Franz Kafka Says the Insect in The Metamorphosis Should Never Be Drawn; Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Anyway


If you’ve read Franz Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis in Eng­lish, it’s like­ly that your trans­la­tion referred to the trans­formed Gre­gor Sam­sa as a “cock­roach,” “bee­tle,” or, more gen­er­al­ly, a “gigan­tic insect.” These ren­der­ings of the author’s orig­i­nal Ger­man don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly miss the mark—Gregor scut­tles, waves mul­ti­ple legs about, and has some kind of an exoskele­ton. His char­woman calls him a “dung bee­tle”… the evi­dence abounds. But the Ger­man words used in the first sen­tence of the sto­ry to describe Gregor’s new incar­na­tion are much more mys­te­ri­ous, and per­haps strange­ly laden with meta­phys­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

Trans­la­tor Susan Bernof­sky writes, “both the adjec­tive unge­heuer (mean­ing “mon­strous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations—virtual nonentities—prefixed by un.” Ungeziefer, a term from Mid­dle High Ger­man, describes some­thing like “an unclean ani­mal unfit for sac­ri­fice,” belong­ing to “the class of nasty creepy-crawly things.” It sug­gests many types of vermin—insects, yes, but also rodents. “Kaf­ka,” writes Bernof­sky, “want­ed us to see Gregor’s new body and con­di­tion with the same hazy focus with which Gre­gor him­self dis­cov­ers them.”

It’s like­ly for that very rea­son that Kaf­ka pro­hib­it­ed images of Gre­gor. In a 1915 let­ter to his pub­lish­er, he stip­u­lat­ed, “the insect is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a dis­tance.” The slim book’s orig­i­nal cov­er, above, instead fea­tures a per­fect­ly nor­mal-look­ing man, dis­traught as though he might be imag­in­ing a ter­ri­ble trans­for­ma­tion, but not actu­al­ly phys­i­cal­ly expe­ri­enc­ing one.

Yet it seems obvi­ous that Kaf­ka meant Gre­gor to have become some kind of insect. Kafka’s let­ter uses the Ger­man Insekt, and when casu­al­ly refer­ring to the sto­ry-in-progress, Kaf­ka used the word Wanze, or “bug.” Mak­ing this too clear in the prose dilutes the grotesque body hor­ror Gre­gor suf­fers, and the sto­ry is told from his point of view—one that “mutates as the sto­ry pro­ceeds.” So writes Dutch read­er Fred­die Oomkins, who fur­ther observes, “at the phys­i­cal lev­el Gre­gor, at dif­fer­ent points in the sto­ry, starts to talk with a squeak­ing, ani­mal-like voice, los­es con­trol of his legs, hangs from the ceil­ing, starts to lose his eye­sight, and wants to bite his sister—not real­ly help­ful in deter­min­ing his tax­on­o­my.”


Dif­fi­cul­ties of trans­la­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion aside, Russ­ian lit­er­ary mas­ter­mind and lep­i­dopter­ist Vladimir Nabokov decid­ed that he knew exact­ly what Gre­gor Sam­sa had turned into. And, against the author’s wish­es, Nabokov even drew a pic­ture in his teach­ing copy of the novel­la. Nabokov also heav­i­ly edit­ed his edi­tion, as you can see in the many cor­rec­tions and revi­sions above. In a lec­ture on The Meta­mor­pho­sis, he con­cludes that Gre­gor is “mere­ly a big bee­tle” (notice he strikes the word “gigan­tic” from the text above and writes at the top “just over 3 feet long”), and fur­ther­more one who is capa­ble of flight, which would explain how he ends up on the ceil­ing.

All of this may seem high­ly dis­re­spect­ful of The Meta­mor­pho­sis’ author. Cer­tain­ly Nabokov has nev­er been a respecter of lit­er­ary per­sons, refer­ring to Faulkner’s work, for exam­ple, as “corn­cob­by chron­i­cles,” and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a “pet­ri­fied super­pun.” Yet in his lec­ture Nabokov calls Kaf­ka “the great­est Ger­man writer of our time. Such poets as Rilke or such nov­el­ists as Thomas Mann are dwarfs or plas­tic saints in com­par­i­son with him.” Though a saint he may be, Kaf­ka is “first of all an artist,” and Nabokov does not believe that “any reli­gious impli­ca­tions can be read into Kafka’s genius.” (“I am inter­est­ed here in bugs, not hum­bugs,” he says dis­mis­sive­ly.)

Reject­ing Kafka’s ten­den­cies toward mys­ti­cism runs against most inter­pre­ta­tions of his fic­tion. One might sus­pect Nabokov of see­ing too much of him­self in the author when he com­pares Kaf­ka to Flaubert and asserts, “Kaf­ka liked to draw his terms from the lan­guage of law and sci­ence, giv­ing them a kind of iron­ic pre­ci­sion, with no intru­sion of the author’s pri­vate sen­ti­ments.” Unge­heueres Ungeziefer, how­ev­er, is not a sci­en­tif­ic term, and its Mid­dle Ger­man lit­er­ary origins—which Kaf­ka would have been famil­iar with from his stud­ies—clear­ly con­note reli­gious ideas of impu­ri­ty and sac­ri­fice.

