Kafka’s Existential Critique of Social Obligation
Devising a ‘meaning’ of human existence is an endeavor which, though essentially for vanity, has been at the center of philosophical preponderance since the emergence of sentience. Such exploration has instigated understandings of our experiences which may often contrast with our animal instincts, forcing into direct conflagration our individual sensibilities and the demands placed upon us for standards of behavior and interaction within the framework of a particularly social species. Though alluding to contrasting notions of our purpose, the schools of thought supporting existentialism and transcendentalism are paired in the attention which they devote to questioning the rift between the individual experience and the impingement of the collective. With the former view emerging from an essentially negativist understanding of this rift, and the latter proposing an optimistic surmounting of this rift, finding balance between them might instruct some resolution of contentment over one’s experiences. As is evident in the most widely read work by seminal German writer, this is a balance which can be so evasive and pressurized as to manifest as the utterly horrible and unthinkable. In his The Metamorphosis, Kafka shows how the mundane responsibilities to family, domesticity and career can actually comprise a cage from which the only escapes are ostracism and death.
Indeed, the implied difficulties of the existentialist view recognize the vain struggle of human life against the indifference of the world, with handicap manifesting as uselessness. An environment which predisposes us to a condition of numbness against our own sensibilities, society becomes an uncaring extension of a plane of reality which does not care for the consequences of each individual human decision. Thus, it is the responsibility of the existentialist to claim some genuine incarnation of its free-will even against the resistance of the world’s ignorance.
This is a perspective which resonates farcically but with heavy consequence The Metamorphosis. In the important 1915 novella, Kafka places a metaphor regarding this incongruity in action, using Gregor’s transformation into a monstrous insect as a symbolic equivalent of his rote life as a traveling salesman. The satire is executed with humor, with Gregor’s casual determination to get to work on the day of his transformation comedically illustrating the general routine of his life, from which he clearly was incapable of making a break. This is a humorous sequence in which we are given insight into his everyday life, where the discontent of his job and the unappreciative, even draconian approach of his employers had reduced to him to something less than human. The relatively unfulfilling life which he had led, marked by little more than the instincts of earning money for survival, speaks to the radical nature of his transformation and the initial equanimity with which Gregor seems to address the situation.
Kafka begins the story with the disarming and famous opening line, which ludicrously declares that “one morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in he had been changed into a monstrous venomous bug.” (1) So matter of factly stated, as though there is some precedent or plausible cause for this occurrence, Kafka channels a bizarre detachment from the severity of his situation in Gregor, who we find immediately is altogether more concerned with the impact of his condition on his occupation and his fulfillment of duty than upon his identity, the affections of his family or his appearance. He is strangely accepting of his condition, focusing rather on the stresses of his daily occupation. Even in the midst of the horrible revelation of his condition, Gregor shows himself to be a man consumed by his work, lamenting not of being prone to his back with insect legs ‘wriggling’ in the air, but instead noting, “what a demanding job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road. The stresses of the trade are much greater than the work going on at head office, and in addition to that, I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food, temporary and constantly changing human relationships which never come from the heart. To hell with it all!” (2) Remarkably, his frustration is fueled by his discontent with his job and not by his repugnant transformation.
Even so, it is clear that his appearance and inability to speak have impacted his ability to do his job as well as his family, who attempt to continue with their lives in spite of their terrible disgust and fear. In both Gregor and his family, we find the central thrust of Kafka’s work, which seems to contend that human beings are inherently more driven by social pressure toward normalcy than even by individual human relationship. For all, the pressures of life are sufficiently problematic, dictating little interest in dealing honestly or decisively with the crisis at had.
Certainly, Gregor’s family does attempt to achieve normalcy at points by allowing Gregor to witness the family interacting through his opened door. Still, he begins to view his family with a detached hostility as they have clearly begun to treat him with shame and revulsion, rather than as a member of the family. Though his sister still attempts to feed him for a time, she can no longer bring herself to address him directly. Likewise, the mounting unhappiness in the family results in a total neglect, where his room is left to descend into filth, underscoring the idea the Gregor himself is, on the basis of his ghastly appearance, filthy and to be cast out. This is fully reinforced by the relief evident in his family upon his death. The scene is projected as a spring-like rebirth for the Samsas. This enables them to remember Gregor with honor rather than to look upon him as some hideous and unfeeling creature.
Here, Kafka ultimately dedicates his story to the premise of man as genuinely afflicted by an existential crisis, hemmed into a cage and made an object of duty. Ultimately, in Gregor’s declined state, we find a character which is yielded useless and despicable to society when he is ultimately unable to fulfill its demands. And in his death, we find that the man is in fact a paragon to the contradiction which provokes the suffering of the human experience. Just as he would push himself so hard to live to the expectations and to bend to the pressures of others, he ultimately finds that when he is unable even to serve himself, those support systems to which he was integral would do him little to no merciful service. This is to imply that Kafka is driven by a suspicion as to the selfishness of the herd, even as it applies so much dependency upon the individual.
In resolution, Kafka reveals the man to have been genuinely incapable of repairing the rift between his free will and the constitution of his body.
Thus, the reader is left with an impression that the human experience is marred by the presence of intractable social confinement. It is herein that I find the greatest pertinence in the existential philosophy, which suggests that absent of our will for freedom and freedom of choice, we are but confined and disgusting creatures incapable of expressing ourselves or acting according to our own wishes. In Gregor, this disposition would be true both before and after his transformation, cutting to the core of Kafka’s sociological critique.