Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a vivid portrayal of alienation and loneliness in the family. The tale begins when Gregor Samsa wakes up early to discover that he has inexplicably been turned into a “gigantic insect” (Kafka, 1995, 9). Gregor is a young man who lives with his parents and sister. He’s a travelling salesman who is oppressed by his work and family, dutifully maintaining a desperate cheerfulness in the face of his surreal affliction. Gregor tries to deny his condition by sticking to the routines of normal existence, but of course this is now impossible, finding himself exiled in his room by confused and bewildered relatives. The black comedy of the story comes from the shocking monstrosity of his physical appearance clashing with the culture of denial that surrounds him. This young man has felt obliged to support his whole family financially, but really they’ve been exploiting him in order to live comfortable lives tended to by servants. When they discover he’s been turned into an insect, no one wants to know how or why it has happened or shows genuine concern for his wellbeing. They are simply horrified and disgusted – only worrying about themselves and the disruption he now brings into their lives.
Turning Gregor into an insect is an ingenious way to depict the experience of depression within a toxic family dynamic. It clearly demonstrates how the other family members reject and abandon him in order to focus on their own happiness and wellbeing. Within their obsessively self-centred mentality, they have no understanding or empathy for Gregor’s condition – they just don’t want to know how he feels. They don’t want to know that they’re exploiting him and they don’t want to know how they have alienated and dehumanised him. Gregor’s family are the ones who have turned him into an insect but they are incapable of perceiving this fact. They always see him as radically alien and other – a disgusting intrusion to be hidden away and, ultimately, eliminated entirely. To treat someone as an isolated individual is at one and the same time a violent act of alienation and a denial of that violence. This is because the person in question is seen as completely separate and unaffected by relational influence – their behaviour and personality deemed entirely their own property and their property alone. Throughout the whole story, Gregor’s family remain completely oblivious as to how they violently exclude and injure him to the point of death. Even after he has died from their neglect they are happy to be relieved of an embarrassing burden, ending the story feeling newly regenerated and optimistic about the future.
Gregor’s transformation highlights the existential quality of his loneliness and depression. Kafka uses the insect as a literary device – a technique of defamiliarisation or “enstrangement” (Shklovsky, 1919, 162) that literalises Gregor’s sense of alienation and externalises how he feels. The insect form enstranges the human body, showing how Gregor struggles with the raw existential fact of the human condition. As an insect, Gregor experiences the waking up of his mind in an individual body, feeling its visceral awkwardness, its vulnerability, and its capacity for injury and pain. Emotional rejection by the family makes Gregor experience the body in this way. His perception of reality is altered by depression, seeing himself and his inner life as something monstrous and alien compared to everyone else. This is not simply all in his mind as he is in fact excluded from the social reality of family life, emotionally locked out and forced to experience the life of the body alone. Here, Kafka goes beyond literalism in order to tell a story about inner experience. More than anything, he is using the insect to make the effects of emotional rejection visible, dramatising the hidden relational dynamics underpinning the life of the family. Depression accurately registers the reality of Gregor’s social existence. By turning him into an insect Kafka externalises the inner life and gives a form to his feelings – telling us a surreal tragi-comic tale about life in a toxic family environment.
In becoming an insect, Gregor is deprived of his manhood, losing all sense of inner strength as a man of action in the world. Lacking a soul-enhancing relationship with his family, he has been utterly starved of self-confidence and self-esteem – hinted at in the repeated references to food and hunger in the latter part of the story. Because he works as a travelling salesman, Gregor is also away much of the time and therefore does not really belong to the inner emotional life of the family. He’s not a complete stranger, but to them, he’s still an outsider. He has no positive self-image as a member of the group and cannot see himself favourably through their eyes. Parents are supposed to build up the inner strength of their children and help them transition from dependence to independence, but this hasn’t happened for Gregor. The insect form shows him as a starved and neglected being, made to feel weak and insignificant – fragile, sensitive and easily crushed.
Having been victimised by the family, Gregor discovers that he is also a victim of the human condition. The poor treatment he receives makes him aware of how he is victimised by bodily existence as such. Gregor is helpless and vulnerable in the face of reality. He’s oversized for an insect, but still small, disabled and undeniably mortal – even seeming to wither and shrink as the story progresses – to the point where his desiccated corpse is simply swept away by a cleaner near the end. The metamorphosis into a nonhuman form thus initiates him into an experience of extreme powerlessness that can be faced by anyone under extreme conditions. Gregor’s apparently individual and idiosyncratic pathology is inextricably entwined with the existential weakness of the human condition. By imposing a radical change in circumstances onto Gregor, Kafka shows how any adult can be regressed in this way through serious injury, severe illness or simply the ageing process itself. Kafka thus depicts the lived experience of human powerlessness in the face of a reality that can sweep anyone away at any time.
