The works The Metamorphosis, The Stranger, and Dr. Faustus end respectively with a protagonist murdered, a protagonist hung, and a protagonist sent to hell. According to the respective systems of values they confront, these characters have all been deemed guilty. The "vague sense of culpability" leading to a "general alienation" of which Vaclav Havel speaks of as experiencing upon reading The Metamorphosis can be seen is all three of these works, whose plots create a character whose appearence, morals, or priorities are so radically different from those around him (and often from the author's audience as well) that he must be eliminated. It is when the reader guiltily identifies with this spurned and disgusting character that the tone generated becomes one of "unbearable oppressiveness", because he or she correctly feels persecuted by a universal condemnation.

This sense could not be clearer than in The Metamorphosis, which deals so prominently with the outsider, a son who suffers the literal and symbolic metamorphoses into a huge, repulsive, insect. The novella begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," a transformation which permanently severs his relationship with normal humanity. Kafka's ensuing meditation on isolation has Samsa living all alone in his room, sustained by but otherwise disregarded by the family which should love him. The loss of his income cripples them financially, as does his appearence before the renters they take in, who vehemently declare his filth and leave. And nothing is resolved until he dies, presumably from the long neglected infection of a festering wound resulting from an apple thrown at him by his own father.

This work prominently addresses the fundamental human fear of being condemned. Samsa is entirely alone, the world's only giant, sentient insect. Even the implausibility and ludicrousness of this dilemma serves to isolate him, as he cannot generate pity, even from the reader. The psychological reaction of revulsion, even when there is identification, is strengthened by the Kafka's detailed description of Samsa new body- he is manifestly everything most people do not like. The reader's own feelings of inferiority, however slight or deeply buried, are magnified until he or she is overcome with the horrifying contemplation of existing in Samsa's condition, isolated and unloved. And the ingrained guilt meant to arise upon being disgusting is directly proportional to the revulsion meant to arise upon being confronted by something disgusting.

This phenomena is repeated in conjunction with the other two works under discussion, except that the protagonists involved are not nearly as universally condemned. With the rise of existentialism, and the limited acceptance thereof by a jaded and, some would say, valueless population, The Stranger's arbitrarily murderous Meursalt can be seen as a expert practitioner of the glorious art of living. And with the ever-higher premium placed on the acquisition of knowledge, Dr. Faustus' Dr Faustus can be seen as a martyr for his noble cause of intellectual expansion. However, in the plots of these two works, the protagonist is loudly condemned and sentenced for failing to comply with the moral code of at least his own time.

In the case of The Stranger, the protagonist is one whose existensialism places him sharply at odds with the accepted mores of his time and place, though the author and perhaps the reader may support him. Seeking nothing in life other than pleasurable experiences, and untroubled by human attachments such as love or responsibility, he ultimately commits a murder, utterly unable to forcast its consequences. The basis for the guilty verdict in his trial is not evidence of his deed so much as character evidence, with the lawyer for the prosecuation going on at length about his inhuman lack of regard for his mother or her death. The guilt-trip is one that any mother's son or daughter can recognize, and one that is often succesful in instilling tremendous remorse. And yet, to be killed for not loving one's mother? There are readers who identify Meursalt as a bold rebel, rejecting conventional figures of emotional attachment such as his mother, his lover, and the prison champlain, to dwell instead in the more objective world of experience.

And in the case of Dr. Faustus, which is practically a passion play in it's unambiguous moral message, the protagonist is one who makes a literal deal with the devil, under which the latter will gain possesion of his soul in return for giving him endless knowledge. To the stern Christian moral code of Christopher Marlowe's time, this was unforgiveable, and Dr. Faustus represented a craven human greed for knowledge, as well as a terrible folly, since he could not truly know the agony he was to suffer in hell. This gloomy atmosphere contributes to an oppressive sense of judgement, at least in the reverent Christian audience for which the play was written. The play's goal in portraying Dr. Faustus' horrible fate is to inspire fear through playing on its audiences' insecurities about their own moral rectitude and place in heaven.


  • Camus, Albert. The Stranger
  • Havel, Vaclav. Lecture delivered at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in April 1990, New York Review of Books, September 27, 1990.
  • Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphoses
  • Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus

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