BORN: 1883, Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)
DIED: 1924, Vienna, Austria
GENRE: Fiction, short story
The Metamorphosis (1915)
The Country Doctor: A Collection of Fourteen Short Stories (1919)
The Trial (1925)
The Castle: A Novel (1926)
Czech writer Franz Kafka is one of the founders of modern literature. His most famous works, including “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial, and The Castle have come to be seen as stories of the struggles of individuals to preserve their dignity and humanity in an increasingly faceless and bureaucratic world. Kafka's masterful use of the German language and his odd blend of the surreal and the mundane combine to create a unique style of fiction that has proven endlessly fascinating to readers, critics, and other writers for nearly one hundred years.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, a large provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was home to many Czechs, some Germans, and a lesser number of German-cultured, German-speaking Jews. His father, Hermann Kafka, of humble rural origin, was a hardworking, hard-driving, successful merchant. His mother tongue was Czech, but he spoke German, correctly seeing the language's importance in the struggle for social and economic mobility and security. Kafka's mother, Julie Lowy Kafka, came from a family with older Prague roots and some degree of wealth. She would ultimately prove unable to defuse the tensions between her brusque, domineering husband and her quiet, very sensitive son.
The Father-God Kafka's father was a powerful, robust, imposing man, successful in his business, who considered his son a weakling unfit for life. Franz's childhood and youth were overshadowed by constant conflict with his father, whom he respected, even admired, and at the same time feared and subconsciously hated. Kafka later transformed the total lack of communication between them into a recurring relationship in his stories between a God/Father figure and mankind.
Franz Kafka attended only German schools: from 1893 to 1901 the most authoritarian grammar school, the Deutsches Staatsgymnasium in the Old Town Square, and from 1901 to 1906 the Karl Ferdinand University of Prague. In college he initially majored in German literature, but changed in his second semester to the study of law. In June 1906 he graduated with a degree of doctor of jurisprudence.
Civil Service During World War I In October 1906 Kafka started to practice law at the criminal court and later at the civil court in Prague, meanwhile gaining practical experience as an intern in the office of an attorney. In early 1908 he joined the staff of the Workmen's Compensation Division of the Austrian government. Apparently, he did his job admirably well—so well in fact that his supervisors arranged for him to be excused from military service during World War I. Kafka's generation of young men was decimated by the brutal European war. Between 1914 and 1918, more than one million Austro-Hungarian soldiers were killed, and more than three and a half million were wounded.
Early Work and Engagement to Felice Bauer Kafka's first collection of stories was published in 1913 under the title Contemplation. These sketches are
polished, light impressions based on observations of life in and around Prague. Preoccupied with problems of reality and appearance, they reveal his objective realism based on urban middle-class life. The book is dedicated to “M. B.,” that is, Max Brod, who had been Kafka's closest friend since their first meeting as university students in 1902.
In September 1912 Kafka met a young Jewish girl from Berlin, Felice Bauer, with whom he fell in love—an affair that was to have far-reaching consequences for all his future work. The immediate result was an artistic breakthrough: He composed in a single sitting, on the night of September 22–23, the story “The Sentence” (also translated as “The Verdict”), dedicated to his future fiancée, Felice, and published the following year in Brod's annual, Arcadia. The story blends fantasy, realism, speculation, and psychological insight and contains all the elements normally associated with Kafka's disorderly world. In the story, judgment is passed by a bedridden, authoritarian father on his conscientious but guilt-haunted son, who obediently commits suicide.
Kafka's next work, completed in May 1913, was the story “The Stoker,” later incorporated in his fragmentary novel Amerika and awarded the Fontane Prize in 1915, his first public recognition.
Early in 1913 Kafka became unofficially engaged to Felice in Berlin, but by the end of the summer he had broken all ties, sending a long letter to her father with the explanation that his daughter could never find happiness in marriage to a man whose sole interest in life was literature. The engagement, nevertheless, was officially announced in June 1914, only to be dissolved six weeks later. The two maintained a relationship for some time thereafter.
“The Metamorphosis” The year 1913 saw the publication of Kafka's best-known story, “The Metamorphosis,” about a man who is transformed into an insect. Shortly thereafter, Kafka created one of the most frightening stories in the novella In the Penal Colony, written in 1914. Though he had escaped the horrors of battle during the World War I years, the privations of life in Prague during the war weakened his health. In 1917, he learned he had tuberculosis; around the same time, he broke off his relationship with Felice. In 1919, he developed a serious case of influenza. Kafka's illnesses did not halt his literary output. The stories Kafka wrote during the war years, were published in 1919 in a collection dedicated to his father and entitled “The Country Doctor.” In 1922, he published the story “The Hunger Artist.” “The Hunger Artist” became the title story for the last book published during the author's lifetime, a collection of four stories that appeared in 1923.
