Kafka, Franz (1883–1924)

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Franz Kafka, the German author, was the son of a Jewish businessman who had been a peddler in southern Bohemia. The family was German-speaking. Kafka studied law at the German University of Prague and at Munich and became an official of a workers' accident insurance company. He began writing in 1907 but by his own choice published little. About that time he contracted tuberculosis and for some years lived in various sanatoriums. His two engagements ended unhappily. In 1923 he moved to Berlin, where, living with a girl who was in charge of a Jewish orphanage, he achieved what happiness he was to know. He died of a tubercular infection of the larynx in a nursing home at Kierling, near Vienna.

The central experience of Kafka's life, it seems, was a manifold alienationas a speaker of German in a Czech city, as a Jew among German and Czech Gentiles in a period of ardent nationalism, as a man full of doubts and an unquenched thirst for faith among conventional "liberal" Jews, as a born writer among people with business interests, as a sick man among the healthy, and as a timid and neurasthenic lover in exacting erotic relationships.

Kafka's narrative art is at once immensely original, prophetic, and fragmentaryhence the large number of mutually exclusive interpretations it has received. Several elements of his prose were the stock in trade of the minor literature of his day. His language is unemphatic and prosy and occasionally contains Prague-German provincialisms; some of the subjects of his stories belong to the horror literature of the turn of the twentieth century; he shared the modern interest in psychological motivation; and he often used the smaller prose genres cultivated by his contemporaries in Prague and Vienna. But the use Kafka made of these elements is startlingly original, and the compelling gnostic vision of the world that is fashioned from them has become one of the major literary and intellectual influences of our age. In Kafka's work the existentialists' conceptions of absurdity and dread are fully explored. Unlike the later existentialists, he did not derive a positive value from these modes of experience; the value of his writings lies in the intense lucidity of the exploration.

It is obvious from the very titles of many of Kafka's storiesThe Trial, "The Judgment," "Before the Law," "The Penal Settlement"that his work is informed by a strong legalistic strain, possibly derived from his Jewish heritage but then secularized. In the famous "Letter to His Father" (1919) he recounted a certain childhood episode that violated his sense of justice. Characteristically, its terror for him lay in his inability to connect the trivial "crime" with the monstrous punishment he received.

The novel The Trial, begun in 1914 and published by Kafka's friend Max Brod in 1925, at once challenges and refines our conventional ways of connecting causes and effects through the story of a young man, Josef K, who one day wakes up in his lodgings to find himself arrested without knowing what wrong he has done. He makes various attempts to justify himself against the enigmatic accusation and to influence a number of people who he believes may effect his acquittal. Although offered a chance of repudiating the jurisdiction of the court that is concerned with his case, he ends up by being marched off to his execution, to die "like a dog."

The question What has Josef K done? receives a number of detailed answers, the total effect of which is to undermine the reader's notion of guilt. Josef K has lived the unremarkable life of an average young man, a bank clerk. Since in his "ordinary" life he always based his relations with other people on asserting what he believed were his "rights" in this or that situation, it is consistent with his character that he should seek to justify himself before the Law. The only thing he knows about that Law (and the all but unattainable authority behind it) is that it is powerful, whereas he is weak. According to the "inescapable logic" of the world, he must therefore be outside the Law and thus, in some sense, guilty. With his every move the not wholly irrational sense of guilt drags more violently at his soul. At first, this sense is no more than an uneasy "They are sure to have something on me," but gradually it is magnified by all the actions, in themselves trivial, which constitute "normal" behavior in our world, coupled with Josef K's inability to live "outside the Law," which for Kafka amounted to consciousness itself. Simplifying the subtly involuted and complex texture of the novel, we may conclude that "minor guilt + situation of weakness + self-justification = major sense of guilt," which is tantamount to saying that Kafka's dialectical ingenuity is expended on making convincing the equation "[subjective] sense of guilt = [objective] guilt."

