Franz Kafka is one of the major figures of 20th century literature who received little public attention during his lifetime. He dealt with existentialist themes such as alienation, anxiety, disorientation and the absurd. It is hard to put Kafka into a box. Many people have tried to read his work in the lens of psychoanalysis, existentialism, Judaism, Marxism, and so on, but Kafka eschews reduction to one single view. The magic of reading Kafka is that we all come up with our own interpretations, and that there is no one definite or true interpretation.
His work is so original that the term Kafkaesque was coined to describe the atmosphere of his work: the nightmarish, bizarre or illogical situations. Throughout his works we see the strange dream-like mixture of perplexity and embarrassment play out, such as having some simple task to do that turns out to be so complex that it seems to have no end, and the notion of a grand organisation with its incomprehensible bureaucratic system that hovers invisibly over each individual, and has complete power over one’s life.
The Life of Kafka
Kafka was a German-speaking novelist born in 1883 into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and today the capital of the Czech Republic.
Kafka’s childhood was a lonely one, he often felt like an outsider. He felt alienated, firstly as a Jew at a time of rising anti-Semitism, and secondly as a German speaker in a predominantly Czech nation.
His father was a self-made man, who rose from a poor and uneducated background by creating a successful business and, who had a significant influence on Kafka’s writings: the strong, confident, and ultimate authority, in contrast to the shyness and frailness of Kafka. His father could not relate to his literary work and wanted him to follow his footsteps as a businessman. This naturally created conflicts. In fact, Kafka later wrote a very long letter on the emotionally abusive character of his father, which was never delivered.
“Dearest Father, you asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete.”
Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father
Kafka, however, also held his father in high esteem, and admired his vitality and competency to deal with life, though there remained a hidden resentment of his father forcing him into a profession that didn’t suit him.
Kafka obtained the degree of Doctor of Law and had a compulsory one year unpaid training as a law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. He was later employed in an insurance company. He worked hard and was rapidly promoted. However, the long working hours overwhelmed him and he wanted time to write and read. In the story Poseidon, Kafka imagines a sea-god so overwhelmed with administrative paperwork that he never gets to sail or swim. His office job was an impediment to his true vocation as a writer, which he would often pursue late into the night. He wrote:
“My life consists, and basically always consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful. But when I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin. My energies have always been pitifully weak.”
Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice
At the office, Kafka lived up to his outward duties, but not to his inner duties, and those unfulfilled duties grew into a permanent torment.
“Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing. That’s why the only way I can keep going, if at all, is by writing, not through rest and sleep.”
Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice
For Kafka, writing was a form of prayer. At the age of 29, Kafka experienced a creative outburst and wrote The Judgment in one sitting. As dark as the story is, in which the protagonist’s father sentences his son to death by drowning, Kafka described it as the total opening of body and soul, a sort of baptism, a death and a rebirth. At this moment he felt as if he had found himself, and accepted himself as a writer. Kafka wrote first of all for himself out of an internal compulsion, but what he wrote became, almost coincidentally, of worldwide importance.
Kafka had various unsuccessful love affairs with women, and only seemed to have found a hint of peace at the very end of his life. He suffered from social anxiety, and low self-confidence (especially because of his body). At times, he believed that people found him physically repulsive. He also had frequent migraines, insomnia, and other ailments. He tried to counteract this by following a strict diet and doing physical activity. At times, he contemplated suicide.
“Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often – and in my inmost self perhaps all the time – I doubt whether I am a human being.”
Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice
In 1917, Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, at the time an incurable disease. In 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka could no longer take any nourishment as his laryngeal tuberculosis worsened. He died by starvation. “There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” His father is said to have wept bitterly at his funeral.
Kafka only published a few stories during his lifetime. One of his last short stories was A Hunger Artist, the story of an artist who would sit in a cage and go without eating for many weeks, while spectators would gather around and watch him, many suspected he was cheating – which would make the artist angry. Eventually, he became to be completely ignored by the public. Before he died, he apologises and says that he should never have been admired, since the only reason he was fasting and remained hungry, was because he could not find any food he liked. The artist was replaced by a panther, attracting large crowds to watch him eat his favourite food.
Most of Kafka’s work, however, remained unpublished. He would write furiously throughout his life, revising rather little, but ceasing when authenticity no longer seemed to be present, or leave his works in an “open” state. Incompletion is a quality of his work, a facet of its originality. He never considered fame important.