Unfinished Novels Kafka's three great novel fragments, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, might have been lost to the world had it not been for the dedication of Max Brod, who edited them posthumously, ignoring his friend's request to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts.
The first of them, begun in 1912 and originally referred to by Kafka as The Man Who Disappeared, was published in 1927 under the title Amerika. The book, which may be considered a Bildungsroman, or novel of education (in the tradition of nineteenth-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), recounts the adventures of Karl Rossmann, who, banished by his father because he was seduced by a servant girl, emigrates to America.
Kafka's next novel fragment, The Trial, which was begun in 1914 and published in 1925, finds the hero, Josef K., suddenly arrested and accused of a crime, the nature of which is never explained. The novel is open to multiple interpretations. Critics such as French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre have speculated that the novel was Kafka's rendering of Jewish life in an anti-Semitic world. Indeed, though Kafka would not live to see it, anti-Semitism led to the arrest and murder of millions of Jews under the Nazi regime. All three of Kafka's sisters died in Nazi death camps.
The third and longest of Kafka's novel fragments is The Castle, begun in 1918 and published in 1926. The anonymous hero tries in vain to gain access to a castle that somehow symbolizes security and in which a supreme master dwells. Again and again he seeks to settle in the village where the castle is located, but his every attempt to be accepted as a recognized citizen of the community is thwarted.
Ill Health and a Love Affair During the years 1920 to 1922, when he was working on The Castle, Kafka's health deteriorated and he was forced to take extensive sick leave. After June 1922 there were no more renewals of Kafka's sick leaves from the insurance company where he worked, and in July he retired on a pension. He left Prague to live with his sister Ottla in southern Bohemia for several months and then returned to Prague where he continued work on The Castle. In the summer of 1923 he vacationed on the Baltic coast with his sister Elli and her family. There he met Dora Diamant, a young girl of Hasidic roots. Her family background and her competence in Hebrew appealed to Kafka equally with her personal attractiveness. He fell deeply in love with her. She remained with him until the end, and under her influence he finally cut all ties with his family and managed to live with her in Berlin. For the first time he was happy, free at last from his father's influence.
He lived with Dora in Berlin until the spring of 1924, when she accompanied him to Austria. There he entered Kierling sanatorium near Klosterneuburg. In 1923 and 1924, when able, Kafka worked on three stories that were published posthumously: “A Little Woman,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine, the Song-stress; or, The Mice Nation.” He died on June 3, 1924, of tuberculosis of the larynx.
Works in Literary Context
Even as a youngster, Kafka wanted to write. For his parents' birthdays he would compose little plays, which were performed at home by his three younger sisters, while he himself acted as stage manager. The lonely boy was an avid reader and became deeply influenced by the works of Goethe, Pascal, Flaubert, and Kierkegaard.
Kafka-esque Qualities The narrative features that are typical of Kafka are a first-person narrator who serves as a persona of the author, an episodic structure, an ambivalent quester on an ambiguous mission, and pervasive irony. He developed and strengthened these themes largely on his own over the course of his writing career, but they are present almost from his earliest stories. Other interpretations of his works that cast them in larger movements or philosophies are varied and still the subject of much debate.
Kafka's works anticipate the appearance of the literary movement of magical realism during the 1940s and 1950s. Writers in this circle, such as Italo Calvino, Isabel Allende, Günter Grass, and Jorge Luis Borges, attempted to encompass objective reality as well as psychological processes. The text itself constructs its own reality, to which the reader must adapt or else be left feeling like an outsider.
Existentialism Perhaps Kafka's early reading of the philosopher Kierkegaard imbued his stories and his protagonists with ideas that would later be called existentialism, a family of philosophies that interpret human existence in its concreteness and problematic character. An important tenet of existentialism is that the individual is not a detached observer of the world, which is essentially chaotic and indifferent to humans. Humans make themselves what they are by choosing a way of life. Kafka's alienated protagonists often choose to accept the absurdity of their situation, which leads to their demise.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Kafka's famous contemporaries include:
Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945): American realist writer of the naturalist school.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973): Influential artist, codeveloper of the movement known as cubism, which helped usher in a new Modernist period in art.
Federico García Lorca (1898–1936): Spanish poet and dramatist killed by the Nationalists at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937): American writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction tales, he imagined an entire “mythos” filled with uncaring cosmic beings and wholly alien supernatural entities.
Influence Kafka's blend of surreal confusion and dark humor have influenced many artists in the decades following his death. Italian film director Federico Fellini is perhaps the most visibly “Kafka-esque” cinematic storyteller, rivaled only by David Lynch. Among the authors who owe a debt to Kafka's work are Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Albert Camus, and Salman Rushdie.
Works in Critical Context
The body of critical commentary on the works of Franz Kafka is massive enough to have warranted the description “fortress Kafka.” Here two of the author's most well-known works will be examined by way of demonstrating the great depth and variety of interpretations that arise from Kafka's works.
