Friday, April 27, 2012

A Marxist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

What's that?  Can't get enough of "Literary Theory Week"?  Well, I got more for you!  In my English 2600 class taught by Professor Albrecht-Crane at UVU, we began by reading the short story "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka.  Then we applied every theory we discussed (one a week) to that short story.  Here is my paper on Marxist theory:

Marxism—as developed by the German philosopher Karl Marx in the 1800s—is a materialist philosophy which seeks to bring about a classless society.  In regards to literary theory, a Marxist critic aims to identify both the overt and covert Marxist themes present in a text.   I will first explain the philosophy of Marxism as explained by Peter Barry in the third edition of his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.  After this summary of Marxism, I will approach the text of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as if I were a Marxist critic.

According to Barry, Marxism believes that the individual is naturally a producer, meaning that it is within our human nature to make things with our own hands (151).  Unfortunately in a wage system, as explained by Barry, the individual works for someone else; their hard work isn’t for themselves (151).  Barry asserts that this system creates a class struggle between what is known as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie: the lower and upper class (151).  Based on Barry’s summary, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production while the proletariat receives much less than what they put in (151).  Barry argues that in this capitalist system, the worker feels a sense of alienation from the product produced and from other workers as they compete for wages (151).  The alienated worker, declares Barry, is a result of reification, or rather, the process by which workers are seen more as “assets” than they are people.  Just like a cog in the machine, people become expendable.

Building upon the ideas of Karl Marx, Barry discusses the work of a French Marxist named Louis Althusser.  Barry relates the Althusserian notion that the unspoken ideologies of a society are put upon the people through state ideological apparatuses such as political parties, churches, schools, the media and even their own families (158).  According to Barry, these ideologies seem to be “natural” or “just the way things are” when really they are being imposed upon people through social control known as hegemony (158).  Hegemony comes to pass by means of interpellation, which Barry explains as a “trick” to make people feel as if they are choosing for themselves when really they are just doing what the bourgeoisie want them to do (158).

In Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” this practice of interpellation is at work.  Of his career as a salesman, the character Gregor says, “Oh God, what a grueling job I’ve picked!” (Kafka 3).  Not only does this statement highlight the false notion that he is a free individual who has “picked” his job of his own free will, but it also demonstrates the alienation he feels from the work he does.  “Day in, day out,” he continues, “I’ve got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate” (Kafka 4).  He doesn’t gain any fulfillment from his job and he knows that at any moment the boss could replace him.  Kafka writes, “He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (5).  This thought that he is no more than a “tool” perfectly illustrates his reification.  The manager later makes a statement that confirms Gregor’s thoughts.  “And your job is not the most secure,” says the manager to Gregor, “your performance of late has been very unsatisfactory” (9).

Not only is Gregor expendable in the workplace, but also at home.  When Gregor was unable to go to work and provide for the family, his younger sister, Grete, stepped in to replace him.  Ironically, she gets a “job as a salesgirl” which is the same profession Gregor had taken up, making the replacement of one broken tool for a newer one even more obvious (Kafka 30).  By the end of the story, Grete is the family’s new bartering tool and they discuss ways of marrying her off (Kafka 42) because even marriage is an exchange of goods.

The obsession with class and social status in the Samsa family can best be exemplified by the father’s obsession with his uniform.  “With a kind of perverse obstinacy,” Kafka’s text reads, “his father refused to take off the official uniform even in the house” (30).  The uniform—symbolizing work—is clearly of importance.  In stark contrast, the father’s robe—a symbol of laziness—hangs “uselessly on the clothes hook” (Kafka 30).  Here we can see that one’s identity and worth is based solely on his profession.  Gregor’s problem lies in the fact that he no longer buys into the wage system of bureaucracy but instead clings to his own humanity through what his own hands have made—the frame that he so desperately tries to protect in an earlier passage (Kafka 27).  Despite all the hegemony at play here, Gregor knows that his natural state is one where he has a direct relationship with his own work.

Marxism tries to make us see what Gregor has discovered:  our capitalist society with private property and alienated laborers is not natural at all.  Instead, our class struggles are a result of ideologies controlled by society at large by means of interpellation.  Only when we as a society have returned to our natural state—one where we have direct ownership of our own productivity—can we truly be happy.  Until then, we are doomed to a fate of alienation and reification with an unhappy ending rather like Gregor’s.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd Ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print. 

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

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