“Many years ago… I went over the wishes that I wanted to realise in life. I found that the most important or the most delightful was the wish to attain a view of life (and… to convince others of it in writing), in which life, while still retaining its natural full-bodied rise and fall, would simultaneously be recognised no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering. A beautiful wish, perhaps, if I had wished it rightly.”
Franz Kafka, Notebooks (February 15, 1920)
Kafka left all of his unfinished work to his lifelong friend, Max Brod, a fellow law student, with explicit instructions for it to be burned and unread. Brod, who was a successful and prolific writer in his time, refused to do so, he had realised that Kafka was no ordinary talent, but a genius. He saw the value of Kafka’s virtually unrecognised work and decided that it must be published. In fact, Brod had told Kafka that he would never get rid of his works.
Brod wrote the first biography of Kafka in 1937, and rescued Kafka’s unfinished works when he fled from Prague to Tel Aviv, penniless and with a single suitcase. He started editing and organising all of Kafka’s works, and published them. Kafka’s unique work rapidly attracted widespread attention.
While Kafka may appear as a dark and gloomy person, Brod actually described him as one of the most entertaining people he had met, and who possessed a great sense of humour, though this was only noticeable in his small group of friends, not in large crowds. This can also be seen in many of his works, which is often a mix of tragedy and subtle comedy. Kafka used to read his work aloud to friends, sometimes laughing so hard he could not continue reading.
“Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy… the really central Kafka joke – [is] that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”
David Foster Wallace, Speech at “Metamorphosis: A New Kafka”
We will be focusing on three of Kafka’s most popular works: The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle.
The Metamorphosis (1915)
The Metamorphosis is a short story published in 1915 and is the most popular of Kafka’s writings. It starts off with one of the most iconic opening lines in literature:
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
The protagonist, Gregor, a travelling salesman, is metamorphosed into a giant insect, however he still retains his human consciousness. The insect itself cannot be depicted. He thinks it is all a dream and tries go to back to sleep, but starts reflecting on his strenuous travelling career, where he is unable to form friendly relationships as he is always on the go. He wants to leave his job but is unable to do so, as he is the bread winner in the family. Gregor is already alienated prior to his transformation. Now, his alienation is intensified. He is a human imprisoned in a non-human body. This reflects Kafka’s personal feelings about himself.
Gregor realises that he has overslept and is late for work but is unable to get out of bed. The contrast between the extraordinary situation of Gregor’s transformation and the ordinary terms he uses to describe it (an insect trying to get to work), creates a sense of the absurd.
His mother knocks on the door but as he tries to speak, he squeaks and his words appear incomprehensible. The family suspects he may be ill and beg him to unlock the door. After much effort, Gregor drags himself along the floor and opens the door with his mouth, injuring himself. He delivers a long speech to the office manager who has come to visit him, but the latter is horrified and flees. Gregor’s family is also terrified, and he is driven back to his room, with the door slammed shut.
The family start to take responsibility and prioritise finding a job, whereas before Gregor’s transformation, they happily took his money, although there was no longer much warm affection given in return. They were the parasites – though Gregor never complained about that.
Gregor finds out that he cannot eat the fresh food provided by his sister, and only has an appetite for rotten food scraps. He also prefers darker spaces and enjoys crawling on the walls and ceiling. However, he is simultaneously attached to his family and to some of the possessions of his room, which the family tries to remove to give him more space. Gregor tries to reconcile his human emotions and history with the physical urges of his new body, making him behave, on the outside, more and more like an insect.
The family start discussing if Gregor is still human and if so, to what degree. One can think of a few things more frustrating than being stuck in an alien body without being able to communicate to your family that you are still exactly who you used to be. This creates a disturbing psychological distance between his mind and his body.
The family think about:
“… their total despair, and the thought that they had been struck with a misfortune unlike anything experienced by anyone else they knew or were related to.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
His father, repeats “If he could just understand us”, indicating that there is still hope that Gregor’s mind remains intact. His mother calls him her unfortunate son. Gregor thinks:
“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
However, his sister convinces her parents that he is a parasite, an inconvenience who only puts more pressure on their financial situation. She says that nothing of Gregor exists in the insect, and that the real Gregor would’ve understood them and left on his own accord, letting them carry on with their lives and remember him with respect.
Gregor is increasingly neglected by his family, he barely eats food and suffers from several injuries.
