A Phenomenology of Tragedy: Illness and Body Betrayal in The Fly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Many interpretations of David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly read it as a film about monstrosity. Within this framework, the protagonist Seth Brundle’s progressive illness and decay are subsumed under his metamorphosis into a monster. Illness is taken to be a metaphor for the changes in Seth, changes that continuously turn him away from the human and towards the monstrous. Seth’s monstrosity, in turn, arises from the fusion of human and non-human, in this case the fusion of a man with an insect. I suggest an opposite interpretation: instead of seeing Seth’s illness as a metaphor for monstrosity, I suggest that monstrosity is a metaphor for illness. Seth’s physical corruption as he becomes more and more monstrous is, in fact, a depiction of illness, and elicits disgust in the viewer that is identical to the disgust elicited by physical corruption brought about by illness. The external deformation of Seth as he becomes more and more fly-like, shown so spectacularly in the film, is a representation of the internal destruction and physiological chaos caused by disease. I argue that the notion of the monstrous that is so central to the film in fact supports the health/ illness dichotomy, in which the two states – health and illness, or human and monster – are posited as mutually exclusive. Instead of accepting the dichotomy and focusing on the dialecticbetween human and monstrous, as many interpretations have, I claim that the film in fact demonstrates the fallacy of this dichotomous view, showing that ultimately we all have ‘the disease of being finite’. I propose to understand the film as a tragedy portraying the terminal illness of a decent man. As such, the film dupes the viewer into accepting the human/ monster and healthy/ diseased dichotomies, only to grasp their illusoriness by the end of the film.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2007

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science


  • Film-philosophy, illness, Cronenberg, The Fly, illness experience


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