illustration of a giant insect with the outline of a man in a suit standing within the confines of the insect

The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Symbolism and imagery in The Metamorphosis


In The Metamorphosis, symbolism and imagery are used extensively to depict Gregor Samsa's alienation and transformation. The insect symbolizes his dehumanization and social isolation, while the confined, deteriorating room reflects his mental state. Imagery of decay and confinement accentuates his disconnection from his family and society, highlighting themes of identity and existential despair.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What symbols are present in The Metamorphosis?

There are numerous symbols in Franz Kafka’s story. If we look at Gregor Samsa’s transformation in relationship to his normal daily life, then we can see the insect itself as a symbol of dehumanization that he suffers from his job and his indifferent family. Gregor’s feelings of self-worth have declined so far that he can no longer think of himself as a human being.

Because Gregor has made many sacrifices for his family, he is often seen as a Christ figure. One detail supporting that interpretation is his mention of painful sensations:

he felt like he was nailed down and stretched out.

Other crucifixion-related symbols can be found in the apples that his father throws, which echo the crowd’s abuse of Christ en route to Golgotha. In contrast, apples can be a symbol of knowledge, as in the Biblical Book of Genesis, so Gregor being bombarded with apples could symbolize his being forced to accept the knowledge of his father’s antipathy toward him.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of imagery in The Metamorphosis?

There is descriptive imagery throughout The Metamorphosis. The novel is written in a very realistic style, almost deliberately disgusting with its descriptions of the giant insect, the house, and its inhabitants. In the very first lines, many examples of imagery are available:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections.
(Kafka, The Metamorphosis,

Gregor's dreams are "troubled," with the resulting image that he did not sleep well. His transformation is into a "horrible vermin," which could be almost anything unpleasant, but is revealed to be some sort of insect with an "armour-like back" and "brown belly." His belly is "domed" and "divided by arches," giving the sensation of something creepy, something that people would not want to see and touch. In fact, most insects have textures that people instinctively don't like to see or touch, and every description of Gregor afterwards plays on this theme, with his movements and strange sounds described in great detail. Every detail about Gregor's body is an example of imagery, as are many of his thoughts, which bring to mind the worries and fears that he feels every day.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, what are examples of figures of speech?

At the beginning of the story, Gregor awakens and looks out of his window. He sees that the street is "enveloped in morning fog." This is an example of pathetic fallacy, whereby the author uses the weather to reflect or foreshadow the situation of the character. The fog here represents the confusion and the disorientation that envelopes Gregor's life now that he is a giant insect. Indeed, this metaphorical fog becomes thicker and thicker as the story progresses and eventually consumes him completely.

Later in the story, Gregor is described as "oppressed with anxiety and self-reproach." He hates and is disgusted with himself for the anguish he thinks he has caused his family. His thoughts and his feelings become confused and dizzying, and the room begins "to spin around him." This is a metaphor. The room of course does not literally spin, but the metaphor helps to convey the turmoil of Gregor's current emotional state.

Throughout the story, there is also a recurring motif of imprisonment. For example, there are frequent references throughout the story to Gregor's "bolted and locked" door. Also, when the chief clerk comes to visit, Kafka describes the clerk's "firm footsteps in his highly polished boots." This image emphasizes the idea that Gregor is a prisoner, listening to the tramp of the prison officer's boots outside his cell. This recurring motif of imprisonment reflects Gregor's situation. He is a prisoner in his room, and he is a prisoner in his new body. There is no escape route open to him.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, what are examples of figures of speech?

Figures of speech are often used by writers to add more meaning, a freshness of expression, or emphasis to phrases, sentences, or passages.

In his novella The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka certainly employs figures of speech in his terrifying and bizarre—yet comically absurd—exploration of the feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and isolation.

For one thing, Kafka's work uses techniques of parody in certain passages as, for instance, the narrator mocks the narratives of fairy tales in which the beauty saves the prince who has been transformed. For in this novella, the sister, who is "the beauty," is so repulsed by Gregor that he hides under his bed, even drawing a sheet over the part of him that sticks out whenever she enters his room in order to clean it and open the window to let the fresh air dissipate his odor.

Here are some examples of figures of speech:

  • Chapter 1

Gregor Samsa awakens in the first morning, and he ponders his existence as a salesman:

He was a tool of the boss, [a metaphor, an unstated comparison between two unlike things] without brains or backbone. [alliteration: repetition of consonant sound of /b/]

When the manager comes to the Samsa house to learn what has caused Gregor's tardiness, he is ushered to the hall. As he talks to Gregor outside his door, he tells Gregor,

"I'm amazed, amazed [repetition for emphasis] you suddenly seem to want to start strutting about, flaunting strange whims." [alliteration is used with the repetition of /s/]

The words of the manager are also ironic since the manager has no idea of the contrast of the situation with how he pictures it. He knows nothing of Gregor's transformation.

