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A Study of The Theme of Self-sacrifice in The Metamorphosis

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In Franz Kafka’s stories “The Metamorphosis”, “In The Penal Colony”, and “The Fasting-Artist”, the protagonists, Gregor Samsa, the officer, and the fasting-artist, each make apparent sacrifices. These characters give their lives for others, but their deeds are unacknowledged by those they should benefit, who neither enjoy nor even understand the sacrifices made for them. The only one who can truly appreciate a sacrifice is the victim himself.

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The most prominent example of this tendency appears in “The Fasting-Artist”. The artist fasts for public admiration, so that ladies can have the place of honor holding his body and crowds can come to look at him. He thinks that fasting is not a sacrifice at all; “he knew…how easy fasting was” (212) but his ability to eat the food supplied to him by watchmen who cannot understand “the honor of his art” (210) shows that it costs him at least some effort when his audience does not appreciate his sacrifice. He feels that his true sacrifice is “lying in bed almost at his last gasp…the consequence of the premature ending of his fast” (215) which he does, again, because after “about forty days…the audience fell away” (212). So great is his dedication to sacrifice and to his art that, when business worsens, he is willing to join a circus and understands that “he should not…be placed…in the middle of the ring as a star attraction” (216). But while at the circus he leans that people are not interested in seeing him; they merely pass his cage on their way to see the animals. Eventually the circus keepers stop keeping track of the days the artist has fasted, and his sacrifice is no longer for his audience, but for himself and for his art. The curious aspect of the fasting-artist’s performance is that his sacrifice for art is indistinguishable from the art itself. As the only one aware of his fasting, the Artist is the only one able to appreciate it, and he even tells his overseer that he “shouldn’t admire” (218) the fast. The artist’s plea shows that even those who try to admire his work do not understand it. “Just try to explain to someone what the art of fasting is. No one who does not feel it can be made to understand what it means” (218) the narrator tells us, and indeed the ludicrousness of public exhibition fasting, the appeal of which display no reader can comprehend, underscores the private nature of the artist’s performance. The artist’s fasting is an end in itself. No one but himself is around to appreciate his death from starvation, a sacrifice for an ignored art, as “the world was cheating him of his reward” (218).

Gregor Samsa’s sacrifice somewhat resembles the fasting-artist’s; it is just as unappreciated, but more beneficial to others. Gregor hates his job as a traveling salesman; “if [he] didn’t have to hold back for the sake of [his] parents [he’d] have handed in [his] notice long since” (77), but he works to support his parents and sister, none of whom work. He keeps only “a few odd coins for himself” (98), giving most of his salary to his parents. He also plans to raise the money to send his sister to a conservatory to practice the violin. Gregor’s work to help his family and pay off their debt is more easily appreciated by the reader than the artist’s fasting is, but Gregor’s family is less appreciative than the artist’s audience. “They had simply got used to [Gregor’s giving his family his salary], both the family and Gregor…it no longer gave rise to any special warmth of feeling” (97). Gregor’s family does nothing to help him pay off the debt, all the while concealing from him the fact that they have been saving money he earned, instead of using it to pay off the debt to Gregor’s employer and thus let him change jobs sooner.

Gregor’s sacrifice, great as it already is, becomes even heavier when he turns into a giant insect. At first both he and his family are in denial; Gregor attempts to go to work, having “no intention at all of deserting his family” (83), and his mother speaks of the time “when Gregor returns to us” (103), as though he will recover. His sister Grete brings him food and cares for him; “milk had always been his favorite drink, and that was surely why his sister had put it down for him” (92). But his father, who never mentions any hope that Gregor will change, drives him back to his room “threaten[ing] to deal him a deadly blow” (91). Gregor’s family is only willing to help him as long as they believe that he may recover, and when he persists in his insect state, they neglect him. As soon as the money they have saved runs out, Gregor’s parents and sister are forced to work and find that they have no taste for sacrifice. Herr Samsa becomes prone to saying “‘What a life this is. Such is the peace of my old age'” (110). Grete neglects to clean Gregor’s room; “streaks of dirt ran the length of the walls” (112). Eventually she gives up on him completely, saying of Gregor, “‘we must try and get rid of it'” (119).

