drawn out of his cluttered and dusty room by his sister's violin playing. His human sentiments are very much intact, and by many theories on humanity and man's identity this would be evidence of definite human worth and value in his character. He and his family both see him as essentially unworthy, however, because he is unable to be an economically productive member of the household. Unable to earn wages or even to help out around the house, Gregor Samsa has lost all sense of importance and value to his fairly and ultimately to himself. The general message here is that there is no intrinsic value to humanity or to individual human beings in the modern age, but that instead only what can be produced and commoditized is valuable.
This reading of Kafka's text is rather simplistic and superficial, yet at the same time it reveals some of the depths and subtexts of Metamorphosis. All absurdist literature has some similarities in its questioning of identity and the construction of a sense of self in the modern world, and some views are bleaker than Kafka's while others take a more light hearted approach to this absurdity. His take on this set of circumstances is one of the most humanizing, however, which might be somewhat ironic given both the plot content and the subtextual meanings of this work. Other scholars have also noted the unique reflections on humanity and the essential worthlessness that Gregor Samsa experiences in Metamorphosis, investigating other aspects of the text as well as other details of the story itself.
The Critical View
In one complex analysis of the collective body of Kafka's works, Eliseo Vivas asserts that Kafka's conception of reality and rationality was such that they completely transcended human understanding, and therefore that any comment on this reality was essentially invalid, flawed, meaningless, and comical. In this reading, the ultimate revelation of Gregor Samsa's unworthiness in his own eyes and in the perception of his family is secondary to the meaninglessness and essentially unworthiness that is inherent to all human beings regardless of their station in life or the state of their transformation into a giant insect. It is the fact that humans are essentially and inherently unworthy of considering themselves any more special than any other element in the unspecial universe that is ultimately absurd in this reading of Kafka's realities within Metamorphosis and other works.
Other readings relate Gregor Samsa's feelings of unworthiness to the biography of the author himself, noting not only the similar construction of the last names of the author and his fictional creation but also certain familial details that seem to correspond between the two (Oyebode 76). It is possible to read Metamorphosis as the reflections of a creature that has given up after being rejected by its family; though told in the third person, the book is deeply emotional and intimately toed to Gregor Samsa's inner life (until the very last section), and thus the sense of unworthiness and social isolation could be read as a less political/societal issue and more a problem of individual reaction, reflection, and temperament.
An even more startling reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis suggests that an almost literal interpretation is actually the most apt. A medical doctor -- a psychiatrist, specifically -- noted that this story made a tremendously strong impression on certain patients, and determined that these patients actually suffered from their own issues of personal identification with a cockroach, even to the point of delusion at times (Martin). Gregor Samsa might have been physically transformed, but the psychological transformation would have taken place prior to that, even when he was still a productive and supposedly valued member of society (Martin). The fact that the transformation occurred is evidence, of course, that Gregor Samsa did not think of himself as…