Many professors of literature would prefer that I not
group Kafka among the existentialists. After all, here was a man who was
not a trained philosopher or disciplined writer. Kafka never indicated
that he was expressing a deep philosophical theory in his aphorisms. But,
when you consider the time, place, and nature of Kafka — then you see an
Franz Kafka was the writer I most wanted to emulate as
a student. While I cannot read his works in their original forms, the English
translations are striking. The writing is simple and ironic, yet it demonstrates
a complex wit. You find yourself smiling — but never laughing — at the
humor he injects within tales of isolation, injustice, and cruelty. As
I attempted to evolve my own style, I found Kafka, Ambrose Bierce, H. L.
Mencken, and the other writers I admired all possessed the same dark wit.
Reading a Kafka short story is like running a race. You
find yourself fighting to read, like a passerby trying not to look at a
crime scene or accident victim. Because we know what “Kafkaesque” means,
we know what to expect from the author. Yet, we read the tales, knowing
the end might be neither just nor reasonable. This absurdity separates
Kafka’s tales from those of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone --
Serling tended to teach lessons and dispense justice while Kafka merely
taunted his characters, then they suffered.
Kafka never wrote a long novel; he never seemed to have
the time. I often wonder if that is for the best — I sense a longer work
would not have the same affect upon readers as does a short piece in Kafka’s
style. Emotionally, readers reach a limit, and I think Kafka knew intuitively
where that limit was.
Over the years, I have had to purchase several paperbacks
of Kafka’s works. The books wear out from constant use. That speaks louder
than any other comment I can record on this page.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, in what is now part
of the Czech Republic, on 3 July 1883. Prague was a confused city, much
like Kafka himself. With numerous languages and ethnic groups fighting
for position in Prague, it was clear in the late nineteenth century that
Jewish residents were quite low in social rank. Kafka was a Czech-born,
German-speaking Jewish boy… a reflection of Europe in 1883. Franz’s father,
Hermann (1852–1931), was an importer and operated a store specializing
in “fine goods” for the rising middle-class.
Hermann was a self-made man, acutely aware of his own
success and his son’s lack of success. Hermann’s father had been a village
butcher in Bohemia. There is some evidence Hermann contrasted his success
to Kafka’s grandfather’s simple existence. Franz was verbally assaulted
by his father often, a fact reflected in much of Kafka’s stories and
within his diaries.
Kafka’s mother, Julie Löwy (1856-1934) came from an
orthodox Jewish family. She was the moral pillar of the family. An only
child for six years, Kafka’s sisters Elli, Valli, and Ottla were born
in 1889, 1890, and 1892, respectively. Because he was six years old when
Elli was born, one might expect Kafka to be a protective older sibling.
Instead, his sisters spent their adult years protecting Franz. Kafka
was close to his sisters, vacationing with them and communicating with
them frequently during his life.
Biographers have struggled to explain why Kafka chose
to live with his parents for most of his life. As a lawyer, there was
little reason for Kafka to remain in the same house as his abusive father.
Did Kafka believe he was protecting other family members from his father?
Living at home was difficult for Kafka, who suffered from hyper-sensitivity
to noise and a desire for solitude. Kafka never did rebel openly against
his father. It is possible Kafka did admire his father’s ability to exist
in a country where Jews were constantly under attack. Hermann Kafka’s
anger at home might have been viewed by Franz as a symptom of Prague
Czech nationalism was on the rise in Prague at the
end of the nineteenth century, and the German-dominated Hapsburg Empire
was despised by many Czechs. German was the language of the Kafka household,
with Yiddish spoken at times, but Hermann Kafka was careful not to present
himself as either “too Jewish” or “too German” to do any damage to his
business. Franz was to emulate his father’s secular nature, though Franz
seems to have been influenced by the Jewish culture that surrounded him
Hermann Kafka had located his store just beyond the
Jewish ghetto of Prague, and even had his family legally declared Czech
nationals. Still, the Kafkas were Jewish; Franz was bar-mitzvahed and
attended temple at the local synagogue with his father. The paradox is
clear — Jews and Germans were hated by the nationalistic Czechs, yet
Hermann raised Franz to speak German and took his son to Friday-night
The seriousness of anti-Semitism revealed itself to
Franz in April of 1899. Near the week of Passover, a young Christian
girl was murdered, her throat slit with a knife. Throughout Europe there
had been tales of Jews using Christian blood to prepare Matzos for Passover
— and as far as many were concerned, this murder proved the tales. Anti-Semitic
riots spread through Prague and other parts of Bohemia, with boycotts
against Jewish-owned stores and even the destruction of shops. Hermann
Kafka’s shop was spared only because he was “officially” a Czech.
Franz was 16 years old at the time of the riots. He
responded like many secular Jews, developing a strong anti-Jewish bias.
Many critics claim Kafka’s works are in fact tributes to the religious
and mystic heritage of European Jews, but his own anti-Semitic streak
is evident in his diaries.
Sometimes I’d like to stuff all Jews (myself included) into the drawer
of a laundry basket… then open it to see if they’ve suffocated.
What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything
in common with myself!
During 1899 and 1900, Kafka’s diaries indicate he read
a great number of philosophy and science texts. He was fond of Spinoza,
Darwin, and Nietzsche. His extensive reading was paralleled by a period
of creativity. Kafka wrote a extensively between 1899 and 1903, but these
early writings were destroyed by the author. These writings probably
reflected the author’s predisposition toward the macabre, but we might
never know. During this period of productivity, Kafka met Max Brod, a
writer, critic, and editor of Prager Tagblatt. Brod was
to be a close friend and editor throughout Kafka’s life.
Hermann Kafka’s opinion of his son was improved slightly
in 1906, when Kafka received his law degree from German University, Prague.
After receiving his law degree, Kafka worked briefly for an Italian insurance
company. In 1908, Kafka took a position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance
Institute, a form of Czech “workers’ compensation” insurance company
subsidized by the government. The year he was hired, Kafka wrote “On
Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry,” a report demonstrating
the need for insurance to protect construction workers’ earnings and
families in the event of injury. His fascination with death and injuries
had found a purpose in advocating for workers.
During the winter months of 1911 and 1912, Kafka befriended
a Yiddish actor, Isak Löwy, while the actor was performing with a traveling
troupe in Prague. With Löwy’s help, Kafka began to study Jewish folklore.
Possibly influenced by his mother, Kafka became obsessed with Jewish
mythology, history, and the Yiddish language. Kafka even lectured on
the Yiddish language at a university.
On the night of 22 September 1912, Kafka began work
on The Judgment. He began writing at 10 p.m. and did not
stop until 6 a.m. the next morning. In the opinion of editor Erich Heller,
this feat alone proved Kafka to be a genius. The story, in standard book
format, is a mere 12 pages; but its affect upon a reader is incredible.
Kafka had created a form of literary surrealism — a vivid nightmare.
