Food in books, ep.3: Food symbolism in Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Food symbols

From silly brand logos, to catchy metaphors, to the original archetypes in our collective unconscious described by C.J. Jung, symbols are shared codes that orient our lives and behaviors. We can understand and share unique symbols with our peers, symbols becoming thus, defining for the group; in the most banal form this is what we would call an “inside joke”. At the most deepest and transversal level, regardless of cultural background or other social factors, all of us humans share the same symbols: the mother, the father, the child, the god, the devil, the wise old man, the wise old woman, the hero, the trickster. Jung does not, as far as my knowledge goes, investigate symbols related to food. I think the most straight forward one would be the preservation of life. Sharing food with others could very well be an archetypal motif of the group inter-relativeness, the quintessential, core group being one’s closest kinship, the family. I will not, dear reader, go further in the analysis of what sharing food means, suffice to say I see it as one of the closest, strongest bounds that unite us. Sharing food unites us in preserving life and in generating pleasure, two of the fundamental traits of all living beings.
Most distinct food symbols are culturally driven and not necessarily stable in time. For example, fish used to be considered lesser food in medieval times. It looked a bit like a snake, rather than a beast and the elites were not enjoying it. Today, fish is considered a prized, fancy meal. It is a strong symbol in Christianity, however, it doesn’t bare much significance in Islamic culture. Still, some food symbols are shared by us all: think of the mother’s milk.
I don’t know if Kafka has relied on food symbols throughout his story, but I chose to find and analyze them. In this article I will, however, try to expose the symbolism of of food in the metamorphosis, as well as the connection between food and one’s humanity. This is my investigation.


Drwaings by V. Nabokov

Kafka wrote Metamorphosis in 1912; the story was first published in 1915. Attempting to summarize it will surely be a failure; a long, explanatory paragraph recapping the book would not be enough. I’ll just leave the esteemed reader with the first sentence: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he has been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”
Metamorhposis is a Greek word, which literal translation is change of shape. The motif of the transformation is present into our collective consciousness since ancient times; from the nymph Daphne who asked to be changed into a tree, so she could escape Apollo to the cult movie The Fly (1986), by David Cronenberg. The unsettling bit about Kafka’s metamorphosis is the absence of a reason or cause behind it: Gregor Samsa simply awakes transformed. No one, not even Gregor himself, asks the self-evident question: Why did this happen? Yes, Gregor is now an enormous bug and it is not only his shape or appearance that has changed. His speech becomes impaired, that of an animal, his food preferences change, his favorite activities change, his entire life is, in fact, quite different.

Human or bug?

Gregor awakes, from troubled dreams nonetheless, and discovers himself transformed. He’s grasped by a vivid hunger, intensified by hearing his family in the living room, at the breakfast table. It will be a while till he receives something to eat, and alas!, when he does, it is one of his favorite foods. “It was only when he has reached the door that he noticed what had really lured him there; it was the aroma of something edible. For a basin stood there, filled with milk in which little slices of white bread were floating. He could almost have laughed with for joy, because he was even hungrier than in the morning, and immediately he plunged his head into the milk almost over his eyes. But soon he pulled it out again in disappointment; it was not only that eating caused him difficulties because of his tender side- and he could eat only when his whole body participated, puffing away- on top of that, he didn’t at all like the milk, which was formerly his favorite beverage and which therefore had surely been placed there by his sister for that very reason; in fact, he turned away from the basin almost with repugnance and crept back to the center of the room.” This first attempt to feed himself proves the divide between thought and sense. He used to love milk and he thinks that he will enjoy this delicious feast brought in by his sister. His expectations and predictive thoughts- fundamentally human attributes- call to his previous experience; he has no reason to believe that his taste has changed, too. His sensations, however, prove him different. His taste is not that of a human, but of an insect. You might be wondering how insects identify foodstuff. Insects don’t have taste buds, of course, but they have plenty of receptors on their bodies, concentrated along their legs, tip of the wings and antennae. This is how insects distinguish the taste of food.

