A Feminist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

Feminism is a movement for the equal social and political rights of women who are marginalized or ‘other’ in a patriarchal society. However, the emergence of feminist literary criticism is one of the major developments in literary studies in the past forty years or so. Feminist literary criticism seeks to study and advocate the rights of women in the following ways. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically. Patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so. I will first discuss the main ideas of feminism and then three areas of feminist viewpoints according to the book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry.  After this summary, I will illustrate the feminist approach by applying some of the theories to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.

Feminism based on the ideas that a woman is a vulnerable figure in a male dominated society where she can not express her willingness or unwillingness freely. No matter, whether a woman lives in her father’s house or husband’s house she has to suffer a lot which ultimately focuses on the shelter less world. Before marriage a woman is dominated by her father and after marriage the authority goes to the husband, so marriage is nothing but an exchange of masters.          

Now, Barry, in the third edition of his book, suggests that feminism center around three areas:  the role of theory, the role of language and the role of psychoanalysis.  Beginning with the role of theory, Barry explains that there exist Anglo-American feminists and French feminists. Anglo-American feminists tend to be more skeptical about recent critical theory in using it, than have the ‘French’ feminists, who have adopted a great deal of post-structuralist and psychoanalytic criticism.  The second point that Barry sites is the role of language. Some of the French feminists and even some of the Anglo-American feminists believe that language itself is masculine and patriarchal, but according to Barry, they believe in the notion of √©criture feminine. The last area focuses on the role psychoanalysis should play in feminism. Barry notes that other feminist critics find that Lacan’s teachings were much more “paralogical” or “feminine” and they do accept psychoanalysis.            

Now, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” has quite a lot to say about gender roles, especially when viewed upon through the keen eyes of feminism.
Feminist criticism criticizes the fact the traditionally women are given some definite roles in the society like they would be mild, soft, less adventurous, less productive etc. Here in the book the writer’s portrayal of women is not free from this prejudice that has been in the consciousness of the people in both the Western and the Eastern societies.

It shows the feminine role is to provide food and a clean house by Grete and her mother. The male role is to work, support the family, and to control which is done by Gregor and his father. Grete and her mother are marginalized or regarded as ‘others’ by the male family members. Grete is dominated by her father and brother. Grete does not get any scope to work outside or live independently. Gregor does not wish that his sister will go outside and Grete has to obey it. After Gregor’s transforming into a bug Grete gets the scope to support family and proves her individuality. But her family members see it from another feminist perspective that now to them, Grete is grown up enough to be married off. Now, she becomes a commodity of marriage market.

Another important feminist reading of the text is Gregor’s transformation from animus to anima that means his metaphorical transformation from masculine to feminine. Gregor was the only earning member of the family. Before his metamorphosis, he was animus that means dominative, active and decisive. But after his metamorphosis, he becomes anima which indicates now he is feminine and passive. Here feminism does not related to sex rather to power.

Apart from the above discussion, now in order to better understand some of the many ideas of feminism we will look into the text from some other perspectives. For example, an ‘Anglo-American’ approach to the text examines the author’s biography and finds the connections between his own life and his writings.  We find that, Kafka wrote many letters to a woman, writing of his own weaknesses and seeking strength from her—like Gregor’s debilitating(weak) condition and need for female caregivers.  Both Kafka’s and Gregor’s actions suggest that they feel inadequate in their masculine roles and seek to live as women, but of course they can not.

Now, a looking from French feminism breaks down the text of the story like a post-structuralist study. In this regard we can mention a passage from Kafka’s story that describes Gregor’s sister Grete.  For example, in this passage we come across the words “defiance” and “self-confidence” which suggest masculine qualities in Grete, although other words and phrases such as “childish” and “romantic enthusiasm of girls her age” attributed to femininity.

To conclude, because of the many avenues by way of theory, language and psychoanalysis, feminism is a vibrant and ever-evolving way to critique literature.  One feminist may vary from the other, but each will utilize their tools—whether they be post-structuralist or more liberal humanistic—to confront society’s views on sex and gender.