Camus and Kafka use literature as a vehicle for revealing uncomfortable and normally hidden truths about the human conditions and the state of man. Arguably the most significant technique they employ is the use of defamiliarsation. Certain truths are often hidden or disguised because certain ‘dark’ cause uncomfortable feelings or what is thought to be unconventional, often does not conform to social norms. Naturally, all individuals can form their own code of ethics but society creates a set of supposedly ‘objective’ truths and does not allow subjective truths to surface.
In The Outsider, Camus creates Meursault, a character who is shockingly blunt through his lack of ‘artificial’ social masks. The apparent callousness of Meursault’s reaction to his mother’s funeral is shocking to the reader, “She (a funeral attendant) was crying regularly… I thought that she would never stop”1 Meursault does not once grieve for his mother’s death even though society expects him to and his annoyance towards the woman is thought to be extremely ‘unacceptable’.
However through defamiarising Meursault’s behavior at the funeral we are given insights into the absurdity of the whole ceremony of death. To Meursault, death is the end and the weeping is a social artiface rather than a rational reaction. Similarly, in The Metamorphosis, Kafka chooses an extremely absurd opening to the novel through Gregor’s transformation into a bug. The narrative style of the opening is measured and is delivered in a ‘matter of fact’ way as if the situation is normal when he “found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.
” 2 Gregor’s first response does not concern his own future but he immediately thinks about his job as being “a strenuous profession”3 and his routines hence revealing the truth that humans are trapped by identity, expectations, obligations, and time. Another interpretation can be made that Kafka is mocking humanity thus comparing that we do not live life better than bugs as he compares the office messenger to “a creature of the boss’s spineless and stupid.
” The use of defamiliarisation in terms of Gregor’s metamorphosis illuminates how even a grotesque transformation of physical reality does not alter the hidden truth that we are trapped by duty. Conversely, Meursault does not go out of his way to ensure other’s happiness thus, Camus communicates that as individuals; our reasoning can be ultimately solipsistic and does not need to conform to society. Society’s expectations cause humans to behave the way they do. The character of Meursault provides an alternative and makes us question our own motives.
In contrast, Gregor desperately tries to keep his family happy by supporting them with financial means prior to his transformation. A Marxist interpretation suggests that as a human being, we need a purpose in life and individual ‘happiness’ is often found through utility. Gregor’s family rewards his usefulness through love and affection and these feelings put him into a “state of vacant and peaceful contemplation” 4 Before he dies however, he has lost his ability to work and support the family, his parents abandon him.
The family’s reaction to his transformation questions our assumptions of familial loyalty. Further evidence is found in the beginning as Grete ostensibly makes an effort to care for Gregor by bringing him food that he likes but her actions seem to be driven by family duty rather than a true human bond, as she “sweeps together with a broom”5 the food he has not touched and “hastily dropped everything” This clearly shows that she is disgusted by Gregor’s vermin state.
It requires the defamiliarisation of Gregor for the reader to be made aware that even family relationships are often founded on selfish need rather than love. Although Gregor desperately tries to communicate with his family revealing that all humans need to be able to communicate, to be understood and to be loved. Kafka uses Gregor’s absurd situation to emphasise this. Gregor symbolizes the lonely, the unloved, the overworked and the misunderstood in society.
The treatment of his family towards his transformation reflects how the society treats people that are not useful to themselves. Ultimately, his constant struggle to communicate with his family represents human struggle for acceptance. Even in his utterly altered state, this is Gregor’s ultimate desire and is more important than understanding his ‘nature’ as vermin. Kafka seems to be asserting that this is equally true of human nature. We are unable to understand ourselves so seek validation from others. This further explores the fact that selfish need is innate to humans.