Existential Questions in “Metamorphosis”
By Géraud Le Carduner
One of the main themes of existentialism is that all human beings are completely free, including freedom of choice. We could then consider the possibility that someone would willingly abandon his own freedom due to social context or peer pressure. Franz Kafka created a story based on this possibility.
Gregor Samsa, the main character of "The Metamorphosis," is the only source of income his family has. They could not live as they do if he were not working so hard. While they are happy with this situation, Gregor is not. The day he discovers that he has been changed into a bug, he wakes earlier than usual, and almost immediately starts reflecting on his life, as if he never had the occasion to do so. His thoughts make us wonder why he keeps working as a travelling salesman:
Still, who knows whether that mightn’t be really good for me? 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. He would’ve fallen right off his desk !
Obviously, he is acting in bad faith, but rather suppressing his own desires in order to follow the social rules. He is a young man, therefore he is expected to support his family, as his father does not work. It is likely that Gregor could have chosen to leave his family, and as we read the story, there is no practical reason that would have prevented him from doing so.
When Gregor is changed into a bug, he stops providing money to his family, and becomes a dead weight which they have to feed. They have no choice but to start working and they rent one of the rooms. While they live in poverty, they manage to keep their appartment and to continue their lives, meaning that they do not need Gregor's pay. What's more, Gregor was able to provide money for the whole family, meaning that he did not need them either. The main character's choice is therefore one made according to conventions, without any consideration to what he truly wishes, and what his different options are. It is interesting to notice that Gregor's choice suppresses the possibility that he will question his situation: working so hard prevents him from having the time to think about his life. This 'trick' has been used throughout history. In Medieval Europe, the more work the poor had to do, the less able they were to reflect upon their condition. Nowadays, those who spend several hours in transportation to go to work and come back are in a similar situation.
"Metamorphosis" can be seen as an example of one of existentialism's limits. While an individual is born completely free, he depends on other people for the first third of his life. By the moment this person is independant (financially), too many rules, conventions and habits have been imprinted in his mind, destroying that potential freedom of choice. Without a great amount of time put into thinking, one will only see the choices that are on the path which society determines for him. The problem is that this amount of time is unavailable unless one stops working, which leads to poverty and rejection from society. Gregor is in this double-bind situation: when he stopped working, his family shunned him, and if he had kept on working, he couldn't have fulfilled whatever dreams he has, or had (Gregor dislikes his work, but never mentions anything he would have liked to do if he chose not to be a travelling salesman).
Kafka, Franz, The Metamoprhosis. Trans. Jonhston Ian. [http://www.mala.bc.ca/~Johnstoi/stories/kafka-E.htm]