How does the disrupted norm create conflict or dilemma, and what factors within the story inhibit/assist the resolution of this conflict?
One of the most prominent themes in Kafta’s The Metamorphosis is that of change. This is introduced at the offset when Gregor, a failing salesman, awakes one morning to find that he has metamorphosized into a giant sized insect. It isn’t just Gregor, however, who undergoes a change. As a direct result of his change in form the rest of his family undergo significant changes too as their existence as they knew it is challenged by the changes in their son and brother. The book challenges the norm that family members should loyally and responsibly provide for one another. This paper describes how the change in Gregor creates a disruption to the family norm for the Samsa family and explores the conflicts that arise as a direct result of this change, leading to a new existence for them all.
The novel commences with Gregor, a man frustrated with his job as a traveling salesman, “I’ve got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate. To the devil with it all!” (5). He appears to be a weak, angry man who is suffocated by his job and mad with society, “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (5). His exploitation is not limited to his work alone. His family worsens the pressure he feels at work by demanding money and living off the fruits of his labor with very little gratitude. His father, who claims to be unable to work, has amassed heavy debts that Gregor feels obliged to pay off whilst simultaneously supporting his mother and his sister’s dreams of becoming a model.
When Gregor changes into a giant bug overnight his change is one from a weak, underachieving man to a giant bug, a creature whose life is ironically synopsis with his current existence; an everyday animalistic routine that is governed by systems that isolate and restrict him. His metamorphosis means that he can no longer attend his job and, instead, he turns to his family to feed and look after him. Unfortunately this leads to even more degradation from his close relatives who treat his as vermin, someone who is not worthy to be a member of their family.
In the end Gregor senses that his existence is truly meaningless and he wills for his family to give up on him completely. By doing so they will free him from his burden and he can end his misery. At the end of the novel Gregor commits suicide, he feels that no one needs him in any capacity and he is alienated from society, his family and even himself.
One of the most significant changes within The Metamorphosis concerns Gregor’s physical appearance. Hiw physical form is changed from that of a male adult to an ugly creature. His voice, eyesight and mentality change alongside his bodily changes and the normal view of a human being is disrupted. As readers, we still perceive Gregor as human because we share in his thoughts and can identify with some of the feelings of alienation that he experiences. He too, is unable to instantly associate his new form with the changes it means for his life as his first concern appears to be his job and the fact he is late and can’t phone in sick, “t]he boss would be sure to come with the health insurance doctor, blame his parents for their lazy son, and cut off all excuses by quoting the health-insurance doctor, for whom the world consisted of people who were completely healthy but afraid to work” (5).
Gregor has allowed and relied upon others throughout his life to make his decisions and lead his thinking. Whilst he has provided financially for his family, they have provided him with his purpose (albeit without his input). His alteration into the form of a bug is conflicting to this as he changes without the instruction, or permission, of his family. Through going through this change he is able, for the first time, to find himself and disconnect himself from his family. He is released from the job he hates so much and eventually he can excuse himself from his family’s demands without fear of guilt or concern for them, “It hardly surprised [me] that lately [I] was showing so little consideration for the others; once such a consideration had been [my] greatest pride” (35). This seems to indicate that., through going through a change, Gregor is released from his requirement to provide for his family and through doing so receives a freedom that challenges the norm.
In his new form, however, Gregor is socially unacceptable and a conflict arises between society’s expectations and what Gregor can be. It appears that he cannot have autonomous power over his life and fit into society simultaneously. By struggling against his oppression whilst trying to fit with the ideologies of society he actually becomes more distant and isolated from it. Furthermore, the reason why he wished to be reformed in the first place, to experience entertainment and fun, is not possible in his new form; that of a bug that knows nothing but how to work. By ignoring the purpose of being an insect, Gregor defeats the purpose of living in his new form of life and, in effect, dies. It appears that his only purpose in life was, indeed to provide for his family.
The only way in which Gregor could have resolved his dilemma would have been by finding a better balance between work and leisure. He devoted his entire life to his job and providing for his family and in doing so became a droning insect. Through omitting to indulge himself with leisure and fun he became valueless to himself and his family.
The normal view of family relationships is also challenged. Gregor’s family is unharmonious and his place within it is dependent upon the financial support he provides them. When he goes through his physical change he is no longer able to give money to his family and, as a direct result of this, there is no longer a place within this institution for Gregor. His new form makes it easy for his parents to justify their neglect and abuse of him, and he is fed rotting cabbage confined to a dark dirty place in their home. In their eyes he is disgusting, a vermin who they do not wish to see, touch or come into contact with, “even the foods that Gregor had left untouched–as if they were no longer usable” (18). For the first time his outward appearance is consistent with his family’s treatment of him, a lower animalistic form. This is heavily in conflict with Gregor’s initial aspirations. Everything he has done in his life has been done so with the aim of providing for his family and thus fitting in and belonging with them. His work ethos and miserable pursuance of sales are generated as a direct result of his wish to please his family and win them over. However, he also longs for a place for himself and it appears that these two separate aspirations cannot live alongside one another and are thus in conflict. As a result of this he has put all his energy and hopes into the first, at the expense of the second.
The unappreciative, lazy family is greatly changed when Gregor undergoes his metamorphosis and becomes an insect. The family soon realize that their lives are much harder than the way they were before and they even contemplate throwing him away as if he were a piece of trash, “…this monster, and so all I say is: we have to try to get rid of it” (37). The family resolves the conflict between their needs and means that is brought about by Gregor’s alteration by fending for themselves and finding jobs. The father, who previously claimed to be an invalid, successfully finds a job and the sister takes a job, starts to learn a new language and becomes more and more beautiful. However, instead of recognizing the effort Gregor must have gone to in order to provide for the whole family, they instead criticize his uselessness in his current form. Whilst they themselves have been forced to change and learn the importance of self-provision in order to compensate for Gregor’s situation, they no longer need him in their lives. They, it seems, have successfully re-shape their lives into ones that are acceptable to society and they have been able to achieve the blend of individualism and acceptance that Gregor so desperately sought; cohesive and productive in society, each contributing through work and leisure.
The only way in which the conflict between what Gregor wants and what his family want can be resolved is through Gregor’s death, which frees them from their despair and once again renews their hope for the future. Gregor has
been abandoned by society and has become alienated from everything, including himself. He no longer has any need for existence. His family has completely rejected him and has completely forgotten how much he sacrificed for them in the past, “if this were Gregor he would have realized long ago human beings can’t live with such a creature, he’d have gone away one his own accord. This creature persecutes us, drives away our lodgers, obviously wants the whole apartment to himself, and would have us all sleep in the gutter.” (27). Eventually Gregor commits suicide and upon discovery of his death the relief of his parents is felt and they spread the news to his sister with a “tremendous smile” (29), “well, now thanks be to God.” (29).
Their complete lack of remorse confirms the fact that Gregor is no longer of importance to anyone in any form. Renewed by the removal of their burden, his parents immediately appear to revert back to their old forms themselves and start to consider how their daughter can replace Gregor as the chief financial provider, “pretty girl with a good figure… soon it would be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like conformation of their new dreams and excellent intentions.” (30). The ending to the story indicates that, contrary to what we have been led to believe, no change whatsoever has actually taken place. The resolution of the conflicts experienced within this family group has only temporarily been resolved and the final indication we receive is the pessimistic view that the whole cycle will likely repeat itself. Within this family the children are responsible for providing for the parents and thus the normal expectation of a family remains challenged.