A Good Example of Dehumanization in Literature
Dehumanization describes the process by which people are stripped, symbolically or literally, of characteristics that make them human, becoming like monsters, animals or automatons. In literature, this theme became widespread in the 20th century, as real-life social and technological changes challenged many people’s way of life. Examples include the wild boys of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” with their sacrificial Piggy, and the literal pigs, and other farm animals, of George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm.” One of the best expressions of dehumanization in literature is Franz Kafka’s celebrated novella “The Metamorphosis,” first published in German in 1913.
In "The Metamorphosis," the titular change occurs in the first sentence, in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, awakens to find he has become “a monstrous verminous bug.” His dehumanization is literal, as he now is a six-foot cockroach, becoming aware of his stiff carapace and numerous spindly legs. He gradually learns to maneuver despite the awkwardness of his new form, even crawling onto the walls and ceilings.
Perhaps because of his changed body, Gregor’s perceptions change as well. When he looks out his window, he can no longer see the other buildings; instead, the street appears as “a featureless wasteland.” His senses of smell and taste also change, so that he perceives his former favorite, sweetened milk, as disgusting, and he can hardly stand the odor of fresh, wholesome foods. He is drawn to rotten or congealed scraps, however.
Gregor’s father reacts to his son’s monstrous transformation with anger and horror, twice injuring Gregor as he drives him back into his bedroom. Eventually, Gregor stops referring to them as “his” family members; they become, instead, “the mother,” “the father” and “the sister.” Finally, even his beloved sister Grete refers to him only as “the monster” and urges her parents to “get rid of it.”
As Gregor’s shape, perceptions and relationships change, so too does his environment. At first, Grete and his mother try to make him more comfortable by removing the furniture from his room; however, he clings to the human-ness of his furniture, even though it is no longer any use to him, only getting in the way of his new shape. Later, his sister stops cleaning his room, and it quickly becomes filthy; before long, it becomes cluttered with unneeded furniture and even trash that the family and cleaning lady toss inside. It no longer resembles human habitation, but far from the open space that Grete had at first tried to give him, it is now a true habitat for the vermin he has become.
Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.