Gregor as a Christ Figure in Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Woodcut reproduced in François Secret: Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance.

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is a grotesquely symbolic picture of an Everyman’s life turned to seeming nightmare, who transcends his vile state and becomes something more than himself, an entity that expresses divine hope despite his low and vile physical form. Gregor Samsa lives a constant unfeeling cycle of working, commuting, and sleeping all for the benefit of his family who are drowning in debt. He represents the average Joe, someone passed by without notice on a daily basis. His problems are relatable, his universe a mirror of our own, and Kafka draws the reader in with a masterful twist: one day the unimaginative workaholic wakes up to find himself a beetle, more precisely the most dreaded of vermin — a bed bug. As an insect, Gregor loses touch with his original inner-character, an unfeeling worker, and becomes an ugly insect with a deep emotional life. After living his human life as a worker without imagination or true feeling, Gregor, as an outcast insect, ends up feeling true emotion toward his family. Ironically, this emotion appears to be all for naught, for as Gregor becomes truer to his insect nature physically and truer to his human emotions, his family resent and ostracize him. This story, though fantastic, is not so simple as a fairy tale or a penny dreadful piece of nonsense, for Gregor’s story is not simply the story of a bug; rather, Gregor’s transformation makes him the most unlikely of Christ figures even as his human family reject him. Gregor’s Christ like qualities include his degradation in being, his love toward the undeserving, and his sacrifice of life for the betterment of his people. In this text, Kafka, sometimes a bit nihilistic, always a ponderous thinker, and an Ashkenazi Jew with a complex relationship with faith, tackles what it must have been like for God to have taken a human form.

Foremost, Gregor is a Christ figure, divinity taking a lower, degraded form. According to The Bible, God degraded his being as the all-supreme ruler of the universe to be a man, so he could better relate to humanity. Likewise, Gregor is degraded from his supreme status as a member of the race of man to an insect, and as an unexpected consequence, he can better relate to the humanity inside him. Of course, God chose to degrade his being to a lower state while Gregor merely wakes up as an insect, but the parallel is still there. For example, while Gregor is a man and at the beginning of his new life as an insect, all he can think about is work as if he were always a worker insect. Early on in the story, when Gregor wakes to find himself a bug, his only thoughts are concerned with being late to work; therefore, he is thinking like an insect instead of wondering like a man (Kafka 1–3). Kafka writes, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning form uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…But what was he to do now? The next train went at seven o’clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren’t even packed up… And even if he did catch the train, he wouldn’t avoid a row with the chief…” (Kafka 1 & 3). Kafka’s depicts Gregor as a being shaped by the world of common work, a world that demands submissive dutifulness at the expense of individuality. Gregor’s representation is extreme. He is a symbol for what a person might become if they lose touch with themselves as they participate in the rat race. The average person, whether dutiful or submissive, would not worry about work if he woke up as an insect; rather, he would be fixated on discovering why and how he became that way. This lack of curiosity as a reaction to his physical metamorphoses displays Gregor’s need to relate to his inner humanity. His reaction along with his lifestyle point to an inner-state that is emotionally stunted to the point that his emotional reflexes do not engage at the appropriate times. As the novella progresses, Gregor grows to relate to the humanity inside of him, which reflects how God as Christ related to his creations on earth. The sacred and profane are one in the earthly realm, just as man and insect are one in the Samsa household. One example of Gregor’s growth is his reaction to his sister’s, Grete’s, attempt to feed Gregor milk, a necessary development since Gregor as bug can no longer fix himself food or eat out, yet he doesn’t touch what she leaves him. Once she realizes he is not going to eat what she has left him, she comes back with something different, and, as a consequence of this, Kafka writes, “Gregor was wildly curious to know what she would bring instead, and made various speculations about it” (Kafka 20). This wild curiosity displays a rising humanity inside of Gregor. It is some of the only wondering he does at the beginning of the piece despite his life changing transformation. In spiritual terms, readers might recognize a process the divine would undergo once made flesh: first a disconnection but then a blossoming of knowing, feeling, and wondering, a necessary and natural process experienced by all healthy human beings but still beneath an all-powerful, all-knowing entity. The divine knows all but to know as a man is a different experience, one that requires adjustment.

