Significance of the abject in Metamorphosis

Module: Introduction to Magical Realism (Nanyang Technological University)

Book: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

In this essay, I will be discussing the significance of the role Gregor Samsa played in The Metamorphosis. He is a representation of someone who faced abjection in the economic world, socially and in his family. I will be discussing his abjection and his declined that allowed the metamorphosis of the Samsas and most importantly, Grete, his sister.

Firstly, Gregor was trapped in the economic world. He detested his job yet he could not leave for he had taken on his parents’ debt as his own. “Debt” in German, “Schuld,” also means “guilt.” Therefore, Gregor’s inability to pay for his parents, binds him (Breckman 6) both economically and emotionally. He had to beg the manager to keep his job (“I am concerned about my parents and my sister. I’m in a fix, but I’ll work myself out of it again.” (M 25)). Not only so, we also find evidence that Gregor was not treated respectfully. His manager shamed him — “I am speaking here in the name of your parents and your employer…now I see your unimaginable pig headedness.” (M 17-8) There is a pretence in using his parents to threaten his job so as to incite further guilt; depicting the cold corporate structure. However, we should also note that Gregor is not entirely in a helpless state. If he had found his wings which was implied (“his back was more elastic than Gregor had thought,” (M 14)), he might have realised the power he held to leave and escape his bounds. In another interpretation, Gregor could also be representing an artist (‘Luftmensch’). It is understood in that era that an artist is “one who lives on air, loft and free-floating, (and) in the eyes of the highly respectable hard-working world…a ‘nasty bug’ (`dreckiger Käfer’).” (Corngold) We can draw parallels to Gregor’s fondness for “hanging from the ceiling” and also how he feels that “it was easier to breathe” (M 51) in that position. While being a “bug” or artist was seen negatively, as compared to Gregor’s oppression at work, he is unencumbered as a beetle. (Annex A)

Secondly, Gregor’s social abjection is demonstrated explicitly by the cleaner. She shouted at Gregor, “come here for a bit, old dung beetle!…If only, instead of allowing this cleaning woman to disturb him uselessly whenever she felt like it, (his family) had given her orders to clean up his room every day!” (M 74) We can interpret the “dirt, obscenity and lawlessness” by the cleaning woman as a “symbolism to the rites of seclusion.” (Douglas) His physical abjection was made evident by his social abjection, which resulted in self-loathing (Annex B) and self-consciousness  made aware by others (Annex C). Additionally, by not being able to communicate in his current state, his inner human was forced apart from his external appearance. The power in voicing out is taken away and he is now judged to be what he is, an insect. Therefore, the ultimate pollution power lies with society’s structure, who make “changes of fortune” and “punish symbolic breaking of that which should be joined or separated.” (Douglas)

Thirdly, Gregor faced parental hostility and abjection from them. There was no regard for Gregor’s well-being as we find in how his father treated him. “His father gave him one really strong liberating push from behind, and he scurried, bleeding severely.” (M 31-2) Additionally, the act of using a walking stick to poke him into his room is demeaning. Gregor, representing people in marginal states, are “often treated as both vulnerable and dangerous” although they may be “doing nothing morally wrong,” but solely because “their status is undefinable.” In Gregor’s case — neither insect nor human. “The danger is controlled by ritual which separates him” (Douglas), depicted by his family confining him as though he is dangerous even though he has done nothing that could warrant such a label. Therefore ultimately, Gregor’s death was the indirect cause of his father’s action and family’s negligence. It is also worthy to note that as Gregor’s family neglected him more, the humanity in him as a “nasty bug” emerged stronger in contrast to the inhumanity he receives by humans. 

Lastly, the unfinished metamorphosis of death and growth, and, pollution and purification is depicted in Gregor’s decline allowing the transformation of Grete (Annex D) and his father (Annex E). For instance, “(Gregor) often heard how they fully acknowledged (Grete)’s present work; whereas, earlier they had often got annoyed at his sister because she had seemed to them a somewhat useless young woman.” (M 50) As Gregor declined, Grete filled in the interstitial power position — having the power to bless or curse — that was left behind by Gregor. In comparison to Gregor’s inarticulateness, Grete, “armed with articulate, conscious powers to protect the system…demanded that ambiguity be reduced.” (Douglas) Her earlier care, was later turned to persuading her family to rid of Gregor. Her transformation here could be seen as a pollution to humanity, yet, seen by her parents as growth and to society as helping to get rid of pollution.

In conclusion, the significance of Gregor as an abject is polysemic, where he was represented in different situations and roles such as one with a low work and social status and, an artist. To reduce the pollution Gregor caused, he was judged to lose his humaneness, targeted to be destroyed, labelled dangerous and avoided by quarantining him. Even though he was incorporated into his family’s ritual of seclusion, they eventually decided to get rid of him, intending to reduce the anomaly.

