The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and The Stranger by Albert Camus is both existential works that explore the themes of alienation, emotional detachment and the seeming absurdity of the human condition. The main theme of both stories is the idea that the world is absurd and that the norms of society and the events that happen in the world are arbitrary.
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The similarity between the two works may not be coincidental, Kafka is one of the major influences on Camus’s work. In his critical essay on Kafka, titled ‘Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka’, Camus has this to say concerning The Metamorphosis:
“Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly. In this fundamental ambiguity lies Kafka’s secret. The perpetual oscillates between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and every day, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both resonance and meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, to understand the absurd work (Camus, Hope, and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka).”
In The Metamorphosis this arbitrariness and absurdity of the world are reflected in an inexplicable, instantaneous, and irreversible process that is beyond the protagonist’s control and completely alters his life. In The Stranger the protagonist’s actions are the main source of absurdity; he commits pointless acts of cruelty and immorality feeling no remorse or guilt upon his actions.
Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis gets suddenly and inexplicably turned into a large dung beetle. He grows insect legs and antennae, his back curls up and his belly gets covered with lots of little white spots (Kafka).
Samsa is a traveling salesman and, at the beginning of the story, the sole breadwinner of the family. He hates the job but is unable to leave it because of a debt his parents took from his boss. His manager from the workplace comes over to inquire about his absence. Samsa’s struggles to move out of bed and to explain himself to the manager are described in tedious detail. Samsa’s main emotion is not horror at being turned into an insect, he does not think of possible ways to turn himself back into human form nor does he dwell on how he got turned into an insect, rather his first concern is about his job. He fears that he would not be allowed to retain his job in this state (Kafka).
Samsa considers his metamorphosis into an insect and the attendant troubles that come upon him as a result of this change as mere annoyances. In the aftermath of being turned into a dung beetle, the only thing that greatly disturbs Samsa is his knowledge that his boss would probably be extremely cross with him for missing a day of work (Kafka).
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Samsa’s family is not shown as being concerned about how his metamorphosis took place or the possibility that it could be reversed, they are more concerned with hiding Gregor from the eyes of others (Kafka).
The Stranger has a direct and impacts laden beginning, similar to that of The Metamorphosis. In the very beginning the protagonist Meursault, a single office clerk living in French-occupied Algiers, is informed of his mother’s demise. Like Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, Meursault is also unable to experience emotions that may be expected from a person in his circumstances. Meursault is not sad at the death of his mother. He attends the funeral and nonchalantly drinks coffee and smokes in the wake, in the presence of his mother’s body (Camus, The Stranger).
A few days later he has an encounter with a former colleague named Marie and embarks on a sexual relationship with her. There is little verbal interaction between Marie and Meursault and the relationship, at least on Meursault’s side seems to be entirely physical and based on sex with no deeper emotional aspect to it. Neither Meursault and nor Marie is much bothered with the fact that Meursault’s mother has died recently (Camus, The Stranger).
Later Meursault assists a neighbor Raymond, a pimp, in assaulting his girlfriend, a “Moorish girl” by writing her a letter luring her back to Raymond’s place. Meursault expresses no concern for the physical harm Raymond would visit upon the girl with his assistance. When Raymond is taken to court for assault, Meursault testifies that the girlfriend cheated on Raymond which allows the neighbor to escape without punishment. Since Meursault has no definitive knowledge of whether the girl cheated on Raymond or not, his testimony is another manifestation of his irrationality. (Camus, The Stranger).
Meursault and Raymond are then followed around by the Moorish girl’s brother and his Arab friend. In a wordless encounter on the beach, Meursault shoots and kills the Arab after the Arab, lying on his back on the beach, flashes his knife at him to show him that he is armed (Camus, The Stranger).
Meursault’s reasons for killing the man is not the one that he feared that the man would use the knife against him, rather he felt that if he walked away from the man the whole issue would be over. In his internal dialogue with himself, Meursault blames the oppressive heat of the Algerian beach for driving him to commit murder (Camus, The Stranger).
Meursault’s manner of shooting the man is also strange, he is not satisfied with shooting the man once and killing him, rather he fires at the man’s dead body multiple times even though he knows that the man has already passed away (Camus, The Stranger).
Meursault is arrested for the murder of the Arab and faces a bizarre trial. At the trial, the prosecution’s case against him rests mainly on the fact that he failed to show any sadness at the death of his mother. According to the prosecution, it is this inability to grieve for his mother that establishes Meursault as an inhuman friend who deserves to be put to death (Camus, The Stranger).
Meursault is eventually sent to the guillotine for the murder, the case against him having absurdly rested on the fact that he showed no sadness at the death of his mother. Meursault considers the murder he committed to having been a mere nuisance and an inconvenience to him (Camus, The Stranger).
The Metamorphosis and The Stranger both depict a world with arbitrary rules and events. According to the view of the world presented in these stories, the world is absurd and unconcerned with how an individual behaves. The world neither rewards good and nor punishes evil. Gregor Samsa the dutiful son, loving brother, and hardworking employee are transformed into a monster. Meursault, who helps a criminal in committing violence against a young woman and then testifies against her and later kills someone without justification, is punished, not for these actions, but for failing to grieve for his mother. According to the view presented in the two stories, this absurd world ends for everyone with their deaths, and thus for an individual, committing good or committing evil both amount to the same thing.
Camus, Albert. “Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka.” Camus, Albert. The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1991. 77-86.
—. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. Broadview Heights, OH: Wheeler Publishing, 2001.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Joyce Crick. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. 29-74.