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The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

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I need to write an essay in response to the question “How is the concept of alienation, as defined by Marx in his writings on ‘Estranged Labour’ in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, reflected in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis?” My thesis statement is “Marx's concept of alienation is reflected in The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa's transformation into a bug reveals that his family and his supervisors see him solely as a worker, and nothing more than a source of labour and income. He experienced alienation before the metamorphosis, but this tragicomic event exposes how alienated he was from a fulfilling life.” What are three or four arguments for this thesis statement?

The thesis gives a lot of ideas to work with, and there are plenty of examples in The Metamorphosis that reflect Marx's theories about alienation. The best way to structure the rest of the essay will be to review Marx's four types and consider how Kafka brings those ideas to life in the story. All of the characters, and even things like food and music, serve to emphasize relationships twisted by the conditions of modern existence.

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The essay prompt asks to find examples in the Kafka story that illustrate this particular Marxian concept. Since Marx’s theory of “estranged labor” consists of four distinct types of alienation, a good way to approach the task would be to consider those four types and then try to find a few examples from the Kafka story that illustrate these ideas about the dehumanizing, corrupting, and antisocial effects of capitalism.

According to Marx, the four types of alienation describe:

  1. The estrangement, or separation, of the individual from the products of their labor, which they don’t own,
  2. The removal of any sense of meaning and fulfillment that the individual might find in their work processes, because the labor is monitored and not freely given,
  3. The estrangement of the individual from the essential humanity of their own bodies and selves, suppressing their unique potential and sense of purpose.
  4. The alienation of workers and citizens from each other, as social relationships become increasingly transactional, or businesslike, rather than based in fellowship and community.

With some imagination, all of the above types can be found reflected in some form through the characters and situations in The Metamorphosis. The whole story is based on the idea of the dehumanizing effects of the work people do to make a living, as well as the economic burdens that dictate and limit peoples’ choices and freedom. Look at the other characters in the story, their motivations, and their relationships with Gregor, consider how Gregor feels about his job as a salesman and his future prospects, and Marx’s themes of alienation should be apparent.

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