Discuss the nature of work in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" by Herman Melville.

1 Answer | Add Yours

auntlori's profile pic

Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Though it may not seem like it at first glance, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is almost as much about work as is Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street."

Gregor Samsa, up until the day we meet him, has been working as a traveling salesman, a job he loathes. Although he hates his job, Gregor works faithfully at it because he feels a family obligation to do so. His father has gotten into debt and clearly has no intention of doing anything to get himself out of it; so, the responsibility falls on Gregor. 

He is the one who dutifully works at a job he hates in order to pay off that debt. He works so diligently and persistently at this awful job that he not only pays of their debt but earns enough (and obviously gives the money to them) for them to live exceptionally well. They have a maid, for example, and everyone but Gregor lives a life of luxury without doing anything to earn it. 

Gregor's first concern after waking up to discover he has been transformed into a giant bug is that he hates his job. 

"Oh, God", he thought, "what a strenuous career it is that I've chosen! Travelling day in and day out. Doing business like this takes much more effort than doing your own business at home, and on top of that there's the curse of travelling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them. It can all go to Hell!"

Just a few paragraphs later, however, he is concerned that he is going to miss his train to work. What he feels about his job and what he does--which is go to work every day because it is expected of him and because he does not have the energy or inclination to make any kind of a change--are two different things. His job has become his life, and the metaphor of the helpless, useless bug is perfect for how Gregor feels about his life, and of course a consuming part of his life is his job. 

Gregor is obviously not afraid to work hard; he is, however, unfulfilled in the job he has chosen to accept. When his supervisor comes to chastise him (an outrageous act given Gregor's proven reliability over time), Gregor's response is distinctly passive aggressive. He seems to want to make peace with the man, but Gregor knows he is hideous-looking, and when he approaches the man he knows he is going to frighten him. This is indicative of his conflicting feelings of duty and disdain for his job.

In contrast, Bertleby has a job but he eventually refuses to do any work. While he seems to cling to this job with an unnatural tenacity, he does not do so for any obvious reason. Gregor wanted the money; it is not clear what benefit Bartleby gets from his job as a scrivener. 

While Gregor's transformation is a reflection of his feelings of trapped hopelessness, Bartleby's unwillingness to leave his job is symbolic of his need to somehow feel connected to something after working at the dead letter office of the postal service for so many years. Bartleby must have worked once; now it appears he simply wants to stay connected to something that is not "dead." Just being there seems to suit his needs.

In both stories, the men have jobs that suit their needs but do not fulfill them, and there is a distinction between their work and their jobs. Unlike Bartleby, Gregor has proven his willingness to work, even though he hates his job. Bartleby clings to his job, though he "would prefer not to" work. 

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,996 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question