The radical psychologist Alice Miller says that Kafka’s writings reflect the psychology of a man who was mistreated by his family and that Metamorphosis is “about the state of mind of an unloved, misunderstood, and neglected child” (Miller, 1997, 109). Kafka’s parents lost two baby sons before he was born so I’m inclined to believe that they, like my own parents, went into emotional shutdown as a result. His mother withdrew her affection for him early on (Robertson, 2004, 11) and he was always intimidated and overwhelmed by his belligerent, insensitive father. This means that Kafka never had the support he needed to develop a sense of his own self-confidence as a mature and autonomous adult. I can quite imagine that he always felt unprepared for life and that he never stopped feeling like a helpless child lost in a terrifyingly indifferent world.
In both the very young and the very old the fragility of human existence is clear and undeniable. As an insect, Gregor is small and vulnerable like a child but in his physical frailty and limited mobility, he is also like an elderly or disabled relative – one who is marginalised by the family and kept isolated in a separate room. His sister dutifully takes it upon herself to visit him “as if she were visiting an invalid or even a stranger” (Kafka, 1995, 28) and after he suffers a serious injury “it took him long, long minutes to creep across his room like an old invalid” (ibid, 45). The insect form shows Gregor’s mental condition to be as distressing and debilitating as the most serious physical disability, but his relatives respond with horror and repulsion rather than with empathy and compassion. They push Gregor away rather than take him in to the protective, caring sphere of the family. No longer useful to them as a provider he becomes a burden and a drain on their energy – human waste that can only be disposed of, swept out of the way and ultimately forgotten.
If we read the insect as a manifestation of the soul it means that the physical injuries that Gregor receives point towards inner wounds more than literal, physical ones. The physical injuries he does sustain come from the covert violence of familial rejection, his insect body is accidentally damaged as they exclude him from the family and force him back into his room alone. This is not so much about physical mistreatment and imprisonment within the family home (although it does happen) but the injuries sustained by the soul due to emotional abandonment (which may or may not involve literal physical abuse). What Kafka shows is the unintentional violence that comes from ignorance, neglect and lack of due care and attention. It comes from a defensive reflex in which the family seek to protect their own feelings first and foremost, a consequence of which is the complete neglect and alienation of one of their own. Mistakenly thinking that the insect is attacking the mother, Gregor’s father throws apples at him out of fear, causing a severe injury that eventually proves fatal. Physical abuse is obviously bad in and of itself, but what makes it so particularly cruel within the family is the way it expresses emotional abandonment. This is the injury that really hurts on the inside, striking a person in the deepest core of their innermost being, leaving them completely bewildered, demoralised and depressed. In this story, Kafka is using an instance of physical abuse to indicate a profound emotional wounding by the father – one that leaves a permanent injury on the inside, poisoning and destroying the soul.
Gregor’s family are a ‘normal’ bourgeois family who don’t bully him in an intentionally sadistic way. Their behaviour is self-centred, ignorant and insensitive, subjecting him to separation and a withholding of affection that confuses, alienates and dehumanises him. One of the terrible things about covert emotional abandonment is that only the soul is aware of it – the rest of the family are in denial, those outside the family are complicit and even Gregor himself actively participates insofar as he is obliged to maintain his role as the dutiful son. Only Gregor’s soul – the insect – fully registers what has been done to him, how he has been mistreated and abused by the very people who are supposed to provide him with love, care and attention. The more Gregor tries to believe in his family and remain within “the human circle” (Kafka, 1995, 19), the more he assents to his own disappearance and death, even admitting that the “decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister” (ibid, 58). Gregor is thus forced into a situation where he genuinely comes to believe that he is indeed an embarrassing burden better off out of the way. How many depressed people have actually been in this position and have killed themselves because they felt like an unbearable burden to family and friends? What if this kind of thinking is not an exaggeration of the depressed mind but is instead an accurate reflection of the underlying psychodynamics within the family and society? Here Kafka depicts the logic of depression within a toxic social environment, showing how a person can be pushed towards mental decline and suicide by oblivious soul-destroying relations.
Gregor’s family are thoroughly bourgeois, kitsch and lifestyle-obsessed, which means they are completely dedicated to an aspirational ‘spiritual’ self rather than an inner emotional or ‘soulful’ self. They reject Gregor because they deny their own souls – doing all they can to ignore the haunting presence of negative feelings within their own minds. If they can’t cope with their own emotions it certainly means they can’t cope with Gregor’s – stubbornly maintaining an attitude of denial in spite of the fact that his inner soul is now out and on display for all to see. Gregor is depressed because he’s been emotionally rejected and when this becomes visible in the form of the insect they simply redouble their efforts and reject him again, this time more violently. The highly visible presence of depression in their midst leads them into a pattern of panic-stricken behaviour that wants to push the soul back inside and hide it away – brutally segregating Gregor back into his room.