While attending a small party at the home of Max Brod’s
father on 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a secretarial assistant
in a Berlin office. On 20 September 1912, Kafka began writing letters
to Felice. Many biographers believe Kafka “created” Felice during this
period; not being near her he created a mental image Felice could never
equal. It was not until the spring of 1913 that Kafka met with Felice
in Berlin. A number of sources indicate Kafka did not love Felice, and
any attraction was limited. It is possible Kafka was looking to prove
to his father he was “normal” and planned to settle and start a family.
About the same time, Kafka met an Swiss woman, according to his diary,
and there is also evidence of a close friendship with Grete Bloch, a
friend of Felice Bauer. If nothing else, Kafka’s relationships were complex.
Kafka seems to have thought wedding someone would help
him maintain a sense of normalcy, so he proposed marriage to Felice on
12 April, 1914. He broke the engagement on 12 July of the same year.
In early 1915, he revived the relationship with Felice, trying to maintain
their friendship. Curiously, on 20 August, 1916, Kafka composed a list
of reasons for and arguments against marriage to Felice. Nearly a year
later, in July of 1917, Kafka again proposed to Felice.
Kafka’s diary entries for September 1917 reflect a
man suffering a great emotional stress. He apparently considered destroying
his notebooks, calling his writings the result of a “reward” from the
devil for “services rendered.” It is unclear what those services might
have been. A few days later, he noted the power literature has to lift
“the world into the pure, the true, the immutable” truth. During such
manic cycles, Kafka would write pages for hours, depriving himself of
sleep. This sleep deprivation might have exacerbated his condition.
Writing is a deeper sleep than death…. Just as one wouldn’t pull a
corpse from its grave, I can’t be dragged from my desk at night.
A life-long hypochondriac, Kafka’s fears were realized
when the writer was diagnosed with tuberculosis, not an uncommon disease
during the early twentieth century, on 4 September, 1917. Not long after
the diagnosis, Kafka temporarily ceased maintaining his diary. He slipped
into a mild depression and broke his second engagement to Felice in December
Felice Bauer finally married another man in early 1919.
She had loved Kafka, but could not endure his depressions and manic episodes
any longer. His emotions for her were never clear, even to Kafka.
The Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1919,
yet Kafka continued to write in German. As a result of Kafka’s use of
the German language, his works did not appear in a translated form in
Czechoslovakia for more than a decade after his death. Kafka was not
fond of the Czechs and they did not appear fond of him.
Kafka met Milena Jesenská-Pollak (also “Jesenska-Polack”),
a Czech writer, in 1920. She was 13 years younger than Kafka. Their relationship
seems to have been close, with Milena’s own diaries indicating they made
love several times when Kafka visited her. A potential problem with their
deep attraction was the fact Milena was married to Ernst Pollak (also
“Polack”), a well-known intellectual of the time. Thankfully, Ernst and
Milena appear to have had an open relationship. (Ernst had several well-known
Kafka made a note in his diaries on 15 October, 1921,
that his diaries were to be given to Milena upon his death. The pair
last met in May of 1922. Kafka’s ability to travel had been limited by
tuberculosis and other ailments, real and imagined, while Milena remained
young and energetic.
As mentioned previously, tuberculosis was a common
disease in the early twentieth century, and Kafka was among its many
victims. By the age of 39, Kafka was unable to work — he was bleeding
to death internally. In 1922 he resigned from his position at the workers’
insurance. For some time he lived with his sister, Ottla, long his favorite
Kafka family member. In personal notes, Franz described his relationship
with his sister as a “marriage” without the normal problems.
In 1923 Kafka found a new companion, Dora Dymant, a
Polish Orthodox Jew. Dora was only 19 when the pair moved to Berlin.
Kafka enjoyed Dora’s company, forming a relationship much better than
those of his past. It is possible Dora and Franz were in love, not merely
companions. They traveled together during the last year of Kafka’s life.
Kafka was so pleased with his life, he decided to burn his previous writings.
He informed Dora, asking her to destroy the manuscripts if he was unable.
Curiously, after making the request Kafka produced The Burrow.
On 10 April 1924, Kafka was taken to Wiener Wald Sanatorium,
accompanied by Dora. While in the sanatorium, Kafka struggled with severe
pain. During the final months of his life, Kafka was reduced to communicating
via written notes. He berated his doctors and demanded morphine for his
pain, a reasonable request due to the suffering he was enduring.
Kafka died 3 June 1924. Three days later Milena presented
an obituary, referring to Kafka as “a man condemned to regard the world
with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his
Franz Kafka spent much of his life trying to improve
his mental and physical health. However, his friends considered Franz
physically fit. He was an accomplished swimmer, enjoyed hiking in the
mountains, and was a talented horseman. Still, Kafka saw himself as thin,
awkward, and even cowardly. He pursued various “treatments” to improve
his health, when none seemed necessary.
Milena Jesenká-Pollak wrote that Kafka seemed repulsed
by his own body, and to a lesser extent, hers. Milena seems to have been
reasonably attractive and enjoyed hiking, yet Kafka still had difficulty
looking directly at her. Milena wrote:
I knew his fear before I knew him…. In the four days Frank was near
me, he lost it. We even laughed about it. But he will never be healthy
as long as he has this fear…. It isn’t just about me, but about everything
which is shamelessly alive, for example, the flesh. Flesh is too open,
too naked: he can’t bear the sight of it…. When he felt the fear coming
on, he would stare into my eyes, we would wait for awhile and it would
soon pass… everything was simple and clear.
- Introducing Kafka; Mairowitz, p.
The irony would not be lost on Kafka.
After Franz Kafka’s Death
While Kafka had written of cruel and unjust treatments
of individuals, even he could not have foreseen the horrors of the Holocaust.
Max Brod saved many of Kafka’s manuscript pages, despite the author’s
request that all his notes and manuscripts be burned upon his death.
Unfortunately, many pages were lost when the German army raided the apartment
of Dora Dymant. While Dora survived the Holocaust, Kafka’s letters and
works he had left with her are presumed to have been burned by the Gestapo.
Grete Bloch and Milena Jesenská-Pollak died in 1944,
in Nazi concentration camps. Kafka’s three sisters also died in Nazi
concentration camps. Kafka’s sister Ottla died a tragic death, having
divorced her non-Jewish husband to remain with the Kafka family.
Franz Kafka is best known for describing absurd situations
with simple, cold words. Kafka did not attempt to shock readers with
detailed descriptions of horrific scenes; instead, Kafka preferred blunt
absurdity. Consider the simple bluntness of the first sentence to The
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself
transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Gregor does not scream. He does not panic… at least not until he worries
about reporting for work. That one should not bother reporting for work
as a gigantic insect does not immediately enter his thoughts. The reader
is shocked not by the use of dashes or exclamation points, but rather
by their absence. The reader knows that he or she would panic in Gregor’s
position. Why does Gregor accept fate so readily?
