Written by Simon Leclerc
Analysis of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Ian Johnston, trans. Nanaimo, BC, Canada: Malaspina University-College, October 2003. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/stories/kafka-E.htm (accessed on March 25, 2006)
Trent. “Happiness in Slavery.” Broken. CD. Writ.,
perf. and prod. Nine
Inch Nails. New Orleans: Nothing Records, 1992.