On the Parasite Metaphor in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’

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Author: Thomas F. Barry
Date: 1989
From: West Virginia University Philological Papers(Vol. 35)
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 193)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,352 words

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[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Barry offers a summary of critical scholarship about the significance and structure of Kafka’s use of metaphor in The Metamorphosis. Barry seeks to synthesize several of these analyses, linking the broader psychoanalytical undertones of Freudian interpretations with the post-structuralist concepts of Lacanian and Derridean philosophy.]

To be a poet means to be strong in metaphors(Kafka in conversation with Johannes Urzidil)

I. On Critical “Symbiosis” in Kafka

Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis”, written during the months of November and December 1912 and published in 1915, undoubtedly remains the best known of the author’s compositions and has generated a considerable amount of critical attention.1 The most striking element in the text is Gregor Samsa’s bizarre transformation, a metamorphosis of man into insect involving one of the most innovative uses of metaphor in modern literature. Literary critics, like symbiotic parasites who seek, in the act of reading, the food of the host-text’s meaning but who also return the hermeneutic nourishment of interpretation, have consequently focused on Kafka’s use of this literary device. In this section, I would like to summarize the findings of major critics on the issue of metaphoric language in Kafka and in “The Metamorphis” in particular. In general, their discussions have addressed metaphor as a structural-rhetorical device and/or something with biographical-psychological or philosophical significance.

Günther Anders, one of the first critics to address the issue of metaphoric imagery at length, discusses the author’s use of “literalized metaphor”; that is, Kafka draws upon the figurative and associative character inherent in all language and presents it at face value.2 Gregor, plagued with unconscious guilt and self-reproach, feels “like a cockroach” and this everyday formation is projected as “fact.” The story “In the Penal Colony” portrays the metaphoric idea of an experience being “inscribed” upon one’s consciousness and depicts it literally in the form of the torture machine that continuously writes the sentence of the condemned man upon his back. Wilhelm Emrich sees the transformation of Gregor not as a form of liberation from the alienation of the everyday world of work and social commitment, as the insect image clearly functions in Kafka’s earlier “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, but as a sign of modern man’s estrangement from his inner self, a state which is evidenced in a distorted and grotesque shape, that of the incomprehensible other. Kafka’s use of metaphoric language goes beyond traditional notions of the symbolic or allegorical in order to depict man’s spiritual or psychic reality in a manner unique to the twentieth century.3

Heinz Politzer also considers Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect shape to be the result of an unknown power within the self which, in a psychological context, might also be termed the unconscious; the cockroach serves as “the image of his own negative possibilities as well as the incomprehensibility of the power that changed him.”4 Politzer concentrates on Kafka’s style, and the imagery of “The Metamorphosis” initiates the reader into the parabolic and paradoxical universe of Kafka’s fiction. Walter Sokel continues Anders’s discussion and places the notion of a “literalized metaphor” within a psychoanalytic context.5 Kafka’s story depicts the principle of Freud’s concept of “dreamwork”: Gregor’s transformation replicates the dreaming processes of the psyche in which the unconscious, filtered by a censor mechanism, asserts itself in veiled images. Gregor’s repressed desires and the guilt feelings they engender are so unacceptable to his conscious sense of self that they must be transformed into more indirect expression. Kafka’s major texts are all characterized by this dream-like quality in their enactment of metaphor. The author’s use of metaphor dramatizes the abstract and figural, making it literal. Although “The Metamorphosis” is not discussed in any detail, Maurice Marache’s essay on metaphor in Kafka seeks to contradict Emrich and asserts the allegorical and abstract quality of the writer’s language.6

Stanley Corngold’s essay on metaphor in “The Metamorphosis” represents one of the most original pieces on the subject. He extends Sokel’s discusssion of the dream-like literalization of metaphor, calling it a “metamorphosis of the metaphor.”7 Kafka, who had always despaired of writing because of the falsity and distortion inherent in all figurative language, sought to make metaphor a viable mode of expression. According to Corngold, whose analysis puts Kafka in the arena of structuralist and post-structuralist discourse, the metaphor of the insect is very disturbing because of its indeterminate nature as opaque sign in which vehicle and tenor float in uneasy relation. Through this radical aesthetic intention, Kafka creates a truly modern or post-romantic art in which meaning is erased through signs that convey no fixed signification. In a post-Kantian universe in which absolute meaning is held in abeyance, the “truth” value of art becomes a fluid play of signs.