“He thought back of his family with emotion and love… he felt that he must go away even more strongly than his sister… He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside… and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
The story ends with the family briefly mourning the loss, and then taking a day off from their work. The warm sunshine creates a marked contrast from the dark and confined apartment, creating a sense of hope for the future.
The Trial (1925)
The Trial is a novel that was published posthumously in 1925, Kafka left it in unordered chapters, and the final version of the novel remains unknown. The chapters as we have them today are the sequence that Brod put them in.
“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, the protagonist Josef K., a bank administrator, wakes up to find two strange men with black suits enter his room. He hears the supervisor shout his name from the next room. This is the start of an interrogation where K., states that he has been accused of an unspecified and unknown crime. K. is unaware of who accused him or the authority in charge. The supervisor tells him that he and the others are of minor importance and know nothing of his case, they were merely sent by their superiors.
While K. is under arrest, however, he is free to go to work and won’t be hampered in his normal way of life. K. has been notified by telephone that a brief examination into his case would be held. He has not been summoned at any particular hour, and has only been given small details of the location.
Naturally, he has great trouble in finding the court, he goes floor by floor searching for the room, in the maze-like building. They were treating him with peculiar negligence or indifference. When he finds the place in the attic, he is scolded for arriving late. K., states:
“There is no doubt that behind all the utterances of this court, and therefore behind my arrest and today’s examination, there stands a great organisation. An organisation which not only employs corrupt warders and fatuous supervisors and examining magistrates, of whom the best that can be said is that they are humble officials, but also supports a judiciary of the highest rank with its inevitable vast retinue of servants, secretaries, police officers, and other assistants, perhaps even executioners – I don’t shrink from the word. And the purpose of this great organisation, gentlemen? To arrest innocent persons and start proceedings against them which are pointless and mostly, as in my case, inconclusive.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial
K. is burdened with the absurd task of defending himself while being ignorant of the actual accusation. He finds out that the law books present in the court were full of indecent pictures, these were the people who he was being judged against. One cannot help but fall into the depth of despair when encountering obstacles one cannot overcome. The hierarchical structure of the court was endless and beyond the comprehension even of the initiated. Sometimes one simply felt astonished that an average lifetime was long enough for the acquisition of the amount of knowledge one needed to work against the great organisation with any degree of success. Progress was always being made, but the nature of this progress could never be communicated. It is catch-22, if we don’t know the law, we are obviously guilty. If we know it and can’t observe its innumerable, and tiny details, we are guilty also.
K. still had to work in the bank, and try to keep the case a secret, though rumours were starting to spread. When K., visits Titorelli, a court painter who has a great deal of knowledge of the processes within the court, he is shown a painting of a judge commissioned by the courts. Behind the judge is the figure of Justice who is also the goddess of Victory. However, the figure appears to be running, so that the scales are not balanced. K., looks closer and remarks that it really looks like the goddess of the Hunt. Kafka makes us think that the court which states that it is concerned with justice, is in fact concerned with hunting down the culprit and triumphing over him.
While K. is innocent, Titorelli admits that once a person is considered guilty, the court can never be persuaded to change its opinion, and the highest court is inaccessible to all.
The court is completely impervious to proof. However, impervious only to proof presented before the court. There is no definite acquittal, that is, one cannot be freed from being charged with an offense, however, through personal influences, one can prolong the final sentence so that one appears to be free, temporarily free. For the time being one is detached from the charge, but it still hovers over one and can be instantly reactivated as soon as the order comes from above. The court never forgets. K. still has to be interrogated, sessions are to be held, the case has to be constantly moving, so that from outside something must be seen to be going on. It’s all a big show.
K’s advocate is also incompetent, giving promises of later success, references to progress, but also to the immense difficulties confronting the work. Everything so sickeningly familiar would be produced again to fool K. once more with vague hopes and to torment him with vague fears.
K. shows up at a cathedral, where he was supposed to accompany an important client. However, the man never shows up. Night falls, and as he is leaving, a priest shouts his name. It is the prison chaplain, who tells him that he has been summoned and that his guilt is now considered a proven fact.
