Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-Level Allegory, and The Metamorphosis

Citation metadata

Date: Summer 1994
From: Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 35, Issue 4)
Reprint In: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism(Vol. 138)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,757 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[(essay date summer 1994) In the following essay, Ben-Ephraim demonstrates how Kafka both builds up and deconstructs the traditional pattern of allegory in his The Metamorphosis.]

From Quintilian to Angus Fletcher critics have noted allegory's doubled significance; "twice-told," but many times understood, allegory invariably means more than it says. To supplement meaning, allegory characteristically enfolds abstract significance in narrative images. These suggestions may be provided by presences in the text, verbal signals like the name of the protagonist in Everyman, a nominal allegory which designates significance in its very title, or by absences in the text, covered mysteries like the unknown face in "The Minister's Black Veil," a tale that is itself a mask over figural meaning. Allegory's polysemous texture is created through addition and subtraction in a doubled allegorical technique.

Writers of allegory often conflate the two methods. Naming a Dragon "Errour," Spenser makes Christian involvement with theological confusion an added element in a knight's encounter with a serpent. He thus points to the danger of hopeless entanglements with ideological opponents, implying that it is better to destroy than engage such enemies. At the same time Spenser's poem contains inexplicable spaces; The Faerie Queene's deep caves and shady forests create an unknown darkness, though Spenser surrounds moral shadows with Christian light to unify a double-vision.

In Franz Kafka's modern allegories meaning is similarly hidden and revealed, but the paradoxes that illuminate Spenser obscure Kafka. Discordant where The Faerie Queene is harmonious, Kafka's Metamorphosis validates contradictory readings that cancel coherent interpretation. Most critics would agree with Stanley Corngold that the story arouses "the commentator's despair," but Kafka's tale can hardly be understood as an affirmation of meaninglessness. Though its complexity anticipates poststructuralist aesthetics, Kafka's fiction resists deconstructive interpretation. His work "is guided," as one critic notes, "by an undeniable metaphysical impulse" (Sandbank, 4). The deconstructive banishing of higher presence fails to clarify the metaphysical irony that can affirm and negate transcendence.

Christine Sizemore brings us closer to Kafka's method when she points out the centrality of "cognitive dissonance," the disturbing co-existence of absolute contraries, to his meaning (382). Demonstrating his ability to combine oppositions without resolving them, Kafka simultaneously builds and dismantles an allegorical ladder ascending the four levels of traditional interpretation. We recall that Medieval commentators like Bede, Aquinas, and Dante divided allegory into the literal (presented), allegorical (hidden), tropological (moral), and anagogical (metaphysical) levels of meaning. These may be reformulated as sign, symbol, significance, and spirit in figural narrative. The scheme makes the anagogia the very goal of allegory as it identifies figurative meaning with spiritual reality. Kafka's Metamorphosis finds its true context in an equation it threatens to destroy.

The power of The Metamorphosis's introductory image, Gregor Samsa "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" (67), overwhelms the remainder of the story. Critics find the tale's exposition inadequate to its monstrous opening, asserting that their frequent "interruptions" demonstrate "the priority of the beginning in Kafka's works" and Kafka's prose "is in flight from the beginning, it does not strive toward the end" (Corngold, 2). Indeed, Kafka was himself disappointed with a tale whose fitful composition and uneven quality compared unfavorably with "The Judgment," written in a single fluent and inspired night. The strength of The Metamorphosis' opening subordinates the development of its continuing plot to the impact of its initial image; the result is a very specific kind of allegory that we might call an iconic narrative, a story of a symbol.

But this may be more a question of the dominance of the literal than "the priority of the beginning." The letter of The Metamorphosis, our experience of the written text, defeats any interpretive scheme imposed on the text. Demanding yet refusing interpretation, the picture predominates because it cannot be framed, developing an uncanny power as a sign resisting the context that would make it a symbol. By giving us a giant insect that exceeds any metaphorical equation, Kafka shows the monstrous force of a signifier without a clear signified. At the same time, the insect can disappear like the verbal equivalent of an optical illusion; not only does it not resemble any known species, but Kafka prevented his publisher from illustrating the story, decreeing "the insect itself cannot be drawn" (Corngold, 19). The creature Kafka describes is (literally) unimaginable, while the original German description of an ungeheueres Ungeziefer ("a monstrous vermin") presses language toward the utmost disgust.

