Study Guide

The Metamorphosis Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Franz Kafka

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Vermin

You could say the entire story is an allegory. After all, the setting seems so ordinary that it's tempting to see Gregor's transformation as a symbolic one, rather than an actual one. Maybe he's only a vermin in some moral or psychological sense. Perhaps he did something particularly cretinous – how about that chambermaid he had such "happy, fleeting" memories of? And what about all that cash his supervisor mentioned? Or perhaps his verminous-ness is an indirect expression of his selfish desire to be free of his family obligations. For more discussion on the vermin as it relates to the main themes of the story, check out "Man and the Natural World."

Religious Imagery

While religion doesn't play a huge part in the story, there are some religious elements sprinkled here and there. Some critics argue that Kafka chose the German word for vermin – Ungeziefer – with an eye toward its medieval meaning as an animal too debased to sacrifice (Corngold 87). The German word has a creepy echo after World War II, long after the story was written, because the Nazis used the word to describe Jews. While the Samsas are Christian (note the scene where they cross themselves over Gregor's corpse), some critics believe that Jewish mysticism plays a role in the story. Although there are no specific references to Jewish texts, critics note that Kafka, a Czech Jew, was reading about Jewish folklore at the time (Bruce 111). Gregor's "exile" in his own room is read by these critics as an allegory for the Jewish diaspora.

The Picture Frame

For a discussion of the photograph of the lady in furs, check out the theme "Morality and Ethics." But let's talk about the frame around the photograph. That's right – the frame. When we see characters doing something artistic in a story, it's usually a signal that the author is making some commentary on what he or she is trying to do as an artist, as a writer. Now the frame is something that Gregor artfully crafted in his free time, when he could have been wooing marriageable women or working on selling more fabric, neither of which he accomplishes successfully. An allegory, perhaps, of Kafka's own little novella, which, one could argue, is just a story and doesn't really contribute anything tangible to society? That's certainly a question the story raises about itself. And if Gregor represents the writer-figure here, what does it mean for him to be turned into a vermin? Nothing – and no one – is safe from Kafka's irony, not even himself.