In addition to the parallel of Gregor/God’s taking of a lower form, Kafka paints Gregor’s transformation as the catalyst that allows him to truly love his undeserving family, which is an attribute characteristic of Christ’s love. For instance, in the middle of Gregor’s insect life span, he transcends from no feeling to some feeling as a reaction to his family’s contempt for him, for sometimes, “…he would not be in the mood to bother about his family, he was only filled with rage at the way they were neglecting him…” (Kafka 39). This beginning of feeling in Gregor, although negative, is like a spark that lights the flame of emotional experience within him and thus allows him to transcend flat dutifulness and lower feelings to the ultimate state of selfless affect, love. His love, which has the power to overcome his family’s cruel treatment, displays his likeness to Christ. The biblical Christ loves all, including sinners, traitors, and persecutors. His love has such expanse because despite his physicality, he is imbued with the divine potentialities and wisdom. He is able to see and understand how even the base can be touched by divine love. This ability in Christ and in Gregor is possible because of man’s innate goodness even when originally depraved and later disconnected from the divine source (Kafka 48). As his family members talk about him as a burden whom they wished would die, Gregor, in his transcendent, Christ like state of feeling, thinks of them, “…with tenderness and love” and “…the decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible” (Kafka 49). Gregor, who worked his life away in drudgery to help his family, exercises extreme compassion despite their malediction. Gregor’s transformation was not his most trying moment. Readers see him face darker and darker situations still, yet to think of nothing more but helping others during his most trying moments is symbolic of Christ, for as Christ loved and forgave the sinful race of man, even with the knowledge of their role in his torturous crucifixion, so Gregor loves and forgives his pitiless family despite their own flaws which they cannot see. His family lacks self-knowing, not recognizing how much they owe Gregor, which can be seen in the same light as Christ’s persecutors, who could not perceive him as God made flesh. Gregor’s family, in a way, represents the human family as mortals live within a limited scope of knowledge and yet judge others based on their fragmented sense of understanding. God within man, Christ, transcends this human failing, and Gregor, fully aware of himself as he is, can exercise compassion from that place of higher knowing.

His transformation into a lesser form along with his limitless love are not the most compelling signs that Gregor is a Christ figure; rather, in the universe Kafka presents, it is his twisted sacrifice of his life for his family that reveals his Christ-like function. Gregor gives up his life, so his family can begin to truly live, just as Christ dies for humanity to free them from the damning burden of sin. Obviously, there is an element of suicide in this sacrifice; at the same time, God in Christ knew that on earth staying and speaking the Word was a death sentence, yet he elects to undergo the sacrifice. Some cynical people view this knowing death as a form of suicide, but since the sacrifice is meant to liberate humanity from a cursed afterlife, it has been and can be understood as a heroic act. In consideration of the author’s on-going grappling with faith in an imperfect world, readers might accept that Kafka’s exploration of the Christ concept is of twisted dimensions (Strauss 217). As Walter Strauss explains, “On the one hand, he [Kafka] regards the physical world as evil, as did Schopenhauer; but on the other hand, he knows that the way to the Law must somehow go through the world of necessity and of falsehood” (218). Gregor as Christ figure presents the exact paradox Kafka explored in so many of his aphorisms and diary entries. When the divine enters the earthly, He enters a plane that is spiritual but which exhibits evil almost as a reaction to its own constraint or perhaps distance, and when in physical form, the resplendence of higher spiritual manifestation is obscured; the lower forms of earth stand as but shadows of the exalted states of being.