The giant insect, unacceptable to our sight, is also banished from our vision. Restricted to his quarters throughout his brief lifespan, Gregor's early disappearance and death appear inevitable from the story's beginning. The reader shares the Samsa family's impatience for the insect's removal and its relief when the charwoman disposes of it (or him) like a great piece of trash. Nor can the transformation be rescinded; Gregor cannot be restored to human form after a metamorphosis that is both irreversible and unbearable. Kafka plays ironically on the traditional angel or sun invisible for blinding splendor when Gregor displays the metaphysical ugliness of Frankenstein's monster or the Phantom of the Opera. Hideous but unseen, the unsignifying sign is at once domininant and nonexistent: it is as though, to borrow a term from Derrida, Kafka puts the sign "under erasure" (Grammatologie, xvii).

Judging by Paul De Man's insistence on the independence of fictive language (see his Allegories of Reading), deconstruction would interpret the unreadable image as fiction's alienation from the "real" world, the giant insect indicating that figural images are monsters in their autotelic separateness from reality. The deconstructive approach would thus stress the autonomy of Kafka's unnatural figure, detaching it from other levels of human experience. Yet the complexity of Kafka's terrible image is found in its being simultaneously in and out of reality. Gregor's anomalous form is inhabited by the same human consciousness that had earlier inhabited a man's body. The reader enters that consciousness in a breakdown of the aesthetic distance that deconstruction finds--and valorizes--in literary texts.

The transformation's psychic immediacy forces us to understand it as a problem of being, not language. The omnipresence of Gregor's (usually banal) consciousness set against an ugly/absent corpus creates a strange disjuncture between mind and body. A transformation that begins in the repetitive rhythms of the mind completes itself in the unwanted proliferations of the body. The mind loses control over the body that represents it to create an unbridgable distance between signified and signifier, a broken metaphor. Gregor's body, his visible aspect, is a dominant yet annihilated sign, both everything and nothing. The description of it as a "huge brown mass on the flowered wallpaper" (106) emphasizes non-formation rather than de-formation to assert the insect's amorphism. After Gregor's death his sister, Grete, observes: "'Just see how thin he was. It's such a long time since he's eaten anything. The food came out again just as it went in.' Indeed, Gregor's body was completely flat and dry" (128-29). After Gregor loses all connection to physical reality, his body has no relation to the world of substance.

Moreover, the text presents a double loss when the annihilation of the signifier is paralleled by the obscuring of the signified. Gregor's former humanity reveals itself as a nostalgic image in the distant past, an unreachable ideal like the framed photograph of Gregor the soldier, "inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing" (82). Thus, if the text's initial image is hideous and ungraspable, its meaning is correspondingly elusive and unreal: an inconceivable present combines with an unapproachable past to create a nightmare in two tenses. The literal also becomes increasingly difficult to locate when the reality behind the image only exists outside the narrated plot (the untransformed Gregor is found in memory, never in action). The literal emerges not as the known or the familiar, but as the letter/al, the presented text which is already a figurative image. We observe that literal has become figurative and figurative literal when Gregor becomes the will-less insect he once resembled and resembles the terrified man he once was. Indeed, literal and figurative become indistinguishable when the figurative devours the literal. Gregor's past human identity is hopelessly lost; the past can be reconstructed but never recaptured for this sometimes-surrealistic narrative takes place within a realistic temporality. Gregor can no more return to a human state than the present can return to the past: the one reality he stays in is time. The insect crosses over to a point where there is no crossing back, moving far from known human forms and falling outside the conceptual structures which make recognition possible.

The allegoria traditionally refers to the historical level of hidden meaning. Often combined with Christological and Typological reading, it reveals the myth in history. Yet a Christian reader like Dante can omit doctrine, interpreting the allegorical significance of a Pagan text as:

a truth hidden under a beautiful fiction. ... Thus Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made beasts tame, and trees and stones move toward himself; that is to say that the wise man by the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow mild and humble.(MacQueen, 55)

Dante finds in Orpheus' lyre an inner harmony that projects itself outward in unifying art. In this reading of Ovidian metamorphosis, inward peace expresses itself in music, unifying man and nature, and transforming a way of being in the world to a mythic image.

