A Case Study of Depression

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Julia Lewis
12/19/2008

A Case Study of Depression

In studying depression, there is a tension between accounts by the patient and others, including the doctor or therapist.  The patient may provide useful summaries of experiences and feelings with respect to their mental state.  Though the doctor may be able to observe behaviors that the patient is not consciously aware of.  Therefore, both an inside and outside account are necessary for understanding depression. (1) I would like to argue that “The Transformation” by Franz Kafka is such an account. (2) This novel chronicles the severe depressive episode of Gregor Samsa.  It is written in the third person and the narrator is omniscient. This provides the reader with personal knowledge of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, as well as, more general observations. 

Gregor’s thoughts immediately after the transformation, can be used to reconstruct his mental state prior to the transformation.  He is extremely shy of allowing anyone to see him in a compromised state.  This shows a fear of weakness and vulnerability.  The thoughts of how and when to go to work are consistent with his refusal to accept his present disability.  This denial is also manifested in his resistance to seeking help.  He is tenaciously clinging to the concept of self-sufficiency.  The flavor of self-sufficiency Gregor embraces causes him to feel isolated.  He experiences a strong sense of disconnection between himself and the other people in his life.   A significant amount of Gregor’s struggling could be eased with assistance from other people, yet he is too self-conscious to ask.  It is this “self-consciousness” or story of himself that is causing his suffering. He is suffering from a series of unresolved conflicts.

The critical conflict between his unconscious and storyteller is the cause of his transformation. The strange sensations he experiences are analogous to the lack of communications or inputs the storyteller normally experiences in the course of depression.  It is Gregor’s unconscious that is responsible for the sensory inputs that are constructed by his storyteller as making him a bug.  The feelings and intuitions that Gregor experiences as a bug are consistent with symptoms of depression according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  He has loss of interest in activities, weight loss, fatigue, restlessness, reduced capacity for thought or decision-making, and feeling excessive guilt. (3)

Gregor’s storyteller is entirely reliant on information from the unconscious. This element of his brain has no direct access to his external environment, no sensory neurons. Its function is the production of useful summaries of the data it receives from the unconscious.  The storyteller checks its stories with the unconscious; this communication occurs constantly in a healthy individual.  However, in Gregor’s case, his storyteller is generating stories that are repeatedly rejected by his unconscious.   This constant stream of negative feedback makes the storyteller feel isolated and self-doubting. 

Gregor’s transformation is a representation of the change in his mental state with the onset of severe depression.  He becomes a creature that is traditionally considered repulsive.  The emotional response that Gregor’s physical form elicits is illustrative of the stigma associated with mental illness by society.  There is a rich history of society segregating and discriminating against the mentally ill. (4)  The use of institutions for removing the mentally ill from society was not seriously challenged until the 1960s, decades after this novel was written. (4)  Kafka’s portrayal of the what a mentally ill individual might expect from society was consistent with the time period in which the novel was set. 

As a result of the transformation, he loses his voice and is unable to communicate with others.  The other people in his life are required to interpret his actions as best they can.  His conscious intentions are supposed to be conveyed by verbal linguistic communication. This indicates that his conscious or storyteller is not functioning properly. (5)

A second indicator of the troubled state of Gregor’s storyteller is the ease with which he gives up his own ideas and adopts others.  Initially, he is pleased by his sister’s intention to remove his furniture, from his bedroom, as it is no longer useful to him.  Further, it is an obstruction to his crawling, an activity which relieves his anxiety.  When his mother objects to the proposal, Gregor, immediately adopts her opinion.  This is an example of how he allows his desires to be defined by others.  It is interesting, how intensely he defends this new position; trying to prevent his mother and sister from removing the furniture, by communication or force.  Yet, Gregor is oblivious to the aggressive and threatening nature of his behavior.  His response has an unintended side affect; his mother is frightened by his fierce reaction.  His stubborn refusal to give up his second interpretation of the situation results in anxiety and misery, and conflict between himself and his family. 

