Figurative Language in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

Waking up as a cockroach is terrifying for Gregor Samsa. This lesson will explain how author Franz Kafka uses figurative language to illustrate Gregor's story of imprisonment and isolation.

Is This a Dream?

Franz Kafka's ''The Metamorphosis,'' originally written in German and translated to English, is the tragic tale of Gregor Samsa who awakens one morning to discover he has ''transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.'' At the end of the story, Gregor dies, a forgotten shell of a cockroach, and his family moves on without him, seemingly uncaring of their lost son and brother. Because we never discover how or why Gregor turns into an insect, we must ask the question: ''Is Gregor literally a cockroach?'' Perhaps another explanation is that waking up as a multi-legged creature is a metaphor for Gregor's feelings of being unwanted and unloved in his family. Maybe he is not literally a cockroach, but he feels like one. Like the insect metaphor, Kafka uses a lot of figurative language (words not meant to be taken literally) to illustrate his writing in a way that exaggerates reality. Let's take a look at some specific examples of figurative language in the story.

A possible image of Gregor after his transformation
a cockroach

Gregor Under Attack

After his family discovers that he has turned into a disgusting, unwanted vermin, Gregor is locked in his room ''oppressed with anxiety and self-reproach.'' Because he cannot communicate with his parents and sister, his family can only assume his thoughts and feelings. In an attempt to make Gregor more comfortable, they begin ''emptying his room out,'' but he views them as ''taking away everything that was dear to him.'' As the months go by, his family then begins to add old, unwanted furniture to Gregor's room. They cram these pieces into the small space, and ''all these things made him feel as if he were being assailed from all sides.'' Though his family appears to neglect and ignore him, he remains ''a family member who could not be treated as an enemy.'' In these lines, the words ''oppressed,'' ''assailed,'' and ''enemy'' bring to mind an image of Gregor under siege. Though he is not literally being attacked, he is fighting a losing battle against his family in his mind--metaphorically, he is the victim of an assault.

Stronger than You Think

Despite the on-going war between Gregor and his family, Kafka is especially fond of metaphors that illustrate a sort of elasticity in these bleak circumstances. When Gregor first wakes up to discover himself changed, he falls out of bed. To his surprise, he finds his ''back was also more elastic than he had thought,'' for he does not injure himself when he lands. Here, Gregor's back is not literally elastic; rather, it feels flexible enough that it could be made of elastic. Then, when he does finally unlock himself from his room, Kafka says, ''he stretched his right hand far out towards the stairway as if out there, there were some supernatural force waiting to save him.'' Now, the stretching here is more literal than that of his back in the earlier quote, but it illustrates that Gregor seems heavily reliant on this outside force that has both turned him into a cockroach and, by Gregor's belief, seems capable of releasing him from his metaphorical prison. The reason behind Kafka's addition of hope is unclear, but we can imagine that it is to illustrate the resilience of the human spirit. Unfortunately for Gregor, this hope is short-lived. He does not escape his imprisonment, and his optimism wanes as the story continues.

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