Gregor's disunity with the human world, on the other hand, expresses itself in dissonance. Visual and verbal discord accompany Gregor's appearances throughout, and yet his disunity emerges from a kind of unity as his isolation is born from symbiosis. Gregor's social relationships before his metamorphosis involve others who take precedence over an increasingly unreal self--the priority of the external object leads to a loss of being, a psychic annihilation dramatized and completed in the giant vermin. A specific image gives form to an abstract process in what Stephen Barney calls an allegory of reification. In an ironic Typology, the insect brings to fruition Gregor's earlier roles as intimidated worker, guilty son, and devoted brother. The de-forming (in the double senses of distorting and un-forming) powers of devotion disfigure Gregor into an image for non-being, constructing a symbol for the absence of a man once called Gregor Samsa.

The Metamorphosis begins with the psychic deformities demanded by the workplace, presenting Gregor as a victim of duty in a commercial world. After his transformation, Gregor reacts mildly to his horrifying change but displays terror before the harsh disapproval of authority. Indifference to physical deformation shows psychic deformation, but Gregor has internalized his abusive superiors. Thus, if "he wasted only an hour or so of the firm's time in a morning, he was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed" (74). Commercial authority arouses a sense of idle uselessness, indeed of fundamental worthlessness, that turns cripplingly self-critical. The appearance of the suspicious Chief Clerk at the Samsa home, because of one lateness after years of perfect service, justifies Gregor's "torment." Treated with solicitude by Gregor's obsequious parents, the Chief Clerk charges Gregor with "neglecting [his] business duties in an incredible fashion" (77). The voice of the workplace speaks in the tones of accusation.

A commercial traveler in a hierarchical firm, Gregor's insecure relationships and compulsive schedule create an insectan life. Producing nothing, entirely dependent on the good-will of exploitative employers and uninterested customers, Gregor, the anxious salesman, has discarded entirely his amour-propre. Marginalized by a powerful economic structure, he becomes a mechanical creature operating at the dictate of outside forces. More damaging than Gregor's oppression by the company is his identification with the company, his acceptance of its equation between being and function. Strenuously assuring the astounded Chief Clerk that his minor indisposition will hardly interfere with his duties, Gregor never considers that his boss would be too appalled by his appearance to be impressed by his dedication: "One can be temporarily incapacitated," Gregor explains earnestly to his rapidly retreating superior, "but that's just the moment for remembering former services ... when the incapacity has been got over, one will certainly work with all the more industry and concentration" (82). The absurdist humor reveals Gregor's psychic deformation professionnel, his self-indifference and terror of authority making him less than human. More worried about the loss of his job than the loss of his body, Gregor's self-destructive devotion to work makes him unfit for work.

But the enormous vermin emerging from Gregor's room both is and is not the former nervous salesman. Re-creating earlier pleadings and self-humblings before authority, the horrific enormity of the insect nevertheless demonstrates an irretrievable figurative transfer, a breakdown rather than an instance of metaphor. We cannot fully interpret the story's events by their prefiguring context, but neither can we ignore the commercial setting of the change, finding in The Metamorphosis, say, an allegory of the unalterable isolation of the writer in his writer's-being, what Stanley Corngold calls Schriftstellersein (Necessity of Form, 295). While such a reading has much to recommend it in the context of the larger ouevre that includes Kafka's letters and journals, it is hardly textually justified by The Metamorphosis. Rather, we need to find metaphorical breakdown in a metaphorical context.

Metamorphosis--and not only Gregor's change but "metamorphosis" as a figure or trope in itself--emerges beyond metaphor. In Kafka's handling of transformation it is striking that allegory begins precisely where metaphor ends, the obliteration of Gregor's humanity also obliterating the ground for a figurative equation between a man and a bug. The erasure of the human, occuring in Kafka's symbolism as well as in Gregor's experience, allows the presentation of non-images or anti-images, metaphor in the process of negating itself. Kafka can thus capture the uncapturable in effaced forms and stilled voices, examples of the collapse of being. In one of the most difficult of the story's cognitive dissonances, the insect always is and is/not Gregor.

