How is One’s Self worth Determined by Others?
What characteristics determine a person’s worth? Is it determined by our traits or appearances? Is it the role we play or our occupation? Is it the environment we live in? Of course one could say that not only one factor determines who we are but a combination of many factors including the ones mentioned previously. “The metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, however, proves these theories wrong. It tells the story of Gregor, an everyday working class person who wakes one morning to find that he has transformed into a giant insect. (The insect is never mentioned but one can guess that he is a cockroach.) The story does not serve to only tell of his transformation but uses it as a way to prove that he is below everyone around him. In many ways Kafka uses Gregor’s character and those around him to reinforce the idea.
A deeper look at Gregor’s character shows us that he is bound by obligation to his family. After his father’s company collapses, Gregor is forced to take on the role of the bread winner. Though this title would usually be an honor, it does nothing for Gregor’s case because he does not do so willingly. In order to provide for his family Gregor must continuously work for a boss that he and his family are indebted to. However, despite the degrading lifestyle that Gregor lives, he is still able to afford a moderately comfortable lifestyle in the apartment that his family lives in. Again, the act of providing for his family should be something to be proud of but it only further proves that Gregor’s status as irrelevant; though he may be paying for his family to live in this apartment, Gregor is confined to the space of his room at all times. This also proves the ability to claim a space also factors in one’s self worth.
Being confined to his room serves as Gregor’s way of escaping his situation. According to Yi-Fu Tuan, “the world feels spacious and friendly when it accommodates our desires.” (65) Although Gregor’s room fulfills his desire to escape, it also doubles as his jail. This is synonymous with Tuan’s thoughts on an infant’s crib as their escape and jail. (25) Like an infant confined to their crib, Gregor only feels comfortable within the space of his room and nowhere else. Though comfortable within this space, Gregor is unable to leave his room after his transformation because he does not feel comfortable elsewhere.
Gregor being reborn as a cockroach is also equivalent with a baby having to learn to live in the world in which they are surrounded. They must constantly depend on others and how Gregor has to depend on his sister, Grete, after his transformation serves to reinforce the idea that he is below everyone. She is perhaps the most dominant character in proving the idea valid.
Within the story Grete is portrayed as the blossoming Younger sibling with an exceptional talent of music as she goes to school to possibly pursue a career with her violin. She, just by living in the apartment that Gregor pays for, is automatically invading Gregor’s space. This is not only shown by Grete physically living there but by the fact that Gregor must work a job that he obviously despises in order for her to possibly pursue her musical career. However, when she is forced to take on a job to take care of Gregor after his transformation, the effect of being forced to work a job does not lower her status but establishes her as a caretaker; the job that Gregor once held.
The role reversal between Gregor and Grete drastically changes their relationship. Throughout the story Kafka uses Grete’s role of caretaker as a way to prove that she is above Gregor in most if not every way; both of their parents refuse to take care of him out of disgust. On a daily basis Grete, out of sympathy, leaves food for Gregor in his room after the family has eaten each meal. (Kafka 312) Though this may be a simple act of feeding one who is unable to sustain himself, this proves that Grete is Gregor’s life line and that he is solely dependent on his younger sibling.
Being dependent upon his sister, Gregor becomes attached Grete. After becoming a cockroach Gregor is forced to deal with hostility from other characters in the story in that his transformation puts them on edge. Being that his new transformation renders him as helpless as a child, Gregor’s attachment to Grete only grows stronger because she also assumes the role of the parent within their relationship as well. According to Tuan, “the more hostile the environment, the closer the attachment to the adult.” (24)
Despite how thankful Gregor may be for his sister’s care he is forced to hide under a couch every time his sister comes to feed him out of his own embarrassment. Though his room in the apartment may be Gregor’s space, Grete’s daily visits don’t only serve as a way of her showing concern but establishing her dominance by constantly coming into a space of which Gregor has an unofficial claim. Tuan says that “conflicting activities generate a sense of crowding,” and Grete’s dominance clashing with Gregor wanting nothing more than the escape his room provides is metaphorical of what Tuan says. (64)
The invasion of space is also depicted through Grete’s decision to move furniture out of his room on the count that he does not need them. Objects within a space are just as important as the spaces they occupy and the act of taking furniture away from Gregor’s room is synonymous with Grete taking away him as a person. Grete decides to do so not only because she feels that he needs space to crawl but because the confidence that she has gained from being Gregor’s caretaker has gone to her head. According to Kafka, the act of taking furniture out of his room would only strengthen her dominance over Gregor in that it would make his situation worse, resulting in Grete being able to do more for him. (318)
Grete is obviously correct in assuming that taking away Gregor’s furniture would take away from him as a person. Gregor’s space is not only made up of the space within his room but the objects within them. Though the extraction of his desk and his dresser would’ve left more space for him it, would’ve left him feeling less than he already was; “to be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable.” (Tuan 54)
As the plot of the story moves on Grete, along with her parents, begin to resent Gregor because of the situation he has put them in. After hearing her play her violin for new tenants his family has taken in, Gregor is moved and decides to visit the dining room where she is located. The tenants are frightened and want to leave which in turn set off a fit from Grete causing her to admit that if he really were the cockroach he turned into, that Gregor would not put his family through what they have had to deal with. She then decides that Gregor is not worth taking care of anymore and her mother and father are too quick to agree. (Kafka 327) This point of the story not only proves her dominance but the fact that Gregor is completely at Grete’s mercy. With the dominance that she holds, she decides what worth Gregor holds as a person.
Through Kafka’s writing of The Metamorphosis we see a massive amount of our self worth is determined by the space we live in and what those around us think. Gregor being confined to his room, as a human and cockroach alike, shows how little he is appreciated. Through his sister’s eyes, Gregor is established as someone who is worth enough to take care of but as her dominance and resentment over him grow, he becomes someone who is absolutely worthless.
How is One’s Self worth Determined by Others?