Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the Social Implications for the Handicapped
As Gregor Samsa woke up one innocent morning to prepare for work as he usually did, his nightmares became a reality. Never before did he wake up with such difficulty; never before did he wake up unable to move in the ways he was so accustomed to. His legs seemed unable to move as freely, and his arms felt like untrained appendages. His back felt harder than a shell.
Unexplainable as it was to him, he arose this one particular morning not as a human. He was a cockroach.
Adrenalin rushed through his body as he tried to figure out how to get out of bed without killing himself. Gregor could not do the things he used to do, and although he felt disabled, he did not want to alarm his family. But what little he said to his family through the door of his locked bedroom sounded like a squeaking gibberish to them, while to Gregor his voice sounded perfectly natural. Since he never arose from his bed and went to work, the manager from his office eventually stopped by to see what the problem was. As Gregor tried to explain that he was trying to unlock his door to his family and his manager, he struggled with his stick-like arms. “It was an animal’s voice,” thought the manager as he tried to understand what had happened. Samsa only wished for support from his family in achieving this astronomic task of unlocking his bedroom door, but eventually received only shock, horror and coldness.
As he finally opened the door, a wave of disbelief pierced through his mother like a knife. His father only possessed a menacing air upon the sight of his son, an air that made you think that he wanted to beat Gregor until he got back into his room. Gregor tried to tell his manager that nothing was really wrong and that he would be at work shortly, for he felt as if nothing was terribly wrong with himself. But his manager only ran out of the house, terrified at the sight he saw.
As time passed on, the days became the same. He was always locked in his room, for not only were his parents too frightened to even look at him, but they were also too afraid and too ashamed to let anyone else see him. They couldn’t understand how they were supposed to accept Gregor. They couldn’t understand how they were supposed to integrate this creature into their lives. They seemed to feel as if they couldn’t accept this task. As he would try to listen to the conversation in the living room that could usually be heard in his household through the bedroom door, he found that his family suddenly became particularly silent.
Gregor didn’t like the same foods anymore. Milk disgusted him. His eating habits eventually became a routine where daily his sister Grete would come into his room and lay out rotten food for him to eat. However, he would hide under the couch whenever she came in, for he knew that she would be too frightened by his sight. She never looked at him. His family feared being alone in the same house as him, and yet they feared leaving him in the house alone - so they decided that there would always have to be two people in the house at the same time.
Eventually Grete and their mother decided that emptying the furniture out of his room would give him more space to move, for with Gregor’s new body shape he needed more floor space to turn around and walk about. The empty room left Gregor with no mementos to help him remember his life the way it used to be. He eventually began to feel as if he was not longer human, and never was human in the first place.
Because Gregor was no longer making money for the family, the other members of the family started to work. As they continued to function efficiently on their own because of necessity and slowly started to take care of him less and less, Gregor became more and more depressed. He couldn’t sleep, and he hardly ate. Because of a fit that his father had once where he threw an apple that jabbed Gregor in his side and stayed stuck there, Samsa began to lose his agility.
Grete didn’t take care of him as much. She seldom cleaned his room anymore, and there was dirt and dust everywhere. Feeding became more and more sporadic. He felt as if he had become a misfortune to his family.
His family, in order to make more money, rented out rooms in their house to tenants. Once when Grete was playing the violin for their tenants, Gregor snuck out of his room to listen. He wondered then if he was human - for only a human could have this appreciation for music. But his handicaps told him otherwise.
As they all listened to the music, the tenants eventually saw Gregor and demanded that they would not have to pay for their rent up to date because of their lack of knowledge about what they were living with. They moved out immediately. His father threw him back into his bedroom where Gregor’s legs gave way under the extreme physical - and emotional - pressure.
That evening, Grete decided that she couldn’t take anymore of the life that she - and her family - had been living. She told her father that they would have to “get rid of it.” Her father only agreed. The family could not believe that this animal was still their son. They often only seemed to be scared of him, and at the same time they seemed to pity him. But they never had any love for him.
That night, after being unable to sleep until nearly daybreak, Gregor, in the depths of depression, passed away.
In the morning, when the family eventually found out about his death, they suddenly felt a great burden lifted off of their backs. Because they no longer felt that this animal was their son, they were actually relieved that it had finally passed away. They were then able to move into a smaller, more affordable place, in a neighborhood where they were not known as well. Grete was able to grow up into a young lady after the experience, especially since they had no one else to worry about.
They felt as if there was nothing more that they could have done for their handicapped son.
Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis struck the hearts of many when it was written in the nineteenth century, during the period when social thinkers like Herbert Spencer and later Emile Durkheim were making their own waves. The role of the handicapped person in society has always been questioned because of the differences between them and “average” people in society. To many they are merely considered “socially deviant” and therefore do not have a place in society. But questions that pertain to the role of the individual in society, the role of the state in accordance with handicapped people, the degree of social conflict and the possible solutions to these social problems have to be answered in order to eliminate any problems and any misfortunes like the terrible case of Gregor Samsa.
