Generosity In Kafka's The Metamorphosis



In the television show Friends, Joey and Phoebe argue if there is such thing as an unselfish selfless act. Joey thinks that nothing can be completely selfless as, but Phoebe avidly disagrees. Carl Rhodes and Robert Westwood continue this conversation in their article The Limits of Generosity: Lessons on Ethics, Economy, and Reciprocity in Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The authors first look what a reciprocal relationship is: “what one gives to the other is expected to be returned in kind” (Rhodes and Westwood 235). For example, if Phoebe gave Joey a meatball sub, Joey would have to give Phoebe a vegetarian lasagna. Joey has to return Phoebe the equivalent in some kind of good, service, or gratitude. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, reciprocal relationships are often based on what someone can get for themselves not what they can do for someone else. Joey for once had the right idea that no one can be completely selfless. Rhodes and Westwood go on to look at how the relationships in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis change through Gregor’s transition. They use Gregor to demonstrate the difficulties and imperfection of human ethics. Rhodes and Westwood accurately use evidence of the family and boss’s manipulation and lack of understanding towards Gregor to show the corrupt nature of generosity. The authors further prove how reciprocal relationships are unethical as they ruin bureaucratic and familial relations and conceal selfish behavior.

Rhodes and Westwood examine how bureaucratic relationships are only based on exchange, not on human interaction. In their article, the authors first explain what a reciprocal relationship is and how it applies to different spheres. This organization helped to give context to analysis in The Metamorphosis later on. They first explain how ethics is based off of generosity, why a reciprocal relationship is inevitably selfish, and how this effects modern day relationships: “the greatest virtue of capitalism is that… it makes the motives of greed and economic self-interest work to promote the general welfare” as opposed to “self-dealing and plunder” (236). They show both the benefits and drawbacks of reciprocity: one is helping themselves, while helping others, while helping the world as a whole. Even though this is a great deal, it is not necessarily ethical. Reciprocal relationships lack generosity because they are based on selfishness, therefore lack ethical morality. Examining the pros and cons of reciprocity lets the reader form their own opinion. Showing the chain of events from ethics to selfishness makes it easy for the reader to analyze their own decisions, ethics, and connect it to Gregor. The authors analysis of ethics at the beginning of the article create a basis of common knowledge for the reader and further understanding in the analysis of The Metamorphosis. 

The clarity of the organization makes it easy to see the parallels of Gregor’s job to our modern bureaucracy. Rhodes and Westwood first take time to explain The Metamorphosis and Kafka’s background. This is helpful for a reader who does not know much about the short story, but since it is very lengthy, some of the information is not as applicable to the argument. The authors then consider Gregor’s relationship with his job. Gregor is above all focused on his job performance, money, and reputation. After his transformation into a bug Gregor can now see, “the harsh logic of his employment relationship is that social relations are terminated as soon as it is clear that the other is no longer one of us and that reciprocation is not possible” (241). This directly supports the fact that his boss has no care for Gregor’s wellbeing just for the money he can make for him. Rhodes and Westwood prove show how the boss is put in a difficult situation where he was to pick between his responsibility to his company and ethics in caring for Gregor. He ultimately chose bureaucracy and money. Once Gregor cannot provide this, there is no sense of reciprocity or generosity for him. 

Rhodes and Westwood further explain the implications of Gregor’s work focused mindset. Gregor is the main financial contributor to the family and they become very reliant on him. Again, once Gregor cannot provide for them they see no use for him. Their previously reciprocal relationship was not based on mutual understanding, but what the family can get. They do not see him as a human anymore, so he does not deserve their reciprocity in return: “He is beyond the limits of both reciprocity and generosity; he is just too other” who “does not deserve ethical status” (243). Rhodes and Westwood use of this example shows how the family is unable to be generous when it matters most. Showing the limits of generosity in Gregor’s work and family life show how corrupt all areas of life are. 

Rhodes and Westwood exemplify what it means to be an “other” and the effects of not being able to separate self-interest from reciprocity: “reading Kafka alerts us to the demand for ethical generosity while at the same time offering a deep understanding of how it is so nearly impossible, and why self-interest and reciprocity are such driving forces” (247). Rather than just addressing the issues of bureaucracy as a whole, Rhodes and Westwood alert their audience that they themselves are the problem. They show how it is human selfishness and inability to learn from mistakes that cause the cycle of bureaucratic need to continue. The idea of a silent and marginalized “other” is able to be applied from The Metamorphosis to modern day racism, inequity, and discrimination. CONCLUSION?

In The Limits of Generosity, Rhodes and Westwood accurately use Gregor’s manipulation to prove the unethical nature of society. Through both bureaucratic and familial relationships, the authors prove how generosity is not universal and reciprocity is selfish. Their structure gives the reader background information to form their own opinion and draw personal conclusions to analyze their own ethics. The article could be more effective if it more closely connected to modern day American issues. This would allow it to more applicable to specific inequalities and help solve the issues involved in reciprocity. MORE?

Rhodes and Westwood accurately use evidence of the family and boss’s manipulation and lack of understanding towards Gregor to show the corrupt nature of generosity. The authors further prove how reciprocal relationships are unethical as they ruin bureaucratic and familial relations and conceal selfish behavior.