How the Physical Confinement of the Protagonists of the Stranger by Albert Camus and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka affects them on a psychological level. In Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the protagonists Meursault and Gregor Samsa feature contrasting personalities that can yet somehow be linked to one another. Over the course of the novels, both Meursault and Gregor face physical confinement and the outcome of this confinement on their personalities is sometimes similar yet sometimes extremely different. These effects on their psyche, to a large extent, are the reasons behind the endings of both books. An exploration of these psychological effects shall bring out important aspects of the characterization of Meursault and Gregor and of the overall plots and philosophies behind the novels and prove that the key to escaping the confinement for both of them was acceptance of the futility of life and the inevitability of death.
Accepting these facts would be considered foolish in the real world and the fact these two people accept these facts and the manner in which the people around them react displays, as the writers intended, how unprepared man is to face anything that upsets the balance and order he creates for himself. Social isolation is a key theme in both of these books. Meursault is, on a psychological level, isolated and detached from society which is made evident from the first line of the book by his lack of emotion when discussing his mother’s death. Although we are not initially informed of Gregor’s life before his metamorphosis and subsequent confinement, we slowly uncover details that reveal that he fits into the system and works hard as an average salesman only to support his family and make his sister happy while he is, on a social level, isolated from the world outside his household.
Meursault is usually an outsider to most deep emotions such as true happiness, love or sorrow. He is driven by desires for physical pleasures such as sex, smoking, lying in the sun and drinking coffee. It can be said that before his incarceration, Meursault simply “unthinkingly drifted from moment to moment, lacking the motivation or ability to examine his life as a narrative with a past, present, and future.” Gregor, before his metamorphosis, took into consideration the debts of his family and so gave up the same physical stimulants that fuel Meursault’s life and drove on with his “irritating work” which involved “constant travelling” and “irregular meals”. It was said that his family was happy as long as he brought in money to pay off their debts and that he saved up his money to send his sister to the conservatory. However, it is also said that his family was upset that he never went out of the house except to go to work.
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All of this shows that before their physical confinements Gregor and Meursault were contrasting in the manner in which they faced life, Gregor had people depending on him and worked to protect them while Meursault sent his mother, who depended on him, off to a home for the elderly. Gregor gave up the physical pleasures in life while Meursault actively resisted any course of action he could take that would deny him any of these pleasures. Another notable contrast is how Meursault is isolated from society because it seems that he simply doesn’t know how to engage people in conversation or relationships, this can be seen when he is unsure what to do when asking his boss for a holiday in order to attend his mother’s funeral and starts to say “it’s not my fault”. It can also be seen in his relationship with Marie when she asks if he loves her and he states that he told her “I didn’t think it meant anything but I probably didn’t”. On the other hand, Gregor’s isolation from society is caused by his work as a travelling salesman and constant need to please his family which leaves him with little time to satisfy his own desires.
It strikes the reader that although Gregor worked hard to fit into society and cared deeply for other people, he did not have a say in the events that led to this confinement while Meursault who did not feel true emotions for anyone, not even his mother, and did not bother to try and fit into society, had the option of not having to endure physical confinement (by not killing the Arab) or escaping his physical confinement (by showing that he repented his crime and convincing the jury he did not deserve to be imprisoned or killed), yet still accepted his fate and gave in to the inevitability of his confinement and eventual death. While Gregor simply awoke one morning to find that the event that would lead to his physical confinement had occurred (his metamorphosis into the insect), Meursault took a conscious decision to trigger the event that led to his physical confinement (killing the Arab).
Although Gregor’s metamorphosis was the event that led to his physical confinement, it can be said that the moment that marked the beginning of this confinement was when his father, seeing that Gregor had scared away the manager and was starting the scare his mother, drove him back into his room with aid of a cane and a newspaper, ignored the fact that Gregor injured himself, and locked the door. Meursault’s physical confinement began from the moment he was locked up in jail, but he only started to notice it after a few days when he realized he could no longer go to the beach, spend time with Marie or smoke, and therefore he could no longer engage in satisfying the physical desires that usually took up every minute of his time.
It can be said that in both books the psychological effects hit the protagonists in three waves. In The Stranger, these waves are marked by Meursault’s first night in jail and his encounter with his lawyer and the magistrate, the nights after the court hearing and the encounter with the priest before the execution. In The Metamorphosis, three events can be used as dividers between these waves. These events are when Gregor’s father drives him into his room with a cane and newspaper, the incident when the apple gets lodged in Gregor’s back, and the time when he scares the boarders and his sister locks him in the room and says “finally”. The immediate psychological effects of physical confinement (the first wave) on Gregor and Meursault are that Gregor starts to learn how to use his new physical features and begins the slow process of detachment from humanity the latter of which can be seen where he is able to observe his family as an outsider, “what a quiet life the family has been leading” and where he finds that he is now repulsed by milk, which used to be his favourite drink.
