Monsters Beneath the Surface: The Metamorphosis and Frankenstein

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, both contain themes of monsters and the monstrous. The monstrous in both texts arises from the relationship of the individual to society. The key characters in The Metamorphosis and Frankenstein that generate ‘the monstrous’ are Gregor and the Creature, respectively. While both characters are perceived by their surrounding humans as inferior monsters, it is in fact this perception of Gregor and the Creature that reveals the true nature of ‘the monstrous’. In both texts, these characters are outcast from their society due to economic position (in Gregor’s case) and physical appearance (in the Creature’s case). What links both forms of ‘the monstrous’ in these texts, is that neither character is valued for their inherent humanity, and instead is judged on, in Gregor’s case, his ability to provide for himself and his family, and in the creature’s case, his physical appearance.

 Both texts use physical appearance to set Gregor and the Creature apart from the rest of society. Within the first sentence of The Metamorphosis, Kafka establishes that Gregor has turned into a “monstrous, verminous bug” (Kafka, 1). Similarly, from the moment the Creature in Frankenstein is created, he becomes the opposite of Frankenstein’s intended ‘beautiful’; the creature’s skin is yellow and translucent, he has a “shrivelled complexion” and “black lips” (Shelley, 45). In The Metamorphosis, the revelation of Gregor’s insect body generates a reaction of fear and hostility from his family and work colleague (Kafka, 19). Yet it is not just his physical appearance that causes this reaction. Gregor’s family is financially dependent on him, and they lose all compassion for him when this economic relationship is reversed (Kafka, 59). In Frankenstein, the Creature’s physical appearance causes similar reactions amongst characters around him. Frankenstein’s initial reaction to his creation is horror and disgust, and he runs from the creature (Shelley, 45).

Both Gregor and the creature reflect the typical definition of monstrous, taken in its surface meaning. They both deviate from a normal human form and are considered revolting and frightening by other humans (Dictionary, 1081). Yet both characters, despite their physical ‘ugliness’, think and feel as humans do. Both Shelley and Kafka demonstrate that their physical “monsters” are capable of love and kindness. When Grete plays her violin, Gregor sees that the lodgers are disappointed and irritated by it (Kafka, 64). In a gesture of love and compassion, he moves forward towards her, wishing to show her that he finds her playing beautiful (Kafka, 64-5). In his death, Gregor thinks of his family with love (Kafka, 71). Equally, the creature grows to love and empathise with the cottage family he observes: “when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathised in their joys” (Shelley, 86). Therefore, neither Gregor nor the creature truly embody the literal definition of monstrous; there is nothing frightening, revolting, or inhuman in their thoughts and feelings. What, then, is the true nature of ‘the monstrous’ that Shelley and Kafka are trying to represent?

The Metamorphosis is an allegory for a Marxist perspective on ‘the monstrous’ nature of capitalism. Gregor is alienated from his body literally, but also figuratively. When he wakes, Gregor considers how much he hates his work, and dreams of being free (Kafka, 4-5). He obtains no joy or innate meaning from his job (Kafka, 4-5). Gregor’s work is determined by means external to himself: supporting his family and paying off his parents’ debt (Marx to Myth, 486). His change in physical appearance only concerns him in so far as its role in preventing him from being able to work. As Gregor tries to get out of bed, he is unable to stand normally, yet hopes that his “diminutive legs would then… acquire a purpose” (Kafka, 10). This is a metaphor for Gregor forcing himself into a role, a “purpose”, for the capitalist system, rather than allowing himself to flourish the way he naturally desires. We have defined “the monstrous” as something inhuman, revolting, and frightening. Marx believed that labour must have an element of free choice, and that without this, it is inhuman (Marx to Myth 486). Gregor has forced himself into a role for capitalism, and longs for freedom, and thus we see the inhuman, monstrous nature of capitalism that Kafka portrays.

Frankenstein presents a similar perspective on ‘the monstrous’, related to the notion that individuals must conform to the roles that society push upon them. As with Gregor in The Metamorphosis, the Creature is ultimately forced to accept a role that society has pushed upon him, which for the Creature, is that of a monster. Bernatchez draws parallels between torture and the treatment of the creature in Frankenstein (205). Torture comes about during a verbal interrogation in which the victim will not give the interrogator the answer they are looking for (Bernatchez, 207). Implicitly, the Creature is asked “what are you?”; indeed, he asks himself that question multiple times (Bernatchez, 207, Shelley, 93). The Creature experiences psychological anguish resulting from his rejection from society, as well as physical pain when he is struck by Felix, attacked by a village, and forced to endure environmental pressures due to a lack of home or shelter (Bernatchez, 206-8). Finally, Bernatchez notes that the victim is ultimately forced to scream the answer the interrogator is looking for (Bernatchez, 210). This is seen when the Creature ultimately assumes the role of the monster, betraying his belief that he is a virtuous creature, and murdering William and Elizabeth (Bernatchez, 211).

In both texts, Gregor and the creature are forced to accept the roles given to them by the society they live in. Gregor initially accepts his position as the proletariat, and then his lack of position at all when he can no longer provide for the capitalist, thus going willingly to his death (Kafka, 71). The Creature is ultimately forced, by the rejection of society, to betray himself and scream that he is a monster (and similarly goes willingly to his death) (Shelley, 170). While Gregor is forced into his role because of his economic relationships, and the Creature purely because of his physical appearance, what links both texts is the notion that each character must conform to expectations generated by the society they live in. The nature of the monstrous is thus revealed by both texts as inhumanity, caused by the existence of discriminatory structures of society.



Bernatchez, Josh. ‘Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and “The Structure of Torture”’, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2009, pp. 205-216. JSTOR,

Butler, Susan, editor. Macquarie Dictionary. 5th ed., Macquarie, 2009.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Ian Johnston, Planet, 1999.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993.

Sokel, Walter H. ‘From Marx to myth:  the structure and function of self-alienation in Kafka’s Metamorphosis’, The Literary Review, vol. 26, no. 4, 1983, pp. 485-496, viewed October 20, 2017,




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