How does this all relate to the conflict of the handicapped person and their role in today’s society? What are the implications for the future? A better ability to judge and come to possible conclusions may be easily arrived at upon examination of the analysis of past social thinkers.
Many people cannot understand or explain why members of society seem to foster negative views toward the handicapped person in society. Although people don’t want to admit or don’t want to believe that these negative attitudes exist, they do - and understanding many of the theories of social thinkers throughout the years may help people to understand why. Let this be the next step in the understanding process.
Going back to the Pagan times of Aristotle, one may come to the conclusion that “humans are only rational animals”, and that the parallel of the human to the cockroach in this story is merely a parallel that had always existed. However, most Pagan thinkers may reply that the change that Kafka was postulating was merely a change that disallowed other humans to communicate with him. Because in this example the family could no longer communicate with him, they thought that it was because Gregor no longer had the ability to communicate or think rationally at all. They seemed to believe that he was no longer thinking and living through reason, but only through instinct, and that because of this factor he could no longer be considered Gregor Samsa. This is where the conflict arose. A possible solution to these problems may be found in bridging the communication problems between people with handicaps and people without or attempting to eliminate misconceptions about handicapped people.
If we look toward social thought that was closer in time to the time in which this book was written, more specific concrete ideas may be found. After all, it is possibly because of the conflicts that were in discussion at the time the book was written that the book was even written in the first place. We will start with thinkers that preceded the Darwinian Revolution like Hume and Rousseau.
David Hume may have concluded that because human beings have an innate sympathetic sense, we may feel compelled to help them, or at least pity them the way that Gregor Samsa’s family does in Metamorphosis. However, the characteristics that humans like in other humans, characteristics such as wisdom, kindness, integrity, benevolence, generosity, courage or a sense of responsibility, aren’t easily found in the handicapped, many may argue. Because of this, people may have a difficult time in trying to have respect or admire handicapped people. This may result in the negative feelings that Gregor’s family felt toward him. This can be seen in the fact that they were scared of him. If the theories postulated by Hume are correct, there may be nothing that society can do about the treatment of handicapped people. because it is the human innate sense that compels them to have these views. According to Hume, there may be nothing wrong with the beliefs that people have about the handicapped.
Rousseau may state that the handicapped person has no proper place in society. In a social contract, everyone works for the good of everyone else. Because a handicapped person may not be able to do this, they cannot fill their social contract and therefore are not a useful addition to society. This may be why there are negative feelings for handicapped people: because, unlike other people, they cannot take care of themselves. Rousseau’s solution may be to either find menial things for the handicapped to do so that they can fill a better role in society (which may ultimately be inefficient to the society as a whole) or to somehow eliminate them from a society that generally requires a lot from their members. (which doesn’t seem to be a very feasible solution to the problem).
The Darwinian Revolution expanded on the five understandable aspects of nature (with a population in an environment, reproduction will inevitably produce a surplus of a species and therefore a shortage of foods and the consequential competition for those goods) by stating that all offspring are going to have different traits, and some traits will be better than others. Charles Darwin called these differences in traits fortuitous variations. He furthermore stated that a natural selection would occur, which generally meant that species members with better traits would survive because they were better suited for their environment. These notions startled the people of the nineteenth century, but these people may have come to the conclusion that handicapped people were not suited for their environment, and therefore would not easily survive. Because according to this theory handicapped members of the species may eventually die out, there may seem to be no point in helping them out. This may console the family that feels that there is nothing that they can do for the handicapped family member who doesn’t even seem to possess any human traits any longer and eventually gets tired of working to help this member out with no evident success.
Herbert Spencer expanded on this idea and framed it in a social context. His theory of the survival of the fittest depended on adaptation in order to survive. A handicapped person cannot adapt well. Furthermore, Spencer took from the Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired traits and stated that it may be necessary to work to adapt. It was basically the handicapped person’s own fault if they could not or did not work to adapt. This again rested the burden on the handicapped person and not on the rest of the society.
A great deal of information can be inferred through the work of Emile Durkheim. For example, it can be viewed that Kafka’s animals are totems (a concept in which Durkheim elaborates on in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life), and that there is this totemic identification between beast and man. In Kafka’s works, this identification is symbolic and literal. Symbolically, the beast may be a symptom of unconscious conflicts (similar to the conflicts that Sigmund Freud would find in psychoanalysis), or a representation of the disabilities of the handicapped person trying to function in society. Literally, the beast is in his own person a true friend, and in some respects, another self (remember that once Gregor’s furniture was removed from his room he had trouble keeping as his “human” self and started to become more and more like his “animal” self).
It is possible that Kafka is trying to show that man is trying to act out some kind of animal-identity within himself. It should also be kept in mind that totemism depends heavily on the contagiousness of sacred and profane characteristics, and that the “symbolicness” of something isn’t possessed by the object but by the people that view it. This would have to be considered when viewing the role of the symbol of the cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Further information can be inferred by studying other points of Durkheim’s works like Suicide.
