Becoming the other (The metamorphosis by Kafka)

How does Kafka’s “law of metamorphosis” bear on the “fiction of relationship”? Using Gregor Samsa’s fate and the image of the Country Doctor placed naked on the bed with his patient as models for greater philosophical reflection, ponder the ramifications for human understanding. Can one become the Other, as Kafka perhaps suggests—transformed so as to understand those whom you do not know? Do art and literature have a privileged role in illuminating this experience of metamorphosis and its relation to understanding the Other? Why or why not?

Kafka’s The Metamorphisis raises one of the great philosophical questions1 as it examines what it is to be human. Gregor Samsa is physically transformed into an insect, his mental state seems unaltered. The reader is aware that he still thinks of himself in much the same way as he did prior to his change. His family are not given that privilege. They cannot communicate with him. All they are aware of is his physical body; a disgusting beetle. All they can see is his actions and reactions, his motivations are beyond their understanding.

Gregor has become the Other2, and so their relationship with him is fundamentally altered. Before his metamorphosis he was valued because he supported his family. And yet we see hints in his father’s comments to the Chief Clerk that even then, when he thought of little else but how to care for his parents and sister, his parents did not fully appreciate all that Gregor had sacrificed for them. He was useful to them, but because of what he gave them not because of who he, as a person and an individual, was. Their relationship was parasitical, always taking.

After his transformation Gregor no longer gives the family anything, instead he becomes the burden. Who he was, internally, has not changed. The problem is that he cannot convey his thoughts and emotions to anyone. He is utterly unknowable. Physically he is changed utterly, mentally and spiritually he remains the same. His family are unable to see the internal, all they can judge him on is the physical3. In their eyes he is no longer human, their relationship has broken completely away from the family one. They want this vermin gone, he is no longer Gregor, he is the invading cockroach that needs to be eradicated4.

Yet to the reader Gregor is still Gregor. We are still aware of his emotions and thoughts. We can still relate to him as a human.

In The Country Doctor there is never any question of the doctor being not human. He undergoes no physical bodily transformation, yet he does change. In the beginning we see him as “the doctor” with all the authority that image entails. But as the story progresses he is transformed from a person of authority in control of himself, and others, into a patient. Control and agency have been taken from him, the trappings of “doctorhood” have been removed from him. Once those things set him apart from other people, now he has been forcibly reduced. He is no longer “the doctor”, he is just another human being.

What that precisely means, of course, is still up for discussion.

  1. ‘Personal Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)’ [accessed 6 July 2013]. 

  2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, 2012 [accessed 6 July 2013]. 

  3. Cian O’Connor, ‘A Consideration of Kafka’s Metamorphosis As A Metaphor For Existential Anxiety About Ageing.’, Existential Analysis: Journal for the Society for Existential Analysis, 23 (2012), 56–66 (p. 60). 

  4. Jerome S. Gains, ‘Narrative Lessons for the Psychotherapist’, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 52 (1998) [accessed 4 July 2013]. 

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