Abjection is something that a writer can create through their imagery or something that they might feature in the personality of their characters. Abjection is an experience that’s different for everyone. But, the most commonly cited example of when “abject” feelings come to the surface is when someone sees a dead body, an unavoidable reminder that death comes for everyone.
Definition of Abjection
Abjection is defined as feeling degraded, wretched, and depressed. It is also a word used to describe human reactions to a breach of “self” and “other.” This latter definition was pioneered by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror. The “reaction” someone has, such as throwing up, passing out, screaming, or falling into depression is subjective. It varies depending on one’s reaction to stimuli. While a dead body is the clearest example of something that might result in an abject reaction, others include injuries, disasters like unstoppable fires and floods, and terrible crimes like murder or genocide.
Examples of Abjection in Literature
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the best examples of a story in which a character feels and acts on his own subjective horror. The unreliable narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” feels disgusted at the sight of the old man’s eye. It sends him into a tailspin, resulting in him murdering the man and burying his body under the floorboards. Here are the first lines of the story. They introduce the reader to the narrator’s obsession and try to make sense of what he did:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
He’s at first relieved by the fact that he’ll never have to see the eye again. But, his guilt eats at him. It manifests itself in the sound of the man’s heart beating, something he’s determined everyone can hear. In among his ramblings, he does his best to convince the reader that he’s not actually insane.
It should also be noted that while the narrator acts on his feelings of abjection in the story, creating the main plot points, the reader might find themselves feeling something similar. Considering the old man did nothing to deserve his death, it’s likely readers will feel abjection at the thought of his murder and the treatment of his body.
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
The Metamorphosis is Kafka’s best-known novel. In it, he tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a businessman responsible for taking care of his whole family. One day, at the beginning of the novel, Gregor wakes up to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant bug. Although Kafka never defines the bug as a cockroach, the features suggest that this is the case. The reader might find themselves feeling abject horror at Gregor’s transformation, the way he’s injured with an apple towards the end of the novel, and the terrible state his room falls into. Here is a quote:
Gregor’s serious wound, from which he suffered for over a month – the apple remained imbedded in his flesh as a visible souvenir since no one dared to remove it – seemed to have reminded even his father that Gregor was a member of the family, in spite of his present pathetic and repulsive shape, who could not be treated as an enemy; that, on the contrary, it was the commandment of the family duty to swallow their disgust and endure him, endure him and nothing more.
There is another instance of abjection in the novel through—his family’s. Although they do attempt to take care of him, eventually, their disgust for his new form drives them to violence. They’re relieved when Gregor finally dies.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
In this controversial novel, Nabokov tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a professor who is obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl. He becomes sexually involved with the girl when he marries her mother. The girl, Dolores, is given the nickname “Lolita.” Despite the fact that this novel is considered to be a classic and included on lists of the best books of all time, the subject matter often evokes a feeling of abjection in the reader. Here is a quote from the novel:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Humbert, who speaks these lines, is a pedophile and the main character of the novel, something that’s often hard to reconcile. The novel asks readers to understand his mindset and why he feels the way he does about Lolita but, his actions are undeniably immoral and illegal. It’s hard to read the book without feeling disgusted with Humbert’s actions and baffled by one is engaged in reading the book in the first place.
Why Do Writers Use Abjection?
Abjection is a powerful literary tool. By creating it, they can evoke a very particular, bodily response in their audience. Disgust and horror are hard to forget emotions. This means that particularly abject scenes and actions are likely to remain in the reader’s mind for longer. For example, the apple in Gregor’s back in The Metamorphosis or the old man’s body under the floorboards in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Sometimes, the writer might be trying to evoke the feeling in the reader through their character’s actions or through parts of the setting. In other cases, the writer might want a character to feel abjection. They can put them into a situation where they encounter horrific sights and sounds, and their reaction becomes part of the narrative.
Abject refers to a person’s reaction to a reminder of death or any other stimuli that threaten the regular progression of one’s life. This could be a crime, disaster, or even someone else’s loss.
In literature, abjection is a reaction the reader has to the specific, disturbing subject matter. It can also feature as a reaction of a character in the story.
It is used to describe art that explores themes that threaten the viewer’s understanding of what’s right and wrong. It features the “other” and fear/disgust-evoking images.
Sordid, disgust, horror, fear
“She felt an intense feeling of abjection when she saw her grandmother’s body at the funeral.”
Related Literary Terms
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Hubris: a classical term used to refer to excessive pride in a story’s characters.
- Exposition: the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Existentialism: the exploration of the nature of existence with emphasis on the experiences of humanity.
- Listen: Julia Kristeva’s ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’
- Watch: Abjection as an Individuation Process
- Read: Horrible Art Histories