Biological Determinism , Parental Affection and Filial Love’s Influence on Individual Decisions
“ Metamorphosis ” and “ The Good Woman of Setzuan ”
Bertolt Brecht’s social problem play “The Good Woman of Setzuan” and Franz
Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” are challenging contemporary literary works that deal with the ideas of individual decisions influenced by biological determinism and familial influence. In “The Good Woman of Setzuan”, Shen-Te establishes a male alter ego ,Shui-Ta and eventually becomes a wealthy tobacco tycoon. The protagonist of “Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa a man who only meant his family well ultimately gave up his life to protect them from the monster he has become . This essay aims to show that Shen-Te’s decisions are shaped by her motherly instinct to act in the best interest of her unborn child and to ensure her own survival . For Gregor Samsa , his decisions are shaped by his biological transformation and familial pressure after his lost of only utility he provided to his family which is as the household’s breadwinner.
In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, Gregor’s gradual psychological adaptation following his metamorphosis is prime example of how his decisions are influenced by his biological form. As Gregor becomes increasingly comfortable with his new physical form, insectoid desire and instinctual behavior begins to dictate the decisions and actions he makes. When Gregor first woke up to find himself transformed into a beetle overnight, his immediate reaction appears to be disconnected from the reality of his transformation. Gregor’s mind is transfixed in the mentality of his previous everyday life as a human while his body has long since been transformed into that of a beetle. The newly transformed Gregor becomes stuck in bed due to his unfamiliarity with his new body’s method of locomotion. Gregor is in distress and starts pondering if he should ask his family for assistance , however “despite of his [Gregor] distress, he couldn’t help but smiling at the thought [of his father and maidservant scooping Gregor out of bed” (31). However, as the story progresses and Gregor becomes more accustomed to his insect form, his human mind starts to transform to that of an insect. The pivotal moment of which Gregor’s human mind becomes decisively “beetle-lized” is when Gregor’s father confronts Gregor, assuming that Gregor has acted some form of violence on his mother that lead to her fainting. Gregor’s actions during the confrontation are clearly insect in nature, as he “fled from his father, hesitating whenever his father stopped short, and then rushing forward again as soon as he stirred” (82). Hence from Gregor’s gradual psychological adaption to that of an insect after his physical transformation shows that to a very large extent Gregor’s mentality and behaviors are influenced by his biological form.
In “The Good Woman of Setzuan”, Shen Te ,as an act of self-preservation against those who exploits her kindness creates the male alter ego of Shui Ta with the intention being to create a cunning, enterprising persona who commands the authority to drive out the family of eight. However following her pregnancy the purpose of the alter ego in addition to self-preservation comes maternal protection of her unborn child from the harsh realities she faces to attain her position of financial security. Shen-Te confesses to Mrs. Shin that the purpose of the entire tobacco operation is all “for the child’s sake. All of this.[Shen-Te’s tobacco empire]” (88). Shen-Te ,motivated by her motherly instinct to provide the best for her young, builds a tobacco empire within the slums of Setzuan so as to offer her child “the best that money can buy” (88). At the same time, in an attempt to shield her child from the social Darwinian truth that her success is built upon the exploitation of her fellow man, Shen-Te decides that and the child shall only see her as “The Good Woman of SeTzuan” and never Shui-Ta The Slumlord who represents the capitalistic ethos of exploitation of the weak. Hence it can be deduced that maternal instincts has a strong influence on the motivations behind the decisions taken by the protagonist of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” - Shen Te.
While in the case of Shen-Te she goes the extra mile so as to set up her unborn child for the best life possible , Gregor in reverse as the only son of his family , much of Gregor’s pre and post metamorphosis decisions are shaped by his unconditional love for his family. Prior to his transformation , Gregor worked as a traveling salesman. Despite being discontent with the soulsucking work, Gregor “hold(s) back for my [his] parents’ sake”(24) so as to pay back his parents debt and support his parents and sister with him being the sole source of income. After Gregor lost his job due to his transformation , the attitude of his family towards him gradually turned hostile as time passes culminating of which they discusses the prospect of “getting rid of” (106) Gregor. In Gregor’s final moments after being left for dead by his own family ,starts reminiscing “with tenderness and love” (110) of the moments he spent with his family . This shows that despite of their harsh treatment he received towards the end of the story he sympathizes with them and his forgoes his own well being one final time as he willingly dies so as not to be a burden on his family any longer. Hence it suggests that Gregor’s decisions very much is influenced by whether or not the decision would lead to the betterment of his family.
It is often argued that the essential human experience is the exertion of an individual’s free will in the world so as to shape our own fate as opposed to letting the forces of social determinism coast us from the start to the finish. However as strong as the human will may be, what we are and what we need to be to survive are often quite different things, what we are and what society wants us to be could even be further. Perhaps a further study can be conducted in converse to the discussion in this study so as to investigate to what extent has the decisions made by Gregor and Shen Te changed the society around them.
Bertolt, Brecht. “The Good Woman of Setzuan”. Trans. Eric Bentley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Print.
Kafka, Franz. “Metamorphosis”. Trans. Susan Bernofsky. New York: W.W Norton & Company, Inc. 2014. Print.