Alienation can be defined as a condition in which an individual is isolated from their work, society, sense of self and/or humanity. Alienation contemporarily exists in society however, was much more prevalent decades ago. The concept of alienation is explored in Karl Marx’s ‘Estranged Labour’ derived from his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts and also in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’. Both texts present the reader with an understanding of alienation and how it affects labour in the work force. Franz Kafka effectively portrays the concept of alienation as defined by Karl Marx. He achieves this through his short story about the turmoil of an alienated bug who once was a man. Along with Marx and Kafka’s texts, I will be examining Sean Sayers ‘Alienation as a critical concept’ and Allan Beveridge’s summary on Metamorphosis. Each text provides arguments which I will utilise to gain a deeper understanding of alienation and how it is reflected in ‘The Metamorphosis’.
‘Estranged Labour’ by Karl Marx is a manuscript which critically examines the effects of labour on an individual’s life. The main idea of the manuscript is that “The more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless he becomes” (Marx 1844). The idea represented in this excerpt displays how a worker feels hostile and alien to a product that does not belong to them. Marx discusses the four types of alienation in his text. The first type is alienation from the product. The worker is expected to raise profits for the owner while they work under a minimal wage. This results in the worker having little connection and little concern for the product. The second type is alienation from ones own labour. This occurs when a worker is expected to solely do one repetitive job, they are not involved in any other aspect of production.
Marx’s (1844) theory on estranged labour is emphasised through Sean Sayers (2011) critical conception of Alienation. ‘Alienation’ is one of the most familiar terms of Marxist philosophy (Sayers 2011). Capitalism is capable of robbing a worker of a good life. Marx (1844) deems that a worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, and the more the production increases in power and size. The connection between objectification and alienation is made visible by Marx in the excerpt “The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object”. Alienation is the result of disconnection to a thing or process. Marx’s definition of alienation is the condition of a labourer in a capitalist society. In this regime, the theory of alienation will emerge as there is a lack of equal distribution. The workers in this society have no ownership over the means of production. Sayers (2011) presented in his analysis, the different understandings of what labour is and what people thought of labour on a personal level.
The third type is alienation from others. The labourer has a lack of purpose and their vision for life is reduced to simply earning wages to survive. Work is reduced to its ‘animal character’ (Sayers 2011). Workers become alienated from other members of society since they are compelled to only look out for themselves. This results in competition between labourers.
The last type of alienation is from ones self. Labourers lose their sense of self as they feel that they are not in control of their own life. The four types of alienation are depicted in Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’. This is a story about a man named Gregor who wakes up one day as a bug. While Gregor laid in bed confused about his new state and body he reflects on his life and how dreadful his work is as a salesman. Gregor has to work tirelessly to pay off his families debt, “If I didn’t hold back for my parents’ sake, I’d have quit ages ago”. This shows that he is forced to work in such deprived conditions to support his family. As time goes on Gregor starts to get accustomed to his new body. Grete, his sister, removes all furniture from Gregor’s room so that he has more space to climb on the walls. Upon Grete doing this, Gregor gets distressed. This depicts that Gregor was holding on to his last strings of humanity as he did still have hopes of returning back to his normal state. In the final chapter of the short story, Gregor’s family start to view him as useless, his dad says “if only he understood us”.
Regardless of his state as a bug, Gregor is more concerned of the fact that he is running late to work, “I must not stay in bed uselessly”. Alienation is reflected in ‘The Metamorphosis’ through the stories main protagonist, Gregor. Metamorphosis can be defined as the change of form, from one thing/person into a completely distinct form after maturation. While the stories most visible metamorphosis is Gregor changing into a bug, there is central change is discovered throughout the story. The theme of Alienation is revealed when Gregor starts to feel estranged from his work, humanity, family and even his own body. The opening paragraphs show that Gregor has been transformed into a “monstrous verminous bug” (Kafka, 5). His body is now less convenient and he has difficulty in figuring out the functions of this new form. His body was “incessantly moving [in] very different motions [that] he was unable to control” (Kafka, 11).
As a traveling salesman, Gregor is required to travel to different places and lock all doors. He describes his work as “stressful… idiotic” (Kafka, 6). He then goes onto express how he would have quit long ago if he didn’t have the responsibility of paying off his parents debt. “Labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour” (Marx, 1844). After Gregor grows accustomed to his new form he becomes alienated from his society because he is unable to conform to norms of being productive, working class and supporting family. He is viewed as insignificant and useless. “Man only sees himself freely active in his animal functions- eating, drinking, procreating” (Marx 1844), this excerpt connotes that Gregor’s life as a bug is not entirely different to his life as a labourer. Gregor is alienated from his family when the idea emerges that he is merely a source of welfare for his family. This is made obvious when Gregors fathers reaction is of anger rather than concern upon seeing his sons new form. “His father clenched his fist with a hostile expression” (Kafka, 25).