Like Ovid, Kafka works through auditory imagery, sound as the expression of a spiritual state. Gregor's inability to communicate expresses itself in a voice as deformed as his body. Emerging from his room, desperate to explain himself before the others, Gregor's frantic expostulations emerge in a "persistent horrible twittering squeak" (70). Motivated by the need for self-justification, he begs for mercy and bows before power ("Oh sir, do spare my parents! ... I'll be attending to business very soon"), but such pleading comes out in "no human voice" (78-79).

The Chief Clerk undergoes a corresponding deformation in response to Gregor. The first to actually see the enormous cockroach, the clerk's voice dematerializes as he utters "a loud 'Oh!'" that "sound[ed] like a gust of wind" (81). Here, the clerk momentarily shares Gregor's unreality, the superior mirroring the inferior in a dehumanizing relationship. But his undignified escape is most significant for allowing his replacement by Mr. Samsa. In a cinematic fading-out and fading-in, horrid and comic, the narrative exposes the interchangeability of father and employer. The actual father takes center stage after the retreat of the commercial patriarch; appropriating the clerk's abandoned walking-stick, Mr. Samsa changes from a dependent to a commanding figure in the story's dual metamorphosis.

The father now isolates Gregor, punishing the assertion of will and prohibiting the expression of desire. The violent denial of freedom again dramatizes the relationships that had existed before the metamorphosis. Previously, however, Gregor had been limited not by the father's physical aggression, but by the family's economic need. Now forcibly restricted to his room, he had earlier enclosed himself out of voluntary devotion, the demands of living for others isolating him from others. His life, as Bluma Goldstein notes, had long consisted of "obligations and responsibilities" that "demanded almost total sacrifice," and resulted in a parasitic economic structure ("Bachelors and Work," 155). Sacrificing himself to a familial symbiosis, Gregor submits to a parasitism that drains him of his manhood. Indeed the metamorphosis represents a final symbiosis; Gregor reverses the roles of parasite and host to take on the non-identity of a giant insect and assume the shape that sucks away life.

The significance of Gregor's earlier relationships reveals itself in his later actions. Gregor had become a commercial traveler after the failure of his father's business, indenturing himself to the family to compensate for its losses. But after the metamorphosis he learns that the father's financial collapse had not been total, that "a certain amount of investments ... had survived the wreck of their fortunes." Gregor had been needlessly enslaved to an oppressive existence, yet he responds with joy to the knowledge of betrayal: "Behind the door Gregor nodded his head eagerly, rejoiced at this evidence of unexpected thrift and foresight" (96). Contrastingly, he feels despair when the metamorphosis forces his "sluggish" father, hypochondriacal mother, and childish sister toward financial independence: "whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor ... threw himself down ... hot with shame and grief" (97). As his emotions about his family's fortunes exceed his feelings about his own fate, devotion to others results in uncanny self-indifference, the habit of sacrifice undermining the self-perpetuating function of the ego. Gregor's detachment from his own survival indicates a dissipation of the will-to-live and an effacement of the self. Devotion becomes the cause of deformation and eventual destruction in a story that dramatizes moral irony in scenes of physical injury.

Thus Gregor's self-disregard expresses itself in acts of self-mutilation. In his initial attempt to reach the others, Gregor turns his key in toothless jaws, until "a brown fluid issued from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped on the floor" (80). The "brown fluid" recalls dissolution itself, a process associated with the self-damaging and desperate need for his family. Yet his relationship to the others seems reversed when he is transformed from a supportive to a disruptive figure. Entering the salon he spreads confusion as his mother screams and dramatizes her loss of control by spilling a great pot of coffee. The mother's terror is as blind as the fury it arouses in the father, their frenzied responses indicating that Gregor symbolizes something within them (the charwoman's derision eliminates horror as an inevitable response to him). The chaos surrounding his entrances places Gregor in the context of a general emotional formlessness; his body is the paradoxical representation of amorphous form, a concretization of the dependent relations that cause the deterioration of being.

