Last week, the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement experienced its latest eviction with the removal of protesters from the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This operation resulted in 23 arrests and divergent accounts of the police action. The latest high-profile shutdown comes on the heels of recent evictions in New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta and other US cities, possibly with the assistance of the Department of Homeland Security via coordinated conference calls with municipal mayors. This desire to “clean out” a peaceful inconvenience, remove an irritant to established values, is the central psychology that Franz Kafka so powerfully explores in his classic 1915 short story “The Metamorphosis.”
Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman and the principal breadwinner for a household of four, awakes one morning before work and realizes that he has changed into a large cockroach. An office manager visits the Samsa flat to motivate and then berate Gregor, but when neither strategy works, the manager departs with disgust, even though it is the first day that Gregor has ever been late for work. It soon becomes apparent that Gregor is unable to leave the flat, let alone work, in his new physical state. Samsa has transformed from man to cockroach, from a producer to a consumer, from workfare to welfare.
The psychology of Gregor’s sister, mother and father, their absurdly materialist mindset, is a driving force of the story. In short, they are obsessed by financial catastrophe more than anything else. Gregor also clings to their values at first, evidenced by the symbolism of his tight grip to a wall picture of a woman wearing an expensive fur coat, scarf and muff. Gregor’s 20-year-old sister Grete, an aspiring art student, is compassionate at first. She brings Gregor food and rearranges furniture so that life within his room will be more pleasant. Yet her initial sensitivity quickly fades, a secondary metamorphosis, as she must abandon school for work. His mother cannot bear to look at him, and when he does pop out of his room, his father peppers Gregor with newspapers and apples, injuring his exoskeleton. Gregor, who was once the pride of the family due to his work income, becomes a pariah. This “metamorphosis” highlights the raw materialism of the Samsa family, the same spirit that makes some people uncomfortable with the Occupy Wall Street protestors’ peaceful expression of free speech in cities across the globe.
Everyone within the Samsa household must flip roles; they must break from comfortable consumer/producer routines. Mother takes up sewing; father gains part-time employment, as does Grete. At night, the family gathers to “open the books” and look over accounts, an activity that brings the most familial harmony, along with a focused resentment of Gregor. Eventually, the Samsas take on several boarders for extra rent money, and begin plotting ways to evict Gregor from the premises, to clean him out, to kill him. Gregor becomes depressed by his family’s hatred and begins to eat less and less, to diminish his role as a consumer.
One evening, the lodgers request that Grete play the violin. Gregor listens to the music and finds it so wonderful that he inches out from his room to hear more clearly. The lodgers spot him, become terrified, and terminate their residence at the flat without paying. It is the final material blow. Gregor dies soon afterward from self-starvation.
After Gregor’s death, the family is relieved and more light-hearted. Their finances have stabilized and Grete has blossomed into a strong candidate for marriage, a further reinforcement of their economic values. Harmony is restored. Like the Samsa family, many citizens experienced relief when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was removed from their city squares, church lawns and direct consciousness. These citizens should consider what they truly value in their society: protected freedoms of speech or smoothly flowing sidewalks and economics. One’s personal reaction to the Occupy Wall Street movement is a litmus test of materialist values, just as the Samsa family was tested by Gregor’s metamorphosis: Should it be cared for or killed?
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s value choices influence upon the raising of her family in 20th Century India.