- Friedrich Nietzsche on Kafka

Gregor Samsa as Functional Deviant
A Hypothetical Interpretation by Friedrich Nietzsche

Russell McNeil
Jan 20, 1995

My dear friends:

Suppose all that you have always valued in your lives was shown to 
you to be: illusion. What would it be like to turn truth on her head? 
To have your precious beliefs, maxims, platitudes, and traditions 
inverted and distorted beyond recognition? To suddenly realize that 
what is good, is bad; what is beauty, is foul; what is virtue, vice?

What if all your points of reference were to shift: North becomes 
South; black becomes white; deviant becomes saint; saint 
becomes deviant.

Suppose that this transformation--a metamorphosis of perception 
were to come to you -- and you alone. Suddenly you awake -- and 
in utter solitude -- you discover that the world is its opposite. 

Two realities strike you all at once: One, you define yourself in 
terms of your values. With your values now reversed, so too are 
you reversed: you are a roach! Two, what you have become is 
apparent to everyone else. 

Gregor Samsa has burrowed his way out of the value set that 
defined his social setting. The metamorphosis was inevitable. Look 
at where his values were anchored: servant to the needs of an 
oppressive boss in order to meet the needs of an exploitive family.

So, he ceases to serve. With new values opposing those of the 
family, the employer, and society at large, Gregor emerges as a 
deviant. He has entered the world of the despised.

Never forget, my friends, that "truth" is in the eye of the beholder. In 
Gregor's world the despised and the beloved are reversed.

Franz Kafka is a new thinker -- one of that breed I spoke to you 
about 100 years ago. Gregor Samsa is his agent. Never forget my 
brilliant words about such men in Beyond Good and Evil: "The 
philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day 
after tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, 
in contradiction to his today: his enemy was ever the ideal of today 
(Section 212, BGE)."

So, I Friedrich, will now tell you what my philosophic friend Franz 
finds so fascinating about Gregor the bug!

Society is an association of institutions held together by a set of 
artificial values. You like to call them "truths." I say they are masks -
- but never mind. Your prestige in your society is measured by the 
degree to which you choose to conform to its values. When you 
conform you are close to the norm. If you deviate from the norm, 
you are a deviant. But beware. Deviation is met with indignation. 
But deviation and deviants are essential for your survival. 

Here's where I, Friedrich,  come in. You see no one knows where 
the norm is! Why? There is no truth! The deviant defines the norm 
for you. The norm is established with reference to the deviant. In a 
world without crime you would have to invent crime. Oh, I know 
how much you 90's people rail against crime and justice and 
criminals--I read your electronic musings--but believe me, without 
crime you would be lost souls with no reference to good or 
evil...dare I say you would be beyond good and evil?

In your society your deviant subgroups become isolated from the 
main group because you insist judging everything the deviant does 
as a further manifestation or proof of the deviance. In fact the label 
itself defines the deviant individual. 

Because individuals so defined tend to become isolated and 
alienated from your main culture, individuals with common 
"deviant" characteristics define their own separate sub-cultures. 
These sub-cultures in turn may differentiate too, generating their 
own versions of deviance within deviance and new sub-sub-
cultures form.

Remember that the cohesion of your society depends on these 
deviant groups as reliable points of reference. The more firmly you 
believe in the "truth" of their deviance, the more faith you have in 
the steadiness of your "values." Because you define deviance in 
terms of masks--you call them moral principles (one ought not to 
deviate), deviant individuals and the subcultures to which they 
belong can and often do become targets for social oppression. You 
despise them, but you cannot exist without them.

This all serves an important social function. Let's say you as a 
social group adhere to the moral principle, "one ought to behave 
within the law." Under such a belief "outlaws" are deviant. Outlaws 
are a threat to your security. You form a mental model of what an 
outlaw is like: a certain stereotype emerges. Outlaws reveal 
themselves by their dress, language, and habits. You and I know 
this is not always true about outlaws, but the stereotype provides 
some comfort to you. Of course if you are an outlaw and 
comfortable as one, adopting the dress, language, and 
mannerisms of the stereotype may make you feel at home with 
your outlaw peers, and comfortable as a member of an outlaw 
subculture. You have exaggerated cultural examples of this in your 
portrayals of outlaws: prohibition gangsters, old western movie 
villains, Mafia operatives, outlaw motorcycle gangs.

You even use age as a basis for referencing deviation to a norm. 
To some extent young people (teens in particular) and very old 
people tend to occupy sub-cultural niches in which they feel 
comfortable because they have become isolated from the main 
social group.  Teens and old people do deviate from the norm with 
respect to age. But the very label "teen" or "old" carries a whole 
catalogue of behavioral expectations for you. You know the 
stereotypes: teens are rebellious and careless. Old people are 
senile and unreliable. Whether true or not, the behavior, dress and 
mannerisms of young and old people are seen by the main group 
as further evidence of the stereotype. These age based social 
reference points help anchor your social norm: that of the ideal, 
reliable and conforming, middle aged conformer. The deviants: 
teens and old people in turn tend to cluster within cultural sub-
groups in which they mirror common forms of dress, behavior and 

There are endless ways in which people in your society can deviate 
from behavior norms. Religion or religiosity is or was seen as a 
basis for defining sub groups: a hot debate in some US states right 
now over school prayer is pitting those against prayer (labeled by 
the large group as "atheist") against more mainstream Christian 
believers. Point being here that the anything the "atheist" says or 
does is seen as further evidence of the label. Again, according to 
the argument, the social stereotyping reinforces the values of the 
main group by giving it reference points. Once labeled you are 
marked forever.