Kafka’s diaries and letters indicate that he considered
Gregor’s fate no worse, or better, than that of any person. The previous
life of a traveling salesman versus the one-room Gregor inhabits as an
insect are both lives of solitude. Kafka wrote that “the cares we have
to struggle with every day” are emotional torture.
The short essay, of less than a half-page, On
Parables, describes Kafka’s ambivalence towards “the wise” philosophers.
In the essay, Kafka claims that sages’ parables tend to prove only
that “the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.”
For Kafka, the absurdities of life exist, they cannot be challenged
or understood. His characters accept their fates, knowing that sometimes
a fate is unjust — or at least unreasonable.
In Kafka’s novel The Trial, Joseph K.,
the prisoner, is stabbed to death. To most readers, this would seem a
cruel and unreasonable death. In his diary, however, Kafka wrote that
Joseph K. was disposed of “with a gentler hand, more pushed aside than
struck down.” The thought that a stabbing was a “gentle” act seems absurd.
However, to Kafka, death might have been better than a lengthy, illogical
Cursed to Write
Kafka did not look at writing as a “gift” in the traditional
sense. If anything, he considered both his talent for writing and what
he produced as a writer curses for some unknown sin. Since Kafka was
agnostic or even an atheist, it is best to assume his sense of sin and
curse were metaphors.
- Kafka knew he was a gifted writer, a fact he recorded in his diaries.
- He felt cursed by his gift, hating the need to write and the desire
for public accolades.
- Kafka spent his life in perpetual depression and blamed alternately
his father and himself.
These elements of Kafka’s personality can be observed
in the characters of his stories. The hunger artist and Josephine, the
mouse singer, are cursed by talent and a need for public attention. In Josephine
the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, Josephine claims a desire to be
ignored, but the reader knows she needs to hear praise. The theme of
father versus son appears in several texts, most notably The Judgment.
Kafka is at times disguised in his stories as Samsa, Bende, or K; at
other times, he appears as an artist. Notice the letter patterns of names,
or the descriptions of characters.
Combining the above issues in a somewhat coherent manner
is Letter to His Father. Kafka’s November 1919 letter to
his father is an indictment filled with near-hate for his own father.
The letter recounts the punishment he received for annoying his father
one night, by constantly asking for a drink of water. His father locked
him out of the house for a brief time. While the punishment was not violent,
nor did his father leave him outside, Kafka’s sensitive nature was forever
Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the
huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for
no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out.
The confusion for Kafka, the loyal son and emotional
victim, is recorded in the words. Kafka manages to attack one of the
most important people in his life, knowing that in doing so he is also
attacking himself with guilt. The writer misbehaved as a child, and was
punished. Still, the father’s punishment was viewed as extreme for the
offense. This theme of punishment beyond reason for the offense appears
throughout Kafka’s writings. Then, in juxtaposition, Kafka offers a defense
of his father in the same document.
Franz Kafka was never clear if he was writing because
he needed to do so, or if his pages were meant for the public. Kafka
considered Flaubert a kindred spirit; both were driven to write. The
problem for Kafka was an inability to finish. It is unclear if he tired
of his novels or struggled to complete them. Kafka’s The Trial and The
Castle show promise, but they languished either ignored or put
aside by the author.
Kafka as Existentialist
Philosophy professor Robert Solomon states, “The existential
attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world
he cannot accept” (ix). However, the individual eventually accepts and
even embraces the absurdity of life. Albert Camus’ Sisyphus is the often-cited
example of such an existential hero. Sisyphus not only accepts his fate,
he sees his acceptance as a form of revolt against the absurdity. Kafka’s
characters, too, accept their fates and embrace the absurdity of the
universe. As William Hubben writes of K. in The Castle:
As with Camus’ Sisyphus, every failure is succeeded by a new and futile
- Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Kafka;
Hubben, p. 141
Existentialism and the absurdism of Camus are often
considered together in philosophy and literature. Kafka’s absurd world
belongs in this same grouping, as he explores the absurd relationships
between individuals, society, technology, and words. Kafka’s works meet
the basic criteria of existentialism, while adding the additional depth
of postmodern absurdity.
Continental philosophy historian Walter Kaufmann observes
that individualism is one of the few common traits among those writers
associated with existentialism. This focus on the individual in an absurd
world is one reason Kaufmann decides to include works by Kafka in collections
of existential works. As Kaufmann explains:
Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible
to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every
list of existentialists — Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre — are not
in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka,
and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all
these men is their perfervid individualism.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 11
While Marx and various Marxist movements see a social
evolution in humanity towards a utopian society that moves beyond a need
for government, postmodernism often rejects this tradition. For this
reason, many Marxist critics consider postmodernism to be a symptom of
capitalism and the alienation caused by materialism. The postmodern can
be a bleak society lorded over by systems and mindless organizational
psychology. This bureaucratic nightmare is the world of Kafka, which
Hubben suggests existed throughout Europe before World War II:
He expresses an existentialist Weltgefühl with stronger visionary
force than his French colleagues, and speaks undoubtedly to the condition
of untold men and women in Europe.
- Hubben, p. 139
Kafka does not theorize a utopian future for humanity.
At best, Kafka has no philosophical or political motives and merely wants
to reflect what he has seen of human nature. At worst, Kafka believes
humanity is descending into an abyss of alienation in which individuals
can rely on no external truths or communal obligations. The end result
is an extreme version of alienation that is a forced, not chosen, individualism.
If anything, Kafka is more pessimistic than Sartre,
Jaspers, Heidegger, or even Camus. The individual’s conflict against
the absurd is not even heroic; it is hopeless. Solomon suggests Kafka’s
pessimism moves beyond existential despair:
It is now standard to link Kafka with Camus as a prophet of the absurd,
but this view ignores the ultimate despair of Kafka that Camus rejects.
[…] One might say that the basic difference between Camus and Kafka
is that Camus attempts to provide an answer for the problem Kafka sees
- Existentialism; Solomon, p. 166
Readers should compare The Judgment, The
Trial, and In The Penal Colony. In Kafka’s stories
the greatest sin, as in existentialism, is a failure to be authentic
in the sense Jean-Paul Sartre used the term. Something does not seem
authentic about Kafka’s punished characters — they do not seem true
to themselves. It is one thing to accept a situation, it is another
to fail to assert an identity. Without an identity, alienation is certain.
The concept of alienation in existentialism derives
from the tension between individual free will and various relationships.
The metaphysical alienation is represented by the existential understanding
of faith; humans are separated from any understanding of their creator.
The social alienation is caused by the inability of one person to understand
another with any certainty.
