Motifs in Modern Literature – Alienation

Motifs in Modern Literature – Alienation

Frida Kahlo, "My Dress Hangs There" (1933)



 One of modern literature’s most powerful motifs is the idea of alienation — alienation from an increasingly urban and mechanistic society, as the Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo’s painting above strongly suggests, alienation from God or the divine, alienation from the family, or even (as in Kafka or Wilde), alienation from the self.  Issues of identity are crucial for this unit: How do we define ourselves?  By our class?  By our jobs?  By our accent?  By our appearance?  Can we re-make ourselves — and what happens to us when we do?           

Opening Questions      

We will discuss these opening questions prior to class discussion of the works in this unit.   They are provided here for your convenience and reflection, although there is a strong possibility that I will ask you to write and submit developed answers to them in written form.     

  1.  What is meant by “alien”?
  2. What qualities tend to define people as “alien” within their own communities or communities to which they go?
  3. What do people find so threatening, confusing, or offputting about those they define as “alien”?

Background Reading      

NOTE: Readings are mandatory unless specifically marked “Optional.”  Optional readings are just that — optional.  They are given to help you understand the course material.  If you’re having a hard time understanding something, the optional materials can often be very helpful to you.  If you have suggestions for optional material you would like to see on this page, please email me at with your suggestions.          

 NOTE: Outline or take textual notes on all information that you are asked to read.  I will give occasional open-note quizzes, so taking notes will definitely help your understanding.          

NOTE: Please be aware that these are Internet links and content may change.  If the links are no longer valid, please contact me to let me know as soon as possible.  As of this writing, all links are classroom-appropriate; however, if you find content on the sites has changed, please again inform me immediately.        



  • Please read Russian writer Nicolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “The Overcoat.”  Interestingly, “The Overcoat” would have made a great Seinfeld episode.  Think about it — George Costanza as Akaky Akakyevitch! 
  • Please read German writer Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915). I also have some copies of this in paperback form.
  • Passage Questions: “The Overcoat” — Compassion Passage
  • OPTIONAL: Study guide for “The Overcoat
  • OPTIONAL: Helpful study questions for Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”
  • OPTIONAL: Check out this preview of a really cool graphic novel version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis! 

Questions for “The Metamorphosis”

NOTE: Some of these questions may be asked in class; some may not.  They are put here as a convenient and helpful guide to your own study and reading.  Please do not assume that you have to answer these questions unless I give them to you as a specific class assignment.  Note #2: As always, your work is your own.  Please assume all work, unless clearly and specifically stated otherwise by the teacher, is to be done independently, not collaboratively.   

Note: Some questions taken or adapted freely from the Great Books Reading and Discussion Program.

Prereading “Metamorphosis”

  1. What qualities in human beings are insectile (insect-like)? 
  2. What qualities in human society — particularly modern human society — seem insect-like?
  3. What might be pleasurable about being an insect? 
  4. Is one person’s gain in self-esteem necessarily another person’s loss?

Metamorphosis Discussion Questions

  1. Is Gregor’s transformation into a bug the last stage in his diminishing self-worth or importance in the world, or is it an act of self-assertion?
  2. Is Gregor’s transformation an act of revenge?  If so, against whom?
  3. Why does Gregor initially seem to be almost unaware of his change or uncaring about it?
  4. Why does Kafka choose to make Gregor obsessed about catching the train to work, despite Gregor’s changed appearance?
  5. Why does Kafka have Gregor learn to appreciate his feelers, his legs, and his ability to hang suspended from the ceiling?
  6. Why does Gregor become suspicious of his sister’s care, particularly since she is the only one to whom Gregor feels emotionally close?
  7. Why does Gregor resist the removal of his furniture?
  8. Why does Gregor resolve to fly in Grete’s face rather than give up his picture of the lady in fur?
  9. Why does Gregor’s father assume that Gregor would do violence to his mother and sister?
  10. Why is Gregor’s metamorphosis the catalyst for his father’s astonishing rejuvenation?
  11. Has Gregor’s transformation helped his family?  If so, does the story suggest that Gregor was previously unintentionally hurting them or preventing their progress before his metamorphosis?
  12. Why does Kafka have Gregor’s father use an apple (as opposed to, say, a pear) as a weapon?
  13. Why does Kafka describe Gregor as being or feeling “nailed to the spot” by the apple his father lodged in his flesh?
  14. Why is Grete the one who insists on Gregor’s death?
  15. Is Gregor’s decision to disappear a triumph of love, or is it a final and pathetic act of self-erasure?

 Resources for the Media-Minded          

NOTE: Resources are mandatory unless specifically marked “Optional.”  Optional resources, like the optional readings, are just that — optional.  They are there for your convenience and to help expand your understanding of the course material.  If you’re having a hard time understanding something, the optional materials can often be very helpful to you.  If you have suggestions for optional material you would like to see on this page, please email me at with your suggestions.      

  • OPTIONAL: The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Modern Era — Readers’ Picks and Editors’ Picks
  • Really cool graphic novel version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis!
  • OPTIONAL: See My Fair Lady on DVD or through Netflix.  It’s basically Pygmalion with catchy tunes and Audrey Hepburn!
  •  OPTIONAL: Please read Irish writer Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novella  The Picture of Dorian Gray or ask me for a paperback copy to borrow.  We have them!
  • OPTIONAL: Please also read a play published (interestingly enough) close to the same time as Kafka’s work: Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  This play, BTW, was used as the basis for the musical My Fair Lady.
  •  OPTIONAL: Please read Joseph Conrad’s 1912 short story, “The Secret Sharer.”
  •  OPTIONAL: Please read Russian writer Nicolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” (1835-6).  There’s a really cool children’s version illustrated by Gennady Spirin here — as with Kafka and the graphic novel, “The Nose” works surprisingly well as a children’s book.  What’s not to love about a nose that detaches itself — and then becomes more successful in life than you are?
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