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The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka
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How is the concept of alienation, as defined by Marx in his writings on "estranged labor" in his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts, reflected in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis?

Gregor's life exemplifies the four levels of occupational isolation outlined by Marx in his writings on "estranged labor." Gregor is consumed by his job as a traveling salesman. As a result, he is alienated from the product he sells, his work itself, human nature, his own self, and others. He is not passionate about his work or the product he sells. The long hours and extensive travel demanded by his job depletes him of the time and energy to form meaningful relationships, build a fulfilling life, and pursue passions.

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In his work Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx discusses the idea of "estranged labor," arguing that people are essentially slaves to money. They work to maintain a living, but in doing so, they dedicate so much of their time and effort to their work that they paradoxically are unable to build a full life for themselves or enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Marx believes the worker experiences several forms of isolation: alienation from the product being produced or sold; alienation from the work itself; alienation from human nature and oneself; and alienation from others. Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis strongly illustrates all of the aforementioned levels of isolation proposed by Marx through the life of Gregor Samsa.

Gregor spends almost all of his time working as a traveling salesman to pay off his parents' debt. As a result, he is tired, miserable, and lonely. He dedicates so much of his time to his work that he does not have the time or energy to build a fulfilling life for himself. While his family enjoys luxurious meals, jewelry, several newspaper subscriptions, and servants, Gregor does not enjoy the fruits of his own labor. He is hardly ever home, he is subjected to bad food in his travels, and he is unable to form meaningful relationships due to the nature of his time-consuming job:

"O God," he thought, "what a demanding job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road. The stresses of trade are much greater than the work going on at head office, and, in addition to that, I have to deal with the problems of traveling, the worries about train connections, irregular bad food, temporary and constantly changing human relationships which never come from the heart. To hell with it all!"

Gregor is alienated from the product he sells, as he does not appear to have any particular interest in cloth. His job is not a source of enjoyment or outlet for his passions, but merely a means of survival.

Gregor is alienated from his job but robotically goes through the motions every day to support his family, even though he does not benefit from his own efforts. He finds his work "demanding" and exhausting. He wakes early every day and does not get enough sleep: " 'This getting up early,' he thought, 'makes a man quite idiotic. A man must have his sleep.' " Gregor finds traveling to be tiring and cumbersome.

Gregor is also isolated from human nature and himself. Given the long hours and extensive travel required by his job, he is unable to lay roots, build a home, have friends, pursue personal interests, develop meaningful relationships, and the many other things in life that humans are naturally inclined to do. He works constantly and does not have an identity outside of his status as a worker, thus alienating him from himself. His mother tells his manager of how empty Gregor's life is and how consumed he is by his work:

The young man has nothing in his head except business. I'm almost angry that he never goes out at night. Right now he's been in the city eight days, but he's been at home every evening. He sits there with us at the table and reads the newspaper quietly or studies his travel schedules.

Gregor is alienated from others as well. He does not have time to cultivate deep friendships or relationships. As he says early in the story, his relationships are short-lived, ever-changing, and shallow. He is always on the move due to his job and is never in one place long enough to establish or develop deep connections with others. The closest thing he has to a friend or companion is a picture of a woman which he cut out of a magazine and framed. He is protective of this picture and later holds it close to him as his mother and sister clean out his room.

Gregor is alienated from his family prior to his transformation, but that isolation escalates dramatically after he becomes a bug. His metamorphosis in and of itself can be viewed as a symbol of his status as a worker. According to the Amateur Entomologists' Society, worker insects, such as some bees, ants, termites, and wasps, do a large amount of work within their colonies and "forego their own reproduction to help raise their siblings." Gregor is comparable to a worker insect in that he does the bulk of the work in his household and sacrifices his own life and opportunities to support and care for his family.

Gregor's job and life exemplify all of levels of "estranged labor" outlined by Marx.

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