On milk: the break-up

The first feeling at the sight of food is one of gratitude, liberation, exhilaration: he could almost laugh for joy. But, of course, bugs don’t laugh. Disappointment, disgust, frustration follow soon. Milk is the most evident link to humanity; from our mothers’ milk, we continue to enjoy this scrumptious beverage as adults and we take comfort in it; us humans are the only ones who keep on drinking milk throughout our lives. In times of pain and sorrow, milk is the great throw-back to worrieless times, to childhood, to the beginning of life. As mentioned, Gregor rejects the milk “almost with repugnance”; thus rejecting his humanity. I believe it is the paramount symbol of the connection we have with our mothers, the source of life and creation. The connection between our mothers and milk in embedded in our collective unconscious and, whether we want it or not, this strong symbolism traverses time, generations, trends and remains as strong as always. So by rejecting the milk, Gregor rejects his mother, and together with her, his entire family.

On choices: the spread

His sister, Grete, comes back to Gregor’s cot the next morning, the only one who can gather the strength to enter this dangerous, uncharted territory that has become his room. “Would she notice that he had left the milk standing, and by no means because he wasn’t hungry, and would she bring some other food that suited him better.” After she picks up the basin, “not with her bare hands, of course, but with a rag“, she brings back an array of foods that might be tempting to her transformed brother. “In order to test his linkings, she brought him a big selection, all spread out on a newspaper. There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from their supper, coated with a white gravy that had solidified; a few raisins and almonds; a cheese that two days earlier Gregor would have considered inedible; a dry slice of bread, a slice of bread and butter, and a slice of salted bread and butter. In addition, she sat down the basin that had probably been designated permanently for Gregor; she had now poured water into it.” All these foods and leftovers were staples in the Czech diet of the 19th century and would be found on the table of any middle-class family. Kafka was described as having a “dry sense of humor” and I believe it jumps of the page in this paragraph: just look at the variety of bread and butter Gregor receives! Let’s pause and think about what “bread and butter” could mean. Beyond the modern meaning, the syntagm is a symbol for a close, unbreakable relationship. It functions like a lucky charm when two people who walk close together need to separate because of an obstacle that comes between them. It is meant to chase away the bad luck and both partners must say it, otherwise they would quarrel. I don’t know if this is what Kafka had in mind by placing few choices of bread and butter on Gregor’s serving news paper, but I do like the way the superstition fits into the analysis. Gregor does not go for it, he doesn’t do his part in the superstitious game, therefore the relationship between him and Grete is, consequently, damaged. They are not like “bread and butter” anymore.

On a different level, it seems to me that Grete is not only testing his liking, but also his condition. We find foods not destined for human consumption- which one would assume would please someone who is not human- and foods that each of us would reach our hand for. What does Gregor do?
“.…..was already greedily sucking on the cheese, which had attracted him immediately and imperatively more than any of the other foods. Quickly, one after the other, tears of contentment coming to his eyes, he devoured the cheese, the vegetables and the gravy; on the other hand, he didn’t like the fresh food, he couldn’t even endure its smell, and he went so far as to drag away to a little distance the things he wanted to eat.”
I will hazard and formulate the following idea. Cheese is made out of milk; fundamentally, cheese is nothing more than milk in one of its processed states. Our friend Gregor goes straight for the rotten cheese, which attracts him “immediately and imperatively”. As a symbol, the rotten cheese can translate in “rotten milk”, signifying, once again, the rotten, broken relationship with his family.
Furthermore, his condition becomes obvious through his food choices: he goes straight for the moldy cheese. He devours the rotten vegetables and the old gravy. He goes for decay, as he himself, is decay. He even moves away these delicacies from the fresh food, which turns his stomach. The divide is clearer than ever: Gregor the bug chooses foods that no normal human being would opt for. Surely, because he is not human anymore. Or is he? After this exquisite meal, Gregor does what any of us- yes, dear reader, you and me- would do. “He was long finished with everything and was just lying lazily on the same spot…”. The enormous bug is enjoying his siesta after a copious lunch.