Thus the father mercilessly assaults the symbol for a familial malaise. Like the Chief Clerk, Mr. Samsa mirrors Gregor to reveal his profound connection to a detested object. During the first of his attacks, "hissing and crying 'Shoo!' like a savage" until "the noise ... sounded no longer like the voice of a single father" (86-87), Mr. Samsa reflects the insect's deformed body in his own cacophonous speech. When the sibilant hissing turns to a chorus of hostility it subsumes Gregor's relationships with all the Samsas. But the aggression comes to a climax when Gregor, pressed in front his half-open doorway, thrusts himself into the too-narrow opening "come what might":

One side of his body rose up, he was tilted at an angle in the doorway, his flank was quite bruised, horrid blotches stained the white door ... he was stuck fast ... from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely.(87)

Self-injury and injury combine in a scene acknowledging isolation and destruction as "deliverance." In the remainder of the story repeated injuries cause limitless deterioration; the insect's body is excessively and needlessly brutalized in a physical parallel to a social and psychic process.

Mr. Samsa's second attack injures more than Gregor's body when he undermines exegetical tradition, wounding the scriptural authority of God the Father. When Mrs. Samsa and Grete clear Gregor's room of all its paraphernalia, the insect defends--uncharacteristically--his writing-desk and framed picture of a woman in fur. He clings to signs of a creative past that provide hints of a forgotten humanity. Yet the father punishes self-affirmation with an unexpected if emblematic weapon:

An apple thrown without much force grazed Gregor's back and glanced off harmlessly. But another following immediately landed right on his back and sank in; Gregor wanted to drag himself forward, as if this startling, incredible pain could be left behind him; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and flattened himself out in a complete derangement of all his senses.(109-10)

In a parody of Genesis, the throwing of "apple after apple" negates the traditional meanings of Original Sin: Gregor is punished for existence itself, for the trace of desire in a last remnant of the will-to-live, while God incarnates a principle of murderous repression (Wright, 162-71). The arbitrary and brutal Father invalidates the moral significance of his actions, bringing not only allegorical convention but religious history under the shadow of meaninglessness.

Yet if the scene is an ironic play on the Edenic story, suggesting that Adam suffers far more than he sins, the tortured insect also invokes another child of the Father--Christ the Son. The Gregor who is "nailed to the spot" by an apple in a union of two Christian symbols also mentions Christmas at the moments of his most poignant generosity. His "secret plan" is to offer Grete, "with due solemnity on Christmas Day" (95), violin lessons at the Conservatorium. Repeated invocations of Christmas not only parallel Gregor's sufferings with Christ's slow dying, but associate his gift-giving with Christian bestowal and the hope of salvation.

At the end of the story's second section The Metamorphosis moves in opposed directions. The dominant image of the Father's prolonged destruction of the Son presents a vision of a corps morcelé or "body in bits and pieces" (Lacan-Wilden, 174). The savaging of the story's central symbol is also a savaging of the body of allegory and the corpus of traditional meaning. Yet if the narrative annihilates Derrida's "transcendental signified," subjecting God the Father to semiotic erasure, it stops short of dispelling the role of Christ the Son--the traditional focus of the allegoria. Parodying Gregor's love without negating it, The Metamorphosis both mocks and resurrects Christ.

The incongruent but linked motifs of music and the wound lead toward the story's moral complexities; above all, the rhapsodic agony in Gregor's relationship to Grete both reveals and conceals the allegory's baffling tropologia.

Gregor's wounds have been sensitively described as paths to the moral dimension of experience, openings to "the internal world [of] private consciousness" (Goldstein, "Wound in Kafka," 212). Indeed his crippling injuries intensify awareness of the self and its surroundings. Where, earlier, outbursts of frenetic guilt and sudden assertion had obscured Gregor's inner being, his later interior monologues show quietness and self-possession. Thus memories of "sweet and fleeting" moments reveal an unknown capacity for pleasure, while rages at his family's neglect establish a sense of self through anger (114). At the same time, narrator and protagonist--interdependent and interdetermining presences in Kafka's fiction--perceive the Samsas sympathetically as strained and overworked figures, "very silent" in their catastrophe. By this "lamp-lit" vision (111), the Samsas are no longer grotesques, partial and stark images from Gregor's psychic world, but characters with their own gray reality. Such glimmerings of insight underlie Gregor's passionate response to Grete's violin-playing.

