Protagonists are the characters in stories that overcome defiant odds, undergo a change in personality, or gradually come upon some realization. It is the tendency of writers to place the protagonist at the helm of the story to develop the character and how they evolve throughout the story to the fullest, while other characters are there to further the development of the protagonist. In The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka goes the unconventional route: the story is from the perspective of Gregor, yet his sister, Grete, is the protagonist.
While Gregor’s physical state continuously worsens, his outlook remains consistently positive towards his family and he continues to feel burdened with their well-being. Grete, however, grows more aware of her power after becoming Gregor’s caretaker and grows less sympathetic to the needs of others. The way she takes action based on her own volition as the family’s situation becomes tougher, and then losing her control when the family’s situation ends on a hopeful note, falls in line with Kafka’s belief that the only way to realize that everyone is accountable for their own actions is to be in a state of isolation and despair.
Kafka reveals that even before Gregor turned into a bug, all the way until Gregor’s death, that Gregor consistently held to his belief that he needed to act based on what would benefit his family. Upon his initial transformation, Gregor laments about how distasteful his job is, and claims that if he was not working to pay off his parents’ debt, he “would have quit long ago” (4). A critique of The Metamorphosis even claims that Gregor’s terrifying appearance reflects “Gregor’s bitter discontent” (Sokel 175). Yet while he feels trapped in the job because of the debt, he always places a higher priority on his belief that he should not disappoint his family (11). He even picked a lavish apartment for his family to live in despite a “smaller and cheaper one” being in fact preferred by the rest of the family (58) and was planning to send Grete to the conservatory so she could study violin “regardless of the great expense” (27).
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Therefore, while he resents the debt and claims it is the reason he has to work, he never realizes that by spending money so freely on his family instead of paying off the debt, it is his own fault that he has to keep at the job he hates. Beyond a lack of self-reflection, Gregor’s unwavering conviction that his family’s well-being is his ultimate goal kept him from changing his perspective on them no matter their actions. Even when Gregor finds out that his father had been squirreling away money instead of using it to pay off the debt (28), which would let Gregor be free from his job sooner, he only appreciates his father’s preparedness. He concludes that it was “undoubtedly better” that his father had the savings since the family would be able to support themselves for “one year, or at the most two” (28).
Even after Grete calls for getting rid of Gregor because “People who already have to work as hard as we [the family] do can’t put up with this constant torture at home, too” (51), Gregor does not blame her and agrees he “would have to disappear” (54) since he cannot bear the idea of being a burden to his family. Gregor may have physically changed, ending up as a dead bug covered in dust with an apple stuck in his back (54), but his overall goal and his attitudes towards himself and others remained fixed, so he is not the protagonist of The Metamorphosis despite being the narrator for the majority of the story.
The character who underwent a drastic change in The Metamorphosis was Grete, who at the start helped Gregor thoughtfully but evolved into a resentful, authoritarian caretaker. Waking up after being ushered back into his room the first time, Gregor finds a bowl of milk with bread waiting for him, and he claims that milk “used to be his favorite drink, and that was certainly why his sister had put it in the room” (22). Then, when his sister noticed he had not eaten the food she originally brought, she retrieved a selection of items so Gregor could find something he did find palatable (24). Her attention to detail and effort to try and find foods Gregor would be able to eat indicates that she is making an honest attempt to care for him. Gregor’s relationship with Grete at the beginning has even been compared to that of “the infant’s first dependence on the benevolent mother” (Webster 165).
Yet as she continued to care after Gregor, her ego grew. She adopted “the role of the particularly well-qualified expert whenever Gregor’s affairs were being discussed” (34) and justified taking away all his furniture since it would allow Gregor more room to crawl around, which seems considerate. However Gregor realizes that “no human being beside Grete” would likely enter his room without furniture (34).
When he tries to block their path to one of his remaining belongings, a photo -- “He would rather bite his dear sister Grete than permit her to remove this picture” (Webster 160) -- he observes that Grete intended to “chase him down from the wall” (36). If she still cared for his well-being rather than caring for her power over him, she would not have wanted to act directly against his evident wish for the picture to stay.
At the end, she goes so far as to claim the most power she can over Gregor: she decides the family has to “get rid of it” (51). Not only is she denying any relationship to Gregor, but she claims the authority to make the decision of eliminating him from their lives. She argues that the family has been under “constant torture” because of Gregor which excuses them from blame (51), and does not feel obliged to consider Gregor’s feelings at all by this point since she does not view the bug as Gregor, as evidenced by her referring to him as “it”. Grete is the protagonist because she progressively loses empathy and eventually chooses to sacrifice Gregor’s well-being for her own, revealing how far she has fallen.
By the change in the motives for Grete’s actions coinciding with the worsening of tension within the family, she embodies Kafka’s existential philosophy: her despair leads her to act for her own self-interest, but this causes her anguish. After repeating her declaration that the family should get rid of Gregor, she “broke out crying so bitterly that her tears poured down onto her mother’s face” (51) The declaration may be cruel to Gregor, but the sister realized that she had the power to change her circumstances by getting rid of Gregor, since with Gregor around things were only seeming to get worse. The tenants they had managed to acquire refused to pay and threatened to file claims after seeing Gregor (50), and since Gregor had been the sole source of income for the family, Grete had gotten a job to contribute to finances which she worked during the day and was even studying in the evenings in hopes of getting a better job (41).
Compared to her previous life of playing violin without any apparent responsibilities (27), for the family even had a maid (26), Grete’s new existence is abysmal. With Gregor’s metamorphosis, the family, including Grete, developed a “longing for the restoration in the family of the warm and harmonious relations which have vanished” (Sokel 171), but this restoration never occurred despite Grete’s efforts to care for Gregor initially while he was alive. After Gregor’s death, there seems to be hope for her future, or as an essay described, “the family regains, as if at one blow, its former dignity” (Sokel 181): the family leaves the apartment with the sun shining and discovers that each family member has promising jobs so they do not have a financial crisis on their hands (58).
However, Grete’s power over her own actions disappears as the parents scheme to “find her a good husband” (58). While Grete did not reach existential enlightenment directly -- she did not end the story in a state of anguish over determining her own fate -- she represents the association between isolation and despair with having control over one’s actions. When she is in despair over Gregor she acts based on her personal desires not outside motivations, but when she loses that sense of despair, she has also lost her power over herself.
Gregor was isolated, he rarely left his room at all throughout the entire book -- and would have reasonable cause for despair after his sister stated she wanted to get rid of him (51), yet he was so intent on acting to serve his family he even spent his last few moments in “peaceful reflection” after concluding the best way to help his family was to do as his sister asked and disappear (54). Therefore, the responsibility of portraying Kafka’s existentialist philosophy falls to Grete. In portraying his philosophy, she experiences despair which drives her to feel anguished, and this development, especially compared to the lack of change in Gregor’s outlook, qualifies Grete as the true protagonist of The Metamorphosis.
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