There are other examples: skin color (black, white, native); 
economic class (rich, poor, employed, unemployed), ethnic 
background and illness illness (both physical and mental). The 
behavior of anyone who suffers from a serious mental or physical 
disability tends to be interpreted as flowing from the conditions of 
the disability--to the exclusion of anything else. If you are labeled 
insane (or mislabeled insane) there is little you can do or say that 
will not be seen as further evidence of your illness. Ten years ago 
Guy Paul Morin was labeled schizophrenic. Look how easy it was 
for a jury of 12 to convict him of a horrendous murder and rape of a 
child based mainly on the expert characterization of someone with 
that label: psychiatrists said: "Mr. Morin could have done what he 
did in a delusionary haze and utterly repressed the memory."  
Everything that Guy Paul Morin said or did during his 10 years of 
life as a social cockroach was understood through the filter of your 
society's characterization of the mental deviance known as 
schizophrenia. Mr. Morin was cleared on Monday. DNA evidence 
proved that he could not have committed the crime.

Sexual deviation can be seen in this light too. Where 
heterosexuality is the norm and where there is a social moral 
principle that that is the way one "ought" to be, those who deviate 
from that norm are labeled as deviant. The "gay" subculture is a 
reference for normal behavior. The subculture in turn may 
appropriate its own set of normal rules, dress, and behavioral 

"Gregor Samsa woke up one morning changed into a monstrous 
vermin:" Really? You think so? "Gregor's eyes turned to the 
window, and the overcast weather---completely depressed him." If 
you suddenly found yourself in Gregor's shoes--six shoes to be 
exact--would the weather be your first concern? 

Consider the possibility that Gregor had acquired a label: a label 
from which he knew he would never escape: a label so odious in 
the eyes of family, boss, and society at large that nothing Gregor 
could do, or say could ever be interpreted as anything other than 
further evidence of the condition to which that label had attached?

Had Gregor acquired the characteristics of a functional deviate? 
The real metamorphosis that takes place in labeling is complete. 
Not only do others see us in terms of the label, we see ourselves 
that way too: The label becomes deeply internalized. "Gregor was 
shocked to hear his own voice answering, unmistakably his own 
voice, but from below an insistent distressed chirping intruded."

On page 11 Gregor answers his father's request that he open the 
door with a clear "No." The response produces a stunned silence 
and a sob from his sister. It was the last intelligible word Gregor 
would ever utter. It would soon become apparent to the rest of the 
world that Gregor was indeed what he himself knew he was: a 
social deviant.

With the door opened everyone was shocked. It was Gregor--but 
Gregor transformed- his long speech on page 16 appeals to the 
manager to accept him. "I'm in a tight spot." He isn't heard. His 
appeal for understanding, forgiveness and a second chance fall on 
deaf ears. Gregor has become something loathsome to the social 
norm. His appeal is nothing more than the ranting of a labeled man. 
Nothing he says or does from this point forward will or can be 
referenced in any other light. Familial and social stability depend on 

As odious and as reviled as Gregor has become, he serves a 
critical function within his social setting. His very existence allows 
his family to establish a familiar norm--one that was missing when 
Gregor the salesman ruled the roost.  His father had been, sullen, 
and lethargic. His mother asthmatic. His sister lazy. With Gregor, 
the deviant as a point of reference all three experience a 
transformation: they become socially defined. The father regains 
vitality; the mother sews, the sister learns music, French and short 
hand. All three become economic producers. The deviant, Gregor,  
has an important role to play in this family.

There are other pieces in this puzzle that fit the picture. Gregor the 
bug may hold alien values, but he is essential. He is isolated from 
the main stream but tethered to it. Deviants are reviled but critical 
for survival. For Gregor the tethers are universals: music and love. 
"Was he an animal that music could hold him so? (p.49)"

The cleaning lady says, "Look at that old dung beetle." She later 
credits Gregor with, "unlimited intelligence." Her friendly derision 
towards Gregor Samsa expresses a winking acknowledgment of 
certain shared values. She is a ally. She too is a deviant--and as 
part of an economic underclass recognizes and shares something 
of Gregor's world.

And what of Gregor's world and Gregor's values?

Remember my words: "He shall be greatest who can be lonliest, 
the most concealed, the most deviant, the human being beyond 
good and evil, the master of his virtues, he that is overrich in will. 
Precisely this shall be called greatness; being capable of being as 
manifold as whole, as ample as full. (BGE 212)"

Thank You.