On appetite: the end

Screenshot from Caroline Leaf’s animation, 1977. Via

As time goes on, his appetite is slowly dying and he finds himself uninterested in food. “By this time Gregor was hardly eating. Only when he accidentally passed by the spread-out would he take a bit in his moth playfully, hold it there for hours and then generally spit it out again.” Could it be comforting that Gregor is seeking? Food is, par excellance, the ultimate comfort-bringer, it revives the connection with good, obliterated bygones, buried down under pile of memories, it soothes us and solaces our pains and conflicts. Gregor the bug still seeks this comforting feeling, yet he is not actually eating, just taking some kind of pleasure by “playfully” keeping food in his mouth. The chagrin he experiences watching the three lodgers gulp down the meals cooked by his mother is heart-breaking. He tries to convinced himself that nothing changed, that he can still enjoy food, if only he would be given something he likes. “I do have an appetite, said Gregor uneasily to himself, but not for those things. How these lodgers pack it away, and I’m perishing!
On a deeper level, I believe Gregor is not only seeking the comfort food brings, but mainly the memory of sharing this ritual with his beloved family. He peers through the door’s crack and observes the people at the dining table. I can almost feel his grievance and gruffness while watching the lodgers, intruders into the clan’s structure, enjoying the company of his loved ones. Anxiety and mute fury merge with the physical hunger into a tearing-apart sensation.
And this is the end. Grete can’t take her eyes of the enormous dead bug: “Just look how thin he was. Yes, he hadn’t been eating for so long. The food went out of his room, just the way it went in.” Food is not only a comfort-bringer, but the fuel that sustains life, the symbol of life itself. Rejecting food is, ultimately, rejecting life. Furthermore, dying of hunger, has grim implications and speaks to our most profound, inner core: our own existence. “Hunger, as a characteristic expression of the instinct of self-preservation, is without doubt one of the primary and most powerful factors in influencing behavior; in fact, the lives of primitives are more strongly affected by it than by sexuality. At this level, hunger is the alpha and omega – existence itself.” (C.J. Jung)


This may just be the banal, sad story of travelling salesman who is forsaken by his own family and kicked out of the household. Waking up as an enormous bug may very well be a reference to Gregor’s spirit and “turning” into his real self, a bug, a pest, a vermin, a ungeheuer Ungeziefer. Maybe the rotten cheese symbol is nothing more than stench attracting the pest, maybe the bread and butter are simply the handiest food items in the Samsa family kitchen. In the end, it does not matter; they way we interpret and feel each story is deeply personal. I chose to see all these and I hope you enjoyed the trip I tried to make you part of.

Who is Franz Kafka?

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka

Kafka was born in 1883 to a middle class, Jewish, German-speaking family, in Prague. He studied law, not because of a particular calling towards it, but because this choice pleased his dominant father. At the same time, law studies lasted longer and would give Kafka enough time for literary activities and for studying art. After his studies, he started working as an insurance agent, but resigned after just one year, the job was taking its toll on him. He later engaged in a similar line of business, but despised his day job, that didn’t leave enough time for writing, which was becoming increasingly important to him. Reflected in his work and, less subtly, in his personal letters, the relationship Kafka has with his father is influencing him to a great extent. Herman Kafka is described as “huge, selfish, overbearing businessman”; he had great expectations from young Franz and was the dominant, overbearing figure in his life. Kafka’s own anxiety and guilt, mainly brought up by this difficult relation are transversal throughout his work and became recurrent themes he revisited many times.
Franz Kafka was never married, nor had any children, but he was a ladies’ man. He lived in fear of sexual failure, visited brothels and was constantly preoccupied by his physical appearance, fearing that others might consider him ugly, even though he was far from that. I imagine him as an intelligent and engaging conversation partner, with a good sense of humor, someone with a complex view of the world and a deep understanding of human relationships. Growing up rather solitary, I believe young Franz was more inclined towards his inner world, rather than the one outside. Ultimately, the inner world, with all its anxieties, fears, whims, traps, confusions and small joys becomes the object of his work.
He spent the last part of his life in a sanatorium, where he found peace and time to dedicate to his intellectual, literary endeavors. He died of tuberculosis in 1924; the explicit cause of death seems to be starvation.

Food in Books series



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