With due respect to Nabokov’s for­mi­da­ble eru­di­tion, it seems in this instance at least that Kaf­ka ful­ly intend­ed impre­ci­sion, what Bernof­sky calls “blurred per­cep­tions of bewil­der­ment,” in lan­guage “care­ful­ly cho­sen to avoid speci­fici­ty.” Kafka’s art con­sists of this abil­i­ty to exploit the ancient strat­i­fi­ca­tions of lan­guage. His almost Kab­bal­is­tic treat­ment of signs and his aver­sion to graven images may con­ster­nate and bedev­il trans­la­tors and cer­tain nov­el­ists, but it is also the great source of his uncan­ny genius.

The Meta­mor­pho­sis was pub­lished 100 years ago this month. You can find copies of the text in our col­lec­tions of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

The Meta­mor­pho­sis of Mr. Sam­sa: A Won­der­ful Sand Ani­ma­tion of the Clas­sic Kaf­ka Sto­ry (1977)

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (15)
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  • adais says:

    there are so many who try to fol­low a dif­fer­ent path of their human envi­ron­ment, they should watch this meta­mor­pho­sis on their oth­ers eyes. And they will nev­er reach Kaf­ka or Nabrokov.

  • Michael says:

    This was a nice change from what we usu­al­ly come across on the open inter­net. I am real­ly glad that I have just dis­cov­ered your por­tal. Inter­est­ing arti­cle, good angle, well cho­sen illus­tra­tions. I would, in this con­text of being a dif­fer­ent portal,like to read some­thing more about his “almost Cabal­is­tic approach” and sign usage (what did the author exact­ly mean by it) in this or some oth­er, future article,.Thank you again.It was a nice evening read.

  • Shaun says:

    Nice, but did­n’t Gre­gor Sam­sa have hun­dreds of legs?

  • Steve Jump says:

    Per­haps because I come from where they are said to zoom, I’ve always pic­tured Gre­gor as an immense June bug, a type of scarab beetle.I don’t know what they have in Prague, but Nabokov’s draw­ing would make a fine police sketch of one.

  • David Williams says:

    My first thought on see­ing the orig­i­nal cov­er is that the man depict­ed in the pic­ture is Gre­gor’s father, dis­traught and almost mad­dened by what he has just wit­nessed in the room behind him (per­haps an ear­ly exam­ple of the visu­al approach to ‘hor­ror by sug­ges­tion’later adopt­ed by Hitch­cock in Psy­cho?)

  • John Titor says:

    no, it just says he had numer­ous

  • rodney figaro says:

    The Rich­mond Shake­speare Soci­ety are pro­duc­ing Steven Berkof­f’s adap­ta­tion at the Mary Wal­lace The­atre in Twick­en­ham on June 3rd-10th.

  • Claudio says:

    Bug-Gre­gor def­i­nite­ly did­n’t have 6 legs, so it was­n’t an insect. No need to be a zool­o­gist to know that.

    Your are wel­come.

  • John Stewart says:

    Excuse me I did­n’t know this was a biol­o­gy class

  • Someone Anything says:

    Gre­gor Sam­sa turned into a cock­roach.

  • James M. says:

    Kaf­ka isn’t describ­ing an actu­al insect. It’s a metaphor for the dis­fig­ured sol­diers com­ing back from the Great War who had grotesque injuries. The meta­mor­pho­sis is the change the hor­rors of war had wrought on them.

    They often had miss­ing parts of their face which required them to wear pros­thet­ic masks. They would have legs and arms blown off requir­ing them to use crutch­es and pros­thet­ic arms. They returned home dam­aged both phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly, and spir­i­tu­al­ly, unable to return to their pre­vi­ous lives, feel­ing like a bur­den to their fam­i­ly and friends who now had to care for them entire­ly.

    The sto­ry is a com­plex alle­go­ry of the val­ue of young men after they had lost their abil­i­ty to con­tribute mean­ing­ful­ly to soci­ety, the role of women enter­ing the work­force en mass, and the ethics of a cul­ture that vil­i­fied the bro­ken and down­trod­den, treat­ing them as less than human and a can­cer to soci­ety.

    When viewed in this light, Kafka’s work is almost a pre­mo­ni­tion of the cul­tur­al beliefs that may have even­tu­al­ly con­tributed to the hor­rors of the Sec­ond World War and the Holo­caust as well.

    Enjoy read­ing it again with that his­tor­i­cal con­text in mind.

  • Gregor Samsa says:

    It’s open for inter­pre­ta­tion.

  • Franz Kafka says:

    Gre­gor had 6 legs, he was a cock­roach. It’s not that deep🙄

  • Quint says:

    Some­thing of a non sequitur there giv­en bee­tles also have six.

  • Me says:

    The pic­ture on one of the books is a huge, but ordi­nary, house­hold cock­roach. It makes sense since Gre­gor had a wide, armor-plat­ed body. In addi­tion, he could stick to walls and ceil­ings, and like an insect, healed extreme­ly quick­ly, except where this heal­ing was hin­dered by an apple that was left logged in his back. I think if he could fly the book would have told us about it, and he was also described as being brown in col­or. How­ev­er, I can’t find where it gives any ref­er­ence to how many legs he has, except for the fact that he has more than before (2) and he says they are thin and spindly. Sor­ry about the biol­o­gy les­son, I just know some peo­ple like to have a clear men­tal pic­ture. How­ev­er, it could also be seen in a metaphor­i­cal sense.

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