The Trial Critics have approached The Trial from multiple directions. Some have taken a biographical approach, reading the novel through the lens of Kafka's own diary and seeing his book as a reflection of his anxiety over his engagement to Felice Bauer. In his Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, Jean-Paul Sartre interpreted the novel as Kafka's reaction to being a Jew in an anti-Jewish society. Others have sought literary inspirations for The Trial: critic Guillermo Sánchez Trujillo devoted twenty years of his academic career to examining connections between Kafka's book and the works of nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. No interpretation is considered definitive, and the novel continues to spark critical interest.
“The Metamorphosis” Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was upon reading “The Metamorphosis” that he realized “that it was possible to write in a different way.” By 1973, Stanley Corngold was able to publish a collection of essays on “The Metamorphosis” containing summaries of well over a hundred articles, written as early as 1916, when Robert Miller described the story as ingenious but implausible. In subsequent years, commentators have generally taken for granted the quality and importance of the story and have focused on trying to interpret it.
There have been many different and contradictory interpretations. Freudian critics have seen in it a working out of the Oedipal struggle between a father and a son who are rivals for Gregor's mother. Marxist critics have seen the story as depicting the exploitation of the working class. Gregor Samsa has also been seen as a Christ figure who dies so that his family can live.
Critics interested in language and form have seen the story as the working out of a metaphor, an elaboration on the common comparison of a man to an insect. Some critics have emphasized the autobiographical elements in the story, pointing out the similarities between the Samsas' household and the Kafkas' while also noting the similarity of the names “Samsa” and “Kafka,” a similarity that Kafka himself was aware of, though he said—in a conversation cited in Nahum Glatzer's edition of his stories—that Samsa was not merely Kafka and nothing else.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many other writers have explored themes of alienation and transformation and their often tragic outcomes, both before and after Kafka.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson. In this, one of Stevenson's early stories, a physician uses a potion to change himself into an evil, repulsive man, an intentional transformation with results every bit as dire as those in Kafka's “The Metamorphosis.”
Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley. A classic novel about a monster who is frustrated in his attempts to connect with human beings. The monster is a rational, thinking creature that finds himself utterly rejected by those around him. His relationship with the scientist who creates him echoes the recurring Father/God theme in Kafka's writing.
“The Fly” (1957), by George Langelaan, is a story that focuses on a scientist who transforms himself into a fly. The story was reprinted in Wolf's Complete Book of Terror, edited by Leonard Wolf (Potter, 1979), and was made into movies under the same name in 1958 and 1986.
The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus. Also translated as The Outsider, this is a novel concerning an alienated outsider who inexplicably commits a murder.
Notes from Underground (1864), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A novel-length monologue by an alienated antihero who stays indoors and denounces the world outside.
Responses to Literature
- Father-son relationships play a major role in Kafka's work. The interactions have reminded many of psychologist Sigmund Freud's description of the so-called Oedipus complex. Using your library and the Internet, research the Oedipus complex. Do you think it provides a useful framework for discussing Kafka's work?
- Whether in literary forms, science fiction, movies, or television shows, Kafka has proved to be a major source of inspiration. Select a work that you feel is Kafka-esque and write an essay in which you defend your choice by comparing it to one of Kafka's stories.
- What would you do if you awoke one morning to find, like Gregor Samsa, that you had the body of a giant insect? Describe how you would feel, how you think your family and friends would react, and how you might try to adjust to your new form and appearance.
- Kafka's novel The Trial has often been interpreted as a religious commentary. How much do you think such a critique is supported by the text? Pick a religion, such as Calvinism, Catholicism, or Judaism, and discuss the possible textual evidence for its influence.
- One interpretation of Kafka's story “A Hunger Artist” suggests that this depiction of an artist who creates his work through periods of voluntary starvation is an allegory of the role of the artist in the modern world. Write an essay in which you analyze the story and support this interpretation. Apply the interpretation to writers and artists with whom you are familiar.
Hamalian, Leo, comp. Franz Kafka: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Heller, Erich. The Basic Kafka. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.
Janouch, Gustav. Conversations with Kafka. New York: New Directions, 1969.
Politzer, Heinz. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.
Robert, Marthe. As Lonely as Franz Kafka. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
McCort, Denis. “Kafka and the East: The Case for Spiritual Affinity.” Symposium (Winter 2002): vol.55.4: 199.
Powell, Matthew T. “From an urn already crumbled to dust: Kafka's Use of Parable and the Midrashic Mashal”. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature (2006): vol. 58.4: 269.
