The Obscenity of Identity:

Investigating the Nature of Otherness in The Metamorphosis

Robert Pettus

In The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka, draws on the theme of transformation as a device to investigate the dimensions of identity and assert his own ambivalence toward an increasingly bureaucratic society. The text presents not just a transformation of identity, but also a transformation through alienation that reveals the influence of society and its codes on the individual. As a result, the effect of transformation within the text brings with it the questions of what shapes the individual's identity and what is the human identity when unshackled from societal pressures. _________________

That is, he sees himself first as an employee before individual, a worker before a human being. The two are mutually exclusive within a bureaucracy.            _________________

The title of the text itself, "Metamorphosis", emphasizes the text’s central theme: transformation. It is Gregor's "metamorphosis" that the reader witnesses. A metamorphosis that is literal and figurative, physical and metaphysical. While the change is gradual, its physical effects are apparent from the very onset of the narrative itself in the scene where Gregor first awakens to his condition.  It is not that fact that he is now a vermin that is important, but rather the transformation itself:

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled   dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. He lay on his tough armored back, and, raising, his head a little, managed to see—sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments—the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever, on the point of slipping off entirely. (210)

Gregor is physically transformed into an entirely new creature, signifying his loss of humanity and to add to this he is “sectioned” off into “segments”. But what’s more, Gregor is entirely unconcerned with the matter: “If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession” right afterwards (211). This whole scene is representative of the conflict that the author perceives between bureaucracy and individuality. Gregor’s concern with his condition lasts only a moment before it is superseded by his anxiety over his job working for a bureaucratic company. What his lack of concern suggests is that the nature of his profession as a bureaucrat has already desensitized him to his own humanity and caused him to perceive himself as inhuman.

However, it also suggests a change in attitude toward his own identity. That is, he sees himself first as an employee before individual, a worker before a human being. The two are mutually exclusive within a bureaucracy. This issue is taken further as he is “sectioned” off into segments. This division of his body is made apparent in the next scene when he “struggles” with the lower half of his body to stand up on his own and get out of his bed. As he looks down, he relates that he cannot determine the “specifications” of his lower region and the “direction” that it will lead him in. More importantly however, is the way he attempts get out of his bed:

At first he thought he would get out of bed bottom half first, but this bottom half of himself, which he had not yet see, and whose specifications he was…ignorant turned out to be not very maneuverable…He tried to lever his top half…and cautiously turned his head towards toward the edge…This was easily done…the rest of his body followed. (213)

In this instance, the idea of bondage by bureaucracy—the reshaping of his identity—is symbolized by the lower half of his body. He attempts get out of his bed, to stand on a power he believes is his own, but he is unable to because he no longer possesses the authority to control this aspect of his body. This area of his body is representative of the alteration of his identity and how bureaucracy now figuratively controls the very bodily parts necessary for one to sustain a living—his means of production—and has alienated him from it. Moreover, this suggests that he no longer has the capacity as an individual to administer his own fate. His “struggle” with his lower half is an allegory for the constricting influence of society and bureaucracy, but also the inevitable resistance of the worker, conveying Kafka’s own socialist views. That is, Gregor must seize control with his top half—the head—in order to counter the lower half’s influence.

As the narrative progresses, however, the body takes a paradoxical meaning. In fact, the meaning of the body in the narrative takes on a metamorphosis of its own as the character’s transformation transitions from being merely physical to metaphysical. As a result of the adaptation to his new body, Gregor gradually begins to lose other aspects of his humanity including his memories and he experiences an alteration of his sensory perceptions. However, in exchange he attains something else: freedom and enlightenment. By the end of the narrative, Gregor becomes fully adjusted to his new form, and the body no longer symbolizes a division between his “worker” persona and his individuality. Rather, it now denotes a conflict between his cultural identity and his own perception of identity.

 This is apparent when Kafka presents to the reader two seemingly mundane scenes in which Gregor and his family both question whether to throw out the furniture in his room as they have given up on him “recovering” from his condition. The pieces of furniture are all signifiers that represent everything that is society and how it shapes us, but also prevent us from moving “freely” because we cannot decide what “direction” we desire to move in. Furthermore, the fact that Gregor’s family sees his condition as an illness signifies the manner in which society, or rather bureaucracy, views Gregor’s newfound freedoms and individuality. That is, individuality is seen as an illness that is hideous and appalling—something unnatural—and to be dealt with. As a result, “individuality” becomes something that is a threat to the health of such a structure and it is therefore redefined as an abnormality.

Rather than choosing one’s own fate, the individual’s fate must follow the preformed paths that adhere to societal norms—the status quo. In the end, Gregor decides he would rather keep the furniture, despite knowing that it would inhibit his freedom of movement because of the hope of renewed social connections. What this suggests is a craving for a culturally defined identity rather than one defined by the individual because, as Gregor notices, although he has gained freedom and individuality from his transformation, he is alienated from his peers as well as himself. In other words, he is estranged from his worldly existence.

But Gregor’s transformation is also indicative of an inevitable cycle, one to which those within society are all subject. It is implied that before the burden of supporting his family was placed upon him, he may have enjoyed greater “freedom”. However, after he receives this burden, he succumbs to the pressures it entails, and as alluded to earlier, his transformation enables him a temporary escape from such life. Yet, even despite this, Kafka presents us with the inevitability that he will succumb to these pressures yet again as he gazes upon the furniture, pondering the possibilities of a return to his former life. It is this cycle that implies that the freedoms he attains from his newfound individuality are ones that are short-lived and opposed to societal acceptance. It is only upon the conclusion of Gregor’s narrative that Kafka conveys the notion that there is a permanent resolution to this cycle—a single solution: death. At the hands of his family, Gregor is killed in the end. This suggests a final release from from societal pressures. But since Gregor’s family is representative of society, Kafka suggests that the permanent release that Gregor ultimately receives can only be attained by brutal means at the hands of society—thereby reemphasizing the inescapability of Gregor’s struggle.

All of this draws upon the character’s name “Samsa” which, while certainly a play on Kafka’s name, bears a resemblance, as some critics have argued, to the term “samsara.” As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, samsara connotes “the basic qualities of human individuality binding us to our worldly existence [that] are at the same time the means of liberation and enlightenment.” Gregor’s transformation gives him control over his individuality and yields freedom from societal obligation, granting him release from his constraints. He is “liberated” from his “worldly existence”. But as Kafka demonstrates, this is not without its consequences. Gregor’s metamorphosis is a break away from society in order to discover one’s own true identity. However, the nature of this breakaway is wrought with difficulty and alienation that inevitably creates a craving for the past life as it is a terrifying and lonely experience. As a result, Gregor’s “metamorphosis” is a metaphor for self-discovery—a search for identity defined independently of societal influences and obligations. But it is one that cannot last.

The question of what an identity is when unbound from its societal obligations and codes suggests what Kafka perceives as the base of human identity. He implies through Gregor that this is a truly human identity and the only kind that enables one real freedom of movement rather than a role that society assigns to an individual to be played. Such a role, according to Kafka, is a necessary requirement for admission into society and by extension, bureaucracy. Therefore, individuality becomes an obscenity to societal order. However, as Gregor begins in this role, and is next liberated from it, he then yearns for that role again. Kafka once more suggests that this process of transformation is an inevitable cycle.  Gregor is reborn into what is a true identity as he removes the webbings of society that hamper the individual, but like a growing child, he will inevitably fall prey to the same influences again as he increasingly interacts with these influences. And as a result, he cannot help yearning for the comforting sense of belonging it brings even at the cost of freedom—the death of individuality.

(This essay was originally submitted for a Great Works of World Literature II class)


The City University of New York