Symbolism in Kafka’s Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis is a wild ride from cover to cover. The novel begins where most novels end, at the climax.  This unique use of narration by Kafka is a literary device which is not often used but central to the plot of this novel.  It allows the reader to focus fully on the most important aspect of the story – the insect.  The narration takes two paths.

One is the personalized version of Gregor.  It tells his intimate thoughts, troubles, aches, and pains.  The other narration is from a very objective point of view.  The speaker is almost robotic, telling the audience just the facts with no emotions.

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As they both speak , it is slowly revealed to the reader what has really happen to poor Gregor Samsa.  He has been transformed into an insect.  The story is full of symbolism which  help develop the theme that society is killing  humanity leaving behind the only things that can survive in an emotionless world lacking warmth and love – insects.Willa Muir, in Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka, states” Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself changed into a gigantic insect, it is a mistake to think that by means of this bold stroke Kafka intends to call into question the laws of nature.

What he calls into question, rather, is the convention that the laws of nature are at all times to be observed in fiction”  (Muir xi).  The story begins much differently then most stories too.  There is very little rising action especially if the reader believes that the change from human to insect is the climax.  As the audience reads more they realize that the transformation is just the beginning.

Muir continuesThe clerk’s metamorphosis is a multiple symbol of his alienation from the human state, of his “awakening” to the full horror of his dull, spiritless existence, and of the desperate self-disgust of his unconscious fantasy-life, in which the wish to displace the father and take over his authority in the family is annulled by the guilt-need to suffer a revolting punishment for his presumption.(Muir xii)  Martin Greenburg, in The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature, explains the untraditional form of the novel  “The Metamorphosis produces its form out of itself. The traditional kind of narrative based on the drama of denouement—on the “unknotting” of complications and the coming to a conclusion.”  Greenburg continues that “because it is just exactly the absence of denouement and conclusions that is his subject matter” (70).

His story is about death, but death that is without denouement, death that is merely a spiritually inconclusive petering out. A Womanly EscapeGregor Samsa is man who has very little hope.  He is in a position in life where he is very unhappy.  His family is suffocating and his father is dominating.

His family decided that the should be a lawyer and Gregor is forced to go to law school.  His position within the family is that of ‘money maker’.   His family needs Gregor to work to pay the bills and make their life comfort.  In the past, Gregor wanted to be a writer but, in reality, he knows he will never become a writer.

Though Gregor does day dream, from time to time,  about what his life could be like.  Unfortunately, he is endlessly stuck in his position as a governmental insurance agent.  His days are consumed with paper work and numbers.  He has no social life and one day bleeds, slowly, into the following day.

Gregor’s mother, when his boss inquires about why Gregor has not come to work yet, explains that Gregor “thinks about nothing but his work” and continues “he’s been here the last eight days and has stayed at home every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables” (x).His mother knows that Gregor does have one escape and in comes in the form of framed picture he made.  She explains “cutting out a little picture frame. .. you would be surprised to see how pretty it is; it’s hanging in his room; you’ll see it in a minute when Gregor opens the door” (x).  This framed beauty– a woman covered competely in fur, her wide eyes staring directly at the viewer – “a pin-up” (Bloom 22).

While this picture keeps Gregor company it also symbolizes what Gregor wants, ultimately, out of life.  He wants to be in love, to have his own life, and to find beauty that he can called his own.  The picture is extremely important for him.  When his family removes all his furniture, the only item he fights to keep is his picture, his own escape.

He pushes his body “the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly” (x).   He wishes to keep it because it perhaps represents his past as a human with a human love.An Empty RoomA pivotal moment in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, is when his family takes his furniture away.  The furniture, like the painting, represents his own human self.

After all, no other organisms use furniture but humans.  Gregor’s mother is not sure about the furniture removal and questions Grete, questioning “Doesn’t it look as if we were showing him, by taking away his furniture, that we have given up hope of his ever getting better?” (x).  In the same breathe, she quickly begins to remove the furniture.  The furniture symbolizes not just Gregor’s human past but also the final confirmation that he will never be well — he will never be human again.

Which is why Gregor’s sister insistes that  “He must go,” and continues to explain “You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor” (x).  Harold Bloom, in analysis of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, assertsIn the dark bedroom, in the jumble of discarded furniture and filth, is the monstrous vermin, a grotesque, hidden part of the family, a sign of their shame and unworthiness (84).

Nathan A. Scott Jr. , in Rehearsals of Discomposure, agrees and states “the spiritual premises of his life have, in other words, been pride and complacency and self-assertion. His only worries have been those of a traveling salesman: he has not measured his ego against its divine foundation, and so his has been an easy conscience” (38).  The character development is equally as telling in this story.  Remember, Gregor is seen as the one who makes the money and takes care of the family yet by the end the father is dominating the situation and ultimately seals Gregor fate.

Edith Kurzwell, in Literature and Psychoanalysis, reflects that the son is at first portrayed as the strong one who gives support to the weak father. However, all this soon proves to be deceptive and the relationships are reversed. As the son grows weaker, the father grows strong, in fact, almost omnipotent.(284).