The performance is undertaken at the request of the Samsas' boarders, three bearded men of aggressive appetites and arrogant virility; the boarders' crude energy, manifested in the vigorous consumption of their landlords' over-generous dinners, contrasts with Gregor's starved alienation from food. (The emaciated Kafka, describing himself as "the thinnest person I know," shared his protagonist's sitiophobia: Letters to Felice, 21.) Gregor's overly deferential family neglects him for these coarse lodgers, insensitive men who soon tire of Grete's playing as they show comic-grotesque displeasure, "blowing the smoke of their cigars high in the air through nose and mouth." Now Gregor emerges from his room in a state of divine inspiration--"[W]as he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" (121). Superior to the boarders' coarse physicality, his wasted body craves only aesthetic "nourishment." Appearing as the image of innocent pathos, Gregor is motivated by love and sensible to beauty, his spirit transfigured--in an echo of Ovidian myth--by music.

Yet this auditory illusion is soon shattered; at Gregor's appearance the boarders are outraged (though amused), and the irrelevant violin falls with a "resonant note." Similarly, the reader becomes aware of the bathos and absurdity of Gregor's presence. Delineated by neglect, his body finally acquires substance and form: "he ... was covered with dust; fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides" (120). But where he had once been unbearable, he is now merely contemptible; the substance he takes on is that of dirt and refuse. Whatever the significance of his inner change, outwardly he changes, insignificantly, from a figure of horror to a figure of mockery, becoming a creature, in Mary Shelley's phrase, of "filthy creation." The contrast between the way he looks and the way he feels suggests narrative scorn for his sacrificial degradation, his pathetic appearance ridiculing his self-destruction for beloved objects who despise him. In a cruel irony, it is the adored Grete who decides, after Gregor's intervention, that "[he] must go ... that's the only solution" (125).

Beyond the ingratitude of its receiver, there is further irony in the quality of Gregor's gift. Transported by her playing, Gregor's approach to his sister is also marked by violent possessiveness:

she was to come into his room ... for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out. ... He would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders. ... His sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar.(121)

Gregor's music appreciation pales before this tyrannical and incestuous fantasy, for he threatens to replace, in his own crawling fashion, the "collar" Grete's new independence had removed. The frightful intimacy he desires reminds us that the boarders are strongly male, their penetrating teeth and knives stressing a power unavailable to the toothless, disabled Gregor. The boarders are marriage-prospects for Grete that her brother succeeds in driving away: his impassioned rescue hides his desire to return the beloved sister to a suffocating symbiosis. He deludes himself, clearly, when he insists "she should stay with him out of her own free will," and yet in this longing for mutuality there reverberates his dearest wish.

The violin scene, probably the strongest sequence in the story's comparatively dull last section, strikes dissonances. On the one hand Grete's violin-playing echoes Orpheus' harp, taming a lowly beast to bring out his moral and aesthetic powers. And yet, as we can interpret the violin as a modern version of Orpheus' lyre, we can, just as easily, take it as a modernistic play on Orpheus' liar (the striking pun is irresistible), hearing in the music another discord, the final wound to Gregor's illusions. In Kafka's art there is an irresolvable tension between the lyre and the liar in the vexed copresence of the writer's lyric and ironic voices.

The Metamorphosis' enclosed interiors symbolize suffocating relationships, presenting familial solipsism in spatial terms. Yet its characters open windows--literal and figurative--in the narrative's closed borders. Within a story where realism degenerates to a distorting expressionism, the windows open toward anagogical possibility and a potential space for being.

Initially, Gregor turns to the window to find the landscape reflecting his depressed inner life: a "morning fog" muffles amorphous outer scenes where "gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other" (97). Lack of distinction characterizes Gregor's relationships to landscapes as well as other people, the empty vision paralleling Gregor's emptied being, the private self annihilated by a "bourgeois" family's communal demands--indeed one critic finds all the Samsas looking to the window for an escape from their "withdrawn dependence" (Grandin, 219-20). We may take this a step further to see the window as the way to a reality beyond claustrophobic involvement. Thus Gregor constantly gazes out the casements Grete leaves open, and to which she rushes "even in the bitterest cold" (98), even as the mother, in an arresting fenestral snapshot, "t[ears] open a window ... leaning far out of it with her face in her hands" (86). (Caught between denial and prayer, she seems to hide her face from Gregor while hopelessly turning elsewhere.)

