Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Kafka’s art is so profoundly ambiguous and multivalent that no single analysis can completely comprehend it. This evaluation will stress a psychoanalytic, expressionistic interpretation.
Gregor’s metamorphosis accomplishes several of his aims: First, it frees him from his hated job with an odious employer by disabling him from working; second, it relieves him of the requirement to make an agonizing choice between his filial duty to his parents—particularly his father—and his desperate yearning to emancipate himself from such obligations and dependence. It thus enables him to “bug out” of his loathsome constraints yet do so on a level of conscious innocence, with Gregor merely a victim of an uncontrollable calamity. Moreover, Gregor’s fantasies include aggressive and retaliatory action against the oppressive firm. He accomplishes this by terrorizing the pitiless, arrogant office manager, who tells him, “I am speaking here in the name of your parents and of your chief.” On the conscious level, Gregor pursues the clerk to appease him and secure his advocacy for Gregor’s cause at the office; subconsciously, his threatening appearance and apparently hostile gestures humiliate his hated superiors.
Gregor’s change also expresses his sense of guilt at having betrayed his work and his parents, at having broken the familial circle. It is a treacherous appeasement of this guilt complex, inviting his isolation, punishment, and death....
(The entire section is 415 words.)
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Kafka develops the theme of alienation against the notion of the parasitical, and it is all done with a subtle irony of transforming the least parasitical member of the family, Gregor, into the literal parasite, the insect. The family and the society both feed off of Gregor — literally because he works for the economic system and supports his family on his meager earnings, and symbolically because it is Gregor's sensitivity, his "artistic" nature, which makes him vulnerable to exploitation. Gregor is economically and emotionally sacrificed to the better good of the state and the family, thereby placing corporate needs before individual desires.
The theme of the place of the artist in society is also prominent in The Metamorphosis as Gregor, the repository of artistic sensibility and intellectual introspection, is shown to have no place in a world dominated by material concerns and lacking in emotional truthfulness. Gregor with his awareness of the truth of life and its beauty is an unnecessary encumbrance to the lives of his family and is shut away from them until he dies, in part at least, from neglect.
(The entire section is 183 words.)
Alienation at Work
One of the themes of the story is the unpleasantness of work. Gregor Samsa hates his job as a travelling salesman, but must continue doing it to pay off his parents' debts. There is no suggestion that he gets any job satisfaction; all he talks about is how exhausting the job is, how irritating it is to be always travelling: making train connections, sleeping in strange beds, always dealing with new people and thus never getting the chance to make good friends, and so forth. Moreover, it turns out that Gregor works for a firm that does not trust its employees at all: because he is late this one day, the chief clerk shows up to check on him and begins hinting that he is suspected of embezzling funds and may very well be fired. It also seems that Gregor's co-workers dislike him because he is on the road so often; they gossip about him and the other travelling salesmen, making unfounded complaints such as that they make lots of money and just enjoy themselves. Work is hell, the story seems to suggest.
Life at home, according to the story, is no paradise either. In particular, Gregor seems to have a difficult relationship with his father. The very first time Gregor's father is seen he is making a fist, albeit just to knock on Gregor's door. Soon after, however, he makes a fist more in earnest: when he first sees Gregor in his insect form, he shakes his fist at him and glares at him fiercely....
(The entire section is 866 words.)