How Book Covers Speak

How Book Covers Speak: A Visualization of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

by Eva Berezovsky

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. 

The story documents Gregor’s adjustment to his new form and his family’s reactions, and each event is propelled by how the characters cope with Gregor’s physical state. 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 read has racked up over 4,000 editions, so cover designs for The Metamorphosis are numerous. It’s widely translated from its original German, too, spanning from Arabic to Russian to Spanish and more (with over 13 English interpretations alone). Such extensive production attests to the vast appreciation for the story, 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. Amid 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?

A worn, black book cover with "FRANZ KAFKA LA METAMORFOSIS" written at the top in all caps san serif yellow font. A large insect covers the right side of the book. The handwritten caption reads, "Alianza Editorial, 1969, Madrid."

The insect in this Alianza Editorial edition extends beyond the cover’s edge, communicating a sense of mystery and infinity to Gregor’s new body. It speaks to the uncertainty of what exactly Gregor undergoes as he situates himself in a foreign form. It also suggests the impossibility of knowing when or how it’ll all end, as completion and resolution of the insectile figure on this cover can only be imagined.

In designer Marlena Buczek Smith’s vision, smooth, cool tones appear against the burnt-red of her insectile illustration. The contrast at play in the coloring emphasizes the discomfort and severity of Gregor’s transformation. Regardless, the blatantly colorful approach asserts this copy as unignorable in whatever corner of whatever room it’s in, echoing the simultaneous unavoidability of Gregor’s physical form.

A blue cover with the book title in light purple block letters at the top. A reddish cocoon is in the center, with two antennas sticking out and an eye peeking out from the center. The handwritten caption reads, "Marlena Buczek Smith."
A tan cover featuring a skinny oval containing a series of faces, a clock face, and a violin. The handwritten caption reads, "Bantam Classics, 1981, New York."

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. A focal point of the characters’ collective stuckness and isolation then shines through. Gregor is trapped in the body he transforms into, and those around him are implicated.

This edition also preaches isolation, but it zeroes in on the loneliness of Gregor as an individual, rather than communicating the trappedness of all parties involved. Its minimalistic approach and generous use of negative space spotlights Gregor as he treads between his internal humanity and his bug exterior. The skull atop an insect body suggests the death of Gregor’s self amid his transformation –– or maybe it indicates the opposite, illustrating his lasting humanity on a psychic level.

A tattered, tan cover with an insect with wings, and a human skull. The handwritten caption reads, "Rakuten Kobo, 2014, Toronto"
A bright red cover with an abstract, screaming face outlined in white. The handwritten caption reads, "Dave Stanley."

Inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Dave Stanley’s take is ambiguous in its portraiture. Perhaps it hopes to spotlight Gregor’s transformation in real time; the abstract style shows a figure that is neither insect nor human, and the recorded expression reflects Gregor’s turmoil. Or, the face might stand for the horrified reactions to Gregor from those who surround him. In either scenario, the loud red backdrop asserts emergency.

Jamie Keenan opts for typographic illustration, 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.

An off-white cover with intricate, ornate lettering spelling out "Metamorphosis" in the shape of a large insect. The handwritten caption reads, "W.W. Norton, Jamie Keenan, 2015, New York."
A black cover covered in bold, all caps, lettering. At the top, "Franz Kafka" is spelled out in red. Below are seven lines reading "Metamorfosis," each one gradually becoming greyer and bolder. The handwritten caption reads, "Alianza Editorial, 1986, Teruel."

In another typographic approach, the title undergoes a gradual transformation of its own in this additional Alianza Editorial edition: a nice and heavily meta design. The sleek sans serif style lets the text fill out 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 recalibrate 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.

A worn cover with a big, thin "K" that divides up the cover in different brown and black section. Kafka's name is written in red in the center of the book. The handwritten caption reads, "Schocken Books, 1972."