mnmlist: Uncanny and Narratory Alienation in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”
The subject of alienation surfaces frequently in twentieth-century writing. At a time of economic and social decline, artists and writers often depicted estranged and uncertain worlds. Known for investigating the problem of modern alienation is Franz Kafka, the troubled young man whose nightmarish modernism manipulates form and style with such peculiarity that he hardly fits with his contemporaries in any one category. Walter H. Sokel describes Kafka’s world as “an enigmatic dream universe, obeying the laws of the dream but not spelling them out” (Sokel 45). In his famous story “Metamorphosis,” Kafka presents the story of a young man inexplicably transformed into a bug. Gregor Samsa’s estrangement from the world, his family, and himself is established through both the operation of the uncanny in an otherwise naturalistic setting and through a narrator whose ambiguous realm of perception alternates between proximity and distance to the protagonist.
The aesthetic concept of the “uncanny” often found in German art and literature is integral to the story of Samsa’s metamorphosis and alienation from the world. In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud asserts that beyond describing something mysterious that “evokes fear and dread,” the uncanny represents a particular psychological experience created in the relationship between the unfamiliar and the familiar (Freud 132). Thus Samsa’s bizarre, otherworldly metamorphosis occurs within the context of normal life. Samsa asks, “What’s the matter with me?” as he looks around at his “normal human room,” with strange nonchalance, acknowledging both the unknown and the commonplace in the same train of thought (Kafka 87). The transformation alienates Samsa as he is forced to accept his new body without elucidation. Amidst this state of oddity and uncertainty, Samsa copes comically with the physical toil of being a monstrous insect while simultaneously devising plans for work as though he were in a fit state to go. He closes his eyes “so as to not have to watch his wriggling legs,” and diverts his attention to his “exhausting profession” (Kafka 88), only to be once again faced with his grotesque physicality. The presence of the unfamiliar is intrusive and unavoidable in his familiar world. Samsa’s conflicting thoughts and actions — prompted by his experience with the uncanny— underline the nightmarish metamorphosis that alienates him from the experience of normal everyday life.
The narrator’s point of view turns this strange, uncanny experience into one that is also deeply subjective, further alienating Samsa from external reality. In Kafka’s Narrators, Roy Pascal indicates that “almost everything we know is passed on to us via the consciousness of Gregor” (Pascal 32). The third-person narrator occupies intimate access to Samsa’s inner thoughts, and draws us into Samsa’s alienation from the rest of the world. Samsa’s alienation is tangible on a physical level, with his bedroom door separating him from his family and work. By introducing the scene from inside the bedroom, the narrator brings us into isolation with Samsa from his parents, forming an “intense enclosedness” (Pascal 57). We are able to understand Samsa even while he is unable to communicate with those around him. When Samsa attempts to offer a justification for not leaving his room, the clerk turns to Samsa’s parents and asks, “Did you understand a single word of that?” (Kafka 98). While the reader did in fact comprehend Samsa’s attempted speech, his words are heard as nonsense by those standing on the other side of the door. A lack of comprehension plagues the relationship between Samsa and the other characters and propels him further into alienation. The narrator equips us to grasp Samsa’s thoughts and forces us to experience the gravity of his alienation from the rest of the world.
Samsa’s uncanny transformation brings to light his underlying inner alienation from his family. Freud states that the uncanny refers to “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open” (Freud, 132). In this way, the insect transformation manifests Samsa’s inner turmoils and desolation. Samsa’s previous role in the family as sole provider proves to be a point of repressed resentment that is materialized in this grotesque transformation. His memories of life with his family before the metamorphosis resemble more of a business agreement than a loving relationship: “They had just become used to it, both the family and Gregor; they gratefully took receipt of his money, which he willingly handed over, but there was no longer any particular warmth about it” (Kafka, 97). As an insect, Samsa changes from being repelled to “simply tolerated” (Kafka 109) by his family, though tolerance had also been the extent of the affection given to him when he was providing for them. The inhumanity with which the family treats him upon becoming an insect is nothing new. The transformation also implies that the roles of host and parasite have been inverted; now it is the “exhausted and overworked family” that lacks the “time to pay any more attention to Gregor than was absolutely necessary” (Kafka, 110-111). Once again, the unfamiliar mingles with the familiar. While the roles have been reversed, the relationship between Samsa and his family is not changed as drastically as it seems. Rather, Samsa’s metamorphosis reveals a formerly repressed family discord.