Gregor’s suffering is caused by a nonfunctioning story about himself.  He defines himself in terms of his relationship to his family.  He is unable to live up to the difficult demands he imagines his family has set for him.  That his role in the family is to provide essential financial support and repay his father’s debts to his boss. The story is inconsistent with the unconscious inputs.  Gregor’s unconscious recognizes that he is physically exhausted and in need of rest, yet his conscious intends to go to work on the morning of his transformation.  His storyteller generates stories that are repeatedly rejected by the unconscious.  The unresolved conflict between Gregor’s storyteller and unconscious is one of the causes of his suffering.  
The transformation forces his family members to collectively and individually reevaluate their story about Gregor.  They are able to accept that he will no longer be providing them with financial support.  Therefore, father, mother, and sister each find alternative strategies for obtaining money.  Gregor, however, is unable to give up the story that he is the breadwinner.  This difference in stories causes conflict between Gregor and his family members. 

As gregor’s depression deepens, his relationship with his family worsen and his feelings of isolation increase.  His sense of isolation is complete, when his sister rejects his identity.  She asserts to their parents that they “must try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor.  That’s [their] real disaster, the fact that [they] believed it for so long,” (2).  In her statement, the antecedent of “it” is ambiguous; she might be referring to the idea or the creature.  The latter interpretation indicates a blatant rejection of Gregor’s humanity by his own sister.  She selects a pronoun used to describe inanimate objects rather than using “he”.  Gregor makes no effort to protest this statement.  In fact, he accepts it; he dies shortly after the conversation ends.  He is defined by his relationship to his family in his death as in his life. 

Gregor’s storyteller is entirely reliant on information from the unconscious. This element of his brain has no direct access to his external environment, no sensory neurons. Its function is the production of useful summaries of the data it receives from the unconscious.  The storyteller checks its stories with the unconscious; this communication occurs constantly in a healthy individual.  However, in Gregor’s case, his storyteller is generating stories that are repeatedly rejected by his unconscious.   This constant stream of negative feedback makes the storyteller feel isolated and self-doubting. 

As the novel progresses, the reader is able to chart the deterioration of Gregor’s story by integrating information about his behavior and thoughts.  Gregor, himself, is unable to perform this task because of the increasing severity of his depression.  In depression, the normal communication between the unconscious and the storyteller ceases to be productive.  Gregor’s unconscious is initiating actions that his conscious challenged to deal with.  When he is unconsciously drawn to his sister’s violin playing, his consciousness does not anticipate the negative consequences.  In this case, Gregor encounters conflict, not only between the two parts of his brain, but also between himself and his family. 

Gregor is unable to work through his depression alone; and he neither asks for nor receives help.  Yet it might be interesting to imagine how Gregor would respond to traditional treatments for depression.  Pharmacotherapy might reduce his mental discomfort and allow him to feel and act more human.  Under these improved conditions, he could try to reformulate his life.  Talk therapy could also prove useful in a variety of ways.  It would place him in direct contact with a caring person and such interaction could alleviate some of his loneliness.  The therapist might offer a new perspective on Gregor’s life.  They should help Gregor to reflect on his life and create a different story both about himself and his relationships with others.  In fact, a recent study found that a combination of pharmacotherapy and talk therapy are the gold standard of treatment for some mental illnesses. (1)

When reading this work as a high school senior in advanced placement English, I remember best, how much my classmates and I detested Gregor.  One potential explanation for these feelings is that seventeen year-old girls can not relate well to a depressed adult male.  Another plausible account is that readers who are able to quickly identify the source of Gregor’s problems become increasingly frustrated with his inability to do so. The depressed storyteller requires the strongest support to create a new story.  The state of stubborn ignorance, in which his storyteller remains for the entire novel, does not necessarily attract the reader’s sympathy. 

It is all too easy to trade sympathy for disgust, when the patient does not improve.  Yet, this is the time they most need empathy and patience from the people in their lives.  If nothing else, The Transformation can be taken as a test of sentiments, how do you respond to Gregor?

1.)    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2175#comment-62105
2.)    Kafka, Franz, The Transformation and Other Stories. Harper
3.)    http://www.mental-health-today.com/dep/dsm.htm
4.)    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/3303
5.)    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/evolit/s05/web2/bhahn.html

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

Metamorphosis as depression

Very intriguing reading of Kafka. A picture of depression similar to Dante's sloth. How much of the reading is "after the fact"? Would the bipartite brain notion follow from Kafka's words?

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