Cockroaches, the Secret Agents of Kafka in South Korea

By Haneul Lee

Recently, the so-called ‘Cockroach test’ or ‘Cockroach question’ began trending in South Korea on social platforms such as Tiktok and Instagram. A person asks a family member: ‘One morning, you wake up and find that I’ve changed into a cockroach. What would you do?’ There are various answers to this:

– ‘I think I’d still love you, and still find you beautiful,’ says an affectionate mum.

– ‘I’d use pesticides to kill it, or cut off the head immediately to save the family,’ a traditionally practical father answers.

– ‘I’d lock you up in the house and burn it down,’ says a mischievous partner.

– ‘I’d find a way to become a cockroach, so that we could live as a cockroach couple forever,’ remarks a romantic husband.

 – ‘If you had wings, could you give me a ride?’ jokes a witty mum.

Although Kafka is not mentioned here, the question paraphrases the opening sentence of ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915): ‘As Gregor Sama woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin’. [1] This social media trend is just one example of how Kafka is being consumed by young people in the context of Korean popular culture.

One thing I want to highlight about this trend is that it deals with, of all things, a person’s transformation into a cockroach.

However, in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’, the word ‘cockroach’ never actually appears.

Kafka was first introduced to South Korea in the mid-1950s and has continued to grow in popularity. Ever since I first read Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ in Korean around the age of 14, I always imagined the protagonist Samsa as, specifically, a cockroach. This seems to be a common assumption. Since 2015, a literature textbook for high school students in South Korea has included ‘The Metamorphosis’, meaning that almost every Korean student has had access to this story. I read on the internet that in some school classrooms, whenever a cockroach appears, the students shout out ‘그레고르 잡자[gregorɯ japja]!’, meaning ‘Catch Gregor!’ in Korean. (The Korean orthography for ‘Samsa’ is ‘잠자’[jamja] and ‘잡자’[japja], the imperative form of the verb ‘catch’, shares all consonants and vowels bar one consonant from the name ‘잠자’[jamja].) What a witty interlingual pun.

Once a cockroach is found in the classroom, it is destined to be brutally killed by boys using a shoe or textbook. Raised by a mother who always encouraged me to imagine what it would be like ‘if the shoe were on the other foot’, I was often the one who tried to stop other kids from killing insects. Nevertheless, whenever a cockroach appeared, I would secretly wish someone would get it out of my sight – cockroaches were and are considered the most disgusting creatures, directly related to filthiness, thus leaving no place for mercy. The strongly-rooted modernist sense of germaphobia in South Korea was strongly projected onto these ‘gross’ creatures. One of the reasons why Gregor is widely perceived as a cockroach in Korea, is probably because it is the most loathed creature in the country. This perception seems quite common, as the British author Ian McEwan wrote The Cockroach (2019), in which a cockroach changes into a politician, to satirize the Brexit situation.

Regarding the degree of cockroaches’ loathsomeness, however, there seems to be a certain difference: I remember reading an essay by Vera Hohleiter, a German woman who spent a year living in Korea. In one essay, in her collection Schlaflos in Seoul: Korea für ein Jahr (2009), she wrote about a conflict between her and her Korean husband: The moment they saw a cockroach in their flat, the husband wanted to kill it immediately, while she was opposed to it. For the husband, who grew up having pesticides against cockroaches and mosquitos like every other household in South Korea, her reaction must have been difficult to understand.[2] This implies that the cockroach does not have the absolute image of an ‘outlaw’ in Germany nowadays as it does in South Korea.

When I google in German which animal Gregor changed into, then we get a clear answer: ‘a beetle’. There is, in fact, a scene in ‘The Metamorphosis’ where Samsa is called a ‘dung beetle’ (Mistkäfer) by an old maid. She might intend ‘dung’ as a fun and mischievous term (Korean grandmas often call their grandkids by the affectionate nickname ‘Ddong-Gangaji’, meaning ‘Dung-Puppy’) making this merely a description of someone who is perceived as rather rough and unsophisticated, suggesting that we should not take her literally. Since there is no word in the story that clearly identifies the exact species of insect, there have been conflicting opinions and arguments for a long time.

