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Whether it be a gender hierarchy or a power system organized by income, human society has frequently fallen back on some form of an unequal power dynamic. Unfortunately, this type of structure can be extremely damaging to those at the bottom of the hierarchy as well as those on top. The members at the bottom are often disrespected and forgotten while those on top are power hungry and can become authoritarians. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is a text that exemplifies these consequences. Kafka uses the characters of Grete, Gregor and Mr. Samsa to demonstrate two different power structures and their effects. The two power dynamics displayed revolve around gender and income. Kafka uses Grete and Gregor to show the extent of the damage that an unequal gender power structure can have, and he uses the father to show the effects of a capitalist style hierarchy. Moreover, within the category of gender power structures, Kafka focuses on the character of Grete to explain the dynamics of men being higher than women, and vice versa.
At the start of the novella, Grete is portrayed as weak, when she realizes that Gregor is not well, “She had already begun to weep” (15). Grete is also dependent on Gregor, as he supplies the money that the family lives off of and therefore is providing everything that Grete has. Grete’s dependence on Gregor is shown through his plan for her future: “to send her off to the Conservatory next year” (22). Grete needs Gregor to “send” her off to Conservatory school, since he is the breadwinner of the family and she relies on him for money. This shows the unequal power structure between woman and man, with the latter being considered superior because he has control over Grete and her future. Not only are women portrayed as weak in the beginning of the novella, but they are also dependent on a man. However, as the text progresses, the power structure shifts and women become the predominant sex. For example, Grete becomes Gregor’s caretaker after his metamorphosis. This alters the power structure because previously, Grete depends on Gregor for money and her future, but now Gregor has to depend on Grete to bring him food, the substance that is keeping him alive. Gregor describes Grete’s role when he thinks to himself, “She brought him an entire assortment of foodstuffs” (19). Grete also becomes authoritative, especially towards Gregor. This is shown when he accidentally terrifies Mrs. Samsa, “‘Gregor’ his sister shouted, raising her fist with a threatening glower” (29). Previously, Kafka describes Grete as crying and shown as weak, but now she is threatening Gregor and raising her voice towards him. Grete has shifted from being at the bottom of the familial power structure to being at the top.
Kafka depicts the two power structures of men being superior to women and women being greater than men through Grete’s character and also shows the consequences that come out of both of these unequal dynamics. The first power structure that Grete is involved in results in her being considered an unnecessary member of the family. Since she is a traditional woman, she at one point relies on Gregor (the predominant male figure in her life) to provide for her which results in her parents describing her as “a rather useless girl” (25). The second is equally damaging and causes Grete to become power hungry to the point of suggesting to kill her brother. As Grete realizes that she is no longer the worthless child, she craves for more and more power over her brother. This is shown when she persuades her parents to agree to “get rid” of Gregor:“‘Dear parents’, his sister said, striking the table by way of preamble, ‘things cannot go on like this. Even if you two perhaps do not realize it, I most certainly do. I am unwilling to utter my brother’s name before this creature, and therefore will say only: we have to try to get rid of it’” (41). Grete’s action of “striking the table” shows her confidence in herself since she wants the attention of her parents and she wants people to listen to her ideas. Nina Straus, author of the essay, Transforming Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, shows her belief that the Grete is part of two power structures here: “It is she who will ironically “bloom” as her brother deteriorates; it is she whose mirror reflects women’s present situation as we attempt to critique patriarchal dominance,”(Straus). Straus explains how Kafka manipulates Grete’s character to represent the current power structure women are in when she says, “t is she whose mirror reflects women’s present situation as we attempt to critique patriarchal dominance,”(Straus). Kafka uses Grete’s character to show the consequences of two types of gender power structures, a man being greater than a woman and a woman being superior to a man.
The protagonist of the novella, Gregor, is another character who Kafka manipulates to depict the damages caused by two types of unequal gender power structures. For Gregor, the story begins with his body being transformed into that of an insect. This poses multiple problems, one of which being his inability to communicate. While Gregor is not presented as a human, Kafka uses Gregor’s thoughts to show his role within the family before and after his transformation. Gregor is the only member of the family who earns money before his metamorphosis; this places him at the top of the family power structure, as “Gregor’s future, and that of his family depended on” his earnings (15). Here, the narrator describes Gregor’s significant role in the family as the breadwinner. This shows an unequal gender power structure because Gregor’s father did work at one time, proving he can provide for himself, but the women in the family are both completely dependent on Gregor for money. However, after Gregor’s metamorphosis, he finds himself at the very bottom of the family power structure. Gregor becomes completely dependent on his sister, Grete, as she provides him with food and water, which he needs to survive. Gregor’s appreciation for Grete is shown when the narrator describes Gregor’s feelings: “If only Gregor had been able to speak to his sister and thank her for all she was compelled to do for him”(24). This is an example of the gender power dynamic of women being superior to men, since Gregor is dependant on Grete. As the story progresses, Grete grows into her role as the authoritative power in her relationship with Gregor; she no longer is as caring for Gregor as she is when the story begins. Furthermore, rather than carefully selecting food for him, she now “would quickly thrust some randomly chosen foodstuff into his room with her foot on her way to work in the morning or at midday, only to sweep it out again at night with a quick swipe of the broom” (35). Now that she has become more powerful than him, she has lost the respect she once had for Gregor, since she now “thrust[s] some randomly chosen foodstuff into his room” rather than carefully selecting food Gregor likes. Both of the power structures that Kafka shows through Gregor prove to be damaging and eventually contribute to his death.