Similar dialectical devices are used in the second major work, the unfinished novel The Castle (19211922, published 1926). K, a land surveyor, has been called to a village that is governed by an authority that resides in a nearby castle. The village and its inhabitants are described only as they are related to K and to his attempts to justify his presence there. His commission, the authority on whose behalf he is to perform it, its relation to himself and to the villagers, the extent of its power, and the morality of its commandsall these are not so much vague as complexly contradictory. (Kafka was prophetically describing the anonymous, muffled workings of a totalitarian ministry as they affect the helpless victim, but since his style is that of an "objective" report, he allowed himself no expressions of pity.) Every assurance that K receives is thrown into doubt either by an oblique contradiction or by K's own unnerved (and, to the reader, unnerving) insistence on exploring its possible ambiguities.

Again, the novel elaborates a vicious circle. K uses the people he meets in order to wrest from them hints or indications about his task and status but because he lacks the assurance of a clearly defined status and task, he is an outsider and thus in a position of weakness. He is therefore bound to construe all these hints as hostile and thus distrust them. K does not have enough strength to break the spell that the Castle (like the court in The Trial ) seems to be casting over him, for he looks to it as the place that, in justifying him, will give him strength. And, to keep alive K's torments of uncertainty, the Castle need do little more than send an occasional hint of a possible way of deliverance.

Leaving aside the various Freudian, Marxist, and Christian interpretations that Kafka's work has received, its fragmentary nature points to a fundamental hiatus. His heroes' desolate quests for justice, recognition, and acceptance by the world are meaningful to us because they invoke our sense of pity and justice, whereas the matter-of-fact ways in which these quests are presented invite us to accept cruelty and injustice as though they were necessary and self-evident modes of life. Thus, the meaningfulness of the quests is impaired. Kafka's writings are indeed prophetic intimations of the logic of the concentration camps; the monstrous insinuation inherent in his prophecies is that the exterminator is not wholly in the wrong, that his hold over his victim is something more than a matter of superior might, for the victim cooperates in his own destruction.

See also Alienation; Consciousness; Existentialism; Guilt; Metaphor.


works by kafka

Most of Kafka's writings were published posthumously and against his express wishes by his friend Max Brod. The complete edition is Werke (Frankfurt, 1952). The "definitive" English edition, published in London, includes The Trial, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1945); Kafka's Diaries, 2 vols., translated by J. Kresh, M. Greenberg, and H. Arendt (19481949); America, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1949); In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1949); The Castle, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1953); Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Posthumous Prose Writings, translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (1954); and Description of a Struggle and The Great Wall of China, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir and Tania Stern and James Stern (1960). See also Kafka's Letters to Milena (Jesenská), translated by Tania Stern and James Stern (London, 1953), and G. Janouch's Conversations with Kafka (New York, 1953).

works on kafka

Three biographical studies are available: Max Brod, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie (Frankfurt, 1937), translated as The Biography of Franz Kafka (London: Secker and Warburg, 1947); K. Wagenbach, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend, 18831912 (Bern: Francke, 1958); and P. Eisner, Franz Kafka and Prague (New York: Arts, 1950).

For critical works on Kafka see G. Anders, Franz Kafka (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1960); Ronald D. Gray, ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), which has important contributions by Albert Camus and E. Heller; and Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962).

other recommended sources

Biemel, Walter. "Franz Kafka: The Necessity for a Philosophical Interpretation of His Work." In Explanation and Value in the Arts, edited by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cooper, Gabriele von Natzmer. Kafka and Language: In the Stream of Thoughts and Life. Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1991.

Heidsieck, Arnold. The Intellectual Contexts of Kafka's Fiction: Philosophy, Law, Religion. Columbia: Camden House, 1994.

Wade, Geoff. "Marxism and Modernist Aesthetics: Reading Kafka and Beckett." In The Politics of Pleasure: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory, edited by Stephen Regan. Buckingham; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1992.

J. P. Stern (1967)

Bibliography updated by Desiree Matherly Martin (2005)