Changed into a Beetle

Nabokov’s drawings and annotations on the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. He certainly had some thoughts about the language – or at least the translation.


In his essay on Frank Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

Scene I: Gregor wakes up. He is alone. He has already been changed into a beetle, but his human impressions still mingle with his new insect instincts. (Nabokov 1980 260)

This description, which concludes an argument for Nabokov‟s interpretation, is controversial: the text says only that Gregor Samsa has been turned into a gigantic “vermin” (Ungeziefer). Nabokov agrees with a number of critics that Gregor has become an insect, but the text never specifies which kind. Here is part of Nabokov‟s argument that Gregor becomes a beetle:

Now what exactly is the “vermin” into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of “jointed leggers” (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. If the “numerous little legs” mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view. But I suggest that a man awakening on his back and finding he has as many as six legs vibrating in the air might feel that six was sufficient to be called numerous. We shall therefore assume that Gregor has six legs, that he is an insect.

Next question: what insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight … He is merely a big beetle. (Nabokov 1980 259-60)