Die Verwandlung; Metamorphosis

Die Verwandlung; Metamorphosis; The Transformation (written 1912, published 1915)


Kafka’s most famous story has a devastating opening sentence, at the end of which we learn that he has been transformed into a monstrous ‘Ungeziefer’. This word is unspecific and negative, it means ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’. In other words, Gregor Samsa has become transformed into an unspecific insect, not a cockroach. 

Students of German literature are expected to write literary criticism; they are generally advised to avoid narrow biographical interpretations of literary texts. Even so, it is worth noting that Kafka used the word ‘Ungeziefer’ in Brief an den Vater (Letter to His Father), written in 1919 but never delivered. When Kafka invited his Polish friend, the actor Yitzchak Lowy (1887-1942), to dinner in the family home, his father’s reaction was hostile: ‘Ohne ihn zu kennen, verglichst Du ihn in einer schrecklichen Weise, die ich schon vergessen habe, mit Ungeziefer, und wie so oft für Leute, die mir lieb waren, hattest Du automatisch das Sprichwort von den Hunden und Flöhen bei der Hand.’ (Without even knowing him, you compared him to vermin in a nasty way - I have forgotten the exact words, and you automatically repeated that proverb about dogs and fleas, as you so often do so when talking about people who are dear to me). There is a family drama going on here, and it relates to the racism of Hermann Kafka. It seems that Kafka experienced a lot of racism in his life, particularly from his own Jewish father.

As Ritchie Robertson says (in Kafka: A very short introduction, Oxford, 2004, p. 33), the story is not about the metamorphosis itself, but about the reactions of Gregor Samsa and his family to it. It is interesting to note that no one ever asks why Gregor has been transformed into an insect, or even whether the insect is Gregor – the other characters all just assume (correctly) that the insect is Gregor.


In the opening sequence Gregor is in shock. He seems to be more troubled by the rain and about missing his train than he is about being an insect. As for Gregor’s family, initial horror and aggression (in the case of the father) soon turn to disgust and sullen dislike. Gregor’s sister Grete feeds him but can’t stand to be in the same room as him for more than a minute or two. When she sees the trail of slime he leaves behind him, she decides to remove the furniture from his room; Gregor thinks this is to help him manoeuvre, but it could just be to save the furniture. The father throws an apple at Gregor and it gets stuck in Gregor’s back, causing an infection. Gregor interrupts Grete’s violin performance causing the three lodgers to give their notice. Grete declares that the insect is not worthy to be called her brother any more and that they must get rid of it. Shortly after hearing these words, Gregor dies. Gregor’s family are happy that he has died. The family’s callousness towards Gregor is highlighted by the fact that only the charwoman (Bedienerin) credits him with any intelligence and shows no fear of him.


By focusing on the reactions of Gregor and his family, e.g. Gregor’s feelings for his sister and the family’s ruthlessness, the story manages to suggest that the human brain is potentially more monstrous than the insect which Gregor has become. As Freud or Jung would say: if monsters exist at all, then they exist in us.


Further Reading in English


Steven Berkoff, Meditations on Metamorphosis (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, ‘“Diese ernsten Herren.” The solution to the riddle of the three lodgers in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 85:1 (2011), 85-123

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, ‘“Truth and Lies about Gregor Samsa. The Logic Underlying the Two Conflicting Versions in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 86:2 (2012)

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, ‘Does Gregor Samsa Crawl over the Ceiling and Walls? Intra-narrative Fiction in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung’, Monatshefte 105:2 (2013), 278-314

Harold Bloom (ed.), Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Modern Critical Interpretations (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1988)

Stanley Corngold, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vermin: Metaphor and Chiasm in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis’, Literary Research / Recherche Littéraire vol. 21, no. 41-42 (2004), 59-85

Sheila Dickson, ‘Two sides of an anorexic coin in Die Wahlverwandtschaften and Die Verwandlung: Ottilie as Heilige, Gregor as Mistkäfer’, Orbis Litterarum 54 (1999), 174-84

Anniken Greve, ‘The Human Body and the Human Being in “Die Verwandlung”’, in Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading, ed. by Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg and Ronald Speirs (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011), pp. 40-57

John Hibberd, Kafka: Die Verwandlung (London: Grant & Cutler, 2000)

Moray McGowan, ‘Modern German Classics: Second Hand’, German Life and Letters 58 (2005), 155-63

Roy Pascal, Kafka’s Narrators: A Study of his Stories and Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 32-59 on 'Die Verwandlung'

Roy Pascal, ‘The Impersonal Narrator of The Metamorphosis’, in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, ed. by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1988), pp. 95-104

Michael P. Ryan, ‘Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death, and Rebirth in “The Metamorphosis”’, The German Quarterly 72:2 (1999), 133-52

Simon Ryan, ‘Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung: Transformation, Metaphor and the Perils of Assimilation’, Seminar 43:1 (2007), 1-18

Rebecca Schuman, ‘Kafka’s Verwandlung, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and the Limits of Metaphorical Language’, Modern Austrian Literature 44:3-4 (2011), 19-32

Andrew Webber, ‘Kafka: Die Verwandlung’, in Landmarks in German Short Prose, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 175-90


Further Reading in German


Hartmut Binder, Die Verwandlung (Frankfurt/Main: Stroemfeld, 2004) [Epic-length study; takes a biographical approach]


Web Links in German


Die Verwandlung in German; click on a word for the English translation


Free audio download of Die Verwandlung