Franz Kafka in 1916 wrote a short novella called Metamorphosis (1. Bantam Edition 2004) a book of immense psychological and insightive nightmare into the human condition. Here we will exam Kafka’s masterpiece from a psychoanalytical perspective to see that this work was an insightful self examination of depression, mental health and the role of carers when love turns to loathing. To begin our journey for the non-reader of this famous text we will give a brief outline and then turn to the specific role of psychoanalytic insight from Freudian to Burns and beyond.
Kafka was born in 1883 a middle class Jewish boy, introverted, shy and inadequate, believed to be a result of a critical father, (2. Letter to his Father 1919) he was later educated in Prague in a German University however he went on in his spare time to write many works of outstanding literature. Here we are not going to delve into detailed life but satisfy ourselves with a small picture of the man as writer. Kafka was very driven and wrote daily through the night with a dedicated passion. Today he might be seen as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour) prone to perfectionism. It is his perfectionist emotional driver that made his literature something very special.
Kafka wrote Metamorphosis in 1916 as a short novella about a young man who was the stalwart of the family, supporting an out of work critical father, a doting mother and childlike sister, in which our hero, Gregor Samsa was not popular at work and under daily stress of travel and deadlines to meet for which he felt a losing battle. In the beginning of the book he awakes from a troubling dream to find he has in fact turned into an ugly giant beetle his mind trapped in an alien body. From this beginning Gregor begins to explore his new limitations and narrow world view, his sight becomes dim, he cannot move without constant pain and great effort. His family are dependent on Gregor going to work, earning their keep and supporting their needs when suddenly he cannot no longer act in this role. His father is disgusted, his mother stricken and his younger sister while becoming his carer is repulsed by this new version of her brother. As time passes and he does not return to his old self – the family must make new plans to survive and now see him as their burden (roles reversed). In the beginning Gregor thought this was just a temporary situation that would soon pass and he would re-uptake his old life and continue forward. However in the end there is no solution and suffers a lonely eventual death.
In writing the following psychoanalytical analysis I have not read the many introductions, essays and critical insights of other writers. This was purposefully done to avoid contamination of my thinking process in treating Gregor as my patient in a psychoanalytical setting. I did not want to have the bias of others opinions to my way of seeing the text as the only evidence of the patients mental health problem.
Like any new psychological patient to the clinic a first one hour session would be usually conducted in two parts – the first – why have you come to see me? The second the clients ability to vent (tell their story in their own words) and so set the scene for further sessions. Lets imagine Gregor’s typical answer to why have you come here.
Gregory: My family is very dependent on me to support them but lately I have been feeling very stressed by work and home alike. I had a very bad dream a few weeks ago and woke up in a deluded state in which I found it impossible to get our of bed. I just felt overwhelmed with exhaustion and the loss of will to keep going on with my miserable life. It was like I was some ugly bug that everyone despised and yet took for granted. All they want to do is squash my passion for life and replace it with their needs.
Psychoanalyst: It sounds very much as if you are stressed and reached what me might call a point of exhaustion – this means your energy has been depleted both physically and mentally. So to summerise – you are depressed right now from the burden of work and a non-supportive family environment and you feel you have given up trying to be the one who supports everyone else?
Gregory: Yes, it is like I was a donkey with burden I could no longer carry.
Psychoanalyst: Tell me a little of your background? (second part – venting)
Gregory: I have a very critical, controlling father who tries to dominate the household, however he is unemployed right now and his health has deteriorated through becoming lazy and irritable. My mother cowers to him and goes along with his demands even when unreasonable, I have a younger sister – she is just finishing her education but has not found any real outlet for her abilities just yet, she is kind and sweet but very naive about the world at large. At work my supervisor while pleasant enough but he is also under pressure from our boss who like my father is controlling and micro manages our every move. This means you feel you are being scrutinized constantly and found lacking. I have to travel a lot for my work and often come home late and exhausted but then am expected to be there for the family as the main stay of their comforts. I do not have time for relationships and I am probably not a very good catch for any girl who might have any interest in me beyond the obvious. At home things have changed now that I have been fired and lost my income. My sister has started to care for me more and tries constantly to rescue me from my mood swings, however my mother has just fell apart and cries insistently about her poor boy yet shy away from actually helping me. As for my father he is even more disgusted by me than ever as I forced him to go out and find work, he even took in some lodgers to help make ends meet and so the burden has passed to my mother and sister to keep the household clean and fed. We have had some cooks and cleaners but they have mostly left because they refuse to have anything to do with me. I cannot really think of much else to tell you – but at least I feel I managed to get it all out.
Psychoanalyst: I think that gives me quite a lot to think about Gregor and you have been very clear and systematic in the way you have explained the background. Tell me how are you actually feeling right now?
