You remember The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka? You know, the salesman who turns into an insect. Just a couple of background points: 1) Gregor was the protagonist’s name–the salesman who turned into an insect; 2) He lived at home with his parents; 3) No one was sympathetic to Gregor’s metamorphosis; 4) Often, the symbolism within this novella is attributed to Marxist “worker alienation” descriptions; 5) Gregor experienced profound alienation from all areas of his life.
Okay, I promised to make this short, so here it is: Americans are becoming increasingly alienated by their own design. Often you will hear us whine about failing community and family structures while larger systems are expected to pick up the slack. In other words, instead of parents being responsible for parenting; schools, legislators, law enforcement, courts and social services are expected to fill the gaps. Likewise, government is expected to take over the responsibilities of a compassionate, connected, engaged community. Instead of your best friend or priest holding your hand and listening to you as you suffer through a year of grieving over the death of your 16-year-old son, or your neighbors pooling together to help you and your family as your husband is out of work fighting cancer, we turn to government-administered and/or funded social services.
Hey! It’s great that these systems are here, please don’t misunderstand me. I am a huge advocate for funding social services. They are critical to modern community functioning, and more funding is needed. Yet, why are these services so critical? What went wrong–what broke? While these services are indeed critical, they are a miserable replacement for parenting, familial and societal accountability, genuine friendship, sharing, warmth and love.
What I’m saying is that Gregor’s plight is a perfect description of the alienation within 21st Century culture, taking into account the context described above. I argue that it is even more relevant today than when it was originally penned in 1915. So, if you’ve ever read The Metamorphosis and liked it, or if you have never read it but think you might like to, I’d encourage you to pick it up, and challenge you to think of it in terms of symbolism that would be pertinent to American culture today.
One of the most powerful features of classic literature is not only its timelessness as it relates to telling a story within a historical context, but that themes and symbols can be translated to something relevant in any point in time. While alienation may be a part of the human condition, perhaps it has become even worse than before? Something to think about.