Alienation becomes a way of life as people realize
connecting in the postmodern world is an unrealistic dream. Kafka’s characters
have not surrendered to this alienation, however. If, as Sartre famously
argues, people must define themselves through choices and living, then
many of Kafka’s characters have chosen to be individuals apart from their
communities. Most notably, the artists in Kafka’s stories are no longer
essential to their communities but insist on remaining true to their
natures. Josephine the mouse singer and the hunger artist are outdated
and unessential, but they choose to remain artists. The alienation of
Josephine and the hunger artist might seem extreme, but in the postmodern
world, all people are alienated from each other and reality to some degree.
Kafka’s diaries and letters indicate that he considered
Gregor Samsa’s alienated fate in The Metamorphosis no worse,
or better, than that of any person. The previous life of a traveling
salesman versus the one room Gregor inhabits as an insect are both lives
of solitude. Kafka wrote that “the cares we have to struggle with every
day” are emotional torture. Hubben relates this to the conflicts between
It is interesting that Kafka was one of the first to touch upon the
despair of a key figure in the economic system that is now engaged
in a life and death struggle in Europe, the salesmen whose function
in free enterprise is that of a missionary.
- Hubben, p. 154
Some Marxist critics have tried to claim Kafka as one
of their own, a voice against the alienation in this postmodern life.
Walter H. Sokel makes this claim, suggesting Gregor Samsa represents
a man “estranged from himself” by capitalism (Thiher, 148). Olson takes
this further by relating Sartre’s notion of “the look” to the competition
faced by men like Gregor Samsa:
Clearly, Sartre’s “The Look” is not a basic ontological fact from
which all conflict is derived and in terms of which conflict must be
defined. A moment’s reflection will reveal that we do not enter into
conflict with one another because we look at one another. One the contrary,
it is because we conflict with one another that we look. We rarely
look as passing strangers on the street, but we do look closely at
the man who is competing for a job we want ourselves.
- Existentialism; Olson, p. 187
According to Hubben, Kafka was unable to share his
friend Martin Buber’s religious fervor. While Buber influenced Kafka’s
understanding of existentialism, he was unable to help Kafka find faith.
Hubben notes that Kafka’s fiction demonstrates this loss of faith:
God has indeed died.
Kafka, who is neither an atheist nor one capable of rallying himself
to a strong affirmation of his Jewish faith. Kafka’s men are living
in that world without God of which Nietzche predicted that it would
be somehow older, strange, and suspicious, a late hour of mankind.
- Hubben, p. 144–5
Solomon explains that Kafka comes to see sin and guilt
not as personal truths, as some postmodernists might, but as too difficult
to distinguish. Words have become so confusing that determining what
is an objective truth, and therefore pure and good, is impossible. Solomon
considers this the basis for much of the absurdity in Kafka’s tales:
For Kafka, the absurdity of sin and guilt lies not in the indifferent
world but rather in the very indistinguishability of the subjective
and the objective.
- Solomon, p. 166
Kafka was in search of wisdom, not an epistemic search
for truth. His literature mocks the search for truth, since wisdom requires
more than scientific pursuits. There is validity to things as they are,
even when events and situations seem absurd and confusing. An epistemological
exploration of Gregor Samsa, K., Josephine, or any other character in
Kafka is to ignore Kafka’s existentialism.
While Kafka might not pursue the epistemic, he does
pursue the ontological. If we define ontology as the quest for a description
of the concepts and relationships that can exist for an agent or a community
of agents, then all Kafka’s writings deal with the ontology of human,
and therefore complex, relationships.
In 1908, Kafka accepted a position at the Workers’
Accident Insurance Institute, a “workers compensation” insurance company
subsidized by the government. The year he was hired, Kafka wrote “On
Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry,” a report demonstrating
the need for insurance to protect construction workers and families in
the event of injury. Despite his work, Hubben tells us Kafka was not
developing a philosophy of social justice:
His position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance afforded many contacts
with those whose claims came to his desk, and he once remarked in a
mixture of admiration and impatience how humble these little people
…he shared Henry David Thoreau’s conclusion that “the mass of men
lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Kafka was hardly a reformer. He was, likewise, not a great thinker,
philosopher, or theologian. His own life… speaks to the condition of
many who are searching for the causes of our present moral exhaustion.
- Hubben, p. 154
As stated earlier, in stripping language bare, countering
the figurative language of nineteenth-century literature, Franz Kafka
represents a bridge to the philosophical schools of the twentieth century,
especially the heightened distrust of words, science, and truth we find
in European postmodernism and specifically in existentialism. Kaufmann
recognizes this bridging:
Kafka stands between Nietzsche and the existentialists: he pictures
the world into which Heidegger’s man, in Sein und Zeit, is “thrown,”
the Godless world of Sartre, the “absurd” world of Camus.
- Kaufmann, p. 143
Before the twentieth century, philosophers hoped to
reveal the best way to achieve a good and meaningful life, which generally
meant a life connected to nature and community. Existentialism rejected
these connections, and more drastically rejected any notion of achieving
real satisfaction in life. Characters in Kafka’s tales are left wanting
something, needing a connection to the world that can never be made complete.
Kafka, influenced by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and his
friend Martin Buber, merges these recognized existential philosophers
to create a more refined worldview — and a razor-sharp writing style.
His friend and editor, Max Brod, struggles to define the “fundamental”
Kafka, despite the disarmingly simple language Kafka used. Brod writes
of both a fundamental outlook and a fundamental principle behind Kafka’s
Kafka’s fundamental outlook may be summarized in some such formula
as this: almost everything is uncertain, but once one has a certain
degree of understanding one never loses the way anymore.
- Franz Kafka; Brod, p. 173
Kafka’s fundamental principle: pity for a mankind that finds it so
hard a task to do what’s right. Pity, half-smiling, half-weeping, pity.
- Brod, p. 180
Kafka’s internal conflict — the desire for a universal
truth and connection to others while assuming such connections were illusions
— certainly brings him into the realm of existentialism. Like Frankl,
Buber, or Sartre during the war Kafka would not experience, Kafka tried
to convince himself of something he thought was a lie: truth.
The Judgment (1912)
Scholars seem prone to either over-simplify or over-analyze The
Judgment. Then again, I am likely to over-analyze the work because
it demanded my attention the first time I read the story in junior
high school. I have read the story many times, studying the structure
and the tale. It is not my personal favorite Kafka story, but the structure
is quite compelling.
The main character in The Judgment, for
there is no hero, is Georg Bendemann. Kafka explained in a letter to
Felice Bauer that Georg Bende was him, thinly veiled. The “-mann” was
a reference to manlihood or authority, which Georg wishes to assert.
By trying to be a man, Georg is attempting to become his father’s equal,
which no son can do in his own mind. His punishment, as decided by his
father — death by drowning.
One potential issue for study is why Georg is driven
mad by the break with his fiancée. Kafka broke two engagements with Felice.
Another might be the choice of punishment, since Kafka was an excellent
swimmer. Kafka is everywhere in his tales, especially his fears and insecurities.
