illustration of a giant insect with the outline of a man in a suit standing within the confines of the insect

The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka
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How does Kafka's matter of fact tone and the changing setting contribute to the theme of alienation?

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The matter-of-fact tone used by Franz Kafka in his famous short story “The Metamorphosis” helps contribute to theme of alienation in this work.  So too, however, does the story’s brief shift in location from Gregor’s room to the living room, where his sister is playing the violin while lodgers listen. Both the tone and the shift of location are apparent in the following passage, which describes the reaction of those in the living room when Gregor enters:

“Mr. Samsa!” called out the middle lodger to the father and, without uttering a further word, pointed his index finger at Gregor as he was moving slowly forward. The violin fell silent. The middle lodger smiled, first shaking his head at his friends, and then looked down at Gregor once more. Rather than driving Gregor back, the father seemed to consider it more important for the time being to calm down the lodgers, although they were not at all upset and Gregor seemed to entertain them more than the violin recital.

When the lodger sees a gigantic insect approaching him, he does not scream, run, or try to arm himself; instead, he merely points at Gregor “without uttering a further word.” Then the lodger merely smiles at his friends, shakes his head, and finally looks once more at Gregor. No one else in the room seems especially excited by Gregor’s arrival; the lodgers are “not at all upset” and seem to be actually “entertained” by Gregor’s entrance.

Needless to say, both the episode Kafka presents here and the way he describes it are alienating. That is, they seem strange and also estranging. We would normally expect the lodgers, at least, to respond with much more emotion than they show, especially since this is the very first time that they have seen Gregor. Instead, they seem very oddly unexcited, as if they are not quite fully human and as if the situation itself is not quite real. This episode is even more alienating, however, because the lodgers seem to find Gregor entertaining – a reaction that seems both bizarre and very much lacking in pity or compassion. Instead of feeling either horrified by Gregor or sorry for him, they react with mere amusement, so that once again the situation and the characters seem somewhat surreal.

The fact that this whole episode takes place in the living room only adds to the sense of the bizarre. If one of the lodgers had someone mistakenly entered Gregor’s room (to which both he and we have become accustomed), the effect would not seem nearly so alienating as having Gregor enter the living room. We normally think of living rooms as places of relaxation, comfort, intimacy, and enjoyment, and so the presence of a huge human/insect there seems doubly strange, especially since no one in the room seems particularly disturbed.



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