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What Does the Violin Symbolize in The Metamorphosis?

Instructor: Tina Miller

Tina has taught English, has an MFA in Creative Writing, and has several published novels and short stories.

An aspiring violinist, Grete Samsa's life changes the moment her brother Gregor, the breadwinner of the family, transforms into a beetle in Franz Kafka's ''Metamorphosis.'' This lesson explains the emotions symbolized by her violin.

Sweet Dreams

In Franz Kafka's story, Metamorphosis, Gregor is a traveling salesman. Though his career had its ups and downs, he has been saving up to help his family live well and help his sister enroll in the conservatory. She's a violinist. Life is disrupted for everyone, however, when Gregor wakes up one morning as a beetle. Then, any plan involving money is placed on the backburner. What does this mean for Grete and her violin? Read on to see how the violin becomes more than a symbol of Grete's hopes and dreams.

Status

Before Gregor became a beetle, life was much different for him and his family. He describes Grete, his sister. 'She was still a child of seventeen, her life up till then had been very enviable, consisting of wearing nice clothes, sleeping late, helping out in the business, joining in with a few modest pleasures and most of all playing the violin.'

The violin is her passion. Just as her clothing is a symbol of status, so too, is her violin. It symbolizes her dreams of affluence. However, her plans are stifled because her family, without Gregor's contribution, cannot afford such items. As a beetle, there is limited work he can do for pay. Gregor realizes that sending her to a conservatory, already a great expense, was now impossible. The violin, and what the family can do with it, signifies both their financial and social status.

Life can change in an instant.
Gregor as a beetle.

Worth

Just as Gregor transforms physically, his appreciation for his sister's gift also transforms. He suggests that unlike her, he is not fond of music. While in human form, Gregor would chat with his sister about her future plans with her violin, mostly discussing her education. His transformation into a beetle sparks a newfound interest. 'He was determined to make his way forward to his sister and tug at her skirt to show her she might come into his room with her violin, as no-one appreciated her playing here as much as he would.'

While the violin does not change, Gregor's perception of it does because of his transformation. The violin transforms from being an item on a budget to something much greater, something of beauty. And, as a beetle, Gregor is more easily moved by Grete's music.

Symbol of emotion

Kafka also uses the violin as a tool to showcase the character's emotions. Life in the Samsa household has not been easy. Yet, they adapt. One significant moment that shows this is when Gregor, for the first time since his transformation, hears Grete playing. 'Throughout all this time, Gregor could not remember having heard the violin being played, but this evening it began to be heard from the kitchen.' The music lures him, makes him feel human again, even if he isn't. Might this just be the family's salvation?

The family's circumstances are improving. They rent out a room to a few lodgers; the sweet swoons of the violin are no longer silenced. One evening, the lodgers hear Grete playing and encourage her to play further. Gregor hears this as well, and he sneaks out from his room, enticed by the sounds of the bow caressing the strings. This is a moment of joy for everyone. Yet, it would not last for long.

Guiding Violin
Guiding Violin

When Gregor comes into view, the sounds are silenced. Everyone's attention shifts from the violin to the sight of the beetle. Witnessing the shocking scene of the large beetle scampering into the living space, where he does not belong, Grete '. . .had let her hands drop and let violin and bow hang limply. . .' She is disappointed, and her handling of the violin shows this. When she lets the violin hang down, Grete realizes that her dreams are slipping through her fingers, even if life had seemed to be improving.

Grete is not the only one who uses the violin to show dismay. Prior to running off into her room, Grete hands the violin over to her mother. How will Mrs. Samsa use the violin to show her feelings about Gregor meandering in plain view? Well, '. . . the violin on his mother's lap fell from her trembling fingers and landed loudly on the floor.'

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