The tale begins when a young man, Georg, writes a letter
to inform a close friend who lives in Russia of his engagement to a young
woman from a well-placed family. Actually, Georg had mailed three previous
letters to the friend, each discussing the wedding plans of an unimportant
man to an unimportant woman in the town. Georg has yet to reveal that
it is he getting married. Georg’s friend had moved to Russia to conduct
business. Unfortunately, the friend’s ventures are failing. Out of empathy,
Georg has not revealed his own increasingly good fortunes to this friend.
Before mailing the letter, Georg checks on his father,
a once imposing man who is now a sickly, senile shell. The Judgment then
becomes a recounting of the last conversation between father and son.
The conversation begins with the father, who admits to a faulty memory,
demanding to know if Georg really has a friend in St. Petersburg. After
Georg tells the story of his friend’s move to Russia, his father declares
that he does indeed remember the friend.
Georg’s father declares, “Of course I know your friend.
He would have been a son after my own heart.” This mildly cruel statement
is accompanied by the revelation Georg’s father is aware that his son
has been writing “lies” to the friend. The father’s outrage makes little
sense, since the friend is a failing businessman, while Georg has turned
his father’s business into a growing enterprise.
Suddenly, Georg’s father begins to dance about, proclaiming
that his son is marrying only because Georg has slept with the woman.
Worse, Georg’s father reveals he has been writing to Georg’s friend during
the last few years. While it might seem reasonable to question the sanity
of the Georg’s father, he has stolen a friendship and threatens to destroy
his son’s wedding plans. The father’s tirade ends with “I sentence you
now to death by drowning.”
Disgraced by his father, Georg flees the house, runs
to a bridge, and tosses himself into the river. Kafka describes Georg’s
last act: “He swung himself over, like the distinguished gymnast he had
once been in his youth, to his parents’ pride.” Oddly enough, Georg’s
last statement is, “Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same.”
Written in a single night, 22 September, 1912, The
Judgment is a great literary accomplishment. The story is not
simple to read, requiring the reader untangle the relationships between
a father, son, and an unseen friend in Russia. It is the difficulty
of the story that draws the reader into the text. The convoluted story
reflects the neurosis of the son, the main character.
As stated previously, the main character in The
Judgment, Georg Bendemann, is Franz Kafka. The "mann" suffix
of the last name was a reference to manlihood or authority, which Georg
wishes to assert. By trying to be a man, Georg is aspiring to the greatness
he once attached to his father. Young children see their parents as
giants, in Kafka’s view. Georg’s punishment for encroaching on this
authority, as decided by his father, is death. The irony is that Georg
is healthy and the father appears near death.
Georg has improved his father’s business and taken
his father’s place as the head of the company. Compounding his sins against
authority, Georg now cares for his father, assuming control over the
old man’s care. In effect, Georg is now like the father in every way
that matters. This assumption of power is unacceptable, so Georg must die.
Some critics have maintained the story is much more
basic than that of a son punished for taking power from his father. The
simple reading of the tale is that Georg did dishonor his mother, possibly
by sleeping with his girlfriend in his parents’ house. If this is true,
then Georg’s suicide is an act of guilt. It is worth noting Kafka himself
had an aversion to sex and all forms of pleasure, yet found himself visiting
brothels at the time this story was written.
If marriage serves to improve the standing of Georg
Bendemann, then it might be fair to relate this tale to Kafka’s own engagements
to Felice Bauer. The Judgment was written before Franz Kafka
asked Felice Bauer, a young woman from a moderately successful family,
to marry. Is Felice The Judgment’s “Frieda” or was the name
a mere coincidence? If Felice is Frieda, did Kafka intend from their
first meeting to propose marriage? These questions are important, as
evidence suggests Kafka did not love Felice. His offers of marriage seem
more a gesture to placate his father than to truly find companionship.
Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, 1915)
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning after disturbing dreams, he found
himself transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.
Als Gregor Samsa eines morgens aus unruhigen träumen erwachte, fand
er sich in seinem bett zu einem ungeheueren ungeziefer verwandelt.
Translated in various editions as a “gigantic insect”
and an “enormous bug,” the form assumed by Gregor Samsa one morning is
never specific. Easily Kafka’s most famous work, Metamorphosis deals
with the acceptance of an absurd fate.
Salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself
an insect. He does not panic; in fact, he reacts with an eerie calm,
convinced he can still function within human society. As the story progresses,
Gregor slowly accepts he is not human. Not only can he not function within
normal society, but he is also an outcast from his own family, even his
Gregor’s income had supported the Samsa family, so
his transformation results in a series of changes within the household.
First, his father is forced to take a position as a doorman. Mr. Samsa
is forced to wear an ill-fitting military-style uniform, which looks
ridiculous on the old man. When the job proves insufficient, the Samsas
take in three boarders.
These men are quite orderly and demanding. One night
they ask Gregor’s sister, Grete, to play the violin for them. Before
Gregor’s transformation, she had hoped to study violin. While she plays,
Gregor is overcome by emotion and leaves his room, in which he normally
hides from his family and the renters. When one of the renters spot Gregor,
he and the other renters announce the house is disgusting and filthy.
The loss of rental income will certainly devastate the family, Gregor
Gregor returns to his room, while the family discusses
what a problem he has become. Even his sister, the person for whom he
cared most, suggests the family must find a way to dispose of Gregor.
Emotionally broken, Gregor dies, alone in his room that very night. When
the giant insect is discovered the next morning by the chambermaid, the
family finds new energy. Free of Gregor, it is made clear by Kafka the
family is now happy — they have been transformed.
When Metamorphosis was published, it was
common to include illustrations within a work. Kafka objected strongly
to any illustration depicting the insect, preferring the image be left
to the readers. When the first edition of the story appeared in book
form, Kafka wrote an angry letter to the publisher, Kurt Wolff, regarding
the cover illustration:
Not that, anything but that! The insect itself cannot be depicted.
It mustn’t even be shown from a distance.
Kafka wanted readers to imagine the worst possible fate for Gregor,
which no artist could accomplish with universal affect.
It is much too easy to see the Kafka name in “Samsa”
— there was no effort by the author to hide the fact he was writing a
story about his own emotional state. Kafka’s acute sense of alienation
is well documented. In his diaries, he often compared himself to a bug,
a worm, and other animals meant to generate disgust. There are many passages
within the story worthy of in-depth analysis; I suggest students pay
particular attention to Gregor’s relationships within the family. Kafka
himself had one sister, Ottla, with whom he was particularly close. How
does the story reflect the Kafka household? How do you think his family
reacted to the tale? Did they see themselves clearly or miss the obvious?