Henry Sussman takes up some of the issues discussed by Corngold and puts Kafka in the context of Derrida and deconstructionist theories. Although he does not examine “The Metamorphosis”, he does focus on Kafka’s self-referential use of language and on his radical dislocation of the vehicle-tenor relationship of metaphor. Kafka’s work, he suggests, “repeatedly inquires into its own status, into the mechanisms of its signification and into the inevitable breakdown of this machinery.”8 His use of metaphor does not transfer meaning between vehicle and tenor but rather points out the difficulties/impossibilities of such figurative language.

In the following discussion of “The Metamorphosis”, I would like to expand upon the readings of these previous critics, especially those of Corngold and Sussman, in a manner which would combine Freudian concepts with post-structuralist notions of discourse and sign, namely in a playfully analytical mode similar to that employed by Lacan and Derrida.

II. On Parasites and Metaphors

Kafka’s language, his imagery and metaphors, is an artful catalogue of symptoms, condensations (Verdichtungen) of psychic trauma, pairings of arrested signifiers that feed off other signifieds and off the body of public discourse. Kafka the parasite artist exploited the symptoms of Kafka the man, nourished his art with the blood of his life and that of others, above all of his father and of women. One thinks of the diary entry of September 12, 1917 when Kafka first learned that he had tuberculosis; his illness became for him a symbol of his inner spiritual illness, of his relationships to Felice Bauer and to his father. Like a parasite—the primary etymology of which, para-sitos or “beside the grain,” suggests a guest at a meal, especially a professional dinner guest who never returns an invitation—the writer lived alongside his host, taking the food of his art but never or rarely giving anything in return. Kafka, we know, did not publish much of his work during his lifetime, and at his death he wanted the rest destroyed. For various reasons, he did not want to share what he had taken.

As J. Hillis Miller indicates in his essay on deconstructionist readings of literature, the word parasite is particularly rich in etymological associations that imply paradox and the simultaneity of opposites.9 The word is itself a shifting play of signifiers that seem to evoke and cancel each other. The parasitical implies the paradoxical because by seeking its food, the parasite ultimately destroys its host and often thereby itself. The word suggests a relationship of proximity and distance, similarity and difference and contains further associations of both guest and host, alien invader and friendly presence, sacrificial victim and sacrificing master, a benevolent or malevolent ghost. The parasite is the alien Other within the self. Kafka’s texts portray the parasite that lives off others, literally in works such as “The Metamorphosis” and “Jackals and Arabs”, and even the early story “Wedding Preparations in the Country”. But one might argue that many characters in his writings stand in a parasitical relationship to the world around them. Georg Bendemann in “The Judgment” may be a success in his father’s business but inwardly he “feeds” on, or gains his false self-awareness from, his father, his fiancée Frieda Brandenfeld, and his true parasite-ridden host, his yellowed and dried up friend in Russia. The country doctor in the story of that name appears to be a productive member of society, but he too is a parasite that takes its sustenance from others. His parasitical nature becomes apparent when he lies down next to the boy with the worm-ridden wound; Kafka graphically links signifiers, for the doctor’s existence is that wound and the parasites that infest it. In A Hunger Artist the man literally feeds off himself, a paradoxical relationship of parasite and host in the same body as one and the same organism.

Jacques Lacan’s structuralist readings of Freud (the unconscious as a linguistic construct) suggest that the symptoms, as opposed to the aetiology, of psychological trauma are expressed metaphorically, in terms of structural similarities, signifiers that have become detached from their signifieds and attached to other similar signifiers.10 Lady Macbeth, for example, compulsively washed her hands to be “clean,” free of dirt and free of guilt. Kafka’s parasite imagery (the aesthetic symptomatology of his texts) points to the genesis of his trauma, as all symptoms do. In the following remarks, I would like to explore these images of the parasite in the light of Lacan’s notion of the relationship between symptom and metaphor in order to see what they tell us about Kafka the artist and his sublimation of the difficulties in Kafka the man. Finally, I would like to suggest what the parasite image tells us about the attitude towards art and the intellect among German writers of the early twentieth century.

