Existentialism in The Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist
Existentialism is a philosophy dealing with man's aloneness in the universe. Either there is no God or else God stands apart from man, leaving him free will to make his own choices. From this basic idea of man being alone in an uncertain and purposeless world, many related ideas have developed. One great worry of existentialist writers is that life is becoming too complicated and too impersonal. People become more and more involved with their work, which is taking them away from their friends, family, and culture. However, these provide the only "meaning" that life could possibly have. One author prominently known for his work with existential ideas was Franz Kafka. Kafka, who wrote from the mid-1910's until the early 1920's, took the ideas of existentialism and interwove them so well into his novels and short stories that they became a trademark of his writing. Two of his stories are good examples of this philosophy: The Metamorphosis and "The Hunger Artist."
In The Metamorphosis, Gregor, the protagonist, works as a salesman. He doesn't like his job but works very hard, making his job his life. When he wakes up one morning having turned into a dung beetle (or perhaps a cockroach?) during the night, he thinks only about how he is going to get to work, not how it happened or what he can do about it. The hunger artist is also completely dedicated to his job, which is fasting. To him it is an art, one which he works at day and night. All of his thoughts focus on how he can improve himself. At the end of forty days (which was the fasting limit set by his manager), he always asks himself, "Why stop now when [I am] in [my] best fasting form . . . ?" (3). This demonstrates that for the hunger artist, work is so much of a compulsion that he cannot stop doing it, as he tells the overseer at the circus while dying.
Kafka also uses the existential idea that man's fate is sometimes beyond man's control. In his stories, chance or destiny rules man's life. Gregor could not control his metamorphosis, just as he cannot control his "new" legs which "waved helplessly before his eyes" (1). The hunger artist's fate is to die of starvation, since as he says, "I have to fast, I can't help it" (8). Gregor dies; the artist dies. Their lack of control over their fates emphasizes man's helplessness and "forlornness," to use Sartre's term.
For both Gregor and the hunger artist, work leads from dehumanization to death. Their deaths illustrate another theme of existentialist writing: that man, though alone, cannot survive by himself. He needs to interact as a member of society in order to give "meaning" to his life. Man needs mankind in order to "be alive." Before his metamorphosis, Gregor was very much a loner. He got up at four every morning to travel all over the region to sell products, and he didn't have the time or the opportunity to...