how book covers speak: a visualization of kafka’s the metamorphosis

published in syllabus project

The Metamorphosis is equal parts enthralling and distressing. One of Franz Kafka’s best-known works, the novella narrates the sudden transformation of traveling salesman Gregor Samsa into a large insect. Such a bodily evolution is jolting to say the least, and the direful hue of Gregor’s reality translates to many of the book covers which honor and frame the literary gem. An understanding of the covers as collaborators in Gregor’s story makes sense — not only because book covers generally attempt to speak to their insides, but also because The Metamorphosis is completely anchored in its contemplation of physicality.

As the story documents Gregor’s changing form, it depicts how each other character reacts to Gregor’s physical state, too. So much emphasis on shape-shifting, appearance, and embodiment gives rise to curiosity around the book itself as a physical entity. A copy of The Metamorphosis can become a sort of living body in its own right — a tangible object that grounds the world of Gregor in the reader’s hands. We breathe life into all of the books we touch, flipping through their pages at our very own paces with our very own fingerprints.

Since 1915, The Metamorphosis has racked up over 4,000 editions, and it’s been translated from its original German into Arabic, Russian, Spanish and more (with over 13 English interpretations alone). Such extensive production stands for the value in the story itself, which manages to offer both an escape from and critique of civilization as we know it. The Metamorphosis’s reader is at once relieved of everyday life and energized to live and think differently, with more compassion.

The many adaptations and editions also indicate a plethora of approaches to The Metamorphosis’s cover design. After sifting through the abundance, ahead lie a small bunch that begins to contemplate, without any spoilers, how distinct cover designs might validate or twist the story of Gregor Samsa differently. What does the book’s body say about Gregor’s? What do the various covers choose to extract? What do they leave tucked inside?

The insect in this Alianza Editorial edition extends beyond the cover’s edge, communicating a sense of infinity to Gregor’s new body and speaking to the uncertainty of what exactly Gregor undergoes as he situates himself in a foreign form. It’s impossible to know when or how Gregor’s doom will end, and the unresolved figure on this cover reflects just that.

In designer Marlena Buczek Smith’s vision, smooth, cool tones appear against the burnt red of the insectile illustration she gives rise to. The color contrast at play emphasizes the discomfort and severity of Gregor’s transformation –– the colors evoke conflict, like the story itself. Contrast aside, vibrant colors make this copy difficult to ignore no matter where it lurks in a physical space, mimicking the unavoidability of Gregor’s physical form.

Though quite a lot is illustrated in this Bantam Classics edition –– and the illustrations themselves come with realistic, microscopic detail –– it’s all contained within a neat oval, reflective of the characters’ stuckness and isolation amid crisis. Gregor is trapped, and those around him are implicated in a collective confinement.

This edition also captures isolation, but it spotlights Gregor’s individual experience and loneliness. Its minimalistic approach and generous use of negative space presents the central figure with a starkness that reflects Gregor’s own starkness as he transforms. Further, the human skull atop an insect body pinpoints Gregor’s fate straddling between an internal sense of humanity and a bug exterior. Perhaps the human skull goes on to suggest the death of Gregor’s previous, wholly human self through his transformation.

Inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Dave Stanley’s take depicts Gregor’s transformation in real time –– the abstraction presents a figure that is neither insect nor human with an expression that matches Gregor’s turmoil. Or, the face might stand for the horrified reactions Gregor is faced with when others catch sight of his form. In either scenario, the loud red backdrop asserts emergency.

Jamie Keenan opts for a type-forward approach, where “The Metamorphosis” builds up and fills out Gregor’s insectile form. In turn, the design communicates that Gregor’s insect-self is completely consumed by the metamorphosis he has undergone, despite the parts of his internal self that remain. The illustrated text’s stance above Kafka’s name –– as if it’s about to annihilate Kafka himself –– gives the metamorphosis ultimate dominance.

In another type-forward and heavily meta approach, the title itself gradually transforms, and the sleek sans serif type treatment lets the text span across the entire cover to emphasize the all-consumption of Gregor’s transformation. The red author credit suggests Kafka’s culpability for masterminding Gregor and his fate.

Like the previous example, this Schocken Books edition steers away from any insect portraiture, instead running with Kafka’s own “K” to define the work as a writer’s creative output rather than an enclosed, fictional history of an actual Gregor Samsa. In other words, perhaps this cover reroutes our entrance to The Metamorphosis; rather than fixating on narrative specifics that confine us to the world of Gregor, it calls our attention to the book’s real-world messaging around human connection, alienation, and identity.