The Metamorphosis and Illness

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka demonstrates a metaphor in action, using Gregor’s transformation into a monstrous insect as a symbolic equivalent to the experience of deep and debilitating illness.  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 his transformation. When reduced to a place where renegotiation of the world with extremely limited physical resources has forced Gregor to redefine himself, Kafka shows a protagonist suffering a dire affliction.  His attempts to continue to live his life, even as no elements of it can be said to resemble his life prior to the affliction, are delivered with humor and devastation.  In an article by Charmaz (1983), published in the Journal of Sociology of Health and Illness, the theorist draws a correlation between the portrayal of Samsa in Kafka’s text and the loss of identity commonly faced by the individual suffering from illness.  Accordingly, his article makes the argument that, “for example, Kafka’s work The Metamorphosis can be taken as a metaphor for cancer” (Charmaz, 168)  Indeed, the experience which Gregor undergoes is dramatically disruptive, debilitating and riddled with terrible indignities.

And as with the experience of the ill, initial concerns may regard the practical difficulties posed by the disposition.   Considering still the cancer metaphor, we reflect on Gregor’s pedestrian concerns in the face of his terrible disposition.  He notes of his predicament that “the boss would certainly come with the doctor from the health insurance company and would reproach his parents for their lazy son and cut short all objections with the insurance doctor’s comments; for him everybody was completely healthy but really lazy about work.” (Kafka, 3)  It is striking that in his situation, Gregor’s mind is still generally consumed with the petty vagaries of modern life, suggesting the callousness with which illness may be treated by the world outside the afflicted.  As others respond to him with fear and disgust, Gregor simply does everything in his power to reflect a false normalcy.

            Of course, given the extremity of his conditions, it is clear that his appearance and inability to speak have impacted his family, who attempt to continue with their lives in spite of their terrible disgust and fear.  They 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.

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            He begins to understand that which he has come to represent to his family, and notes himself to be a signifier of all things umpleasant, unthinkable and morbid, as with terminal illness.  As Charmaz explains “physical pain, psychological distress and the deleterious effects of medical procedures all cause the chronically ill to suffer as they experience their illnesses. However, a narrow medicalized view of suffering, solely defined as physical discomfort, ignores or minimizes the broader significance of the suffering experienced by debilitated chronically ill adults. A fundamental form of that suffering is the loss of self in chronically ill persons who observe their former self-images crumbling away without the simultaneous development of equally valued new ones.” (Charmaz, 168)  For Gregor, the circumstance is reinforced by a literal loss-of-self, with his family taken so far aback by the physicality of his situation that there is clearly no consideration for the emotional experience which he has undergone.  Such is to say that for the reader, there is the uncomfortable advantage of understanding Gergor’s emotional experience throughout this ordeal.  This is a heartbreaking vantage as the family treats their son as they would any monstrous vermin.

            There is clearly a conflicted emotional dilemma for the family, who we might conjecture is saddened by the loss of Gregor but, in quite apparent reality, appears as far more deeply impacted by the presence of the thing which has come to replace him.  In consideration of the cancer metaphor, this causes us to think of the insect as a Gregor which is present but dramatically diminished to the point of invisibility to his love ones.  Thus, the presence of the bug is less a substitute for the health Gregor but an unwelcome reminder of his passing.  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.

The relief experienced in resolution by Gregor’s family is particularly demonstrative of the thesis in the study by Charmaz.  The text’s discussion on the dehumanization which occurs with debilitating or terminal illness is closely correlated to the sense of relief often experienced by loved ones once finally removed of the burden reflected in the long-standing compromise of lifestyle.  Notably, Kafka’s final point of observation in a narrative which has largely taken its focus from Gregor’s perspective concerns those by whom the transformed man is survived.  Of the family, Kafka tells that “all three left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city.  The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun.  They talk to each other, leaning back comfortably in their seats, about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation, these were not at all bad.” (Kafka, 44)  Here, an incredible transformation has taken place in the family as well as Gregor, which had gradually shifted from a unit of dependents to ones suspended in abject horror.  In the final stage, Gregor’s passing releases this horror and delivers them to a final place of brightness and optimism.  The metaphor reinforced concerning the impact of illness on the afflicted bears a close likeness to that which occurs in reality, with fear and distant compassion ultimately rendered as self-interest and a desire for normalcy.

            In Gregor’s affliction and his passing, Kafka offers a wrenching examination of the experience of sickness which reveals each of us to be as vulnerable and as pitiable as a horrible bug.

Works Cited

Charmaz, K.  (1983).  Loss of self.  A fundamental form of suffering in the chronically ill.  Sociology of Health and Illness, 5(2), 168-195.


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