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The Metamorphosis is a story that narrates the life of Gregor Samsa, a hardworking traveling agent who despises his job but cannot live without it because his family depends on him. One day, he wakes up to a bodily transformation to a vermin (Kafka, 1912). Gregor’s new form scares his boss, who has come visiting to check why he was late. Initially, the family hesitates to accept Gregor, but they eventually embrace him. However, his inability to contribute towards eliminating the family’s problems makes him a liability to the point that his relative must hire people to take care of him. This decision appeared to be taking a toll on the family, who kept complaining about how life was hard with Gregor. Eventually, he dies, and the family seems to be pleased that he is gone and they no longer have to shoulder the burden. In his novel, The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka, utilizes symbolism such as food and the portrait in the magazine to describe life realities and struggles that often shape relationships and inspire transformation among people.
The Lady in the Muff
One of the things that Gregor sees when he wakes up in his new body is the portrait that he had cut out from a magazine that shows a woman with a fur cap and a stole. The woman was holding a fur muff, but her entire arm had vanished, which meant it was not visible in the portrait. The portrait signifies Gregor’s inner struggle with his past and current life (Bloom, 1988). The portrait exemplifies his human mind, and the insect body seems to conflict. When Grete and her mother are cleaning Gregor’s bedroom, he climbs up on the wall and lands on the portrait to protect it, as it is the only thing from his past that he could defend and would act as a reminder of what he used to be in the past. The author uses this symbolism to encapsulate his life. Gregor made the artwork himself instead of looking for a partner to marry or working extra hours to earn additional income. Kafka uses this symbolism to express his personal experience, where he spent most of his productive life writing instead of being immersed in personal activities like other young people (Boroomandjazi, 2020). Lastly, the recognition of the portrait shows that Gregor is still human. Even as an insect, he could see the value of the portrait and did not want to let it go. Therefore, while his body had taken the shape of an insect, he still had the mind of a human being. This contrast shows the battle between Gregor’s insect form and his human mind.
The Representation of Food
As used in the novel, food symbolizes family members’ feelings towards Gregor vis-à-vis his physical transformation. Grete brings Gregor his favorite meal, milk, and pieces of white bread before his transformation. Gregor approaches the dish excitedly but quickly notices that his appetite has changed, and he no longer wants to eat the food. However, when his family brings him half-rotten chunks of meat, he devours them. This symbolism shows the battle between his mind and his body. His mind is excited to see the food he used to like, but he struggles to develop an appetite for it.
Additionally, when Gregor used to consume food as a normal human being would, his relationship with his sister was great. However, as soon as he became an insect and started consuming stale food, he realized that his sister showed disgust toward him. The food symbolizes Gregor’s relationship with his sister before and after the transformation. His sister respected him when he was helpful to the family and a reputable salesman. However, his relationship with his sister deteriorated when his body metamorphosed into a vermin (Minar & Sutandio, 2017). The food was a symbol of the relationship Gregor shared with the people that were close to him. Immediately he started eating stale food, and his relationship and those of the people close to him deteriorated. Over time, Grete and her family started getting fed up with his needs and stopped feeding him. As a result, he grew weak over time, and his relationship with his family members deteriorated (Kafka, 1912). As the food became hard to get, the relationship he shared with his family broke down to the point that they wanted him dead. Thus, food emerges as the definitive determinant of how Gregor relates with his kin.
Symbolism is used significantly in The Metamorphosis to represent the struggles of human beings, both individually and collectively, and to show how life’s realities are precursors to how people relate to one another. Kafka uses symbolism to explain relationships between the characters in the story and how the change of fortunes impacts relationships. The symbolism of the women in the fur coat and that of food shows the inner battles that Gregor had a self. His human mind and insect’s body inspired a resistance within. Overall, the author uses symbolism to communicate the metamorphosis of humanity and the ever-changing relationships based on life realities.
- Bloom, H. (1988). Modern critical interpretations: Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Chelsea House.
- Boroomandjazi, K. (2020). The world of Gregor Samsa: A daseinsanalytic interpretation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(1), 74–83. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000137
- Kafka, F. (1912). The Metamorphosis. https://psychology.okstate.edu/faculty/jgrice/psyc4333/Franz_Kafka_The_Metamorphosis.pdf
- Minar, K. S., & Sutandio, A. (2017). Shame and alienation in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Poetika, 5(2), 123. https://doi.org/10.22146/poetika.v5i2.27100