Structuralism, Language and Meaning in Franz Kakfa’s The Metamorphosis

In my previous post on Albert Camus’s The Plague, I discussed the way our attempts to mediate the gap between the literal fact and ourselves through the narratives we construct further abstracts us from the fact. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka proposes a possible, if grotesque, solution— making the metaphor literal.

In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa laments the way his company mistreats him. As the text progresses, his family also treats him like junk. However, from the narrative’s unceremonious famous opening— “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”—Gregor Samsa is not metaphorically “a monstrous vermin”— he is literally one. The most common interpretation of what this insect is is a cockroach. Kafka’s narrative continuously and blatantly thwarts any and all attempts to read Gregor’s transformation figuratively through the plethora of vivid details it provides: the way his back is “as hard as armor plate”, “his many legs, pitifully thin… waving helplessly before his eyes” and his family’s understandable reaction of terror to the creepy crawly in their midst.

In this post, I will be analysing Gregor’s transformation through a structuralist lens, engaging with Ferdinand de Saussure‘s arguments about the relationship between language and the world it represents.

Saussure argues, “there is no inherent connection between a word and what it designates… Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by the human mind, and constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within the thing” (“Structuralism”, Beginning Theory, Peter Barry). In other words, things only contain any meaning when we ascribe meaning to them through the use of language; when we fill them with some interior narrative or substance that define the meaning of the vessel (word) that contains them.

The Metamorphosis subverts this thesis, positing that the thing itself does have an interior meaning, and that we only require language to express what that meaning is. Gregor is a man trapped in the body of a cockroach. The Metamorphosis is told from a third person perspective that reveals Gregor’s inner thoughts. Readers are therefore fully aware that Gregor is sentient—while his thoughts gradually become cockroach-like (he is drawn to rotten food, and enjoys the freedom of hanging upside down from the ceiling), he still retains his full range of thoughts and emotions, such as the ability to observe and draw conclusions and to be moved by his sister’s violin playing. However, he is robbed of the human language with which to express himself. At the start of the text, he is able to communicate carefully with a few words despite already being a cockroach. He however quickly loses this privilege and can only chirp in “the voice of an animal”. He is reduced (or elevated) to being a literal metaphor (a cockroach). Without having language to translate the true nature of his form (a man trapped in a cockroach), the others treat him solely based on his external appearances. While Gregor’s sister Grete initially tries to keep him fed and his room comfortable, she does so with trepidation and rather like how one would treat an unwanted pet. Soon, she, as well as the rest of his family, deny him even this dignity as treat him truly as a vermin. His room becomes filled with dust and food scraps and even becomes the family’s junk or store room, as they toss in any unwanted trash, reflecting Gregor’s loss in status within the family. In essence, with Gregor having no means (language) to translate himself, they treat him solely based on his external appearance and the growing assumption that he is truly just a literal cockroach.

Secondly, The Metamorphosis suggests that without the system in which a word (or a metaphor) is situated and therefore understood, it loses its significance and meaning. “Saussure emphasised that the meanings of words are (what we might call) relational. That is to say, no word can be defined in isolation from other words” (Barry). Positioning The Metamorphosis in light of this, I argue that the different members of Gregor’s family form the relational system in which he finds his meaning, his raison d’être. Up until the morning of his transformation, he is their sole breadwinner, the nucleus around which the family exists. This relationship is dramatised through the structure of the Samsas’ house. Because of Gregor’s transformation, he is, for the first time ever, late for work. As such, his different family members express concern, urging him to get going. His mother does so “at the door next to the head of his bed”, his father from “one of the side doors” and his sister “at the other side door”. Gregor’s one small mistake, waking up late, rouses the concern of the entire family, presumably because not only of its abnormalcy, but also the threat it poses to them, in that he ensures their survival. Spatially as well as relationally, Gregor is at the center of web that comprises his family. As much as Gregor as a “sign” imbuing his family with meaning, as seen in how the narrative presents them to us largely through his understanding of them, they are also what gives him his meaning.

Throughout the narrative, despite the way they mistreat him, the Samsas continue to house and tolerate Gregor the cockroach in his own room. At least spatially and physically, they still allow him a position in their system of meaning-making. Symbolically, his occupancy of the room suggests that as tenuous as the connections between him and his family are, they nevertheless still exist. At the end, however, Grete cuts this last cord entirely, declaring, “It has to go… That’s the only answer, Father. You just have to try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune”. The family no longer grants him the significance of being Gregor their son and brother. Without the relations that grant him his meaning, he “loses [his] significance and meaning” (Saussure). Indeed, when he is found dead the next day, “Gregor’s body was completely flat and dry”. He is a (literalised) metaphor emptied of its meaning. After his death, he is rendered so insignificant that his family refuses to even hear about how his body was disposed of. They all apply for an off-day from their respective companies and head for a day out to celebrate. As far as the narrative is concerned, Gregor vanishes. Disowned and disavowed by his family— the system in which he is defined— he loses his raison d’être; quite literally, he ceases to be (être).

Jorge Luis Borges argues that while “some verbal combinations [ie. metaphors] may have the power to impress the reader… in the final analysis they communicate or reveal nothing. They are in a manner of speaking, verbal objects that stand in splendid isolation like glass or a piece of silver jewelry”. For Gregor Samsa, however, the metaphor for abjectness, the verbal object that he is left is a dried and thin cockroach carcass, “[standing] in splendid isolation”.

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