The most obvious image of the parasite in Kafka’s works is, of course, in “The Metamorphosis”, the best known of his texts. Although Kafka did not use the sign “Parasit” but instead the term “Ungeziefer” in reference to his character, the words are equivalent and the conceptual associations are the same.11 The Greek prefix “para-” suggests, among other meanings, the notion of incorrectly resembling something else as well as wrongfully or harmfully existing beside. This is as good a description as any of Gregor Samsa, the insect parasite that incorrectly resembles a human being and that wrongfully and harmfully lives next to his family. With the consciousness of a man and the body of a vermin, he is grotesque, a monstrosity that threatens the well-being of all. His metamorphosis becomes, as Anders and Sokel suggest, a literal enactment of metaphor. If Freud’s first patients were afflicted with the metaphoric symptoms of hysterical paralysis or physical arrest (the vehicle or the signifier) as the result of sexual trauma or psychological arrest (the tenor or the signified), then Gregor’s physical transformation too is a outward metaphoric symptom/sign of an internal conflict that cannot find direct expression. Freud’s vision of the neurotic symptom also evokes, as do Kafka’s opaque signs, the paradoxical in that this indirect or veiled expression of trauma both calls attention to and conceals the source of its meaning.

The idea of a parasite implies by definition that of a host (and with host that of both guest and ghost), and in the figure of Gregor all of these associations are active. He is a traveling salesman, more often a guest within his own family and like a guest in a strange hotel, he locks his door at night (as did Kafka in his parents’ apartment): “He felt thankful for the prudent habit he had acquired in traveling of locking all doors during the night, even at home.”12 The locked door also suggests that he is an alien presence, an invading host or army within the friendly territory of his family, something from which they must be protected. Although Gregor initially serves as the provider-host of his parents and sister, he becomes (again paradoxically) the ghost that haunts his family, the guest/ghost that must be locked away. There is a repressed violence and aggression towards his family in Gregor that must be contained. He is the ultimate supernatural ghost parasite—the vampire—who begins to drain his family of its strength. As there is in the sexualized feeding of the vampire, there is, as we shall see, a strong erotic component in the parasite image in Kafka.

Curiously, Gregor is not the typical guest implied in the word parasite—one who eats the host’s food but never returns any—because he does not even partake of his family’s provisions, at least the material ones. After his transformation, his sister Grete begins to bring him the rotten leftovers of the others’ meal but later he cannot even eat these. The issue of food and hunger is central to “The Metamorphosis” (and other Kafka texts as well) as it is to the parasite, and we might well look here for insight into Gregor’s parasitical nature. Gregor’s appetite makes him long for the unknown food (“die unbekannte Nahrung”) and it is ultimately a psychic sustenance that he seeks. We find an indication of what this food is near the end of the story when the sister plays the violin for the renters. Gregor is drawn to the music and feels that this is the unknown nourishment that he has been seeking: “He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved” (121). We know that Kafka was himself drawn to Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea in which music and art are central concepts. Music is the most perfect art form because it replicates the Will (the undifferentiated life force) most closely. In Schopenhauer’s terms, art also occupies somewhat of a paradoxical position. It represents both the highest objectification of the Will as abstract Idea and at the same time is the most removed from its essential vitality. As with the figure of Spinell in Mann’s Tristan or Gottfried Benn’s desire to return to the state of a one-celled organism, Gregor longs to merge with the life force, to obliterate the self in the erotic/thanatotic union with the Will. Charles Bernheimer, in his psychopoetics of Kafka’s fiction, associates metaphor with the thanatotic process insofar as metaphor destroys any sense of identity or integrity of the self through a constant process of displacement and substitution.13 The symptoms of psychic disturbance are a displacement of the real cause of the individual’s distress. The source of the psychic trauma cannot be addressed directly because such a confrontation would threaten (or would seem to) the fragile equilibrium of the neurotic/psychotic self. Yet if the symptoms and their cause are not somehow addressed, the mind never achieves healing (wholeness). We are reminded here of Corngold’s reading of the open or shifting signification of the insect metaphor, the meaning of which cannot be absolutely determined. The modernist/post-modernist vision of language and metaphor seems to express a psychic longing for the wholeness of the sign, a state of transcendent being in which signifier and signified, self and world, are joined in absolute union.

The scene with the music is linked to Gregor’s erotic phantasy with his sister, whom he will lock away in his room so that he alone may possess her. Since the parasite seeks to merge with its host in the sexualized act of feeding and yet in so doing destroys itself (or at the very least its life-sustaining source of food), it serves as a perfect representation of the erotic death that motivates Gregor and, we presume, his author: Kafka the paradoxical parasite who existed in paragraphs and parables as a means of displacing himself (the “para-” prefix again meaning “beside” or “next to”). It is not food or money that Gregor seeks from his family, but, like a vampire, he wants the blood of their psychic-erotic energy. The image of the parasite is one of aggressive sexuality; it achieves union with the host through the act of destroying it: a vampire Liebestod. The parasite incorporates the union of eros and thanatos in a single signifier; it is both the eater and the eaten. The sexualized vampire parasite is quite obvious in Gregor’s phantasy with his sister/host Grete in which he, the insect, falls upon her neck in a grotesque attempt at union: “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). Women are the primary hosts in Kafka’s stories and it is Grete who—in another paradoxical reversal of terms—ultimately rejects Gregor from the family. She becomes the doctor who diagnoses the family’s illness as its parasite son. In the well-known passage at the end of the second section, it is clear that he also seeks erotic union with the mother/host, though as with the sister, this too is thwarted.

