Written by Simon Leclerc


Comparative Analysis of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

and Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery”

     While much may have changed in the world between 1915 and 1992, the basic structure of Western society has remained largely undisturbed. The working class is stuck in a dreary routine, forced to work for money instead of a love for their work or out of a wish to be a useful member of a community—alienating labour. This is the view presented by two works: Kafka’s novella, “The Metamorphosis” (1915), and Nine Inch Nails’ song, “Happiness in Slavery” (1992. See annexe 1 for lyrics). They share many elements, the chief one being their view of the dehumanized worker.

Kafka presented one such white-collared worker as being transformed into a “monstrous verminous bug” (chap. 1), presumably by the weight of the spirit-numbing daily routine he had to endure to support his family. Gregor, son of a failed business man, has to provide for his family and pay back his father’s debt by working as a travelling salesman. He catches a train to work every morning at five, and is often away from home, where his father, mother and sister remain, idle. This situation is, of course, ended by his transformation. The story tells how he slowly wastes away and dies, now that he is no longer a useful economic unit.

The two texts present many similarities. Where Kafka opts for the more dramatic physical transformation, Reznor depicts the worker as a slave. A slave so dehumanized that he is really “just some flesh, caught in this big broken machine.” Even his ideas are false—in bad faith: “he's gonna cause the system to fall / but he's glad to be chained to that wall.” One observes here the same oppression and sense of imprisonment that characterises Gregor’s story. He is a prisoner in his room, the same as the slave chained to a wall. As the story goes on, he loses mobility, further reinforcing this image. He can only move very slowly, he’s been injured (end of chap. 2), like the slave who’s “being beat into submission.” At the end of the story, Gregor dies and becomes trash (end of chap. 3), like the slave, said to be “human junk.

Both texts have an element of questioning, of revolt. Gregor’s appears in the form of a desire to quit his job, and tell off his boss; “If I didn't hold back for my parents' sake, I'd have quit ages ago. I would've gone to the boss and told him just what I think from the bottom of my heart” (chap. 1). And the slave is sarcastically told “don't open your eyes, you won't like what you see /the devils of truth steal the souls of the free.” If the slave were to open his eyes, it seems, he would see the real world and lose his happiness. Much like Gregor; when he became a bug, no longer forced to work himself into a stupor, he had time to reflect on his situation, his family, and life in general, and this questioning ended up destroying him.

            In many ways, Gregor is liberated by death. He had been a prisoner of his work for years prior to his transformation, then for many months was confined to his room, where his only glimpse of the outside world was through his window. Once he finally gives his last breath, he his free from his bonds (literally, since he’s thrown out by the housekeeper). In Reznor’s song, this is not the case. The slave apparently remains a slave, and will still be a slave for the foreseeable future, because he is controlled by his (false) happiness (“happiness controls you”). This, one could argue, is because the slave in this song is a metaphor for humankind, and therefore it is not desirable that he should die, or there would be nobody left to enjoy this freedom.

Works Cited