In one short story, ‘Wedding Preparation in the Country’, in Kafka’s first collection Meditation (1913), there is a line that foreshadows ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915): ‘As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think’.[3] Even though this short list of insects does not include cockroaches, this alone is not enough to conclude that the insect that Gregor transformed into in ‘The Metamorphosis’ was not a cockroach. 

The Russian-American writer and scholar of literature, and entomologist, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) firmly rejects the idea of Samsa as a cockroach in the chapter ‘The Metamorphosis’, in his book Lectures on Literature (1980). According to Nabokov, the only trait that Samsa shares with a cockroach is the brown colour. Instead, he is very much convinced that Samsa is a beetle. His arguments are as follows:

– While cockroaches have large legs, Samsa is described as having small legs.

– While the cockroach has a flat body, Samsa’s is round.[4] 

However, these arguments can be refuted using the same logic as Nabokov’s uses to argue that it is not a centipede but a beetle. In Kafka’s story, Samsa is described as having ‘numerous legs’. Nabokov argues that six legs are a lot compared to the number of human legs.[5] In terms of proportion, cockroaches do have proportionally ‘small’ legs compared to humans, and beetles can also be said to be ‘flat’ when compared to the form of a ball. In other words, these arguments are grounded on an assumption that is relative and arbitrary. Moreover, as Nabokov observes − proudly stating that ‘this is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives’[6]– beetles have wings, meaning that Gregor dies without knowing that he could fly. Nabokov wittily adds that Gregor, as well as Kafka, had perhaps never looked closely at beetles.[7] 

Living in the age of the Internet search, I can say with certainty that cockroaches have wings too. The wings of many species of cockroaches are defunct, so they are not built for flight; instead, their wings have evolved into a form that can help them move quickly through narrow spaces.

Meanwhile, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) refers to the insect that Gregor changed into, in his essay on Kafka (1953), as a ‘bedbug.’[8] This is probably due to its parasitic nature, which is also mentioned in Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka (1934)[9] that Adorno had read, and also the fact that Adorno suffered from bedbugs in his daily life. There is an idiom in Korean, ‘to be a bedbug on someone’, which means to live like a parasite. Bedbugs seem to have been a nuisance in the past in Korea, considering that there is an old Korean proverb, ‘to burn one’s house to get rid of bedbugs’, similar in meaning to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.  However, bedbugs have very little to no presence in South Korea today. I have heard that in some parts of the United States, which suffer from bedbugs, that they sometimes use cockroaches that eat bedbugs to get rid of bedbugs, so in terms of the degree of harm they cause, bedbugs seem to be considered far worse than cockroaches.

However, in the case of Gregor in ‘The Metamorphosis’, as Adorno points out, his family had been parasitic to him until he transformed into an insect. Even after his transformation, Gregor inflicts no direct harm, such as attacking his family, sucking their blood or destroying their property. In fact, the way he leads his life continues to be harmless.

The reason why the Samsa family treat Gregor so harshly is not because Gregor causes direct harm. Like cockroaches, he is harmless. Cockroaches do not suck blood and cause itchiness, like mosquitoes and bedbugs. Unlike mice, they do not transfer infectious diseases, gnaw furniture, or consume much food. But many people around the world hate cockroaches. The reasons for this have to do with the feelings of disgust they instil in us. In other words, it is the appearance and movement of the transformed Gregor that justifies the violence his family inflict on him.

This allows us to guess why Gregor is widely perceived by the public as a cockroach rather than a beetle. Some people keep beetles as pets, and when we think of them, their round and simple form makes them seem cute and likeable, rather than inspire feelings of disgust. If beetles were considered hideous insects, there might not have been a Beetle car, the signature of Volkswagen in Germany, and there perhaps might not have been the legendary band ‘The Beatles’, loved by people around the world.

Most crucially, however, beetles are usually found in nature, while many species of cockroaches live in our urban buildings and houses. The scene where Grete brings various foods for Gregor gives a decisive hint: the insect Gregor’s favourite foods are spoiled foods, not fresh foods or milk, which he liked as a human being. For sure, it is not the diet of beetles that eat worms or snails. It is the diet of cockroaches, which feed on food waste.