The priest tells him a parable:
“Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and asks for entry into the law. But the doorkeeper says he cannot grant him entry now. The man considers and then asks if that means he will be allowed to enter later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” … “If you are so tempted, just try to enter in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. But from room to room stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the last. The mere aspect of the third is more than even I can endure.” Such difficulties had not been expected by the man from the country; the law is supposed to be accessible to everyone and at all times… he decides it would be better to wait until he gets permission to enter… There he sits for days and years… Finally his sight grows weak and he does not know if it is really getting darker round him or if his eyes are deceiving him. But he does manage to distinguish in the dark a radiance which breaks out imperishably from the door.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial
The man is so caught up with this doorkeeper, that it seems to him the only obstacle to his entry into the law. He grows old and weak, and all his time spent waiting is condensed into one question, not yet put to the doorkeeper:
“ ‘But everybody strives for the law,’ says the man. ‘How is it that in all these years nobody except myself has asked for admittance?’ ”
Franz Kafka, The Trial
The doorkeeper, who realises the man has reached the end of his life shouts:
“Nobody else could gain admittance here, this entrance was meant only for you. I shall now go and close it.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial
The man never tries to enter the door, and instead waits for permission. The doorkeeper, however, told him that it was up to him if he wanted to enter or not, but he would’ve been met with resistance and had to fight for it. One interpretation might be that he chose to listen to a deceptive guard instead of himself. Another interpretation could be that it was not the man’s fault, his inhibition is a critique of bureaucracy, of the power of authorities, and of the estrangement of modern man. If he had got past the doorkeeper, he would have to face a second, and more powerful doorkeeper, and so on – ad infinitum. Whatever the interpretation might be, the man also saw an inextinguishable light emerging from the darkness of the door, signalling that there may be a glimmer of hope after all.
On the evening just before K’s thirty-first birthday, two men came to his room. K., who knew what time it was, did not fight back. He is taken to a quarry where he is cold-bloodedly murdered. His last words were: “Like a dog!” as if the shame were meant to outlive him.
The novel often appears nightmarish, surreal and dehumanising, while also being profoundly realistic. It is the prophecy of a dystopian or totalitarian society. The morning knock at the door that begins the terror throughout the whole novel stands for what lies in ambush for all of us in our daily lives. We are all on trial. It is the bureaucracy of terror and red tape which characterises so much of our 21st century, and which Kafka is precisely the one to have defined.
The tone of the novel reads in a mechanical and monotone flatness, like a civil service bureaucrat’s report on some terrible hellish circumstances. Kafka wouldn’t have been able to write this novel if it wasn’t for his work as an insurance officer.
There is nothing that will make you a pessimist faster than interacting with the legal system.
The Castle (1926)
The Castle is Kafka’s last unfinished novel that was published posthumously in 1926. In the novel, the protagonist K., a land surveyor, is summoned by the castle to measure the land, but has no way of accessing it.
He arrives at a village, however, he is not permitted to stay there without a pass from the mysterious bureaucratic powers of the castle. He tries every single thing to try to contact the castle authorities who in fact summoned him, but it never works. He is informed that he was erroneously requested due to a miscommunication. Nobody knows what the castle officials do, their actions are never explained. The villagers hold the castle officials in high esteem, who maintain that their work and paperwork is flawless. Though the fact that they had summoned K. as a mistake clearly shows that they are lying and that there are faults in the system.
There are great similarities between The Castle and The Trial. Both highlight the struggle of the protagonist against a great bureaucratic system that no one has access to and that rules over everyone. The castle is the all-seeing eye that pierces through the social mask of your persona. Many interpret the castle as our search for God, including Max Brod. Ambiguity is the essence of Kafka’s work.
In a parable, Kafka wrote:
“Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labour were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.”
Kafka, On Parables
Kafka brings us back to reality and tells us that there may well be no magical place that we can go to, in order to look forward to life and be happier. He goes on to write:
“Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.”
Kafka, On Parables
In this parable on parables, or meta-parable, Kafka contemplates on the paradox of life, to want to believe in a “fabulous yonder” in contrast to the mundane existence of everyday life, but at the same time thinking that it’s incomprehensible or an inaccessible territory.
At the end of his life, Kafka became more spiritual. He wrote:
“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both that indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.”
Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms
However dark Kafka’s work may seem, he champions the individual over the faceless bureaucracy. The lessons he teaches us is to be truthful, genuine, and ethical. Once one reads Kafka, one never really leaves him. A new door opens in one’s life to describe and refer to aspects in one’s daily life that could not find their proper expression.
“If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak (27 January 1904)
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The Dark World of Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka is one of the major figures of 20th century literature who received little public attention during his lifetime. He dealt with existentialist themes such as alienation, anxiety, disorientation and the absurd.