In all societies and all epochs, judging individuals by their appearance was a prevalent tendency, which normally allowed creating a first impression about the person, their possible nature, lifestyle, and behavior. However, there is a negative side to such practice, which consists of prejudices against those, who look different in terms of skin and hair color. Discrimination, mistreatment, and violence represent the harsh, appalling reality, associated with this practice. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the theme of judging by appearance and capabilities is reflected in detail, and it is suggested that the major related problem is individual estrangement and de-humanization that result from it.
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First of all, it needs to be admitted that visual perception is the primary episode of attending to the object, so judging by physical characteristics is needed for the purpose of identifying the object or the person one is facing. In “Metamorphosis”, the protagonist, one day wakes up to find himself “mutated” into a huge beetle with many legs: “From this height, the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka, par.3). Thus, it is possible to understand the first impression formed after Gregor’s household members notice the drastic changes in his look: “His mother—in spite of the presence of the manager she was standing here with her hair sticking up on end, still a mess from the night—was looking at his father with her hands clasped. She then went two steps towards Gregor and collapsed right in the middle of her skirts” (Kafka, par.30). On the one hand, it is possible to understand the Samsa family, as turning into an animal is not an ordinary phenomenon. On the other hand, the Samsas would obviously behave in a different way if they were really concerned about Gregor’s personality and physical health. First and foremost, they would find a physician or a magician (given that transformation into the bug is possible in this surrealistic world, one can also assume that there are people, who can treat this condition). In addition, they would try to check whether Gregor’s identity and personality are retained within this body and make an attempt to establish contact with the animal. Thus, it is clear that the actual response to Gregor’s transformation is not a shock or surprise, but rather disappointment and belief that the young man failed to meet his relatives’ expectations. As Bal points out, the nature of the protagonist’s “illness” is not tragic, as the author focuses on the environment’s response to the change and tries to answer the question of whether the family maintains the same emotional bonds after Gregor receives his disability (Bal, p.178). Once Gregor’s manager flees after seeing the physically modified protagonist, his father obviously feels anger and irritation, because his son will no longer be able to make money and pay out the family debt. Mr.Samsa, instead of clarifying the situation, uses violence to drive Gregor back inside his room: “If only his father had not hissed so unbearably! Because of that Gregor totally lost his head. He was already almost totally turned around, when, always with this hissing in his ear, he just made a mistake and turned himself back a little” (Kafka, par. 31). This symbolic gesture can show the following: when his family needs him, all relatives are so soft and polite, whereas, in the situation of such a serious physical condition, his household is gradually consumed by the idea of getting rid of him as an unnecessary burden (Bal, p.179). Thus, the Samsas love and need Gregor as long as he is “capable”, whereas his disability so quickly removes their feelings, that it is possible to suspect that Gregor’s mother, father, and sister always had nothing for him except hopes and expectations.
Even after his family is apparently accustomed to his new “form” and lifestyle, they nevertheless discriminate against him, believing he is no longer a member of their household. In particular, they avoid contacting him and try to prevent him from leaving the room. His sister Grete, who Gregor so greatly cared about, has nothing but fear and disgust for him, merely because of his appearance. In the beginning, she seems to manifest “cautious politeness” and perform her family duties: she cleans his room and later convinces the family to remove all furniture from the accommodation so that Gregor has more freedom in movement (Kafka, par. 36). In addition, she readily feeds him, bringing a wide assortment of food so that he can learn his tastes (Kafka, par.37). However, Kafka notes that she assumes the family leader’s responsibility in order to gain the respect she probably lacked when living in Gregor’s shadow: “But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it, Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than now” (Kafka, par.58). Closer to the end, she reveals her true feelings for Gregor, stating that this creature is not her brother because Gregor would have already killed himself out of love and mercy for the family. Therefore, she believes that Gregor should live as long as he is healthy and capable, whereas disability should necessarily lead him to self-destruction. Grete’s words reflect the core of the so-called “ableism”, or privilege of physically and mentally fit people, who can be useful to society. Those individuals, who can no longer be “instruments” of economic development, are, accordingly, marginalized to a certain degree, depending on the overall humanity of the society. In this sense, the Samsas probably represent a brutalized society, as they take such a mechanistic approach to their nearest and dearest son and brother. As noted in the introduction, this cruel, mercantile attitude results in Gregor’s de-humanization.
The process of alienation from the human world begins with the conflict between the modified appearance and human consciousness. Gregor’s new insect instincts are still critically processed by his reason, as he obviously maintains self-awareness, identity, and memory (Bal, p.178). He even experiences a positive emotion, smiling at the notion that nobody can force him to proceed with his job duties unless somebody carries him (Kafka, par. 10) and thus feels relief because of the onset of the minimization of his responsibilities.
The second stage of de-humanization, although it sounds paradoxical, consists in seeking support in the family, but becomes rejected by the father, mother, and sister. Gregor’s parents and siblings feel disappointed and deceived given that their major source of material well-being has disappeared. Gregor, in turn, retains his curiosity about the family issues: “Gregor was extremely curious what she would bring as a substitute, and he pictured to himself different ideas about it. But he never could have guessed what his sister out of the goodness of her heart in fact did” unquote (Kafka, par.41). Once becoming an outcast, Gregor gradually loses his human identity, which refers to the third phase of de-humanization. He is forced by his family to lead animal existence and thus degrades to the dimension of the satisfaction of basic needs. Being reduced to his appearance and capacities, Gregor responds by switching to purely physical survival and abandoning his psychological and spiritual life.
As one can conclude, the person is to great extent what others expect from and think about them. If the society is brutalized enough to consider an individual as a mere tool of economic development, then people are likely to be judged by physical appearance and capabilities and “ableism” will be a dominant philosophy of the group. The major problems accompanying this approach are discrimination and violence, to which the marginalized respond with the loss of their own humanity.
- Kafka, F. Metamorphosis. 2008.
- Bal, M. The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation. Stanford, Calif. Stanford University Press, 1999.