Gregory: A little relieved to have finally explained myself and someone listened without a sneer on their face or laughing at me. Thank you for that. In general I know that everyday I feel sad and tired by life – I just want to lay down and sleep – that somehow when I wake up everything will be normal again – that I can function and have some sort of life.
Psychoanalyst: Well we have had our time today Gregor, an hour can pass very quickly the first visit. I hope to see you are least once a week for an hour, in the meantime I have a little homework exercise for you to complete for me. A one page biography of your family, where you grew up, your education, relationships and the current here and now situation. I know you have told me some of this already but it will help save some time in sessions by having a short version of your life so far. Please send to me via email before our next session so that I can read and analyze the content before you come. Here is my card and details. If at anytime you feel you are in crisis and need me – please call for an earlier appointment.
Gregory: Thank you Doctor, I will see you same time next week.
Psychoanalytical Analysis of the First Session:
For insurance purposes the analyst is forced to write a psychiatric number and diagnosis. This labeling is not a reflection of the true nature of the mental health problem but merely a forced situation in order to get paid. In Gregor’s case – Clinical Depression DSM V 296.3.
In reality a psychological outcome may have been Reactive Depression to stress at both home and work leading to a lack of everyday cognitive functioning in both thought and behaviour.
Clearly in this case – depression is the key element from signs of mental exhaustion, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness from the role reversal of stalwart breadwinner to helpless victim in need of rescuing by his sister in particular – the constant disappointment to both his parents and rejection of his work colleagues. At his stage we do not have enough data to surmise the underlying unconscious drives that might be fueling his depressive state other than the external pressures of family and work. In further sessions the need will be met from a more in depth scrutinizing of his emotional world and inner conflicts. He clearly feels alone in his burden although the sister is obviously doing her mother’s duty of care. The client mentioned a bad dream – this can be further pursued for unconscious motivations.
Over 20 or more sessions – Gregor’s analogy of being an ugly beetle are further explored and his relationships with both family and work – more importantly his feelings about himself and his depressive state. It also became clear that his family were now neglecting his everyday needs for nutritious food, care and comfort. They in fact have become physically violent towards him causing him to further withdraw into his delusional world where he feels he is nothing more than an ugly beetle that should be stamped upon. Risk of suicide has now become evident in his demeanor. His appearance shows he is not looking after his ablutions, clothing is dirty and unkempt and he has lost considerable weight. He was also becoming lethargic in that he no longer cared what happened to him as long as this constant pain would cease (pain being mental anguish). His sister although dutiful in looking after him has lost heart in him getting better and so now only is a functional caregiver as opposed to a empathetic one. His biography homework showed that his father was not only controlling but bitter in that he lost a business owing considerable money to Gregor’s employer who now expected him to pay off his fathers debts through a reduced salary for his own work putting considerable burden on him to support the family at home. The mother was ashamed of the home situation and was too weak to stand up to her husband in any matters of economy or otherwise. The sister was in the past spoiled and now resented her reduced situation and blamed Gregor for being sick. Again adding to his feelings of alienation and being alone.
Sadly Gregor died after the end of the sessions from self-neglect – basically willing his life to cease as he saw no longer any purpose to it. His father had found new employment, the mother felt relieved to see her son no longer in this life suffering and the sister finally felt free of her own burden that being her brother. While psychoanalysis would have hoped for a different outcome – the book itself determined the ending that we have to accept.
While Franz Kafka meant his novella of Metamorphosis to be a comic tragedy of a wasted life it springs out at any educated reader in the art of psychoanalysis as a perfect example of chronic depression and futility. Those in this delusional state often contemplate suicide although mostly via ideation (I think it but don’t), however self neglect is very common trait that leads to slow death from a lack of self care. When you have a non-supportive family, where their needs are being thwarted by your mental state – then further rejection can cause a spiraling effect of deeper resentment about your own part in the downfall of your mind. Many depressives play victim (3. Berne 1960’s) inviting others to rescue them – when in fact they need to rescue themselves – but in the end they become their own persecutor and further victimize themselves to that bitter ending of death.
In real life via treatment for depression a sense of purpose is sought from the client in that he can see a new fresh change to his circumstances despite the battle of a non-supportive family and hostile work environment that is all to common in today’s economy. In Gregor’s case over time he would have explored his past traumas and realized the underlying demons that led to his lack of self assurance and efficacy to find a new solution to his mood.
This paper was an exercise in psychoanalysis from a famous work of literature and reflects the art of the analyst who tries to understand the underlying concepts of the unconscious mind in creating monsters from our own imagination to battle with when we reach that point of exhaustion both physically and mentally called – depression.
1. Kafka F. 1915 – Metamorphosis – Bantam Edition 2004
2. Kafka F. 1919 – Letter to his Father – Bantam Ed 2004
3. Bernes E. 1960’s – Transactional Analysis – various volumes.