Metamorphosis through Modernism: The Rat City and the Hive Mentality

Metamorphosis through Modernism: The Rat City and the Hive Mentality

A Story by Courtney

Do you ever feel out of place, like a rat working in a beehive?


Metamorphosis through Modernism: The Rat City and the Hive Mentality

            The story Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka can be seen as a theory of the dystopian degeneration of civilization based on two animal models of urbanized civilization: the bee and the rat. On many levels this story questions of the ability of the human mammal to live in the modern urban environment, which is largely based off the hive structure of a honeybee community.

            The beehive has been largely associated as a metaphor for efficiency and order, as a natural state of maximum efficiency. Gregor is the perfect worker drone until he wakes up one morning �" in the form of a “horrible vermin.” As he reflects on his situation, Gregor is more concerned with his job than his strange condition, his reflections illustrating a condition known as “hive mentality.”

“Even if he did catch the train he would not avoid his boss's anger as the office assistant would have been there to see the five o'clock train go, he would have put in his report about Gregor's not being there a long time ago. The office assistant was the boss's man, spineless, and with no understanding. What about if he reported sick? But that would be extremely strained and suspicious as in fifteen years of service Gregor had never once yet been ill.” (Kafka, p. 2)

In this passage, Gregor is not concerned with the fact that he has somehow turned into an insect, it is the problem with his job that he is most concerned with, which is an attribute of a hive mind. A “hive mind” is something apparent in a colony of social insects that is characterized by a collective consciousness, in which each individual performs a specific role for the benefit of the colony. “Humans structure their built environment, and that environment in turn structures the way that they live.” (Adams) This beehive metaphor is the ideology surrounding the modern work ethic. Bees are the ideal employee for any company as they “combine industriousness with submission to authority and a collective purpose.” (Adams) When Gregor considers what would likely happen with work, this beehive business mentality becomes extremely evident in the following passage:

“What about if he reported sick? But that would be extremely strained and suspicious as in fifteen years of service Gregor had never once yet been ill. His boss would certainly come round with the doctor from the medical insurance company, accuse his parents of having a lazy son, and accept the doctor's recommendation not to make any claim as the doctor believed that no-one was ever ill but that many were work shy.” (Kafka)

What kind of worker works for fifteen years without taking a sick day? The closest comparison would be that of a bee, if its life lasted years instead of only weeks or months. The company’s beehive mentality is evident in this inclination. First, no worker would avoid taking a single sick day in fifteen years unless they felt compelled not to. As Gregor imagines the Chief Clerk bringing the doctor to his home, who would likely claim that Gregor was not ill, only trying to get out of a day’s work, an opinion that this doctor seems to have gained a notary for through reputation �" which is probably part of the way his company compels its workers to not call in sick.

This hive mentality is not a human attribute; however, this inclination does stem from aspects of human sociology. Freud claims that “the life of human beings in common has a twofold foundation: the compulsion to work, created by an external necessity, and the power of love.” In Gregor’s case, the compulsion to work is synonymous with the responsibility of paying off his parent’s debt, which translates into love for his family. The result is that he literally becomes what he thinks; by subscribing to the hive mentality of the pressures of work, Gregor has transformed into an insect.

            Gregor’s absurd position brings to light a closer scrutiny of the hive mentality and the prospects that it has for the humans who subscribe to it. Since beehives are frequently used as a template for a utopian human society, this set of circumstances calls attention to the position of the individuals in the hive, and their duties. When considering a worker bee in a beehive, the appeal of the prospect of a hive-like society plummets. “Worker bees pretty much work themselves to death.” (Carley) This is proved by the varying life-expectancies of the worker bees during the year. “The average adult worker lives less than a month during the busy season; overwintering bees live several months.” (Carley) The crucial difference between honeybees is the fact that bees all work together for the exact same goal, while large groups of people in a democracy are likely to have competing interests. Gregory’s condition essentially demonstrates what happens to workers in a human beehive society when they are no longer able to work: they languish and they die.

Furthermore, “groups work well if power of the leader is minimized” (Zimmer) because the mentality of the group is both subservient and obedient. This beehive mentality serves only those who possess a herd mentality. The idea is that individuality is sacrificed for efficacy. This is seen as more of a benefit to sociologists in favor of this beehive mentality, as individuality is viewed by hive sociologists as something that causes conflict and breakdown in society. As Freud states, “it is a misconception that civilization is synonymous with becoming perfect, it is instead, the path by which man is ordained to reach perfection.”

            Gregor’s attempt to support his family alone also plays off of the hive mentality. In a bee hive, each individual has a specific job it was expected to carry out based on what kind of bee it is and its age. The workers cared for the newborns until they are old enough to carry pollen. The queen lays eggs and the drones mate with her. When Gregor was no longer able to work, the family suddenly had that incentive that Freud talked about, to work for some external motivation. This motivation caused each member, out of necessity for the loss of Gregor’s income, to pick up a job to help support their position in the family. Thus, Gregor’s support is proven to be a hindrance in the family’s productivity rather than as much of a help as it might have seemed at first.