In The Penal Colony (In Der Strafkolonie,
Few stories affect a political discussion quite like In
The Penal Colony. To state the story cemented my views on punishment
might be an overstatement, as I think Hugo’s essays on punishment had
a greater influence upon me, but this tale did offer important reinforcement
of my views. Somehow those inflicting a punishment manage to convince
themselves, at least momentarily, that there is some greater good in
punishment. Suffering is expected to enlighten the violator, resulting
in a mystical state of euphoria and understanding. Personally, when
reprimanded I have only come to believe more strongly in the correctness
of my actions or have come to resent the one delivering the punishment.
Some have suggested my outline and discussion of this
work are not true to the work’s form or message. All readers impose their
own biases upon a work. Also, I am not outlining the work for students,
but rather as a starting point for discussion.
The story opens with a traveler being given a tour
of a penal colony by its governor, or “the officer,” as Kafka’s narrator
refers to him. This chief officer of punishments is quite pleased to
have a visitor and enjoys the opportunity to showcase his colony and
its methods. Upon encountering a complex machine, the traveler is told
he is about to witness the execution of a guard. This guard, representing
order and justice, has been condemned by the governor for “disobeying
and insulting a superior.” It seems the guard had the misfortune of falling
asleep while on duty.
As in many Kafka tales, the governor of the colony
imposes justice in a very precise manner: guilt is never in doubt. The
governor is judge, jury, and executioner; he is the authority within
the colony. The guard to be executed received no trail, not even an explanation
of the charges against him. He should know what he has done, the governor
The condemned man looked like such a submissive little dog that he
might have been left to wander the surrounding hills and only whistled
for at the moment of execution.
Kafka has the governor describe the machine and its
function in detail. In one of Kafka’s best-written dialogues, the governor
revels in describing the machine. The governor’s absolute pleasure contributes
to the tale’s horrific nature.
The harrow is then lowered on to the man’s body so that its needles
just barely touch the skin.
The harrow is make of glass so you can watch its progress….
There are two kinds of needles. The long needles write on the skin
and the short ones spray water to wash away the blood so that the inscription
is clear. The harrow keeps on writing deeper and deeper for twelve
hours. Usually, after six hours, the condemned can decipher the message
through his wounds.
Finally, when the harrow has pierced through his entire body, after
turning him around, it casts him automatically into the grave.
After describing the machine and the process by which
it is to execute the guard, the governor of the colony seeks the approval
of the traveler. However, the traveler does not approve of the device
and refuses, albeit politely, to speak on behalf of the machine upon
his return to their native country. Desperate for approval, the colony’s
governor orders the condemned guard released. For a moment, the traveler
wonders if the governor might reevaluate the use of such a cruel device.
Of course, Kafka would not be Kafka without adding a twist to the tale.
As with many early “programmable” devices, the execution
machine’s inscription can be changed via a template. The governor shows
the traveler a leather guide reading “Be Just” — though the traveler
cannot make out the phrase — and inserts the guide into the device. Without
warning, the governor disrobes and climbs unto the bed of the machine.
Guards, including the formerly condemned man, then strap the governor
to the table. It seems the governor only wishes to show how the machine
works, but the traveler anticipates much more is about to occur.
In grand Kafka style, the machine malfunctions, disintegrating
as it tortures the colony’s governor. Instead of gently carving the “Be
Just” phrase into the man’s back, the machine plunges needles deep into
Instead of writing, the harrow was only jabbing, and the bed, not
turning the body over, simply raising it up, quivering, against the
The traveler knows instantly that the governor is being
killed by his own machine. All that is left to do is wait for the machine
to discard the body into a grave.
…and now the last thing went wrong as well: the body failed to come
loose from the long needles but hung suspended above the pit without
His face remained as in life. What the others had found in the machine
the officer had not found. His lips were pressed together, the eyes
open, calm and full of conviction, through the forehead came the point
of the big iron spike.
On a historical note, it is useful to know “writing
automatons” were popular amusements before World War I. These figures
would hold a pen and write words or phrases using a template and a spring-based
mechanism. Kafka certainly would have seen such devices. One common figure
was that of a monk or saint writing biblical quotations. Kafka was surely
aware of these machines; he had a great deal of interest in technology.
Why might Kafka have a programmable machine kill? Why did it kill its
owner? Was Kafka afraid of technology or the uses people might find for
technology? It has been said it is easier to have a machine execute a
person. Is the death penalty made easier if no human contact is involved?
The Trial (Der Prozess, Written 1914)
Known for its “story-within,” The Trial was
one of Kafka’s favorite works. As with Kafka’s other works, the reader
meets a man witnessing an absurd form of “justice” — a legal system without
logic. The Trial represents a common theme in Kafka’s stories:
all people are guilty of something and the punishments are in inverse
proportion to the sin.
Josef K. awakes one night to discover men walking about
the boarding house in which he resides. These men promptly arrest Josef,
without stating a reason. When Josef asks why he is being arrested, one
man tells him he will be told in “due course.” The reader senses immediately
Josef will not learn what crime he has committed, especially if the reader
is familiar with Kafka. Maybe Josef has committed no crime, or maybe
the crime was minor, but the reader knows the punishment is certainly
The Parable of The Law
While awaiting trial, Josef is counseled by a priest,
who tells him a parable. This story within The Trial is
better known by many students than The Trial itself. In
the priest’s tale a man from the country arrives in front of “the law”
— a common term meaning both “the courts” and “truth” in Talmudic tales.
The man from the country wishes to be admitted to “the law” but the door
is guarded by a menacing doorman. The doorman informs the traveler he
cannot enter at the present time. Being reasonable, the man decides to
wait until he is permitted entrance into the law.
The doorman offers the man a stool, upon which the
traveler sits and rests. Days pass, then years, with the man asking from
time to time if it is now the time at which he can enter the law. Each
time the guard responds, “not yet.” The traveler is eager to enter the
law, however, and offers the guard bribes. Though the doorman accepts
the bribes, he does not let the man pass through the door.
As the traveler nears death after years of waiting,
he notices a radiance from beyond the door. He asks why no one has passed
through the door. The guard responds that the door was meant only for
this one man. Then, the guard goes to close the door. Josef K. is left
to ponder, along with the reader, the meaning of the priest’s parable.
Should the man from the country have attempted to pass the doorman? Was
“the law” symbolic of truth, a court, or something else? Why does the
man not leave and go about his life?
Leni, The Nurse
Kafka’s sexual insecurities and peculiarities are given
form through the character of Leni, the Advocate’s nurse. The Advocate,
a form of judge-attorney, maintains a nurse to care for accused men.
Unfortunately, she seems attracted to these men, including Josef K.,
who is also attracted to her. Leni sneaks Josef into the Advocate's office,
where she attempts to seduce him. Several times during her pursuit of
Josef she demands to know why he is more concerned with his trial than
her. The reader is presented with passion as a distraction from greater
Josef attempts to explain the trial’s importance, as
his very existence is at stake. However, Leni responds by asking if Josef
has a girlfriend. Josef does have a girlfriend, Elsa, and carries a picture
of her. As Leni studies the picture of Elsa, she demands to know of Elsa’s
defects. This curious request is explained by a minor defect possessed
by Leni; readers might consider the significance of this defect. While
studying Leni’s defect, Josef and Leni begin a physical encounter unlike
most described in the works of Kafka.