Though Grete claims that the family has done “everything humanly possible to look after it [Gregor(!)]” (119), it is ironically Gregor who remains more human than his family, who now refer to him as “it”. He never stops wanting to sacrifice himself for them in whatever way he can. He does his best to spare them the sight of him; after realizing that his sister hates to see him, “he transport[s] a sheet to the sofa on his back–the task took him four hours–and arrange[s] it in such a way that…his sister would not be able to see him” (100). He continues to try to take financial responsibility for his family. “Whenever the conversation turned to the necessity of earning money…Gregor…felt hot all over with shame and grief” (99). He fantasizes of “tak[ing] the family’s affairs in hand again” (111). Even his death appears to be in response to his sister’s wish that he would vanish; his dying thought is that “his own opinion that he must disappear was…firmer than his sister’s” (122). Yet by this point, Gregor’s family has ceased to think of him as human. Though they appreciate his death, using it as an excuse to take a day off from work and to evict their detestable lodgers, they cannot appreciate Gregor’s motives. “‘If it were Gregor…he would have gone away of his own accord'” (120) Grete claims in Gregor’s hearing before his death, but never realizes that he does, as she believes that he cannot understand human speech. Indeed, Gregor’s family completely forgets him after his death; they are content to let the charwoman deal with his corpse, and Herr Samsa even “check[s] her [story of its disposal] firmly with an outstretched hand” (125). They flee the apartment “which Gregor had picked out for them” (125), leaving all traces of his memory behind. Gregor’s family refuses to acknowledge any of his sacrifices, perhaps out of guilt for ignoring him, perhaps for license to ignore him. As soon as they have established that the insect in their house is not Gregor, they have no obligation to care for it. Yet Gregor never doubts his family’s identity, though he has changed merely in shape while they have changed their entire attitude towards him. Though much of his sacrifice is externally imposed–Gregor hardly requests his family to neglect him–his death is ultimately a selfless and human act, all the more so because his family does not acknowledge it; Gregor’s sacrifice is his tie to both humans and humanity.

The officer’s sacrifice, on the other hand, can hardly be considered humane, though it is just as self-directed. The penal colony’s officer, who tries, prosecutes, sentences, and executes prisoners convicted of crimes such as insubordination, shows a voyager the colony’s method of execution: death by a machine that carves the commandment violated on the condemned man’s flesh. According to the officer, “enlightenment dawns” (137) on the condemned man’s face as he understands the gravity of his crime, and justice triumphs. The voyager, understandably upset by the process of justice in the colony, is resolved to condemn the means of execution, which the colony’s new commandant opposes; this will mean the end of the practice. Upon learning of this, the officer kills himself with the machine, inscribing “Be Just!” into his own flesh. If he is reacting to the voyager’s condemnation, the officer has given his life for justice, or at least what he considers justice. But although he is the only remaining vocal supporter of this justice, the only one who would consider it just, he fails to benefit from his sacrifice. In his dead face, “no sign of the promised deliverance could be detected; what all the others had found in the machine, the officer had not found” (152). Similarly, the voyager irrationally finds that if the procedure “was really on the point of being abolished–possibly as a result of the voyager’s own intervention, to which he felt himself committed–then the officer was now acting perfectly rightly” (149). The victim of the sacrifice suffers and the beneficiary gains; this is the way a sacrifice is supposed to work. But nothing about the officer’s punishment makes logical sense.

The officer’s and voyager’s reactions are a reversal of our expectations, just as the officer’s suicide is; after all, it makes no more sense for the officer to punish himself for injustice by means of injustice. If, however, the officer is executing himself (a just act, according to his morality) for executing himself (an unjust act, according to the voyager), the situation makes more sense; the officer finds no enlightenment because his punishment was unjust, while the voyager believes it to be right because the officer’s crime was judged by the voyager’s standards. By this logic, neither the officer nor the voyager is making a sacrifice. A true sacrifice for the officer would have been for him to abandon his beloved machine, while for the voyager it would have been not to object to the condemned man’s execution. The only sacrifice the officer makes, giving up any future administration of justice, is imposed on him.

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While the lack of appreciation of all three protagonists contributes to their deaths, the officer’s death is appreciated. The role-reversal of his self-condemnation reveals why his death is not a sacrifice; it is a sentence. The fasting-artist starves out of dedication to his art, Gregor out of devotion to his family, but the officer’s death literally destroys his precious apparatus, ending and not furthering his cause. Satisfaction from sacrifice is limited to those who die neglected, for they care far more about their causes than those they die for do.

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