What does the actual metamorphosis of Gregor symbolize?  

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Kafka’s seminal work starts with the sudden transformation of Gregor Samsa from a young man to a beetle-like creature.  The transformation takes place in his sleep, in the opening paragraph of the story.  This is Kafka’s device for examining the central premise of existentialism – Are we a product, an invention, a creation according to some plan; is there an essence to which we all conform, as though by blueprint?  Or are we designing and forming ourselves by our choices as human beings (existence precedes essence)?  Kafka examines this second premise by stripping all “human” characteristics from his protagonist, especially his physical “shell.”  (A beetle is a good substitute, because it has an exoskeleton, and a recognizable behavior.)  As the story progresses and as Gregor acts (especially with his sister), we as readers are able to question his actions and reactions, and compare them to “human” expectations .  This device allows the premise “that humans define themselves by their actions” to play out.