According to Nahum N. Glatzer, philosopher Albert Camus once said that "the whole of Kafka's art consists in compelling the reader to re-read him," and since the interpretations of Kafka are many, this inevitably leads to a return to the story itself "in the hope of finding guidance from within" (35). This internal "guidance" is related to many elements of fiction, such as metaphor, characterization, plot and theme, yet with a single reading of Kafka's the Metamorphosis, written during late November and early December of 1912 and published in October of 1915, one can easily recognize that the use of symbolism is the dominant trait and "guidance" for the reader, due to Kafka's extraordinary ability to transcend reality and create a world that could only exist in the realms of the supernatural or the human subconscious mind.
Essayist Eliseo Vivas in "Kafka's Distorted Mask," points out that Kafka's use of artistic symbols, i.e. symbolic metaphors, are similar in nature to masks which act as shields from reality. "The light which rests on the distorted mask" is Truth, but "the mask on which it shines. . . is distorted" by Truth or, in Kafka's case, symbolism (Gray, 143). Thus, in the Metamorphosis, symbolism runs rampant and can be sensed in many of the character's traits, personalities and actions as well as in the descriptions related to plot scenes and physical objects.
In the very first paragraph of the Metamorphosis, Kafka relates that Gregor Samsa, the main protagonist in the tale, "awoke one morning" and "found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" with an "armoured-plated back. . . (a) domelike brown belly divided into stiff arch segments. . ." And "numerous legs. . . pitifully thin" which "waved helplessly before his eyes" (89). Robbie Batson views the symbolism in this description as being biographical in nature, for instead of referring to the theme, Kafka is symbolizing certain aspects of his personal life and in doing so, "leaves a simple story that stands only for an objective view of his own thoughts and dreams" with a focus upon "a single character that symbolizes himself and his life. . . " ("Kafka/Samsa," Internet).
Although Batson's view may be valid, Kafka's transformation of an ordinary man into what sounds like a cockroach contains much symbolism related to society and culture. Gregor Samsa obviously sees himself as nothing but a low-life, low-paid traveling salesman with no future or financial prospects; after all, he lives with his parents in a small, cramped apartment, much like an unborn insect in a cocoon. Yet his insect-like appearance does greatly upset his family and his boss which indicates that Gregor Samsa, at least from his perspective, is indeed an insect.
But Kafka skillfully relates to the reader that when Gregor emerges from his bedroom, the expressions of horror and shock on the faces of his parents and employer may not be due to Gregor looking like an insect. Symbolically, Gregor is now some kind of misfit trapped in a world which he never made which is supported by his statement, "What has happened to me?. . . It was no dream" (89).
Johannes Pfeiffer, writing in a critical essay on the Metamorphosis, views Gregor Samsa's transformation as a type of "magic realism," meaning that objects, such as Samsa, "are presented with such a. . . wealth of detail. . . that they are constantly turned into something unreal or more than real" (Gray, 53). Of course, "magic realism" is most closely linked to the so-called "Black Arts" and the practice of witchcraft, both of which rely very heavily on symbols to express thoughts and ideas. Symbolically, Gregor Samsa, in the guise of a gigantic insect, is "cut off by this mysterious transformation from all community with other men" and does not realize that this transformation will have much impact on his social and professional lives (Gray, 55). In essence, Gregor Samsa is now symbolizes the down-trodden, the men and women of the world who work themselves to death for pennies and often end up alone and ostracized from society.
By the time that Gregor Samsa attempts to open his bedroom door with his boss from work and his mother and father hollering on the other side, he sets himself "to turning the key in the lock with his mouth, for his insect jaws are "certainly very strong" and with their help "he did manage to set the key in motion," despite some "brown fluid" coming from his mouth (Kafka, 99). This key which Gregor Samsa uses to open his bedroom door is yet another symbol, one that expresses the idea that the key will force him to enter a very strange world where everything is changed as a result of his new personage as a crawling and disgusting cockroach-like bug.
His observation "So I didn't need the locksmith" (100) also indicates that Gregor Samsa is symbolically the master of his own fate and does not require the assistance of some otherworldly being (i.e. The locksmith) to enter this new and compelling environment. Biographically, Kafka did exactly this when, as a result of being denigrated by his father, "Kafka refused to take up his father's business, instead choosing his own path" (Batson, "Kafka/Samsa," Internet).
In Part II of the Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, after awaking from "a deep sleep, more like a swoon than a sleep" (Kafka, 105), goes into the family living room and climbs "under the sofa" where he feels comfortable yet somewhat cramped because "he could not lift his head up" and his body "was too broad to get the whole of it under the sofa" (Kafka, 107). This is another example of symbolism, for it creates the image that Gregor Samsa, the cockroach-like insect, is indeed experiencing the effects of his transformation, due to instinctually wanting to crawl under the sofa, much like a bug crawling under a rock. Early in the morning, Gregor's sister spies him under the sofa as if she was "visiting an invalid or even a stranger" in her own house (Kafka, 107). This supports the suggestion that Gregor Samsa is a stranger in a strange land and is quite debilitated by his insect existence which forces him to symbolically hid from society, even from those that love him as a son and a brother.
At this point in the Metamorphosis, it is abundantly clear that Gregor Samsa's life has been utterly transformed, much like his physical body, and that he considers himself to be a vermin, akin to a rodent living in a trash heap. Batson agrees with this assumption, for when Samsa became an insect, he "crossed over an imaginary line to a point where there is no turning back, much like that of any person with a chronic illness," a reference to a period in Kafka's life when he began to experience the symptoms of tuberculosis, such as "insomnia, recurring coughs, night sweats, and similar difficulties" ("Kafka/Samsa," Internet), symbolic symptoms fully experienced by Gregor the insect.
When the mother finally finds the courage to confront her only son, Gregor's father and sister try to dissuade her from the idea, and she soon cries out "Do let me in to Gregor, he is my unfortunate son!" (Kafka, 114). The key words here are "unfortunate son" which symbolize not only Gregor's arachnid-like predicament but also his position as "a man cut off from society, radically estranged from it in such a way that the distantly sensed door into the open remains blocked. . . " (Gray, 58).
Another symbolic description occurs when Gregor's mother and sister begin to remove furniture from Gregor's bedroom. "They were clearing out his room, taking away everything he loved," such as a chest and…