The gender power dynamics of men being greater than women and vice versa are extremely damaging. Kafka shows the consequences through the character of Gregor. When Gregor is the breadwinner of the family, he has an enormous amount of pressure on himself to provide for the everyone. This reflects the first power structure of man being greater than woman because Gregor has to provide for the women in his family. This not only puts him under heavy stress, but also prevents him from spending time with his family. While his family is sleeping Gregor hurriedly leaves the house early every morning. This is shown when he says, “my train leaves at five” (4). Gregor has to catch the five a.m. train every morning, suggesting that he wakes up even earlier than his departure time and has to go to bed extremely early if he wants to get enough sleep to work long hours. This schedule does not leave much time for activities other than work and sleep, so Gregor cannot spend very much time with his family. This is damaging because Gregor can’t have relationships with his family members if he never spends time with them. The second power structure Gregor is part of also has serious consequences. Gregor transitions from being the most valued member of the family to being useless. Since he is now not helping his family in any way, he is convinced that he is no longer needed. This leads him to fall into a depression, where he eats “almost nothing at all” (36). In this passage, Gregor refuses to eat and slowly starves himself to death. Through the character of Gregor, Kafka clearly shows how damaging unequal power structure can be. By putting all the pressure on one sex, a situation arises where one feels useless and the other feels overwhelming amounts of pressure to provide. The final character that Kafka uses to show the damages of an unequal power structure is Mr. Samsa. At the start of the novella, Mr. Samsa is unemployed and has debts that Gregor is working to pay off. The father is portrayed as lazy, as he is making Gregor pay of his debts rather than working to pay them off himself. His laziness is shown here: “Gregor’s father was admittedly in good health, but he was old and hadn’t worked in five years” (23). This situation also makes him lower within the power structure of the family because he is not providing in any way. While this is not a gender power structure, it is still significant/vital because it reveals how power works within a capitalist society.
Although Gregor is jobless in the beginning, once the family realizes that Gregor most likely is not going to transform back into a human form, the father decides to work again. This gives him a sense of pride and reverses the power structure. Now, Gregor is deemed the useless one, while the father is praised for being the breadwinner. The pride the father has is shown when he refuses “to take off his porter’s uniform even at home” (33). Here, he does not change because he is so proud of his new job and providing for the family. Although this power structure is focused on money rather than gender, the consequences that come from it are equally as damaging. One of the consequences of this power dynamic are that the father has lost all respect for his son, Gregor. In one instance when Gregor comes out of his room, Mr. Samsa fills “his pockets from the fruit bowl on the sideboard” and tosses “apple after apple in Gregor’s direction” (31). In this passage, Gregor’s father attacks him instead of showing feelings of worry for his son and his current state. His condescending attitude is shown when he is rude towards the tenants staying in the apartment. He sees the tenants as inferior to him since he is the provider of the place where they stay. His disrespect is shown through his actions here: “Gregor’s father appeared to be once more so firmly in the grip of his own stubbornness that he forgot the basic respect that, after all, he owed his tenants” (40). Mr. Samsa, “forgot the basic respect that, after all, he owed his tenants” (40) which shows that he is disrespectful to those who he perceives to be lower than him, even if they actually are not. Kafka uses the father to show that while gender power structures are damaging, there are other types of power dynamics, such as monetary based structures, that can be equally damaging.
Kafka’s The Metamorphosis delves into the effects an unequal power structure can have on people. Whether the power dynamic is between two people of different genders or different incomes, Kafka shows throughout his story the consequences that this inequality can have. The three main characters that he uses to show the damage are Grete, Gregor, and Mr. Samsa. Grete and Gregor show two gender power dynamics, man being superior to woman and woman being greater than man. Mr. Samsa’s character is manipulated to show the effects of an income based power structure, both when he is earning nothing and when he becomes the breadwinner in the family. All three of these characters are faced with a power dynamic that eventually changes; Kafka does this to show that both versions of the structure are damaging, and that society should strive for equality rather than hierarchy.
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