Kafka doesn’t give us any indication of a family trauma behind their appalling behaviour and his depiction of them is entirely unsympathetic – but in their insistence on positivity at all times they do give every indication of being victims themselves – of being a family in flight from bereavement or some other kind of traumatic event. They act like people in a state of denial but Kafka gives us no family history that would explain why. All we can say for certain is that Gregor has been emotionally cut off by his family’s obsessive pursuit of their own happiness. Their souls are simply repressed but his openly exposes the violent impact of their neglect, showing how he’s being traumatised instead of them. They refuse to feel and in this refusal they displace their trauma onto Gregor. The insect is a return of the repressed, manifesting against Gregor’s will the negative emotions that everyone wants to deny. The family don’t ask questions or wonder why Gregor has become an insect because to do so would threaten to reveal the reality of their situation and the nastiness of their behaviour. Part of this poor treatment is the way they refuse to see how he has worked hard and suffered for them to finance their pleasurable work-free existence. Even more, it is the emotional labour (Southwood, 2011, 23) he’s required to perform that adds insult to injury, forcing him to actively participate in the very culture that destroys him.
Emotional labour is the work of suppressing your real emotions “in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (Hochschild in Southwood, 2011, 23). This is a common practice in the workplace, where office staff are often encouraged to think of themselves as a ‘happy family’ in order to collectively deny the harsh exploitative reality of consumer capitalism (Southwood, 2011, 30). In the retail and hospitality sector emotional labour is particularly obvious in the way customer service workers are expected to adopt a pleasing demeanour at all times, to be always smiling, happy and helpful no matter what they feel:
The transformation of the worker into the caring, cheerful or sexy flight attendant […] therefore constitutes a form of labour in itself, whether through the external “surface acting” of gesture, language and facial expression, or the “deep acting” which involves immersing oneself in the role, a process akin to the technique of method acting. In these ways, the worker-performer manufactures the final product: the desired emotional state in the customer. A large part of the effort of emotional labour is taken up with creating the impression that the act is itself natural and effortless, because to show that it is contrived would invalidate the exchange and spoil the product (Southwood, 2011, 23).
Even warehouse assistants and data enterers have to present themselves as aspirational and dynamic, to be “effective communicators” and to identify personally with the interests of the organisation. So regardless of whether the work itself is directly concerned with the production of affect, it contains elements of emotion management and virtuosity, both in covering over true anxieties and hostilities and in summoning a contrived enthusiasm and commitment (Southwood, 2011, 26).
Metamorphosis shows the tragi-comic futility of Gregor’s emotional labour up to the point of death. His ‘outward countenance’ as an insect blatantly contradicts his efforts because it betrays his real emotions for all to see. Depression is a manifestation of the soul on strike (Smith, 2009, 9) but Gregor has no choice but to keep going and maintain the status quo. He struggles on, valiantly trying to deny his reality in order to support theirs – doing what he can to help them continue living in the manner to which they have become accustomed. They do little to help him while he does all can to stay out of the way and make life easy for them. In doing this he martyrs himself for the sake of their happiness – a fake, repressive happiness that excludes him and everything he represents. The artificial nature of this happiness is fairly obvious to see at work but it is less noticeable in the family, which we generally prefer to think of as a place of authentic emotions and genuine relationships. However, artificial happiness can indeed invade the domestic sphere – systematically suppressing those negative emotions (like grief) that disrupt business as usual in the family home.
Kafka draws attention to emotional labour and artificial happiness by showing the indistinguishability of work and family life. He does this in several ways. Soon after Gregor’s transformation, a work colleague joins his parents in berating him about his responsibilities. When he is no longer able to work the others are forced to earn their own money and become an entrepreneurial unit in their own right. They turn the family home into a business, renting out rooms to lodgers, busying themselves as cooks, cleaners and servants. The father gets a job as a bank messenger and is so proud of his work that he wears the uniform around the house and even sleeps in it. Gregor alone in his room is reminded of the depressing, lonely hotel rooms of his former job. The family sell off ornaments and furniture and want to move, seeing Gregor as a burden that holds them back. When he does eventually die, they feel liberated to pursue their new work-oriented lifestyle – all looking forward to the bright future ahead of them. Kafka’s depiction of the capitalist family illustrates how physical and emotional labour work together in the spiritual pursuit of a ‘higher’ standard of living. Gregor was definitively rejected not just because he failed to provide financially but also because he failed to sufficiently perform the emotional labour of helping to maintain collective morale. Paradoxically, his metamorphosis thus signifies a failure to change – to transform himself into a lighter, shallower, more enthusiastic team player. Having been fundamentally rejected by the family in the first place (a rejection which everyone denies) his active participation becomes impossible – and the more he shows the symptoms of this rejection the more he’s rejected for failing to belong. Gregor is thus blamed for the consequences of his family’s behaviour – his freakishness and outsider status are seen as entirely his responsibility and his alone.
