“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed” a transformation which sets him down a path of isolation, decay, and hopelessness (Kafka 1204). Throughout The Metamorphosis, Kafka explores the alienating and isolating effects of modern society through the Samsa family as they deal with Gregor’s grotesque transformation. To Kafka, there are three aspects of modern society that are at the root of this isolation and alienation, they are modern capitalism, the modern family, and the servile attitude of the modern individual.
The Modern Worker
Gregor Samsa is a salesman, or rather, was a salesman prior to his transformation into a cockroach. Before, his work was the most important thing to him, yet he despises it, “If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession” or more bluntly put, “no continuity, no affection” (Kafka 1205). Gregor is unfulfilled and dissatisfied with his work and only remains there due to his obligation to help his family repay their debts. Through this discontentment, Kafka illustrates the plight of the modern work, whose work is not wholly their own.
He views the workers as almost slaves to the modern capitalist system, consistently lying to themselves in order to muster the energy in order to do their work. He represents this self-delusion through Gregor’s own self-delusion, his lies to himself about his own transformation, “he looked forward to his present fanciful state gradually falling from him.” (Kafka 1206). His predicament of becoming a cockroach mirrors how he was stuck in his salesman job.
The Modern Family
Beyond just his work, Gregor’s family, who ought to have been his greatest comfort in his predicament, act as an even greater insulator by trapping him within his room. Prior to his transformation, Gregor is the sole breadwinner for the family, a position which Gregor feels has earned him little respect with his family. When he had first begun working, his earnings had been met with surprise and delight, a time which Gregor reflects were “good times, and they had never returned” (Kafka 1218).
But what little appreciation his family retained for Gregor vanished as he transformed. From the beginning, Gregor’s father antagonizes him, acting alone in battering him back into his room on the first day. Then as Gregor’s transformation takes root, his relationship with his family degrades further. It is through this deterioration that Kafka criticizes the modern, patriarchal family. This representation is heightened by Kafka’s own isolated relationship with his family, Gregor’s family demonstrates the failures of family to alleviate the alienation of modern society, and works to highlight the ways that family can actually worsen that alienation.
Kafka emphasizes this by never giving Gregor’s father a name, leaving him among the other nameless characters, such as the office manager, the charwoman, the boarders, who all acts as antagonizing forces to Gregor in some way. On the other hand, both Gregor’s sister and mother are both named, Grete and Anna respectively. Both of them remain close or optimistic towards Gregor’s situation for much of The Metamorphosis, although even they eventually lose faith in Gregor’s humanity.
The Modern Attitude
The most important and harmful aspect of society according to Kafka is the servility of modern indivuiduals. For the characters within The Metamorphosis, it is their submissive attitude towards their issues which always leaves them worse off. An example of this is that Gregor works hard for his family’s benefit with little praise or reward for himself and ultimately transfomrs into a cockroach.
Even more notable, is the submission of his family to the three gentlemen who rented a room in the flat, towards whom they are overly polite, not “even [daring] to sit in their own chairs” (Kafka 1229). His family continues this servility, only to eventually lose out on their rent money after the tenants discover Gregor. Furthermore, Gregor’s own submission to his family after his transformation leads to him starving himself to death. Through their failings, Kafka questions why it is that people allow themselves to be exploited within modern society.
The Modern Death
Gregor’s grotesque transformation is but one aspect of the alienation and isolation faced in The Metamorphosis. The true cause of both his and his family’s despair is not merely that Gregor has transformed into a horrifying roach, but that the quality of life within modern society has decayed to such an extent that those living within it have begun to lose their humanity.
Kafka emphasizes this loss through Gregor’s own physical decay as he is injured, starved, becomes covered in dust, all while his mind decays. He eventually loses his humanity, descending into an animalistic mindset. Beyond just his individual decay, his surroundings decay. His walls become covered in grime, his room fills with discarded belongings, and his family loses their love towards him. This is what Kafka sees as the eventuality of the modern society. Ultimately, it is not Gregor’s transformation into an insect that kills him, but that he and his family have abandoned hishumanity.