Alienation and Capitalism in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’

Disclaimer: This post has been by far my most popular, to the point where I feel I need to include this disclaimer. I would not be surprised if many people who arrive here are high school or university students. I want to say that this is not my best work; I think my reading is overly simplistic. I’m sorry if you don’t find what you’re looking for here, I remember how frustrating that could be as a student. But anyway, I appreciate you being here and I hope that you do find something of value for your learning.

If you’ve never read Kafka before, you might be a bit perplexed as you start The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa has woken to find that he has transformed into a ‘monstrous verminous bug’ (Kafka 1). As he struggles to get out of bed, the one thing on his mind is his job, and whether he can make it to work on time. At no point does Gregor question why he has transformed into a cockroach. As Kafka proceeds to describe Gregor’s “armour-hard back” and “brown, arched abdomen”, and Gregor reflects on how terribly demanding his work is, the absurdity of the situation escalates (1). The Metamorphosis serves as a dark critique of the dehumanising and alienating nature of capitalism.

We first learn that Gregor hates his job. He is working to pay off his parents’ debt to his boss. If it weren’t for his parents, he would have quit his job “ages ago” (5). While Gregor’s father prolongs his breakfast for hours by reading various newspapers, Gregor’s boss would fire him if he didn’t work such long hours (4, 20). Gregor doesn’t even feel free to call in sick, for as long as he has worked he has never called in sick, and he is afraid of being called lazy (6). Gregor even tries to reason, despite being aware that he is no longer physically human, that he is “in fact quite well and even [has] a really strong appetite” (6). The absurdness of this makes for a dark humour, but also begins to emphasise the value placed on work in the society in which Gregor lives, to the point where health is no longer a concern.

What subsequently stands out in the story is the harsh treatment Gregor receives when his family and work colleagues discover he is unable to work. As his manager puts it, “a time of year for conducting no business, there is no such thing at all, Mr. Samsa, and such a thing must never be” (15). Apparently if he is not working, Gregor has no value to anyone, even to himself. Yet Gregor seems to have become alienated from himself long before he could no longer work, but rather as a result of his disinterest in his work.

References to capitalism and Marx’s theory of alienation are common in readings of Kafka. Marx’s theory goes something like this: when work is imposed by pure economic necessity, rather than engaged for its own sake, the worker becomes alienated from himself as an individual and from humanity (Sokel 2). Gregor has become alienated from himself due to the nature of his work: it is clear that he is only in his job to pay off his parents’ debt, otherwise he would leave immediately. Kafka’s decision to depict Gregor’s transformation into a cockroach physically reflects this alienation.

Gregor’s relationship with his father represents the worker’s exploitation by a capitalist employer, and not only that, but the relationship clearly demonstrates the unquestioning acceptance of this system by both parties. When Gregor discovers that his father kept a portion of Gregor’s earnings instead of putting it toward the debt he owed, Gregor realises he could have quit his job earlier, but doesn’t seem to mind (Kafka 37). In fact, Gregor seems completely understanding of his family’s behaviour towards him. Even as his father beats him towards his bedroom at the beginning of the story, Gregor makes excuses for him. Gregor cannot fit through the door, but thinks it natural that “his father, in his present mental state, had no idea of opening the other wing of the door a bit to create a suitable passage for Gregor to get through” (25). Furthermore, while Gregor believed that his parents were not fit for work because they were in poor health due to their leisureful life, and his sister was too young for work, he undoubtedly believes in his own role as the worker of the family and feels “shame and sorrow” that he cannot fulfill that role (37-8).

When it becomes necessary for his family to work to earn an income, his family becomes too exhausted to have any remaining empathy for Gregor. “What the world demands of poor people they now carried out to an extreme degree” (56). The Samsa family appears exhausted by their work, with Grete and the mother at the end of each day “[mingling] their tears or, quite dry eyed, [staring] at the table” (57). His sister no longer takes great care to find out what food Gregor can eat, instead she kicks “some food or other” into his room in the mornings, and removes it in the evenings without checking whether or not it has been eaten (57). The exhaustion and resulting disinterest in doing things you would normally take great care to do may seem familiar to workers today.

When read from a Marxist perspective, The Metamorphosis serves as a critique of capitalist economics. It demonstrates how work imposed by mere economic necessity causes alienation of the worker, and how the exhausting nature of this kind of work can remove the ability and willingness of people to feel empathy for one another, and in the case of the Samsa family, darkly reveals a blind acceptance of the system that causes this to happen.


Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Ian Johnston, Planet, 1999.

Sokel, Walter H. ‘From Marx to myth:  the structure and function of self-alienation in Kafka’s Metamorphosis’, The Literary Review, vol. 26, no. 4, 1983, pp. 485-496, viewed October 20, 2017,


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