Before his transformation, Gregor was the host who supported his parasitical family, especially his father, who spent his days dozing in his chair while his son worked his impossible job as a salesman. This situation is, of course, reversed as Gregor becomes the parasite and the family his unwilling host. Such reversals of terms are, we remember, characteristic of the word parasite and its etymology; the guest suddenly becomes the invader, the sacrificial victim the one who performs the sacrifice. Gregor is now transformed into the host/victim (the German “Ungeziefer” from the Hebrew suggesting this) and Kafka seems to intend the religious associations of the word host for, in Gregor’s eventual sacrifice, the family is redeemed. The parasite vampire who exploits becomes the Christ figure who saves. Such paradoxical reversals of meaning are characteristic of the Lacanian reading of psychic processes and again remind us of Corngold’s interpretation of the insect metaphor (and of post-romantic art) in which contradictory significations nullify the reader’s attempt to achieve an unequivocal interpretation.

In nature the parasite-host relationship is one of power and struggle as the host organism attempts to reject the invader, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. This is certainly the case with the father/host who battles with the son/parasite. The father (and the chief clerk) represent the forces of the body/society—its immunity—that confront the alien interloper and the sickness it carries with the standards of health and well-being. The figure of the father and the “vital” truths of marriage/family/bourgeois profession that he symbolizes for Kafka rise against the son and condemn him (like the father who condems his parasite son in “The Judgment”) for the parasite aggression he unconsciously directs towards the family. When Gregor, with insect jaws snapping, approaches his mother, it is the father who preserves the immunity of the others against the disease of the son.

On a more abstract level, the notion of the parasite serves for Kafka (and, in Corngold’s reading, for other post-romantic writers) as image of metaphor, sign, and aesthetic language itself. Because the word contains opposing associations of both parasite/host, sacrificial victim/sacrificer, stranger/friend, the parasite is an image of the relationship of identity and difference, the simultaneity of opposites. It is part of the host organism and yet radically different from it. The concept of identity and difference is a statement of similarity and as such is related to the definition of metaphor: the parasite is an image of metaphoric language. A metaphoric equivalence (the vehicle) exists in a parasitical relationship to its tenor/host; a metaphor “feeds off” the meaning of its comparison object in order to generate its own level of meaning. Like a (religious) host/victim, the tenor of the metaphor sacrifices its primary meaning for the sake of the higher spiritual significance of art. The concept of metaphor itself, as opaque sign which points to as well as distorts its significance, also evokes the essence of the paradoxical: it is and it is not what it seems to be. Gregor’s metamorphosis into parasite is an enactment of the nature of metaphor.

The parasitical nature of metaphor becomes more clear, for example, in Roland Barthes’s discussion of “myth” in his 1957 essay “Myth Today.” His notion of myth (essentially a definition of symbolic or figurative language) is that of a “second-order semiological system” which becomes attached to a sign, treating it as the “raw material” or, we might add, the “food” for its own creation of a meaning system.14 This mythic or metaphorical level of signification begins to assume a life of its own, independent of the sign that serves as its origin or host. When myth or metaphor has become habituated or automatized, it has consumed its host/sign. We no longer recognize the host sign in expressions such as “the leg of the table.”

Some might argue that the terms of a metaphoric equivalence exist in a symbiotic relationship, to the mutual benefit of each term of the comparison. Literary language constitutes, in this sense, an enrichment of everyday discourse. This was not the case for Kafka (and for others of his generation), plagued as he was so often by a bad conscience concerning his art and the way of life it demanded. When Kafka saw a young couple or a family out together, he was wont to quote Flaubert: “Ils sont dans le vrai,” he would say, suggesting thereby that such a life in tune with nature, i.e., marriage and family, was authentic and that the life of the artist was misguided at best, parasitical at its worst, taking its nourishment from the “stuff” of life. The parasite is the artist who lives by taking his own feelings and those of others and transforming them into a spiritualized food, literally, into paragraphs, parables, and paradoxes. This was the source of Kafka’s paradoxical personality: his chronic ambivalence, his embracing/rejecting of his status as writer.

