What does Kafka’s Metamorphosis tell us about the modern work ethic?

To get this out of the way at the offset – is Kafka science fiction? No. But I am turning to Kafka anyway, because of the influence his dystopian style of fiction and allegorical writing had on science fiction writers.

It might be cliche-ed to say, but every time I go back to Kafka something new emerges. This kind of textured and multi-layered meaning is likely why he is one of the most written about authors in the literary criticism field. Re-reading Metamorphosis with particular consideration of Gregor Samsa’s work ethic, I was struck by the grim humour in the dark tale of someone waking up expecting a work commute but finding that they have, in fact, turned into “a kind of giant bug”.

Samsa, the protagonist, is a travelling salesman, which he immediately identifies as the probable cause of his strange sense when he first wakes up:

“What an exhausting job I’ve chosen. On the road day in and day out – much more stressful than working from home! And apart from the demands of doing business, the actual travelling is so bad: struggling to catch connecting trains, terrible meals at all hours of the day and night, a sea of ever changing faces and never any chance of making friends. To hell with it all!”

Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

We’ve all been there. But as Samsa’s considerations on what to do next unfold, so does the dark underbelly of the work he is tied into: his train leaves at 5am, and he would have given in his notice long ago, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s saving up the money his parents owe his boss – and he has 5 to 6 years further to go of that before he can break free.

Kafka pushes to an extreme the terms of employment that are presented to us: based on sacrifice (time, energy) and compromise in exchange for capital. In this example of working to repay a family debt, the fiscal return is even more distant and deferred, holding a mirror up to our own abstract earnings spent on rent/mortgages/bills/contracts.

Kafka plays about with ad absurdum presentations of our working terms alongside the narrative of Samsa discovering he has been transformed (“the manager would turn up … and cut short all objections by repeating … there are no sick people in the world only the work-shy. And would he be so wrong in this case?”) with a tongue in cheek humour which escalates until Samsa, seemingly unaware of the horror of his condition, chases the terrified manager from the household completely while earnestly pleading his fitness for work.

We, the reader, on one level recognise this scene as a victory for Samsa against the tyrannous workplace he toils under, while simultaneously Samsa as narrator is only able to present confusion and horror over what has befallen him. This mismatch is part of the joy of reading the text: the reader is rooting for Samsa, but this pits them against Samsa himself in his self-effacing approach to his employment.

Kafka’s Samsa states several times in the narrative that his working conditions might be a causal factor to his predicament, especially in the opening scenes quoted above, and later Samsa speculates that his distorted voice is an “occupational hazard” of his “tiresome” job. As reader we are left without clarity on this, but it is worth bearing in mind Kafka’s own occupation as insurance lawyer for the Workers’ Industrial Accident Institute, and his role assessing claims about working conditions and organisational obligations. It is hard not to reflect on the impact this might have had on the construction of a narrative where an employee’s desperate condition has ambiguous causes and ambiguous consequences.

A Kafka sketch

Ultimately Samsa’s diligent, neurotic, and sycophantic work ethic serves to jar against his reality: firstly that of his manager, while caring that that he does not arrive at work on time, does not care about Samsa on a human (!) level or reflect on the situation as he flees the scene. He says nothing at all, but runs – and this absence of dialogue speaks volumes. Secondly and importantly, that of his fate: Samsa can and does worry about his ability to work, his timekeeping, office dynamics and workplace gossip – while being slow to grasp the reality of the situation. Work may, or may not have, helped transform him into an insect – but even that doesn’t really matter. He is an insect.

Note: this analysis uses William Aaltonen’s translation from German into English.

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