Yet this seeking outward remains ironic: the characters find nothing in the outer world but amorphous coldness or, at most, vague malevolence: "A strong draught set in from the street to the staircase, the window curtains blew in, the newspapers on the table fluttered, stray pages whisked over the floor" (86). Here the wind, with a play on its Romantic connotations, scatters printed records of human affairs in an atmosphere of futility. The Samsas' appeals to the window succeed in canceling outside powers, establishing the terrible autonomy of the symbiotic order, a network of petty yet total relationships that dispel other realities. Indeed, the Samsas remain unable to find their places in the outside world so long as Gregor lives among them in the representation/non-representation of symbiosis. (Saying "[Y]ou must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor," Grete expresses a central paradox, though she fails to recognize that being Gregor removes Gregor from being [125].)

The text only achieves a major shift of tone and atmosphere, a freedom from the deathly overinvolvement of its characters, when its protagonist culminates a lifetime's self-denial in a sacrificial dying. Gregor yields the last shreds of his will-to-live after Grete's final and cruel rejection; utterly disabled, he drags himself into the absolute darkness of his room while his sister jubilantly "turn[s] the key in the lock" (127). He dies gladly, fulfilling his fate, but before his death he experiences a moment of illumination:

The rotting apple in his back and the inflamed area around it ... hardly troubled him. He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister. ... In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath.(83)

His "tenderness and love" encounter a corresponding brightness as the evocative phrase "[T]he first broadening of light in the world" (still stronger in the original German allgemeinen Hellerwerdens or "universal coming of light") suggests both inner and outer illumination, the window now opening to a responsive higher power.

At the same time, the brightness clarifies a doubled irony when it remains ambivalent whether light sanctifies Gregor's death or Gregor's death subverts light. The surrounding of a pointless self-destruction with luminosity allows us to dismiss a traditional representation of the sacred. And yet light's sacral implications can still apply when a death provides supreme benefits to others. Closing out Gregor's dry corpse, the impervious charwoman "open[s] the window wide. ... A certain softness was perceptible in the fresh air" (129). The welcome entrance of nature, unprecedented in a grim urban tale, looks ahead to the sense of release, at the story's end, where the family takes a holiday from tedious jobs to go out "into the open country" (132); here the elder Samsas discover their daughter as a separate and sexual being: "Mr. and Mrs. Samsa ... became aware of their daughter's vivacity ... she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. ... And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body" (132). The encounter with the natural world is also an exulting in the liberation from a symbol of symbiosis. (The two words, based on the same Greek root, each refer to "likeness," to interconnection and interchangeability: symbolism itself is part of the story's horror.)

Only now may the Samsas participate in life fully: the end, the point of narrative closure, is the only point in the story where we feel no thematic closure. This release remains paradoxical when the mediocre Samsas hardly deserve to be saved and self-annihilation for uncomprehending and selfish others makes a mockery of sacrifice. And yet this difficult ending can succeed in interrogating "self" as an ultimate value, and allow Kafka, the ultimate hunger artist, to make something out of nothing.


Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Barney, Stephen A. Allegories of History, Allegories of Love. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1979.

Corngold, Stanley. The Commentator's Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1973.

------. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form. Ithaca: Cornell, 1988.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorti. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca: Cornell, 1964.

Goldstein, Bluma. "Bachelors and Work: Social and Economic Conditions in 'The Judgment,' 'The Metamorphosis,' and The Trial. In The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time. Ed. Angel Flores. New York: Gordian, 1977. 147-77.

------. "A Study of the Wound in Stories by Kafka." Germanic Review, 51:3 (May 1966), 202-17.

Grandin, John M. "Defenestrations." In Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time. New York: Gordian, 1977. 216-22.

Holland, Norman N. "Realism and Unrealism: Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Modern Fiction Studies 4:2 (Summer 1958), 143-50.

Kafka, Franz. Letters to Felice. Eds. Erich Heller and Jurge Born. New York: Schocken, 1973.

------. The Metamorphosis. In The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1948.

Lacan, Jacques. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. with notes and commentary Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1968.

MacQueen, John. Allegory. London: Methuen, 1970.

Sandbank, Shimon. After Kafka: The Influence of Kafka's Fiction. Athens: Georgia, 1989.

Sizemore, Christine W. "Anxiety in Kafka: A Function of Cognitive Dissonance." JML 6:3 (September 1977), 380-88.

Tzvetan, Todorov. Symbolism and Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell, 1978.

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytical Criticism: Theory and Practice. London: Methuen, 1984.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420052561