Such conflicts concerning writing were not only Kafka’s problem but were common to other bourgeois sons of his generation. Within the ethics of middle-class life, young adults not engaged in productive labor within a bourgeois job were the parasites of their families and society. A similar though by no means identical theme is, of course, central to Thomas Mann’s concept of the artist and his relation to society. Tonio Kröger suffers from the condition of the wayward bourgeois artist whose work also parasitically leeches the vitality of life. When the police check his papers, he feels like a criminal, the parasite of society. Kafka and Mann both, as well as a number of other early twentieth-century German writers, share a philosophical debt to the ideas of Schopenhauer, for whom art and the intellect stand in a parasitical/paradoxical relationship to the life force of the Will. In an expanded context, that of existentialism, the notion of the parasite might be seen as a major aspect of the then contemporary Expressionist vitalism and its corresponding anti-intellectualism. “Consciousness,” as Dostoyevsky, a mentor to Kafka and the German Expressionists, wrote earlier in his Notes from Underground, “is a disease.” The parasite intellect is that alien Other that grows from birth within the psyche. Gottfried Benn suffered from the parasite of his intellect, which seemed to eat away at the integrity of the biological organism, like the baby rats that consumed the body of the young drowned girl in his poem, “Lovely Childhood” (“Schöne Jugend”). The parasite was for Georg Trakl the curse of consciousness, the parasitical worm of self-reflection, and it had to be purged through drugs and, in the end, through a self-inflicted death: the host ultimately sacrificed to the parasite invader.

In his diaries, Kafka also wrote of the parasite of introspection, which will allow no thought to rest, reflection feeding upon itself: “Introspection, which will suffer no idea to sink tranquilly to rest but must pursue each one into consciousness, only itself to become an idea, in turn to be pursued by renewed introspection.”15 Kafka never resolved, as we know, the issue of the parasite Other. In his last stories—ones such as A Hunger Artist and “The Burrow”—it still exists, not as the direct metaphor of the parasite as in “The Metamorphosis”, but within the parabolic and paradoxical meaning of the stories themselves.


1. For a summary of the criticism on “The Metamorphosis” (to 1973), see Peter U. Beicken, Franz Kafka: Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung (Frankfurt/Main: Athenaion, 1974) 261-72. For a more recent update of the secondary literature (to 1985), see Maria Luise Caputo-Mayr and Julius M. Herz, Franz Kafka: Eine kommentierte Bibliographie der Sekundärliteratur, 1955-1980 mit einem Nachtrag 1985 (Bern: Francke, 1987).

2. Franz Kafka, trans. A. Steer and A. K. Thorlby (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1960) 42-54.

3. Franz Kafka (Frankfurt/Main: Athenäum, 1965) 116-27.

4. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca/New York: Cornell UP, 1966) 82.

5. Franz Kafka: Tragik und Ironie (München: Langen/Müller, 1964) 85-115.

6. “La Métaphore dans l’oeuvre de Kafka,” EG 19 (1964): 23-41.

7. “Kafka’s Die Verwandlung: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor,” in Mosaic 3 (1970): 91. An expanded version occurs in his The Commentator’s Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Washington: Kennikat, 1973).

8. Franz Kafka: Geometrician of Metaphor (Madison, WI: Coda, 1979) 2.

9. “The Critic as Host,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom et al. (New York: Seabury, 1979) 218-22.

10. For an introduction to Lacan’s view of metaphor/metonymy, see his “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud,” Ecrits: A Selection (London: Tavistock, 1977) 146-78. Also helpful is Anthony Wilden, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis (New York: Delta, 1968), which contains a translation of Lacan’s 1956 manifesto, the so-called “Rome Discourse,” as well as an excellent interpretive essay by Wilden.

11. In Wahrigs Deutsches Wörterbuch (Berlin: Bertelsmann, 1974), the word “Schmarotzer” is given as an equivalent term for both “Parasit” and “Ungeziefer.”

12. “The Metamorphosis,” in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1961) 71. Subsequent references will be to this edition and will be included in the text by page number.

13. Flaubert and Kafka: Studies in Psychopoetic Structure (New Haven: Yale UP, 1982) 33.

14. In his Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 114.

15. Diaries, 1914-1923, trans. Martin Greenberg (New York: Schocken, 1965) 202.

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