Annex A – Quotes: Life as a beetle (Positive)

“He was keen to witness what the others now asking after him would say at the sigh of him. If they were startled, then Gregor had no more responsibility and could be calm.” (M 19)

“Gregor immediately fell down onto his numerous little legs…When he felt for the first time that morning a general physical well being…Right away he believed that the final amelioration of all his suffering was immediately at hand.” (M 28)

“Gregor, behind is door, nodded early, rejoicing over this unanticipated foresight and frugality. True, with this excess money, he could have paid off more of his father’s debt to his employer and the day on which he could be rid of this position would have been a lot closer, but now things were doubtless better the way his father had arranged them.” (M 45)

“Nevertheless for this worsening of his condition, in his opinion, he did get completely satisfactory compensation, because every day towards evening the door to the living room…was opened, so that he, lying down in the darkness of his room, invisible from the living room, could see the entire family at the illuminated table and listen to their conversation.” (M 66)

Annex B – Quote: Gregor’s Self-Consciousness and Self-Loathing

“Closing his eyes, so that he would not have to see the wriggling legs.” (M 4)

“Entirely covered with small white spots (he did not know what to make of them…but he retracted it immediately, for the contact felt like a cold shower all over him.” (M 4-5)

“Earlier, when the door had been barred, they had all wanted to come in to him; now, when he had opened one door and when the others had obviously been opened during the day, no one came anymore, and the keys were stuck in the locks on the outside.” (M 35)

“He would have to keep calm and with patience and the greatest consideration for his family tolerate the troubles which in his present condition he was now forced to cause them.” (M 36)

“From this he realised that his appearance was still constantly intolerable to her and must remain intolerable in future, and the she really had to exert a lot of self-control not to run away from a glimpse of only the small part of his body which stuck out from under the couch. In order to spare her even this sight, one day he dragged the sheet on his back onto the couch.” (M 49)

“I really do have an appetite,’ Gregor said to himself sorrowfully, ‘but not for these things. How these lodgers stuff themselves, and I am dying.” (M 78)

Annex C – Quotes: Seeing himself through others

“His mother…with her arms spread far apart and her fingers extended..but ran senselessly back, contradicting her gesture.” (M 28)

“For there were always at least two family members at home, since no one really wanted to remain in the house alone” (M 41)

“On the very first day the servant girl on her knees had begged his mother to let her go immediately…she thanked them for the dismissal with tears in her eyes, as if she was receiving the greatest favour which people had shown her there.” (M 41)

“Even her entrance was terrible for him. As soon as she entered, she ran straight to the window yanked the window open with eager hands, as if she was almost suffocating, and remained for a while by the window breathing deeply.” (M48)

“His mother comparatively soon wanted to visit Gregor, but his father and his sister restrained her, at first with reasons which Gregor listened to very attentively and which he completely endorsed. Later, however, they had to hold her back forcefully.” (M 50)

“Without thinking any more about how one might be able to give Gregor special pleasure, the sister now kicked some food or other very quickly into his room in the morning and at noon, before she ran off to her shop…The task of cleaning his room, which she now always carried out in the evening, could not be done any more quickly.” (M 72)

“With a fright which was totally incomprehensible to Gregor, the sister even left the mother, pushed herself away from her chair, as if she would sooner sacrifice her mother than remain in Gregor’s vicinity.” (M 86)

Annex D – Quotes: Grete’s Transformation

“A girl who was still a seventeen-year-old child, whose earlier lifestyle had been so delightful that it had consisted of dressing herself nicely, sleeping in late, helping around the house, taking part in a few modest enjoyments and, above all, playing the violin?” (M 46)

“So far as the discussion of matters concerning Gregor was concerned, to act as an special expert with respect to their parents.” (M 55)

“‘My dear parents,’ said the sister banging her hand on the table by way of an introduction, ‘things cannot go on any longer in this way. Maybe if you don’t understand that, well, I do. I will not utter my brother’s name in front of this monster, and thus I say only that we must try to get rid of it. We have tried what is humanly possibly to take care of it and to be patient. I believe that no one can criticise us in the slightest.’” (M 84)

“Hardly was he inside his room when the door was pushed shut very quickly, bolted fast, and barred…It was his sister who had been in such a hurry. She had stood up right away, had waited and had then sprung forward nimbly…’Finally!’ to her parents, as she turned the key in the lock.” (M88)

“Their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman.” (M96)

“And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.” (M 96)

Annex E – Father’s Transformation

“Was that the same man who had lain exhausted and buried in bed in earlier days when Gregor was setting out on a business trip, who had received him on the evenings of his return in a sleeping gown and arm chair, totally incapable of standing up, who had only lifted his arm as a sign of happiness…bundled up in his old coat, all the time setting down his walking stick carefully.” (p.61-62)

“But now he was standing up really straight, dressed in a tight fitting blue uniform with gold buttons…black eyes was freshly penetrating and alert, his otherwise disheveled white hair was combed down into a carefully exact shining part.” (p.62)

Breckman, Warren. Kafka’s Metamorphosis In His Time and In Ours. Issue brief. University of Pennsylvania, 6 Sept. 2000. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

Corngold, Stanley. Kafka’s Die Verwandlung: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor, in Mosaic, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1970, p. 91-106.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Chapter 6, 1966.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. (M.) BC: Malaspina U-College Nanaimo, 1999. Print. Ian Johnston.


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