The last scene of the tale is Josef K.’s execution.
Still uncertain of his crime, but even less certain of his innocence,
Josef K. goes to the slaughter much like the guard sentenced to die In
The Penal Colony. Josef offers no resistance; he does not even
plead his innocence. Kafka’s characters seem to accept their situations,
no matter how grim.
The execution scene is too complex to relate well in
a short commentary. In brief, the two executioners offer Josef K. an
opportunity to take his own life. In The Judgment, that
is exactly the choice made by the main character, but Josef K. is not
able to take his own life.
K. knew perfectly well that he was meant to take the knife and plunge
it into himself, but he did not do so.
Is Josef K. weak? Does he have doubts about his guilt?
Instead of taking his own life, Josef looks to a house located near the
edge of the quarry where he is to be executed. Seeing a figure in one
of the windows, Josef ponders who the figure might be. Josef wonders
if it could be a friend… or could it be the very judge who sentenced
him to death? While pondering this figure, Josef’s executioners decide
they will carry out the sentence.
…while the hands of one of the men closed around his throat, the other
drove the knife deep into his heart and twisted it twice.
As his eyes grew dim K. could still make out the two men near his
face, their cheeks touching as they observed the crucial moment…
Students of Kafka should compare The Judgment, The
Trial, and In The Penal Colony. Is Josef K. any
more or less tragic than other characters? I would suggest the greatest
sin, especially in existentialism, is a failure to be authentic in
the sense Jean-Paul Sartre used the term. Something does not seem
authentic about most of Kafka’s characters — they do not seem true
to themselves. It is one thing to accept a situation, it is another
to fail to assert an identity.
The Castle (Das Schloss, Written 1922)
An unfinished novel, The Castle is a continuation
of Kafka’s earlier works — it fails to establish any new themes or expansion
of thought. There are hundreds of essays, books, and academic articles
on The Castle; I personally fail to see this work as any
better than Kafka’s others. In my opinion, the only reason The
Castle contributes to voluminous study is its lack of completion.
Unfinished works leave a lot of room for conjecture. How did Kafka intend
to end the work? Did he tire of the novel? Did he write himself out of
an ending? Personally, I think he simply realized the work said nothing
new to him or potential readers and stopped writing.
By the time he began writing The Castle,
Kafka had shortened the name of his main character to “K,” a man without
a name but again a likely reference to the author. The novel begins with
K, a professional land surveyor, arriving in a village during a winter
storm. He has been summoned by Count West-West, whose castle overlooks
the village. But, as one might expect in a Kafka story, K will not meet
the Count or perform any specific work.
The castle of the novel’s title is not what one might
expect; it certainly is not what K expects to see:
He was disappointed… It was neither an old fortress nor a new mansion,
but a dismal collection of innumerable small buildings packed together.
Swarms of crows circled around the only tower.
It quickly becomes clear to K his presence in the village
is the result of a bureaucratic mistake. A surveyor was requested some
time ago by the Count, but the request was rescinded almost as long ago.
Despite the error, The Castle and its authorities still send K a pair
of assistants, Arthur and Jeremiah. Readers should recognize these characters
as “fools” in the traditional sense; they provide comic relief while
acting as a chorus. The use of fools indicates Kafka’s familiarity with
The only reason there is a novel is K’s failure to
leave the village, long after he has realized there is no need for a
land surveyor. Why does K remain? Only Kafka knows why K does not leave
the village — and only Kafka knows if he intended to finish the novel.
The Castle features many interesting and
confusing tales as K remains in the village, but it is the characters
who make the story worthy of some study. The characters and their relationships
to K reflect Kafka’s own relationships and fears. Instead of dissecting
the novel, I prefer to study the characters and how they reveal facets
of Kafka to the reader. Of course, I have already stated the characters
seldom reveal anything not already indicated in other tales. It is possible
had Kafka lived a full life his writings might have evolved, but The
Castle leads me to wonder if he had stagnated as a writer.
One can see the characters of The Castle as
a set of recycled types, found in Kafka’s various works. The unknown,
unseen Count is the authority we never meet in The Trial.
Klamm, the official, is a man simply doing his job, no matter how unreasonable;
a father figure of sorts. But most striking are the female characters.
K needs the women and relies upon them for support — literally, in several
scenes. While the women provide support, they also distract the surveyor
from his pursuit of work. The women are obstacles to varying degrees.
Klamm, The Castle Official
The land surveyor K searches for Klamm, an official
linked to The Castle. Klamm symbolizes authority and bureaucracy, which
is present in most Kafka tales. When K spies Klamm through a peephole,
the official is described as a paunchy, middle-aged man behind a desk;
Klamm is a stereotypical government employee.
Frieda, The Barmaiden
Possibly based upon Milena Jesenská-Pollak, Frieda
is the mistress of an official from The Castle. Milena was married to
Ernst Polack, a noted intellectual power, as Frieda is the mistress of
a powerful figure. While Frieda works at the local inn as a barmaid,
she does not view herself as a mere worker. Her affair with Klamm, the
bureaucrat, makes her important.
Frieda is unquestionably a strong female character;
she even uses a whip at one point to control a mob of castle servants
who are drinking at the inn. This expression of power has an obvious
effect upon K — his attraction for her increases with each dominant act
she performs. After Frieda has chased the castle’s servants from the
inn’s bar with a whip, the landlord of the inn enters. K hides under
the bar counter, having been previously warned he is not truly welcome
at the inn. Frieda presses K down with her foot while she tells the landlord
the surveyor is not in the bar. K is excited by her ruse.
The scene that follows describes K and Frieda making
love under the counter, without the use of graphic imagery. Passion for
Kafka is not something easily accepted or understood; he often felt disgusted
by sexuality, yet seemed unable to resist it. The encounter between K
and Frieda is abruptly ended by a voice from Klamm’s room, adjacent to
the bar, calling for Frieda. To K’s horror she responds, “I’m with the
land surveyor!” and vows never to go to Klamm again.
Frieda becomes K’s fiancée overnight, then leaves him
in the morning for one of the fools. One must wonder how a fool is superior
to K. Kafka’s poor self-image seems to be the underlying issue, or is
this merely fiction?
Olga and Amalia, Sisters
It is Olga, a “great strapping wench,” who introduces
K to the inn and the bar. If it were not for Olga, K would not encounter
Frieda as he does. There are several scenes with Olga, usually demonstrating
the peasants’ need for escape and debauchery.
Amalia represents the plight of a moral person in an
amoral world, where authority can do as it pleases. Amalia refuses the
advances of a an official from The Castle, but as a result her entire
Pepi and the Chambermaids
Pepi replaces Frieda as the barmaiden and as K’s interest.
