The Grotesque in Kafka’s Metamorphosis
Much of the grotesque in Metamorphosis stems from the fact that Gregor’s transformation is partial. While he is physically an insect on the exterior, he retains a human mind inside. Hence, Gregor is mentally aware of what is happening to him and his body. This hybridity, in terms of having an insect body but a human mind, contributes greatly to the grotesque image of the main character. As quoted from Bakhtin, what is happening to Gregor is an “unfinished metamorphosis” whereby he is not fully insect, yet not fully human either.
The “in-between-ness” of such a transformation can be seen from many parts of the texts where the insect Gregor, has characteristics of the human Gregor. At the beginning of the novella, for instance, Gregor tried to roll onto his right side, “shutting his eyes to keep from seeing his struggling legs. Other instances include Gregor not being able to “suppress a smile” and him feeling “a cold shiver run through him”. The insect Gregor can also talk and think to himself and he experiences human emotions like joy, shock and apprehension. Throughout the text, Gregor is constantly “saying” something to himself.
He also “noted with joy” that the food brought by Greta
The ambivalence regarding the sort of creature Gregor is creates a sense of repulsion in us. Another reason why we find his hybrid state disgusting is perhaps of the size of the insect. The fact that the creature is the size of a human and not the typical size of one’s average insect repulses us and the characters in the book. By augmenting the size of a small insect to that of a human, our sense of disgust towards it is also magnified. Besides the ambivalence regarding Gregor being a part-human and part-insect, the other ambivalent subject could be what kind of insect he is precisely.
The hybridity of Gregor can be interpreted in more than one way- Gregor is not only a hybrid of a human and insect, he can also be seen as a hybrid of 2 insects- a cockroach and a beetle. While most of us would picture Gregor as a cockroach because of the way Kafka described his physical appearance- a “dome-like brown belly” and the “numerous legs”, others have argued that he is not a cockroach. One such person being Vladimir Nabokov who proposed that Gregor has wings hidden under his “hard rounded back”.
According to Nabokov, the cockroach is “flat in shape with large legs” and since Gregor is “anything but flat” we should consider him to be a beetle instead. The uncertainty of what sort of insect Gregor is exactly heightens the state of hybridity and emphasises the idea of the “undefined” which contributes to the trait of ambivalence. Hence it is not just the blurring of boundaries between the insect and human world that contributes to the grotesque in the novella, it is also the blurring of categories between different types of insects that does this. Another source of grotesque is that Gregor’s metamorphosis is gradual.
Time is an important factor in the novella. Even though Gregor is still internally human when he transformed, he starts to acquire insect-like traits and characteristics over time. His preference for food, for example, changed drastically. He found himself attracted to cheese “that [he] would have called uneatable” before his metamorphosis and “old, half-decayed vegetables”. Conversely, fresh food “had no charms for him” and he “could not even stand the smell of it”. Gregor also developed a habit of “crawling criss-cross over the walls and ceilings”. As time passed, he slowly loses his humanness.
He becomes near “the brink of [forgetting]” that he still has a human mind. Gregor had in fact “quite earnestly looked forward” to having his room emptied of furniture so he could crawl around uninhibitedly. The increasingly insect-like behaviour and his diminishing awareness of being human show that the metamorphosis is gradual. As Gregor slowly becomes more insect-like, he loses his sense of time. Gregor was very particular about time in the beginning, for he noted the time he had to catch his train and he even knew the porter would be “waiting for the five o’clock train”.
When he realized he was late, he was extremely anxious. However as days passed, he no longer took note of the time in such a meticulous fashion. He differentiates time by night and day and not the specific hour. Time was no longer “a quarter past seven” to Gregor, but just “very early in the morning” or “late at night”. We find this disgusting because the process of transformation is prolonged so the unpleasant feelings associated with it are also present for a longer time. Transforming into an insect is not viewed as a happy nor comfortable process. It is made worse by having to bear with it for so long.
Lastly, the type of insect Gregor is can also be a source of grotesque. Kafka chose to make Gregor a cockroach to literalize the metaphor of Gregor being a cockroach and also to use the idea of a physical abject to symbolise a social one in the novel. Cockroaches are generally seen as dirty and repulsive pests and people usually want to get rid of them. Hence by choosing a cockroach, Kafka can bring out the feelings of disgust in us more effectively, as opposed to choosing something like a butterfly. The image that the cockroach represents is revolting and unwelcoming. Thus we are naturally repulsed by it.