All plausible deniability is on the side of the family. They create amongst themselves a group consensus of self-reinforcing positivity that neutralises all direct protest in advance. This means that protest can only occur indirectly, in the form of symptoms. These symptoms are themselves neutralised in the way they are seen as the property of the individual sufferer alone, not as an effect of the family dynamic as a whole. Gregor’s family deny his emotions because to acknowledge them would be to acknowledge their own. In order to speak to him and understand him in his insect form they would have to identify with him in this form. It would mean abandoning their aspirations and ‘lowering’ themselves back into the reality of the human condition. Talking to him properly would mean rejecting spiritual transcendence in favour of a return to the body and the soul. Paradoxically this would mean becoming ‘insects’ just like him and this is something they show absolutely no sign of being able to do. Kafka’s story is not just about Gregor becoming an insect, it is also about his family’s attempted metamorphosis away from everything that the insect represents – the frightening vulnerability of the human condition.
When we think of ‘metamorphosis’ we often think of the ugly caterpillar changing into the beautiful butterfly – but in this story, Gregor remains stuck at the level of ugly, dirty, earthbound mortality while at the end his sister blossoms into a beautiful, vibrant, ‘spiritual’ new life. It isn’t just that she happens to succeed where Gregor has failed – her happiness and fulfilment are directly related to Gregor having been neglected, abandoned and left behind. She is emblematic of the whole family’s pursuit of happiness and the parents bask in the aura of spiritual optimism that now surrounds her. For Mr and Mrs Samsa “it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body” (Kafka, 1995, 63) – just like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. In their utter devotion to positivity, Gregor’s relations maintain their culture of denial and their collective fantasy of spiritual transformation, isolating and gaslighting Gregor because his real emotions showed through and spoiled their charade.
Gregor’s family are absolutely dedicated to creating and maintaining a culture of denial. They are only interested in positivity and have no time for suffering, compassion or understanding. For them, Gregor’s affliction is a constant reminder of the vulnerability of the human condition and this is the very thing they want to escape from most of all. They control the narrative and Gregor has no option but to comply. Artificial happiness represses negative feelings within the family dynamic, blocking him from clearly conceptualising his social reality and articulating his objections. In this culture of absolute denial, negativity becomes unthinkable and unspeakable, forcing it to emerge as a monstrous symptom that seems to attack the family from the outside. Locked into the culture of denial that characterises the world of both work and family life (his entire social existence), Gregor is obliged to participate entirely on their terms. This means that he has no choice but to surrender to his own elimination from the family drama of upward mobility and spiritual transformation. The family want to eliminate negativity from their minds and they do this by eliminating Gregor from their lives. Kafka here shows depression not as an individual pathology that is located purely inside the mind, but on the outside – as the visible symptom of a toxic social dynamic.
People don’t become depressed on their own due to a chemical imbalance in the brain or because they are irrational and can’t think properly. If there are ‘chemical imbalances’ in depressed people’s brains then this is more likely an effect rather than a cause of depression. If sufferers are pessimistic in their thinking then it’s probably because their lived experience, like Gregor’s, deviates significantly from the kitsch world of middle-class complacency. Depression can be triggered by any number of particular losses and setbacks in a person’s life, but these never happen in isolation and they are never the fault of the individual concerned. Gregor was set up to fail by his family because he was starved of the basic emotional support he needed to function as a human being in the world. People get depressed because of the impacts and deprivations they have suffered, because they are victims of social and existential conditions. As we have seen in this essay, social conditions can be victimising in a way that adds to existential vulnerability and mental suffering. Depression is something that is done to people. In order to counteract the scapegoating of the depressed individual we should think about how society can depress people just as surely as it can repress or oppress them. In this way the social, political, and existential contexts of depression can begin to emerge more strongly than the narrow, individualised interpretation that only serves to gaslight sufferers and intensify their misery.
Kafka, Franz. 1995 . Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Minerva.
Miller, Alice. 1997 . Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: To Join the Waiting Child, Virago.
Miller, Alice. 2005 . The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, W.W. Norton & Company.
Robertson, Ritchie. 2004. Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press.
Shklovsky, Viktor, ‘Art as Device,’ , in Poetics Today 36:3, September 2015, p157-174.
Smith, Jason, ‘Soul on Strike’ in Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Semiotext(e).
Southwood, Ivor. 2011. Non-Stop Inertia, Zero Books.