by Franz Kafka
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Here it is, the Kafkaesque (there's that word again) version of the white whale. The bug. The scuttling, goo-puking, wall-climbing insect that Gregor transforms into. And boy is this six-legged nightmare beast ever symbolic.
We didn't just mention Melville's white whale because it's another beast-that-happens-to-be-a-symbol (well, that too)—we mentioned him because Gregor-the-vermin, like ol' Moby, is about a bazillion symbols rolled into one. In fact, the symbolic shape of the vermin changes depending on how you read The Metamorphosis. Because Kafka's a genius like that.
We're going to throw out some possible interpretations and see what sticks... besides Gregor's vermin-feet to the ceiling.
#1: The Vermin As Kafka
Kafka was a troubled dude. You can see it in his eyes. Why so serious, Franz? Because he had every reason to be a gloomy Gus. He was a) a German in Czech Prague b) a Jew in a pretty virulently anti-Semitic place and time c) riddled with daddy issues d) a failed businessman e) sicky. The list goes on.
Many people think of The Metamorphosis as a highly autobiographical work. Sure, Franz Kafka never actually woke up in bug form, but he sure felt like he did. He was abused and made to feel lesser-than for most of his life. And what, after all, is "lesser than" a vermin? No one likes them. No one respects them. No small child in the history of small children has said "Mommy! Look at that brown-goop-spewing insect! Can I take him home?"
The way Gregor is portrayed in this novella can be read as oozing (pun intended) with self-loathing. Just check out Grete's argument for doing away with Gregor:
"If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn't possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn't have a brother, but we'd be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers away, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter." (3.25)
Ugh. We want to go back in time and give Kafka a hug and a lot of therapy. The vermin is shown as being not only lowly ("such a creature") but malicious. The vermin "persecutes," "drives [people] away" and "wants... for us to sleep in the gutter."
The vermin is portrayed as evil. And, sadly, evidence points to the fact that Kafka himself was made to feel worthless and evil.
#2: The Vermin As Jewish... Or "Other"
Although the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust were still decades away at the time of The Metamorphosis' publication, Kafka was no stranger to anti-Semitism. Many scholars have read The Metamorphosis as an eerie prediction of the Holocaust and propaganda that portrayed Jews as—you got it—vermin.
But this idea of Kafka-as-prophet-of-doom makes some people wince. Kafka was just a dude dealing with a myriad of issues... only one of which happened to be the fact that he was Jewish. The vermin he writes about could easily have been a reference to the German/Czech friction in Prague, or the plight of the workingman, or the scorn heaped upon failed artists.
In fact, anyone considered "other" can feel as insignificant as an insect sometimes. As Zadie Smith writes:
For there is a sense in which Kafka's Jewish question ("What have I in common with the Jews?") has become everybody's question, Jewish alienation is the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is Femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We're all insects, all Ungeziefer now. (Source)
#3: The Golden Rule of Vermin
We're going to get our philosophy on real quick.
A major German Enlightenment philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant came up with the ethical principle that you should act toward others as if your actions served as a universal law applicable to everybody... including yourself. This is called the categorical imperative. We know it as the "golden rule"—it's another way of saying that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But Kant also elaborated on this idea by saying that you should always act toward others—and this is important—with respect for their humanity.
Why are we bringing up Kant here? Because Kafka puts a twist on this whole ethical tradition by making the subject of ethical debate in The Metamorphosis a... bug. And not just any bug—a vermin, a pest. Gregor isn't a cute little ladybug or even a motherly spider named Charlotte, but the kind of disgusting bug that makes your skin crawl and stinks when you squish it.
So what happens to ethics when the subject is a bug? Should we do unto vermin as we would have vermin do unto us? What if we can't determine what Gregor is exactly, human-vermin hybrid that he is? Which laws apply to Gregor?
The symbol of the vermin isn'tan easy one. In fact, as we've just proved (count the question marks above), this symbol does a lot more asking than it does answering. But hey—that's why Kafka's work is immortal. We're still puzzling over it to this day.