Kafka’s understanding of God and what it requires to serve the Law demands a purity that fails in the earthly realm, a concept that left him deep in spiritual and philosophical thought throughout his short life. This spiritual paradox is most unusually highlighted in Gregor’s loving view of his family despite their cruelty. In a place of love and elevated understanding, he decides, “…he must disappear…” (Kafka 49). Following this thought, Kafka writes that “In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning…Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (Kafka 50). Thus, at the symbolic hour, the third of the morning, which speaks to the tripartite nature of God while hinting at new life, Gregor releases his spirit from his earthly frame as if by his own volition like Christ. Although Christ was crucified, his divine nature as the Son of God, or God made flesh, suggests that he allowed the crucifixion to take place and that this sacrifice is for the betterment of his people, his family. Christ’s death brings salvation, the promise of ascended life after death. Similarly, after Gregor’s death, freed from the burden of not only Gregor’s care but their own sin, his family achieves a happier life. The code of family loyalty had become a burden due to Gregor’s warped transfiguration, and this unexpected and unwelcome change created a conflict with the code of like to like, a human for a human family versus what the change led to: an insect in the place of a man. Liberated from the conflict of code, his family can rise above their own insufficiency, their own weakness, and their own pettiness of spirit. After Gregor’s death, his family leaves their home for the first time in months (Kafka 53). Released from the burdens of the past and with a better understanding of how bad things could be, “…they canvassed their prospects for the future, and it appeared on closer inspection that these were not at all bad, for the jobs they had got, which so far they had never really discussed with each other, were all three admirable and likely to lead to better things later on” (Kafka 53). The number three arises here again, a sign of the Grace of God in tripartite form ruling over human endeavors now that Gregor, the Christ figure, has returned to totality. His sacrifice opens the door to his family’s higher potentiality just as Christ’s sacrifice created a path to redemption and grace for any sinner. Additionally, “The greatest immediate improvement in their condition would of course arise from moving to another house…” (Kafka 53–54). With Christ’s sacrifice came the opening of the heavenly gateway, one that mortals could access upon their passing out of physicality. Similarly, Gregor’s death presents the opportunity for his people to move from a lower state to a higher one. His passing is what opens their eyes to their agency and has helped them see what they could become with a little effort. Though trapped by the confines of material existence, they awaken to their ability to change and move; it is a realization that they are not slaves to the earth. Though intimately bound to it, they are able to affect positive change. At the same time:

“…it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times… she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure…it would soon be time to find a good husband for her…it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body” (Kafka 54).

Gregor’s sister, burdened of spirit and pale of hue, signs of waning fortitude, heals as a direct result of the sacrifice of the logos, Gregor’s release of physical life for the benefit of his human family. When his sister is released from her service, it is as if she has a new life and her body once weak is energetically animated, suggesting her fertility and potentiality, which would have been wasted if from nothing else than the despair and agitation which were her daily lot. Her transformation is reminiscent of healings performed by Christ; where once their resided shadows, now a life waxes strong in defiance of mortal constraint. Gregor’s sacrificial death releases the Samsas of their struggle and suffering by allowing them to live a new life, one all their own, just as humanity discovered eternal life through Christ’s sacrificial death which opened up heaven to the faithful.

