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Gothic and Grotesque

Nothing is creepier than a gripping horror story, however today’s horror genre is filled with axe-wielding maniacs wanting to literally paint the town red. Two stories that probably would not come to mind when thinking of good “wholesome” horror are Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Although neither of these works is classified as being in the horror genre, upon deeper analysis one will see that both of these works include elements one might classify as gothic, surreal, supernatural or grotesque. These works are not equal, however, as they both have more of one aspect than the other. Conrad’s work has a little bit of all four aspects, with many examples focussing on the surreal and supernatural themes. In contrast, Kafka’s work is less gothic, focussing more on the grotesque, surreal, and supernatural.

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Before delving too deep into the works, it should be explained what is meant by the terms gothic, grotesque, surreal and supernatural. Gothic is a style of story that was popular between the 1800’s and the 1900’s, often involving dark, dreary settings and evil plots. Edgar Allen Poe was a great gothic writer, whose chilling thriller stories had much to do with death and dying. Grotesque is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Current English as meaning, “repulsively distorted” which is definitely the case in both of these authors’ characters. Surreal is a term used to describe things that are not quite real, or that may be too real to some. Like trying to look at a dim star straight on in the night sky; if you stare straight at it, it seems as if it is not even there, but by looking just a little off to the side, it seems to appear just outside your point of focus. Finally, supernatural is defined by Oxford as meaning, “manifesting phenomena not explicable by natural or physical laws.” This certainly holds true; turning into a giant bug is definitely not a natural phenomenon, unless you are a smaller bug to begin with.

Now that the definitions of the criteria have been made, it is time to look at the stories, starting with Conrad’s work. One can definitely detect a gothic flavour in “Heart of Darkness.” Its dark, dreary setting sets the gothic mood right away, giving a depressing, mildly horrific atmosphere. An example of this is the narrator’s description of the sunset at the very beginning of the story:

And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men. (Short Fiction, 253)

Death and gloom unquestionably give the sunset a gothic spice. Even the title gives the feeling of a gothic tale. In Anthony Fothergil’s Open Guide to Literature: Heart of Darkness he says “The title confronts us with a language which won’t, as it were, stand still” (3). He goes on to ask the question: Is it the centre of darkness, or the heart, which is dark that Conrad is referring to? (3). Either way, the title gives one a premonition of gloom and evilness.

As well as being gothic, the title is also rather surreal. To leave the meaning open ended to the reader gives one the sense that the story reflects what they are thinking or feeling. This puts the story into the kind of un-reality that the surreal theme thrives in. Other surreal aspects of the story are many of the symbols regarding the underworld. Once again Fothergil voices his opinion on this subject, saying, “…it is a journey through the underworld for purposes of instruction as well as entertainment” (31). As well, Fothergil compares Kurtz to a “Shade” from classic mythology, which is an underworld inhabitant, unable to find peace, who feels the need to tell mortals their sad stories (94). This he definitely does, right up until the end with his last words: “The horror! The horror!” (Short Fiction, 313). Surrealism is a big aspect in these examples; symbols of people and events with a deeper, darker meaning that touches the reader in profound ways. Perhaps everyone feels that they are making their own trek through the underworld, in their own little way.

Many of the symbols surrounding the character of Kurtz could also be seen as surreal. For example, there is the description that Marlow gives about attempted rescue of Kurtz: “I had to beat this Shadow – this wandering and tormented thing…” (Authoritative Text, 67). Marlow is superimposing the image of an uneasy, miserable spirit over Kurtz, but perhaps that is who Kurtz really is, and his humanity is all superimposed. Which is the reality? As well, when Marlow speaks of the impact that Kurtz has had on him, he says, “Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces” (Authoritative Text, 67). A very surreal image is conjured out of that statement: Kurtz had shattered Marlow’s beliefs, shattered his “earth.”

Another example of surrealism comes from the book entitled Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough. Marlow is speaking of the two women in black he sees, sitting in chairs knitting. Upon seeing one of them, and the look in her eyes he says, “Not many of those she looked at ever say her again – not half, by a long way” (11). This thought seems to say that the woman had some sort of power to curse those she looked at to death. Then again, it might just be that the people she looks at just never seem to come that way again. Two “realities” here, but which one is real and which is “surreal”?

