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Religious Symbols in The Metamorphosis

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Objects and events in literature aren't always what they seem. In this lesson you will learn about the religious symbols used in 'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka.

Looking Deeper

How often have you read a particular story only to realize that an object or event at the heart of it may represent something bigger? This representation is called symbolism, and it is a common literary device. More specifically, some works of literature use objects or events to represent some aspect of religion, often Christianity. We can see examples of religious symbolism of this nature in The Metamorphosis, a novella by Franz Kafka. In this story, a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has transformed into a giant beetle. As he deals with this change and his family's reactions, a number of religious symbols emerge.

The Number Three

One prominent symbol in Christianity is the number three. It shows up repeatedly throughout the Bible. For example, there is the Holy Trinity, which is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When Christ is crucified and dies to forgive the sins of humankind, there are two other men crucified with him, making a group of three. Three days after his death, Christ is resurrected. These are only a few examples, but they show how important the number three is to Christianity.

The number three shows up in many places in The Metamorphosis. For example, Gregor's room has three doors, he has three other family members, three tenants come to stay with the family, and Gregor leaves his room three times during the story, once during each of the three chapters.

The most significant recurrence of three in the story is that there are three emotional stages to Gregor's transformation, one in each chapter. The first is denial. When he first discovers he has transformed, he denies that it will affect his life. He believes he can go to work and interact with his family as usual.

The second stage is acceptance. Gregor realizes he is an insect and will remain so, and begins acting like an insect. He is almost content in his dark bedroom, and finds he likes doing insect things, such as climbing the walls and hiding under furniture. The final stage is decline, ending in Gregor's death. In the last chapter, Gregor stops eating and eventually starves to death.

These three stages that Gregor goes through represent the prominence of three in Christianity. In particular, they symbolize the Holy Trinity, which is three different deities linked together, just as Gregor seems almost to be three different people at various stages of his transformation or, his metamorphosis.

The number three is common in the Christian Bible.
Crosses

Self-Sacrifice

Another religious connection appears in Gregor's self-sacrifice. A number of years ago, Gregor's father lost his business and went deeply into debt to the man who became Gregor's boss. That is why Gregor went to work as a traveling salesman even though he hates the work. He has been working there for 15 years and thinks he has at least five or six years to go before he can pay off the debt. In the meantime, he has no free time, no friends, and is often away from his family.

He figuratively gave up his life to support his family, and later he gives it up literally as well. Over the last few pages of the novella, Gregor is eating less and less. He is neglected and resented by his family due to his transformation. One day he hears them talking about how it would be better if Gregor died, and how something must be done because they can no longer live this way. That night, Gregor dies.

Gregor's sacrifices are symbolic of the way Christ sacrificed himself in the Bible. Christ did it for the good of humankind, and Gregor did it for the good of his family.

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