The reason why cockroaches are loathed is not simply because of their appearance, but also due to their fast movement, which is enough to startle people when they are at home, in their ‘safe place’. In Korean, the word ‘cockroaches’ is 바퀴벌레[bakuibeolrae], a combination of 바퀴[bakui] and 벌레[beolrae], respectively ‘wheel’ and ‘insect,’ which supposedly originated from their speed of movement (they move as fast as if they have wheels). The Greek ‘blata’ and Roman ‘lucifaga’ etymology of ‘cockroach’ means ‘the one who runs away from light.’ And yes, they loathe human beings: they scuttle away when they see you.

The fact that Gregor, after adapting to his new body, can stick to and move across walls and ceilings and crawl into narrow spaces, such as under the sofa, is very strongly reminiscent of cockroaches’ behaviour.

In South Korea, since the first translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in 1957, more than 70 translations have been produced. As a result, Kafka’s influence on Korean literature and pop culture as a whole has been huge. In the Korean webtoon (digital comic) I Don’t Want this Kind of Hero, which has also been translated into English and is popular around the world among young generations, the character ‘Gregor’ was born to an entomologist mother and cockroach father.[10] Although he is discriminated against for his disgusting appearance, he is more humane than most humans, and Samchon, the webtoon’s creator, says that he created this character to criticize the ‘lookism’ prevailing in Korea.

In conclusion, the powerful association of ‘Gregor = Cockroach’ prevalent in South Korea ironically seems to explain the popularity of this motif among today’s generation of young Koreans. This is because Gregor’s fall – from a family’s promising young breadwinner to a largely disliked being, a cockroach – is so dramatic, young people could relate to the story very well in a harsh, achievement-oriented, rat race society like South Korea.

Adaptations of ‘The Metamorphosis’ are not unlike cockroaches in how they proliferate. The Mexican folk song La Cucaracha was used for the Mexican revolution, mainly because of the cockroach’s power of survival. There are more than 4,000 species of cockroaches worldwide, and their appearance varies widely. Depending on location, there may be creatures that are more loathed than cockroaches. Cockroaches may grow to a much bigger size in very hot regions, so in some countries they may not be as loathed, or may not even be loathed at all, because their size means that they can be used to supplement protein. In such places, the impact of the association of Gregor with cockroaches may be different.

Kafka, of course, tried to avoid having the insect illustrated, specifically asking the book’s original cover artist not to do so. What great foresight he had, to inspire so much debate over the past century! Other than cockroaches, what other elements are secretly helping the afterlife of Kafka? 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death. It will be a great opportunity to meet the various international iterations of Kafka, who has become a cultural icon in so many countries around the world.

Dr. Haneul Lee is currently an academic visitor at the Oxford Kafka Research Centre to work on Kafka’s reception in South Korea and to work on a Korean translation of Carolin Duttlinger’s The Cambridge Introduction to Kafka (Greenbee, forthcoming 2024). She is also the author of Die Bildwelt in Walter Benjamins Kafka-Lektüre (The Image-World in Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Kafka; Fink, 2023).

[1] The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Joyce Crick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 29.

[2] Some might question whether there are different species of cockroaches in Germany and Korea. According to CESCO, a cockroach repellent company that is a household name in South Korea, the most prevalent type of cockroach in Korea is ‘Blattella germanica’ which, as its name suggests, originated in Germany.

[3] The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1976), p. 56.

[4] See. Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (San Diego, Calif. ; London : Harvest,1982), p.129-130.

[5] See. Ibid. p. 129.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 130.

[8] ‚Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka‘, Theodor W. Adorno, in: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft I. Prismen Ohne Leitbild, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003), p. 254-287, here, 267.

[9] ‚Franz Kafka. Zur zehnten Wiederkehr seines Todestages‘, Walter Benjamin, in: Walter Benjamin. Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 2.2, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), p. 409-438, here, 411.

[10] I Don’t Want This Kind of Hero | WEBTOON (