Another theme represented by the old women is the theme of the supernatural. As stated above, one might take Marlow’s statement to mean the woman had some form of power to do harm. Also concerning the two women, he says to himself, “I thought of these two guarding the door of Darkness” (Authoritative Text, 11), which definitely brings one to think in terms of the supernatural; an image of two women, clad in black, guarding the entrance to all that is evil. As well, Marlow’s description of the dying natives definitely has a supernatural flavour, as he says, “I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” (Authoritative Text, 17). This is a powerful image of the supernatural; the fires of Hell.

Although the scene with the dying natives can be called supernatural, one can also see how it could be classified as being grotesque. Marlow tells the reader how “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair…they were dying slowly…lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (Authoritative Text, 17). What could be more grotesque than a painful, lonely, meaningless death? Death is the end of something beautiful; life. It is especially disgusting when there is no point to it, and it is done in pain.

Now that Conrad’s work has been analyzed, it is time to consider the work of Kurtz. First off, “The Metamorphosis” can definitely be classified as being grotesque. Even the concept of the story exemplifies this trait through the transformation of the main character into a gigantic bug, which is one of the most disgusting things that could happen to any human being. He is transformed into that which he would have stepped on without a second thought. His life has turned from something bearable into something abominable. What becomes of him at the end of the story is perhaps the most grotesque of it all; he becomes nothing more than an unloved dead bug. “[The charwoman pushed] Gregor’s corpse a long way to one side with her broomstick. Mrs. Samsa made a movement as if to stop her, but checked herself. ‘Well,’ said Mr. Samsa, ‘now thanks be to God’” (531). It is obvious that the family was relieved at the death of their horrifically metamorphosized son.

There are other critics who share the idea of “The Metamorphosis” being grotesque. Gunther Anders gives a great critique of the horror of many of Kafka’s stories when he says, “What makes the reading of [Kafka’s] stories such a gruesome experience is his manner of treating the grotesque as everyday normality” (13). This is evident in the first paragraphs of the story, as Gregor wakes up. He realizes he has turned into a very large insect, however he is more concerned with trivial, everyday happenings such as being late for work that with what has happened to him. The same attitude is shared by his family, but to a lesser degree. Instead of trying to find out the cause of the change, they merely keep Gregor locked in his room; out of sight, out of mind it seems.

Surrealism in “The Metamorphosis” is a very important aspect of the story. Perhaps Johannes Pfieffer best says it in his essay entitled “The Metamorphosis.” Pfieffer says that: “This balanced composition has a certain correspondence in the exactness with which the room is imagined and in an kind of ‘magic realism,’ whereby objects are presented with such a compact wealth of detail that they are constantly turned into something unreal or more than real” (53).

This statement virtually includes the meaning of the word surreal. The story is too fantastic to be taken literally; all Kafka’s symbols and descriptions are hints of something deeper, something more profound.

For example, look at the moving of furniture from Gregor’s room. At first Gregor is happy to have more room to walk about the walls and ceiling, until he realizes what is really happening on a deeper level. By taking out his furniture, they are denying him his humanity. In their eyes, he is an insect and nothing more now, and Gregor cannot bear that. “Did he really want his warm room…to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of …his human background?” (515).

Finally, what is Kafka’s story if it is not supernatural? The metamorphosizing of a man into an insect is definitely not any natural act. What makes Gregor’s metamorphosis all the more strange is that the author does not go into any detail as to how the change took place. Kafka simply tells the reader what has happened, and expects that it be accepted. Even the family does nothing to find the cause of Gregor’s change; they simply accept it, and attempt to deal with his paranormal transformation.

From the above examples, it is clear to see that there are many horrific themes in each story. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” has themes and examples that overlap, such as the title itself which can be seen as being both gothic and surreal, and the scene of the dying natives, which can be read as both supernatural and grotesque. Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” does not have so much of a gothic flavour as it does supernatural, grotesque and surreal. The whole concept of the tale has all three of those aspects included in it; a man transformed into a bug. What could be more grotesque, supernatural, or surreal than that? In closing, one can see how chainsaw buzzing madmen will never compare to the subtle horrors of these two great artists.