            Because human nature is the very problem the beehive world tries to address, little relevance is given to the fact that the structure of the world itself goes against human nature. Workers are expected to sacrifice individuality for the good of the whole. Freud states, “the liberty of the individual is not a benefit to culture.” The result that the beehive model serves to produce a more compliant population is not seen as a negative thing by some beehive sociologists like Paolo Soleri, who felt that the beehive model was the best solution for condensing high populations. However, Adams notes that “Totalitarianism is a response to hopeless monotony in the beehive city of modern industrialization.” In this way, a community opens themselves up to ill governance when a strong leadership is combined with a subservient and obedient population in an area of high population density; this is how a totalitarian government is encouraged to form.

            The high-density population theories consist of two main models: that of the bee and that of the rat. If Gregor was a worker in a model beehive society, then his sister, Gertie is the opposing rat model. Traditionally, the rat has been symbolically associated with all that is wrong with society �" dirt, corruption, and immorality �" as well as the negative aspects of general life �" disorder, decay, and waste. However, sociologically, rat behavior parallels the behavior of humans. Based on this parallel, a group of rats was used in a study by Calhoun to prove that humans cannot live in high-density beehive complexes without a breakdown in sociological order. “Far from being a solution, modern apartment complexes were proven to be a part of the problem.” (Adams) Calhoun built “honeycomb” apartments, stacked on top of one another, with narrow, connecting stairwells that forced the rats to come into frequent contact �" modeled after modern apartment complexes. For the rat population inside, it was a virtual utopia until it became too crowded. The research notes that the rats began to show increasing signs of stress, tension, and agitation. The animals became violent, increasingly withdrawn, and displayed a widespread hypersexual deviance. More female rats were attacking their young, and violent encounters with adults became increasingly frequent. (Adams) The rodent utopia had turned to a hell, and the population did not stabilize after it started falling until it reached zero �" it never recovered from the breakdown in its social order.

            The rat’s social structure functions around the family rather than the entire collective. At the beginning, Gertie was very much centered on her family. She was the one who fed and cleaned up after Gregor the entire time he was a bug, and it was she who took pains to spare her parents as much distress as she possibly could. Unlike Gregor, her response to the situation reflected the rat’s model of over-crowding, rather than an insect’s efficiency. Calahun’s rats provided a model of modern structure in which the limits of adaption were constrained by their environment. These limitations were not attributed to only rats themselves, but to mammals as a group. In the beginning, Gertie is attentive to Gregor, paying attention to what he ate during his meals and the state of his room. However, her attitude begins to change. This severely weakens the beehive theory by the highlighting the difference that that a hives consists of insects while people are mammals. These experiments proved that the beehive world could not sustain both a high population density and maintain civil order among humans. The same withdrawal, hyper sexuality, and violence that Calhoun’s rats displayed in his study were found duplicated in the social fabric of the urban cores around the world. At one point, Gregor’s mother had taken the time to clean Gregor’s room, and Gertie had flown into a rage over it, displaying both the heightened stress and the increased tendency towards violence as Calhoun’s overpopulated rats. “As with rats, people in overcrowded conditions, they exhibit the same symptoms of stress, alienation, hostility, sexual perversion, and rabid violence that is found in megalopolises.” (Adams)

            As the stress Gertie was experiencing increased with her new job and the care of her insectile brother, so too did the alienation that she imposed on her brother increase. “Gregor's sister no longer thought about how she could please him but would hurriedly push some food or other into his room with her foot before she rushed out to work…” (Kafka) Her patience with the situation waned over the months, until she broke out shouting one evening to her parents:

“Father, Mother", said his sister, hitting the table with her hand as introduction, "we can't carry on like this. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong." (Kafka)

By demanding that their parents get rid of him, she succeeds in gaining their approval and of completely alienating her brother within the family circle. In this way, Gertie banishes the entire beehive structure within the family by alienating the one who subscribed to that mentality.

            The novella Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is a story about conflicting civilization models: the business model of the beehive and the reality model of the rat. Because bees are considered the ideal worker, their community is introduced by human companies as a sort of natural perfection that humans should strive to achieve. The people who buy into that business theory, people like Gregor, are destined to unhappiness, working their whole lives for the sake of others. However, if the more individualistic rat model is considered, as it is portrayed in the sister, the prospect of human success and satisfaction increases dramatically.



















Works Cited

Adams, Jon. "Rat Cities and Beehive Worlds: Density and Design in the Modern City." Comparative Studies in Society and History (2011). print.

Carley, Molly. Hives for Lives: Honeybees. n.d. print. 2014.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and It's Discontents. Publishing, n.d. Book.

Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. n.d. print.

Zimmer, Carl. "Hive Mind." Smithsonian (2012): 14-16. Print.




© 2015 Courtney

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Added on April 14, 2015
Last Updated on April 14, 2015
Tags: essay, modernism, metamorphosis, courtney, hurd, contemproary literature



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