Metamorphosis is a remarkable novel that has spanned numerous themes; from alienation to the absurdity of life. And one of the major themes is that of the abject. The abject, by definition, describes something brought low in position or condition, lacking in courage, or simply rejected. In short, the abject is a recurring theme throughout Metamorphosis – both literally; in the form of Gregor’s grotesque physical form, and metaphorically; in the way Gregor reacts to and is treated by his family. Thus the significance of the abject on Gregor and his family will be the basis of analysis in this essay.
Firstly, the physical sense of the abject is presented almost immediately in Gregor’s metamorphosis into a massive insect in the first sentence. To most people, insects belong to the outdoors – any insect venturing indoors would most likely be faced with a large can of pesticide. Thus, in choosing to present Gregor’s family with a human-sized insect, in their house, on a bed – Kafka has effectively given them the most repulsive image conceivable, enough for them to initially fear and eventually reject Gregor’s new form altogether.
Thus this strong manifestation of the physical abject is not only the kickstarter of the story, but also the basis for the following events. Moreover, the rejection of his physical form leads Gregor to become a social pariah. In the beginning, Gregor himself does not feel ashamed of his altered physical condition; he knows in an intellectual sort of way that he is a “horrible insect”, but fails to comprehend the enormity of the change and his family’s reaction to it. But as time progressed, he starts to feel more keenly his social abjectness.
The way his sister would rush to the window every time she entered his room, his mother fainting dead away when she saw him crawling on the wall – Gregor begins to make changes to his routine, even covering himself with a cloth to spare his family the sight of him. In a nutshell, when once he had been the sole breadwinner of the family, he has abruptly become a shut-in and dependent on everyone around him. The contrast between his position in life before and after the transformation was almost as marked as the transformation itself.
In this way, the physical abject is not only a cause of the social abject, but also a symbol of it as well. Furthermore, Gregor’s descent into social and physical abjection then forces his family to change radically in order to support themselves. In the beginning, Gregor starts off as the provider for his family. He hates his job, but he still goes above and beyond the call of duty to give his family a more comfortable life, even indulging the expensive endeavour of his sisters’ dream of studying the violin.
However, after the metamorphosis, he is thrust into the role of a dependant – forcing his family to take responsibility and support themselves. His sister steps up to the plate in the beginning, giving him a selection of foodstuffs to find what he likes and even cleaning up after him. His parents are still in denial at this point, so much so that they refuse to see him at all. But as time goes by, his family begins to accept the situation and even try to help Grete out. His father produces some money from his previous failed business venture and his mother and sister try to make life more comfortable for Gregor.
Grete in particular changes the most noticeably; Gregor himself notes at the beginning that her life up till that point had been “enviable”, consisting of “wearing nice clothes, sleeping late, helping out in the business, joining in with a few modest pleasures and most of all playing the violin”. However she now leaves her comfortable life to join the workforce to support her family. As Gregor becomes more and more dependant, Grete becomes less so. In fact, at the end of the novel her family realises that she had blossomed into an “attractive and well-built girl”.
In a way, Gregor’s physical and social abjection allowed Grete to move forward and mature in a way that would not have been possible before. In short, Gregor’s metamorphosis into a massive insect enabled Grete’s metamorphosis into a mature young lady, capable of providing for her family and herself. In conclusion, the abject in Metamorphosis was not only the kickstarter of events, but also a device that enabled the characters to evolve and grow and eventually create a new life for themselves.