An Open DoorGregor’s bedroom actually has three doors and a window.  He is imprisoned in his room.  Gregor states ” I say here, no one will come to help me; even if all the people were commanded to help me, every door and window would remain shut, everybody would take to bed and draw the bedclothes over his head, the whole earth would become an inn for the night” (x).  These are portals to the outside world, that Gregor can not go through because he is no longer human.

The doors represent the alienation which Gregor has always felt but feels more now that he is fully changed into an insect.  The doors and window are a constant reminder to the reader of the loneliness and desperation which continues to plague Gregor’s life.  These items, like the walls of the room, keep him from society.  Gregor is constantly plotting to escape his room.

He attempts to unlock each door, again and again, without succes.  He is always looking out his window, longing for the outside world.    Bloom explains the “parallel between text and life suggests is the utopic function of the photograph as a window, a promise, an “Ausweg” from the familial, oedipal situation” (132).  His only exposure to the world is the window, paned glass.

Just like the picture the doors and windows symbolism, possible escape.The Magical Number ThreeThe number three is found throughout the The Metamorphosis. J. Brooks Bouson, in The Empathic Reader: A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self, asserts “The Metamorphosis is carefully organized around Gregor’s repetitive enclosures and escapes–protect against but do not camouflage the horrors of Gregor’s insect existence” (51).

The story is divided into three parts.  There are three people staying at the house.Elizabeth Boa, in Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions, believes that  “Gregor associates freedom from the timetable of work with femininity, comparing travellers, who unlike him can afford to linger over breakfast, with harem women: the transformation marks if not feminization, then demasculinization” (123).  The lodgers represent what Gregor could have if had remain human.

His family forced him into being a work horse who never has a day to himself.  His work and the money he makes is not his own and he is not respected for what he does in the world.Gregor’s family is consists of three people. Gregor also spends “two or three” evenings creating his picture.

There are three doors to his room, and he tries to escape three times from the house.  In addtional, Kafka writesThe decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful mediation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning (x). The number of three probably parallels the three stages of changes for Gregor as an insect and “the rest of the novella falls away from this high point of astonishment in one long expiring sigh, punctuated by three subclimaxes (the three eruptions of the bug from the bedroom)” (Bloom 19).

The MetamorphosisThe major symbol in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, is the insect.  Critics have, since the publication of this novel, have debated what the insect symbolizes.  Many literary critics believe that it represents how alone and ugly Gregor’s life is.  The insect is a physical, tangible imagine of the a life left un-lived.

Still others believe that the insect is a metaphor for the way in which humans view life with the movement away from humanism into a very jaded and unhealthy mindset.   However, the insect is truly representative how Gregor has been beaten down by his family and specifically his father.  The pressure place upon him to do exactly as they say, be exactly who they want him to be, and to exist only for his family had drain the humanity from his body.  It is the shift from being a human being to being just another ‘thing’ that can easily be disposed of when he is no longer needed.

His shoe soles seem “enormous” to his son because of his insect angle of vision—not because the old man is superhuman but because the son is less than human. Everything in the story is seen from Gregor’s point of view, the point of view of somebody who has fallen below the human level (Bloom 24).  It is important to remember that insects have exists for thousands of years and can exist without humans.  They need none of things that humans need to live.

The Metamorphosis re-presents and reactively defends against the narcissistic needs, anxieties, and vulnerabilities that inform it. What Kafka so poignantly captures in this story, as Kohut himself commented, is the experience of an individual “who finds himself in nonresponsive surroundings,” whose family speaks of him coldly, in the “impersonal third pronoun,” so that he becomes a “nonhuman monstrosity, even in his own eyes” (Bouson 52).   Society, through industrialization and the importance of money and possessions are taking the humanity out of the world.  Gregor is not the first metamorphosis to take place, he the first to physically display his broken humanity.

The End is NearThrough the use of symbolism Kafka creates a story simple in structure but complex in meaning.  Kafka, in the words of Theodor Adorno, shakes the “contemplative relation between text and reader to its very roots” (246). “A book for Kafka,” writes Silvio Vietta, “should act as a blow on the head of the reader” (211).   The reader is confused at the start of the story because the audience understands Gregor is sick but not to what extent.  The symbols used in the novel are as follows: the number three, the picture of the woman, doors, windows, the insect, and lack of furniture.

All of these symbols help develop the theme of the destruction of humanity.  People, in this world, loss a bit of their humanity each and every day.  The world is obsessed with money and material possessions.  The value of humanity decreases each day and people are transformed from living, breathing, feeling creatures into commodities which can be bought and sold – valued for their work and labor. Gregor transformation is the physical embodiment of the lack of humanity in the world and in all of us.

 Works Cited

  1. Beilke, Debra. “Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writing.” The Mississippi Quarterly 54. 1 (2000): 152+.Bloom, Harold, ed. Franz Kafka”s the Metamorphosis. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
  2. Boa, Elizabeth. Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  3. Bouson, J. Brooks. A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self. Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
  4. Greenberg, Martin. The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
  5. Kurzweil, Edith, and William Phillips, eds. Literature and Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
  6. Mitscherlich-nielsen, Margarete. “18 Psychoanalytic Notes on Franz Kafka.” Literature and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. 270-286.
  7. Rahv, Philip. “Introduction.” Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. New York: Modern Library, 1952.

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