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The Metamorphosis | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis.

The Metamorphosis | Symbols


In The Metamorphosis Kafka uses symbols to build multiple layers of meaning, making connections between characters and pushing forward the plot. His symbols can take the form of objects, actions, elements of nature, or professions.


The German word Kafka uses, ungerziefer, refers to the vermin or the nasty creepy-crawly thing Gregor becomes. On one level Gregor's vermin form seems to represent the dehumanizing and degrading aspects of his life and work in modern society. As a traveling salesman Gregor rarely has time to sleep and eat properly or develop close relationships with colleagues or customers. Work consumes him; the vermin he becomes is a manifestation of the pure misery he feels working day in and out for others, with no motivation or ability to carve out his own path.

Woman in Furs

The advertisement of the woman in furs in Gregor's room "showed a lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa who sat upright, raising a heavy fur muff that covered the whole of her lower arm towards the viewer." The German text says her forearm "had disappeared" into the fur muff. The picture, which Gregor has lovingly framed, shows readers one glimpse into Gregor as a fully human, sexual being who can enjoy a provocative image of a woman. It is this photo that comes to symbolize Kafka's last hope of remaining human. As Grete and Mrs. Samsa remove Gregor's furniture and belongings from his room, he clings to it. At this point Gregor is on the brink of embracing life as a bug, while leaving behind his former life as a salesman. Yet he cannot quite let it go. Hearing the sound of his mother's voice, he decides he wants his furniture left in place, not cleared out, so he can crawl and hang about more easily: "He had come very close to forgetting, and it had only been the voice of his mother, unheard for so long, that had shaken him out of it," the narrator says.

Mr. Samsa's Uniform

Mr. Samsa's uniform, with polished, gleaming gold buttons, symbolizes the self-respect he experiences when he returns to work and supports his family by his own means. Before Gregor's transformation he had rarely left the apartment, changed out of his dressing gown, or combed his hair. However, once forced to return to work instead of relying on his son, he seems invigorated by his new role as provider. Gregor notices the change in his father: "He was standing up straight enough now; dressed in the smart blue uniform with gold buttons ... under the bushy eyebrows, his piercing, dark eyes looked out fresh and alert."

Over time the uniform takes on a more disturbing significance. As work starts to take a toll on the Samsas, with Mr. Samsa falling asleep during or right after dinner, the uniform becomes greasy and worn. Mr. Samsa's refusal to remove his uniform at home in the evening seems to signal a transformation similar to Gregor's. Like his son, Mr. Samsa is becoming overly consumed with his work; he wants to appear ready to spring to his chief's bidding, even as his uniform deteriorates.


When Gregor dies and his family comes to view his body, the charwoman opens a window, and warm, fresh air enters Gregor's bedroom. The narrator reveals that it is the end of March—or early spring—and the family leaves for the country to take in the warm air and sunshine. These references to spring symbolize hope and renewal for the members of the Samsa family, who have undergone a hard experience but look forward to better times ahead. As the family travels by tram (form of rail transportation that carries groups of people short distances) to the country, the women kiss and hug Mr. Samsa; Grete becomes livelier, with color returning to her cheeks; and the three make plans for a happier life to come.


Apples are, by tradition, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Bible. By eating this fruit, Adam and Eve gain knowledge, but in doing so, they also commit a sin and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. In The Metamorphosis, similarly, apples are a symbol of a new understanding that leads to misery. After Gregor's appearance causes his mother to faint, his father fills his pockets with apples and pelts Gregor with them. One lodges in Gregor's back and begins to rot, causing the area to become inflamed. Along with Gregor's loss of interest in food and his sister's final rejection of him, the injury contributes to Gregor's death.

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