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Dehumanization of the protagonist is a common thematic element in both Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter of the Enemy,” although the various aspects of dehumanization differ between the two works. Dehumanization plays a role in the deaths of both Gregor and General Sash; both authors describe the tremendous pressure exerted on the characters by society, especially through the lens of each character’s view of his own dehumanization. This degradation comes with consequences, both positive and negative, that affect the families of each character. The full extent of the dehumanization of Gregor and General Sash is revealed slowly through the exposition and rising action of both stories until, in a moment of climax, their deaths resolve their struggles and bring peace to their ailing spirits. Tragically, this corruption of their moral and even physical selves comes not only from their society, but also from their families; in fact, in both cases, the families benefit from their dehumanization and cause it to happen. The differing attitudes of Gregor and General Sash toward their impending deaths is another point of contrast: General Sash is so corrupted that he accepts his dehumanization and even yearns for it, while Gregor, a young man, still sees his dehumanization as a prison from which he cannot escape.
Gregor’s dehumanization in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is apparent from the first sentence of the novel: “When Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed one morning from unquiet dreams, he found himself transformed into an enormous insect” (612). This transformation, from a human into an insect, creates the tension of the story, as Gregor is literally dehumanized from the very beginning. The fact that Gregor is transformed into an insect is also significant, as this creature symbolizes Gregor’s spiritual transformation. Gregor’s spiritual degradation is revealed in the exposition of The Metamorphosis through Gregor’s views of his job as a traveling salesman and his boss, the Director. The Director acts as dictator over Gregor’s life, and Gregor despises his job: “‘Oh, God,’ he thought, ‘what a strenuous profession I’ve chosen — traveling day in, day out! The demands of business are far greater on the road than they are at the home office, and I’m burdened with the annoyances of travel besides: the worry about train connections; the irregular, bad meals; a social life limited to passing acquaintances who never become real friends. To hell with it!’” (612). Gregor’s focus on his job security is prevalent even after his transformation into an insect; he only seems to care about whether he will be fired. This fear is significant in the exposition of Gregor’s situation because it shows the grip that society’s expectations have on his life. Gregor, like an insect, has a specific job to accomplish, and if he cannot accomplish that job, he will be replaced. He abhors his situation and questions the merits of his occupation after his transformation: “Why was Gregor condemned to work at a company where the least infraction immediately attracted the greatest suspicion? Were all employees then without exception scoundrels; were there among them no loyal, devoted individuals?” (615). The significant word in this passage is “individuals”; no individuals exist in Gregor’s company, and thus he, as an individual and as a human being, does not exist.
Gregor’s dehumanization is augmented through his relationship with his family. His family’s initial reaction is one of shock and horror; however, Grete, his sister, chooses to help Gregor survive. Although Gregor must sequester himself in his bedroom, Grete still treats him like a human being, and her actions — for example, giving him a selection of food to eat — show her concern for him (623). Gregor also cares about his family very much, and he attempts to make his existence more bearable for them: “[He was] consumed by worries and by vague hopes that all led to the same conclusion: that for the time being he should keep calm and, by exercising patience and the greatest consideration for his family, try to make bearable the unpleasantness that he would in his present condition inevitably cause them” (622). Unfortunately, Gregor’s transformation leaves his family trapped, both financially and physically; they are left with barely enough money to survive and have no way of moving apartments with Gregor. Furthermore, their efforts to please Gregor and treat him like a human being are detrimental to both Gregor and themselves. The food they give him leaves less food for themselves; and the removal of the furniture from his room, intended to allow Gregor freedom of movement, simply furthers Gregor’s alienation. Gregor, in an expression of the tension between his humanity and his bestial nature, finally decides that he must keep his humanity alive: “Granted, he would be able to crawl undisturbed in all directions, but he would at the same time forget, quickly and completely, his human past” (628). This tension heightens until Grete, Gregor’s last human connection, denies him and convinces her parents that the insect is not a human being. “‘You must simply try to rid yourself of the thought that it’s Gregor. Our real misfortune is that we believed it for so long. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have seen long ago that such an animal cannot live with people and he would have left voluntarily” (638). The tragic irony in this moment is that Gregor is able to hear his sister’s debasement of him. Gregor, in his love of his family, is convinced that he must die: “His conviction that he had to disappear was even more definite than his sister’s” (639). Gregor’s dehumanization creates problems for both his family and himself that are an indirect cause of his death, but as he lies dying, he finds himself in a state of “empty and peaceful contemplation,” suggesting that, through death, he is finally freed.
Like Kafka, Flannery O’Connor uses the dehumanization of General Sash in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” to show a man corrupted by modern Southern values. The social expectations for General Sash are very high: he is put on display at various events for the public to see him in his general’s uniform and sword. For example, every year “he was bundled up and lent to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed in a musty room full of old photographs, old uniforms, old artillery, and historic documents. All these were carefully preserved in glass cases so that children would not put their hands on them” (139). The word ‘all’ in this passage is purposefully ambiguous to include both the documents and General Sash himself, significantly showing that the General is merely an object of history to display in a glass case. The passage continues to say that “there was nothing about him to indicate that he was alive” (139), and in this statement General Sash’s dehumanization becomes apparent. However, unlike Gregor, General Sash desires his dehumanization. The only significant memory in his mind is “the premiere” in Atlanta, when he received his general’s uniform. General Sash likes to sit “on any stage,” and living “had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition” (134-35). His life is monotonous and dull, centered on appearances at premieres and other events; possibly because he has been alive for over a century, he does not enjoy life. Every aspect of his humanity has been drawn out of him, and all that is left is his general’s uniform and his sword.
The General’s dehumanization contributes to his death because society’s expectations put unbearable pressure on him, and he can do nothing but die. However, society is not the only source of General Sash’s dehumanization; more importantly, it comes from his own granddaughter. General Sash’s granddaughter, Sally Poker, brings him to her graduation so that she could “hold her head very high as if she were saying, ‘See him! See him! My kin, all you upstarts! Glorious upright old man standing for the old traditions!’” (135). Much like Gregor’s family in The Metamorphosis, Sally Poker creates her grandfather’s condition when she puts him on the stage at the end. The final death scene is described as a battle between the General and his past, as if the General is finally trying to escape the expectations of the past that have been thrust upon him. “Then suddenly he saw that the black procession was almost on him. He recognized it, for it had been dogging all his days. He made such a desperate effort to see over it and find out what comes after the past that his hand clenched the sword until the blade touched bone” (143). The “black procession” is the procession of graduates upon the stage, but it also represents the procession of history that kills General Sash. The procession is a symbol of his dehumanization that has been “dogging all his days,” and in the climax of the story, he suddenly understands his plight. He confronts his own humanity and, in doing so, is killed.
Both The Metamorphosis and “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” use dehumanization to express the tension that exists in human beings between individualism and social obligation, and also the metaphorical prison inside of which the protagonists exist. Gregor, in his job as a traveling salesman, feels trapped by his obligations to his family and to the Director. He is dehumanized by the lack of self-expression in his work, which is symbolized by his transformation into the ultimate mindless worker: an insect. The pressures exerted on him build until his family finally rejects him and he dies. Similarly, in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” General Sash is living but not truly alive, in the sense that he is only living to represent the past. History is thrust upon him at all times, and he begins to enjoy, in an unfulfilling way, his state of constant exhibition. He is finally confronted in the climax of the story with his own humanity, and in this battle he loses. General Sash, like Gregor Samsa, is unable to escape the expectations of society and his own family, ultimately choosing death in his last attempt at freedom.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Alexis Walker. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.
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