Pepi offers K a room, which she shares with two chambermaids. K’s presence
in the room must be kept secret, which Pepi claims will bring the four
closer together. There is an unmistakable sexual tension in the situation,
with K as the “protector” of the women, yet obviously subservient to
them. The oedipal nature of this room is worthy of study.
The final scenes of The Castle deal with
the landlady. These scenes are as confusing as anything found in The
Judgment, taking on an almost surreal quality. One might read
these scenes several times, each time theorizing another motivation prompting
Kafka’s dialogue. Is the landlady similar to Pepi? Why are exchanges
between the surveyor and the landlady focused upon her appearance? The
final exchange in the novel indicates the landlady considers the surveyor
a man of fine tastes; she wishes to take him shopping with her as a fashion
consultant of sorts…. Then the story ends.
A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler, Published
During May 1924, Kafka was editing one of his best
short stories: A Hunger Artist. In fitting irony, Kafka
himself was starving as a result of his tuberculosis, which had made
it nearly impossible to eat solid foods. Kafka was editing the final
proofs of A Hunger Artist when he died in Wiener Wald Sanatorium
on 3 June 1924.
The story describes the act — and predicament — of
a hunger artist, a professional faster. The hunger artist would fast
for days at a time, attracting large crowds at carnivals with his ability
to do without nourishment. In many ways he was admired for an apparent
sacrifice. But with time the crowds dwindled and the hunger artist no
longer attracted carnival guests.
During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has
markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances
under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible. We
live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively
interest in the hunger artist….
The obvious comparison is between Kafka and the hunger
artist. Kafka, like many writers, believed he was driven to write — not
necessarily enjoying the act of creation. In fact, writing was a troubling
and almost painful process for Kafka. The hunger artist did not so much
choose to be a professional faster as he simply was inclined to fast.
Authentic existence is the act of being true to one’s nature; Kafka and
the hunger artist are both attempting to be authentic.
"I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger
"We do admire it," said the overseer, affably.
"But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist.
"Well then we don't admire it," said the hunger artist, "but
why shouldn't we admire it?"
"Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger
The remainder of the story is quite amazing. The artist
dies as one expects, only to be replaced by a panther — kept in the same
cage the artist once occupied. How is the panther symbolic? What is Kafka
telling the reader? Was the overseer unsympathetic to the artist?
A Hunger Artist is a parable, a short
story masterpiece in my opinion. I place it at the end of a Kafka reading
list because it represents clarity Kafka often lacked in his other works.
Introducing students to Kafka via A Hunger Artist might
result in a misunderstanding of his works and style, much as Metamorphosis has
become a defining work, mainly for those who do not read more of Kafka’s
Josephine the Singer (Spring 1924)
My favorite work by Kafka, Josephine the Singer,
or the Mouse Folk, an exploration of how artists relate to society.
The story is told by a spectator, one of the mice living alongside
Josephine. Presenting the reader with multiple points of view, the
narrator demonstrates some confusion as to the allure of Josephine’s
singing — and her personality. Is Josephine a gifted singer? Is she
merely self-absorbed? The narrator is not sure.
Among intimates we admit freely to one another that Josephine’s singing,
as singing, is nothing out of the ordinary.
Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a
tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is
mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which,
it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing
is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it.
Josephine must have some special quality, or the narrator
would not be compelled to tell her story. If she is not a talented singer
and offers no major benefit to the other mice, there must be something
more to Josephine’s position within the society. The reader must assume
the narrator is not being completely honest — with either himself or
What drives people to make such exertions for Josephine’s sake? This
is no easier to answer than the first question about Josephine's singing,
with which it is closely connected. Once could eliminate that and combine
them both in the second question, it it were possible to assert that
because of her singing our people are unconditionally devoted to Josephine.
But this is simply not the case; unconditional devotion is hardly known
Why do the other mice do as Josephine demands? There
is a devotion to her, which the reader quickly recognizes. Is Kafka commenting
upon society’s view of art and its value? Artists are often viewed as
emotionally frail, almost childlike. They are also considered self-absorbed.
So the people look after Josephine much as a father takes into his
care a child whose little hand — one cannot tell whether in appeal
or command — is stretched out to him….
Josephine… thinks just the opposite, she believes it is she who protects
the people. When we are in a bad way politically or economically, her
singing is supposed to save us, nothing less than that, and if it does
not drive away the evil, at least gives us the strength to bear it.
One of the interesting traits of Josephine is her constant
demand to be excused from labor. This view reflects that of many people
toward artists: artistic pursuits are not truly work — nothing of value
is produced. One must wonder if this somehow relates to Kafka and his
inability to work during the last years of his life.
For a long time back, perhaps since the very beginning of her artistic
career, Josephine has been fighting for exemption from all daily work
on account of her singing; she should be relieved of all responsibility
for earning her daily bread and being involved in the general struggle
for existence, which — apparently — should be transferred on her behalf
to the people as a whole.
The narrator does defend Josephine, remarking that
given the opportunity she would not actually avoid work. After all, the
reader is told, she is a mouse and all mice must work in order to survive.
Therefore one must wonder why Josephine demands to be freed of labor
— even though she would not cease performing her duties. It is likely
Josephine is practicing the fine art of public relations: she is marketing
herself as someone special.
The story ends with the narrator telling the reader
Josephine has vanished. In the past, she has run away, but she has been
gone longer than normal — two entire days. One must wonder if she has
met misfortune. Curiously, the narrator attempts to convince the reader
Josephine will eventually fade from memory, in part because there are
no mouse historians. Yet, historian is exactly the role assumed by the
narrator. Will Josephine be missed by the other mice?
The Burrow (Der Bau, Written 1924)
One of the last works by Franz Kafka, The Burrow reveals
the secret life of a mole-like creature. I find this story one of Kafka’s
best works. The quality of the story reflects how closely the author
related to the creature-narrator of his tale. Considering Kafka’s strong
desire to isolate himself from others, living alone with his work, it
is easy to recognize the narrator is none other than Kafka; he makes
no attempt to hide this parallel.
The most wonderful thing about my burrow is the silence. At any minute
it may be broken… but for now I can stroll through its passages and
hear nothing except the stirring of some tiny creatures which I quickly
silence with my jaws.
Assuming we can compare the burrow in which the creature
lives to Kafka’s vision of the perfect workplace, we learn Kafka views
whatever is just outside of the fortress as a threat. The Burrow’s
narrator is paranoid, as is the author. Kafka was a hypochondriac with
a variety of mental quirks; this creature mirrors his creator. Living
in a constant state of fear, the narrator eventually determines it is
easier to surrender to an unseen predator than to continue an anxious
existence. The narrator foresees being torn apart and tortured by the
unknown predator. As the story ends, however, we are not certain of the
creature’s fate — and neither is the creature.