Although Kafka’s semiotic comparison of an insect to Christ seems counter-intuitive, from a larger perspective, human beings in all their earthly limitation and susceptibility to corruption must seem insect-like to the highest of all divinities, especially since within the earthly realm, human beings sometimes behave in evil ways. Even if one accepts the idea that man was created in God’s image, human bodily experience is anything but divine. Recognizing the paradox presented within The Bible, Kafka, who was not afraid to deeply engage with troubling ideas, used The Metamorphosis to work out some of the contradictions. Ferruccio Masini discusses some of Kafka’s spiritual contemplations in “Spiritualita Ebraica in Franz Kafka.” He writes, “II male è il raondo sensibile — dirà ancora quest’ultimo — ma esiste unicamente il mondo spirituale e il male & il suo abisso. Contraddirebbe dunque tale visione univoca di Dio quest’ultima affermazione, che il male sia soltanto la necessity della nostra eterna evoluzione Evoluzione” (175). As Masini explains, Kafka viewed the world as composed of both evil and sensible aspects, but in view of the latter (the sensible or the will/reason of the logos), there is only one world, the spiritual world, and evil is its abyss, the outer reaches of emanation far removed from God. Although the former statement may seem to contradict the omniscience and omnipotence of God, evil is a necessity of our eternal evolution. It is evil that allows people to discover love and their higher selves, the aspects of self that are beyond mere animalistic survival and which they have in common with the higher spiritual entities (i.e. God and the ranks of angels). Kafka’s contemplations of this essential paradox and its implications had an almost Gnostic tone, heavily influenced by the Kabbalic tree of life, which is a map of the lines, trajectories, and connections of all emanation from the highest realm, Kepher, to Malkuth, the realm of sense and materiality, further removed from the source, and thus a place where evil can exist. It is all one world, spiritual in nature, with evil as the corruption of excess physicality or the result of distance from God. Masini sheds further light on Kafka’s spiritual views. He comments, “Questa esistenziale speranza di liberazione k radicata in una situa- zione reale — Yhic et nunc dell’esser-ci — che esige prese di posizione con- crete e si foggia nell’arte — come allegoria tragica del nostro destino — lo strumento della liberazione stessa” (177). Kafka believed that humans inhabit an existential hope for liberation radiating from a real situation, of the here and now, of being as it is, which requires concrete positions and takes shape in art — and that it stands as a tragic allegory of our destiny and the instrument of liberation all the same. As humans make meaning for their lives and as they seek understanding of God, they find themselves immersed in the essence of reality though their explorations are metaphysical, whether admitted or not, and to succeed in this quest, to attain grace, there is concrete faith in practice as a path to God and God expressing himself through us via art as the Logos. The natural combinations of these elements in human life are the stuff of tragedy and liberation in that all men face certain death. They must let go of their self-concept, their routines, and their loved ones; the paradox is that to let go is to be free and thus ascend through the great chain of manifestation back to unity with the prima materia if nothing else. As Parme remarks in “The Jewish Essence of Franz Kafka,” “Kafka has been hailed as a crypto-Christian” (28). Whether her observation is objectively true is up for debate, but it does help us understand why Kafka was willing to explore the spiritual questions of Christ in The Metamorphosis. Kafka’s existential contemplations of life on earth allowed him new ways to envision the world as part of the divine plan. It helped him find a place for evil within the creation of a benevolent God and more realistically ponder the practicalities of divinity existing in form within a universe that appears flawed. The flaw of evil is also accounted for as a tool for realizing one’s power to transcend.

Kafka was Jewish but not consistent of practice, yet his heritage did not close his mind to unusual symbolic musings on divine potentiality. His philosophical meanderings led him down dark pathways of thought which were realistic considering the perceptiveness with which he faced the world. He also read deeply and pursued complex conversations with other great thinkers even if their names are lost to history. He was a man not small-minded but rather aware of his human limitations, and this awareness allowed him to contemplate what it would be if God became a common man in the modern age. He did this not as an easy follower of religion but as a man who had atheistic spells and nihilistic days, someone who still respected the deep spirituality of his heritage and of his home in Prague. If this train of artistic exploration was for purely spiritual purposes or was more of a thought experiment is debatable, but his habits of mind reveal a willingness to engage with difficult spiritual questions. It is safe to assume that The Metamorphoses offers us glimpses of Kafka’s more intense spiritual considerations.

Works Cited and Consulted

Kafka, Franz. Basic Works. New York: Pocket Books, 1984.

Masini, Ferruccio. “Spiritualita Ebraica in Franz Kafka.” La Ressegna Mensile di Israel. 3.23.4 (Aprile 1957): 170–177.

Parme, Harriet, L. “The Jewish Essence of Franz Kafka.” Shofar 13.2. (Winter 1995): 28–43.

Shahar, Galili. “The Alarm Clock: The Times of Gregor Samsa.” Kafka and the Universal. Eds. Arthur Cools and Vivian Liska. Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, 2016.

Strauss, Walter. “Franz Kafka: Between the Paradise and the Labyrinth.” The Centennial Review: Contemporary Criticism. 5.2. (Spring 1967): 206–222.

Webster, Peter Dow. “Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as Death and Resurrection Fantasy.” American Imago.16.4. (Winter 1959): 349–365.

*Edited for spelling 12/18/21

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