Another notable change is that in order to emphasize the fact that Gregor is becoming more insect-like, Kafka changes the words he uses to describe Gregor’s movements. At the beginning of the first chapter, it said that Gregor “lugged” and “threw” himself around which sounds much more human than insect-like when compared to the words “crawling” and “scuttled” which are used to describe his movements in chapter 2. The immediate effects on Meursault however are that he is deprived of all his usual physical pleasures and he initially longs for them but then calms down and accepts that he can no longer satisfy those needs. He does not notice much until the first night or two until he starts to realize that he is being deprived of the physical stimulants he lives upon when thinking about how his cigarettes were taken away and even though Marie came to visit him, he was separated from her by the bars and the gap between the prisoners’ room and visitors’ room and therefore could not touch her despite his urge to be near her and “squeeze her shoulders” which is another example of how an emotional connection with her was not enough for him and he instead wanted a physical connection instead.
He then also starts to long to go to the beach and swim in the sea. His desire for sex is also brought out when he says he needs a woman and starts to think about women. The fact that he actually states that he thought about women but not Marie in particular shows that she meant nothing to him on an emotional level but was simply a way for him to satisfy his physical need for sex. Both Gregor and Meursault start to adapt to their confinement and the process of this adaptation is the first psychological change. The fact that both of them react in a similar way is attention-grabbing because it is possible that they react like this because both authors were trying to express the fact that there is no rational force governing the universe and so they tried to show how it is perfectly plausible for someone to simply adapt to living with the worst of punishments and if it happened, then these punishments and laws that allow us to bring order to our lives would simply cease to exist.
The second wave of psychological change is seen in Meursault from the moment he meets his lawyer and the examining magistrate. Meursault almost forgets that he is considered a murderer and both times, almost tries to be friendly with them until he remembers what they probably think of him. He then starts to notice, whilst he is confined in his cell, that he longs to go for a walk on the beach and swim in the sea. While all of this is normal and expected in incarcerated individuals, Meursault’s psyche then changes in a way that is completely unexpected. Camus once said that The Stranger was his exploration of “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd”. What Mersault does highlight this statement. He accepts his situation. Despite being a man driven by these physical desires, he accepts that he can no longer have them, accepts his situation and accepts his confinement. He once again calmly drifts from moment to moment without analyzing his life as a whole.
The second wave of psychological change is brought about by Gregor’s father throwing the apple at him and locking him in his room. The apple is the symbol of the rage of his old father. Although an apple would not generally be considered truly dangerous, in this situation it seriously injures Gregor. This is a reflection of how Gregor’s father is weak but his rage pierces Gregor’s already thinning self-image and pride and as the apple is lodged in his back, it stays with him even when he is confined to his prison as a constant reminder of the anger that exists for him in the family. This fact drives Gregor to be more of an outsider to the family and so he is even more psychologically isolated than before. He deeply analyses the family and their situation and as he comes to realize that he has placed an incredible burden on their shoulders, his mother instructs Grete to shut the door and this action is a confirmation to him that his confinement is final and there is no way he can benefit the family anymore.
He is no longer able to sleep because of his mental condition and no longer able to occupy himself by moving around and looking out the window because of his injury. He spends time dreaming that “the next time the door opened he would take charge of the family’s affairs again, just as he had done in the old days”. As his sister and his family are absorbed into their work and forget about him, thus making his confinement even more lonely and unbearable, he alternates between “rage at his miserable treatment” and thoughts of helping his family. This shows his near-demented state and hints that he is almost at his breaking point. After the hearing and Meursault’s sentencing, he, like Gregor, is almost at breaking point. Although he accepts his fate and awaits it calmly, inside he still longs to be able to satisfy his physical urges again. The priest and his words finally push Meursault off the edge, leading into a rant that gives us the first true insight into Meursault’s almost non-existent emotions.
The final change in Meursault is seen when he says “something exploded inside me”. He then for the first time speaks his mind whilst shouting at the priest. It is my opinion that Camus used this outburst to communicate the absurdist message he was trying to communicate through The Stranger, lines such as “one and the same destiny was to select me and thousands of millions of others” and “the others too would be condemned one day” convince me of this. After this meeting, Meursault is finally enlightened, he finds the answer to why he didn’t feel he should cry at his mother’s funeral and he accepts that his death is inevitable and armed with the knowledge gained by this revelation, he is freed of his physical confinement and thus he proceeds to his execution hoping that people with greeting him with “cries of hate” for he knows that they too will eventually face the same end.
When Grete slams Gregor’s door shut and after he scares the borders. Gregor is finally convinced that his part in the family’s lives is over. His sister’s cry of “finally” when his door is slammed shut is evidence to Gregor that the one person he gave up his life for, the person he saved up all his earnings for and that used to always be ready to take care of him was now unable to bear the sight of him. When Gregor realizes that his family, even Grete would be better off when he was gone, he finally succumbs to the inevitability of his removal from their lives and since all emotional connections to them have already been severed, he is easily able to let go of the physical connections.