For example, the homo duplex states that there are two parts to people: the animal characteristic and the human characteristic. Kafka clearly defines differences between the handicapped person and the rest of the society by referring to the handicapped person in his story as a cockroach.
Furthermore, the animal characteristic according to Durkheim is based on desires and is a lower level of functioning, while the human characteristic is based on reason and is a product of society.
Therefore the handicapped person is not a product of society but merely an animal that rests it’s existence on desires and other basic needs. This concept, like others postulated by older social thinkers discussed so far, again sheds a poor light on the role of the handicapped person in society.
When looking at Hegel, one may assume that the conclusion of his theory of history going to a certain point where perfection will eventually be reached would be that the handicapped person does not fit into the idea of perfection in society and that they may somehow be eliminated (possibly in a Darwinian sense) before perfection is reached. This further enhances the idea that the handicapped person should not necessarily be a part of society, and that something must be done or that perfection that history draws nearer and nearer to will never actually be reached.
Emmanuel Kant’s idea of the Categorical Imperative, however, seems to contradict the general notions so far that have been produced by social thinkers. His universalized Golden Rule can be elaborated upon to state that the treatment of handicapped people should be no different or no worse than a person’s treatment of other human beings. Furthermore, it can possibly be inferred that the handicapped person should be accommodated for in any way possible, for it may be considered morally wrong to treat another person poorly. However, others may argue that altering the treatment of handi- capped people may help the handicapped people, but it may ultimately help the handicapped people alone and inversely hurt the society as a whole because some positive production for society would be eliminated by focusing on this particular minority.
This may be reason enough to have a negative view toward handicapped people.
Karl Marx believed that it was not the particular histories that would ultimately reach perfection and that had to be studied, but it was the ideas behind each culture that had to be examined.
Furthermore, he stated that he believed that communism would be the ultimate ideological structure, and eventually it would be world-wide communism that would be achieved. However, in a communistic society people work to their full extent and receive what they need - and this system would ultimately be unfair and biased toward the handicapped, for they would be unable to work and would inversely require a large sum of money in order to sustain life in the same way that the rest of society does. This too may foster the negative attitudes that many people hold toward handicapped people.
Fredrich Nietzsche recognized that the word “good” among the ancient Greeks meant not selfless, altruistic acts but aristocratic values (like nobility, power or dignity). “Bad” seemed to mean anything vulgar or lower class. This was closely associated with the social classes. When he comes to the conclusion that humans most importantly want power (over things and yourself - a freedom that is most importantly a control over yourself), the question then arises: where does the handicapped person fit in? The “will to power” entails the ability to confront obstacles and produce constructive outputs. Self-control and self-discipline are necessary. This naturalistic foundation stems from Darwin and again poses problems for the handicapped person.
It only seems that in all of the views generated so far, only negative attitudes have been uncovered in reference to the handicapped. These might explain our feelings today.
American social thought even reflected these ideas. The economist Edward Bellamy, for example, wanted a vast disciplined industrial class and no leisure class. However, even in this case the handicapped person does not seem to fit in to this plan.
Thorstein Veblen, who was influenced by Bellamy, Marx, Spencer and Darwin, felt that it was money that ultimately brought a person ahead. But the handicapped person who cannot make any money can therefore never get ahead in the world. Because they are therefore of a lower class, they are then looked down upon. Self-esteem is a reflection of social opinion, Veblen felt, and the accumulation of wealth enhances that self-esteem. This never happens for the handicapped person, and they therefore also are never able to gain any self-respect.
G. H. Mead, in his differentiation of the “I” and the “Me”, may end up postulating that people would think that the handicapped person has only an “I”, a more basic instinctual level of functioning, when it is actually the case where people just can’t communicate with the “Me” part, or the higher level of functioning part, of the handicapped person.
These social thinkers may have been able to reflect upon the reasons for the conflict concerning handicapped people, but questions still have to be answered: what kinds of solutions are there to these social problems? How drastic are the solutions? What is the role of the state and the individual in solving these matters?
Some of the possible solutions that have been presented seem to have their faults, and many seem too drastic (relatable to a revolution versus a reform). Finding a role for the handicapped person in society seems to be a difficult position to fill, because there are not only varying degrees of severity in being handicapped, but there is also the moral consideration of typecasting the handicapped person and not allowing those people the opportunity to work to become better people. The concept of their eventual elimination somehow does not seem to give today’s society a good enough justification for condemning them. So the question of the problems and the social conflicts that arise in today’s society because of the handicapped still does not seem to be fully answerable.
But people have to keep looking toward a solution for the future. The belief in certain theorists may cause one to believe that the condition of being handicapped will eventually disappear and everything will ultimately work itself out. The belief in other theorists may cause one to believe that it is only right to treat handicapped people in the best way possible. There may be a day where a conclusion - and a solution - can be reached.
Copyright Janet Kuypers.
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