Franz Kafka Says the Insect in The Metamorphosis Should Never Be Drawn; and 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

How Insom­nia Shaped Franz Kafka’s Cre­ative Process and the Writ­ing of The Meta­mor­pho­sis: A New Study Pub­lished in The Lancet

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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  • ferrox glideh says:

    I always assumed that the meta­mor­pho­sis in Kafka’s sto­ry was not meant to be tak­en lit­er­al­ly, but as a metaphor­i­cal device to show the pro­tag­o­nists men­tal anguish. A less well known sto­ry of his, but in my opin­ion bet­ter craft­ed, is The Bur­row. I have thought about it often as the pan­dem­ic drags on.

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