Franz Kafka’s literary world is suffused by a dark sense of alienation, guilt and personal unworthiness. Kafka’s protagonists inhabit worlds in which oppression is a matter of external and internal reality. These oppressed and self-oppressed characters reflect what Kafka saw as a world in which identity is negated by dehumanizing forces. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa malignly, mysteriously victimized, leaving him in an utterly alienated situation (Barfi, et al, 2013, 106). Samsa’s seemingly arbitrary misfortune leaves the reader wondering whether the metamorphosis is a response to inscrutable external forces or an ultimate manifestation of his alienation from an intolerable life, one he internally longs to escape. Gregor’s transformation represents his alienation from a world in which ideas such as love, justice and happiness are irrelevant.
Samsa’s alienation lay dormant within him, waiting for some imperceptible trigger. Perhaps it stems from the burdens under which he labors, the weight of an intolerable job and the pressures of supporting his family. Kafka’s life offers a window into the bleak world of his alienation and that of his protagonist. Kafka “mentioned in a letter to his father (that) he has suffered from a sense of guilt, since he was a child, which is the result of his lack of self-confidence and he notes that this is his father who is responsible for these…” (Barfi, et al, 2013,
107). As such, Kafka’s fiction was informed by his own feelings of alienation and dehumanization, those same conditions which weigh so heavily upon Samsa in The Metamorphosis. Samsa’s father’s violent reaction upon seeing his son’s transformed condition is revealing, throwing apples at his son in a symbolic act of rejection. It becomes “clear…that his father…was assuming that Gregor had committed some violent crime or other” (Kafka, 1947). Was Samsa alienated after his metamorphosis, or had he always been alienated, from his circumstances and from his family? He had certainly been made to feel intimidated and unworthy by an unloving father. Metamorphosis, in this case, can be seen as something caused by external stimuli.
The fact that Samsa’s alteration is not gradual, but literally happens overnight suggests that his alienation is part of him. As such, his alienation appears as an innate condition, one that was always present, though unrecognized, perhaps repressed. He must deny it in order to function, but the gradual, residual effect of the way others treat and perceive him are central to the story. “Gregor Samsa feels that he has been treated as a lowly insect and comes to feel that he is one: the story makes the leap from ‘I feel like an insect’ to ‘I am an insect’” (Kohzadi, et al, 2012, 1603). His initial denial of his new reality is actually an “unresolved conflict between work and ego” (1603). His sister responds supportively, in the hope that Gregor’s altered state is just temporary and that he will eventually return to human form. But as it becomes evident that his metamorphosis is permanent, even his sister is alienated by him.
There is a certain irony in his family’s eventual acceptance of his new nature. Gregor is forced to come to terms with his alienation, just as his family comes to accept what he has become. If those closest to him reject him, then he can make terms with his alienation, and accept that he cannot exist as an insect. “He thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s” (Kafka, 1947, 38). Ultimately, Samsa’s transformation is a journey of self-discovery, a means of coming to grips with immutable truths about the human condition, about perception and the impossibility of making peace with a world that will not accept the individual on his own terms. As such, Samsa’s strange journey approximates the agonizing, yet enlightening journey of life itself. In The Metamorphosis, Samsa struggles vainly against a fate that seems horribly unjust, arbitrary and humiliating. He has no control over what happens to him, and decides the only way to resolve his situation is through the peaceful oblivion of death.
In the end, Samsa comes to accept that he does cares deeply about his father, mother and sister. His decision to die is freeing in that it releases him from a situation in which he has no control over his fate; it also allows him to make a selfless gesture toward his family, symbolically rejecting his alienation and liberating them from his presence. Acceptance brings a kind of triumph over alienation, and its dehumanizing effects. Samsa’s “externally induced expectations of himself” prove utterly impossible to overcome, so he turns into a verminous insect, the very image of inadequacy and failure (Kohzadi, et al, 2012, 1606). The painful process of self-realization leads him to transcend his intolerable sense of his own unworthiness, bringing him to a freedom in which he can resolve within himself the inadequacy of his own mortality. This is the inevitable course of human life, with resigned acceptance the only path open to human beings. Acceptance offers a form of consolation and release from the misery of alienation, a release found only in death: “So in his death (Samsa) is both extinguished and set free” (1606).