As the body of the text explores the tensions between Samsa and his family, the narrator’s perception of Samsa begins to extend itself to a wider scope, slowly diminishing our ability to see Samsa from within. As the stark reality of Samsa’s metamorphosis is described in graphic and intimate detail, we become conflicted between Samsa and his family’s viewpoints. Paul Coates suggests that Kafka’s writing “combines subjective and objective viewpoints to create a sense of double exclusion” (Coates 3). Pascal explains that while Samsa’s thoughts often “invade” the narrator’s view within descriptive passages, at other times his thoughts are distinguished by quotation marks (Pascal 32). This technique destabilizes the narrator’s — and by extension, our— link to Samsa. While we sometimes experience Samsa’s alienation alongside him, at other times the narrator looks down at Samsa as his animality is described in lurid and aloof terms, and mirrors his family’s revolted gaze. The language describing his eating habits is particularly antagonizing; after eating “half-rotten vegetables and “congealed white sauce,” Samsa is possessed of a bloated belly and “slightly bulging eyes” (Kafka 109-110). This description further repels the reader who might have preferred, like the family, not to “confront in so much material detail the idea of him eating anything” (Kafka 110). Kafka’s narrator subtly manipulates our perception of Samsa so that while we can usually understand him, we would often prefer not to.
This uncanny dichotomy of humanity and animality, familiarity and unfamiliarity becomes an internal crisis of selfhood for Samsa. When Samsa hears his sister playing the violin to the lodgers, his reaction seems evidential of his human nature. His poignant observations describe in elaborate imagery the beauty of the scene around him. Articulating Samsa’s ponderous thoughts, the narrator asks, “Could he be an animal, to be so moved by music?” (Kafka 136). Nonetheless, his admiration is described in strangely erotic terms, perhaps even base, interweaving his humanity with gross animality. Suddenly Samsa fantasizes protecting and preserving his sister, and even hints at an incestuous desire to “draw himself up to her oxter and kiss her on the throat” (Kafka 136). When the others in the room see Samsa, they are appalled by his baseness and monstrosity. After the lodgers turn away from the family, Grete addresses Samsa as “that monster” and “it” (Kafka 138), finally unable to recognize the cockroach as her brother. It is the crisis of his own nature that brings Samsa to end his life. Before his death, the narrator draws attention to the “rotten apple in his back and the inflammation all round it” (Kafka 141), which had been lodged into his body by his father. The apple is a very literal mark of Samsa’s blight that alludes to the fruit of original sin, the archetypal disruption to ideal nature, or the familiar world. The psychological trauma of the uncanny catches Samsa in an incongruity of humanity and animality, and he is ultimately doomed to self-destruction.
After alternating between objective and subjective views of Samsa’s experience, the narrator broadens the scope of the story towards the ending to illustrate Samsa’s ultimate insignificance. The pace and voice of the writing becomes more detached after Samsa’s death, rather than offering Samsa any empathy. The charwoman’s slow realisation of his death gives the scene a comical, trivialized tone; she tries “to tickle” him, and upon realizing he has died, she crudely cries out, “it’s gone and perished; it’s lying there, and it’s perished!” (142) Her trifold repetition of the pronoun “it” furthers the view of Samsa as a mere thing. Another indication of Samsa’s ultimate insignificance is that his family is not saddened in the slightest by his death. On the contrary, Mr. Samsa declares, “now we can give thanks to God” (Kafka 142). Rather than being a remorseful occasion, Samsa’s death marks the opportunity for the family to begin a new life. This new life is captured with a literal movement outside the space of the story. The Samsas leaves their home behind, “something they hadn’t done in months” (Kafka 145) and take a carriage out to the park as they contemplate their opportunities. The movement of the carriage represents progress and vivacity after a period of immobility and malady. The scene is particularly refreshing as the family sits in the “warm sunshine” (Kafka 145), a major contrast to the gloomy interior of the home. Previously, the narrator had depicted Samsa’s alienation through close proximity to his loneliness and individuality, even in the literal enclosedness of his bedroom. The ending alienates Samsa even further as he is truly left behind, in favour of a wider and more hopeful setting and context.
Kafka’s use of paradox and subjectivity complicate the nature of alienation in Metamorphosis. The paradoxes alter reality through the uncanny, drawing attention to underlying resentments and turmoils through an absurd and shocking transformation of nature. The narrator propels the story through both subjective and objective angles to draw the reader into Samsa’s alienation and then beyond his alienation. Kafka’s language and style are at once subtle and lucid, extravagant and plain. These ambiguities speak to those of his characters and settings, and by extension, the ambiguities and complexities of the world in which we live.