  • Chapter 2

There is more alliteration in this chapter. For example, one paragraph begins,

In the course of the very first day his father explained the family's financial situation.... [Repetition of the /f/]

Then, later in the narrative,

Often during Gregor's short stays in the city the Conservatory would come up in his conversations with his sister [Repetition of /s/ and /c/. This repetition of the s sound is also called sibilance.]

There is also figurative language: 

...he might have believed that he was looking out his window into a desert where the grey sky and the grey earth were indistinguishably fused--

and parallelism ["grey sky and the grey earth"] that provide a freshness of expression:

  • Chapter 3

More figurative language appears in this chapter:

The family feels it is their duty "to swallow their disgust" (Since no one really swallows anything like disgust, this is figure of speech.)

What Gregor did was run away from the he was very hot with shame and sorrow. [figurative language and alliteration of the /s/]

There is another example of sibilance is in this line from Chapter 3:

"sweet milk in which swam small bits of white bread."

A simile, a comparison between two unlike things using the words as or like, is used in this chapter:

And now if Gregor, because of his wound, had... lost his mobility and, like an old invalid...

The once very active and hard-working Gregor is now compared to an invalid.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, what are examples of figures of speech?

At the beginning of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, one figure of speech that is used is personification, which is giving an inanimate or non-human object a human characteristic.

...Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams...

The dreams are not anxious, though Gregor may be. Another figure of speech is found in the use of a simile. This is when two dissimilar things with similar characteristics are presented as the same thing, while using "like" or "as" in the comparions.

Other travelling salesmen live like harem women.

The salesman and the harem women are different, but the life of leisure that Gregor imagines they share is similar. The next figure of speech used is hyperbole. This is when exaggeration is used to create a certain effect.

Yes, but was it possible to sleep peacefully through that noise which made the furniture shake?

Obviously, the alarm clock must be loud, but it certainly is not loud enough to make a table or chair shake. The impression Gregor is trying to impart is that with such a loud alarm, it makes no sense that he could sleep through the sound; we can assume this has never happened before.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of symbolism in Kafka's The Metamorphosis?

The Metamorphosis is the most famous work by Franz Kafka, published in 1915, about a man named Gregor who spontaneously turns into an insect (Kafka intentionally left the specific animal unclear).

While the story is a fairly straightforward account of Gregor's transformation and fall from humanity, it does contain some symbolism, which suffered somewhat from the necessary translation to English. The first and most important is Gregor's new form, that of an inhuman creature: in the original German, the descriptive word literally means "unclean animal" or "vermin," but further description and common conception make Gregor some form of giant beetle. This represents his isolation in the world, and how both his job and family refuse to appreciate his hard work. In fact, his first reaction to his transformation is frustration, since he is going to be late for work, and only later does he realize his true fate. His family, meanwhile, are all irritated that they will need to work to support themselves, instead of living off his wages; although they are disgusted at his new form, they are equally disgusted that he has abandoned them, although not by choice.

Another symbol, drawing on the first, is Gregor's new form having a shell, making him an invertebrate creature relying on an exoskeleton. The term "spineless," meaning coward, is implied early, when Gregor thinks about being late for his job:

...the firm's errand boy would've waited for the five o'clock train and reported the news of his absence long ago. He was the boss's minion, without backbone or intelligence.

And yet Gregor himself is spineless, because he will not quit his job for his own sake. Later, when his father throws an apple at him, it gets lodged in his back, possibly cracking his exoskeleton and making him even more "spineless."

There are other symbols in the text, each referring to an aspect of Gregor's life and legacy, which in the end is only enough to free his family through death.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are examples of imagery in The Metamorphosis by Kafka?

Another early, key visual image that shows us quite a good deal about Gregor's life as a traveling salesman with little time for a life arrives in the second paragraph of the story:

Above the table, on which an unpacked collection of sample cloth goods was spread out (Samsa was a traveling salesman) hung the picture which he had cut out of an illustrated magazine a little while ago and set in a pretty gilt frame. It was a picture of a woman with a fur hat and a fur boa.

Thus we can see, in our mind's eye, a table with the cloths Gregor uses for work spread upon it just under the framed picture.  It should strike us that Gregor has apparently purchased the "pretty gilt frame" despite the fact that he has no loved one's picture to put in it.  Instead, he places a picture of a richly dressed woman from a magazine inside.  We can ascertain, then, even before we are told, that Gregor has no close personal relationships with anyone whose picture he might want to frame.  He is detached, romantically and even simply socially, from the world.  Then, his work paraphernalia is all spread out in front of it, as if to symbolize the fact that it is his job which prevents Gregor from being able to develop this kind of relationship.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are examples of imagery in The Metamorphosis by Kafka?

"The Metamorphoses" by Franz Kafka is full of imagery from the first page to the last. The second sentence of the novella reads, "He lay on his armour hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes" (1). This first paragraph provides a graphic image of the displacement and personal disgust of Samsa's own body.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on