Nervi, Mauro.The Kafka Project. Accessed February 15, 2008, from http://www.kafka.org
Nationality: Austrian. Born: Prague, Austro-Hungarian Empire, 3 July 1883. Education: Staatsgymnasium, Prague, 1893-1902; studied jurisprudence at Karl Ferdinand University, Prague, 1901-06; qualified in law, 1907; unpaid work in law courts, 1906-07. Family: Engaged to Felice Bauer twice but never married. Career: Worked for Assicurazioni Generali insurance company, 1907-08; Workers Accident Insurance Institute for tuberculosis, 1908-22; confined to a sanitorium, 1920-21; retired thereafter because of ill health. Died: 3 June 1924.
Gesammelte Werke, edited by Max Brod and others. 11 vols., 1950—.
Parables and Paradoxes: Parabeln und Paradoxe (bilingual edition). 1961.
Shorter Works, edited by Malcolm Pasley. 1973.
Stories 1904-1924. 1981.
Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and others. 1983—.
The Transformation and Other Stories, edited by MalcolmPasley. 1992.
Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. 1993.
The Collected Aphorisms. 1994.
Der Heizer: Ein Fragment. 1913.
Die Verwandlung. 1915; edited by Peter Hutchinson and MichaelMinden, 1985; as The Metamorphosis, 1937; edited by Stanley Corngold, 1972.
Das Urteil. 19l6.
In der Strafkolonie. 1919; as In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works. 1949.
Ein Landarzt. 1919.
Ein Hungerkünstler. 1924.
Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer. 1931; as The Great Wall of China, and Other Pieces, 1933.
Parables in German and English. 1947.
The Penal Colony, Stories and Short Pieces. 1948.
Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories. 1953.
Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings. 1954.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories. 1961.
Sämtliche Erzählungen, edited by Paul Raabe. 1970.
Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. 1971.
The Judgement; and, In the Penal Colony. 1995.
Der Prozess. 1925; as The Trial, 1937, revised edition, 1956; edited by Malcolm Pasley, 1990.
Das Schloss. 1926; as The Castle, 1930, revised edition, 1953.
Amerika. 1927; original version, as Der Verschollene, edited by Jost Schillemeit, 1983; as America, 1938.
The Complete Novels. 1983.
Tagebücher 1910-23. 1951; edited by Hans Gerd Koch, MichaelMüller, and Malcolm Pasley, 1990; as Diaries, 1919-1923, edited by Max Brod, 1948; Diaries, 1914-1923, 1949.
Briefe an Milena, edited by Willy Haas. 1951; revised edition by Jürgen Born and Michael Müller, 1983; as Letters to Milena, 1953.
Briefe 1902-24, edited by Max Brod. 1958; as Letter to Friends, Family and Editors, 1977.
Briefe an Felice, edited by Erich Heller and Jürgen Born. 1967; asLetters to Felice, 1973.
Briefe an Ottla und die Familie, edited by Klaus Wagenbach and Hartmut Binder. 1975; as Letters to Ottla and the Family, 1982.*
A Kafka Bibliography 1908-76 by Angel Flores, 1976.
The Kafka Problem, 1946, and The Kafka Debate, 1976, both edited by Angel Flores; Kafka: A Biography by Max Brod, 1947; Kafka's Castle, 1956, and Kafka, 1973, both by Ronald Gray, and Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Gray, 1962; Kafka: Parable and Paradox by Heinz Politzer, 1962; The Reluctant Pessimist: A Study of Kafka by A. P. Foulkes, 1967; Kafka by Anthony Thorlby, 1972; Moment of Torment: An Interpretation of Kafka's Short Stories by Ruth Tiefenbrun, 1973; The Commentator's Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," 1973, and Kafka: The Necessity of Form, 1988, both Stanley Corngold; Kafka's Other Trial by Elias Canetti, 1974; Kafka: A Collection of Criticism edited by Leo Hamalian, 1974; Kafka: Literature as Corrective Punishment by Franz Kuna, 1974, and On Kafka edited by Kuna, 1976; Kafka in Context by John Hibberd, 1975; Kafka's "Trial": The Case Against Josef K. by Eric Marson, 1975; Kafka by Meno Spann, 1976; The World of Kafka by J. P. Stern, 1980, and Kafka Symposium: Paths and Labyrinths edited by Stern and J.J. White, 1985; The Secret Raven: Conflict and Transformation in the Life of Kafka by Daryl Sharp, 1980; K: A Biography of Kafka by Ronald Hayman, 1981; Kafka: Geometrician of Metaphor by Henry Sussman, 1981; Kafka's Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches by Roy Pascal, 1982; Kafka of Prague by Jiri Grusa, 1983; The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Kafka by Ernst Pawel, 1984; Kafka: Judaism, Politics, and Literature by Ritchie Robertson, 1985; Kafka's "Landarzt" Collection: Rhetoric and Interpretation by Gregory B. Triffitt, 1985; Kafka, 1986, Kafka's The Trial, 1987, Kafka's The Castle, 1988, and Kafka's The Metamorphosis, 1988, all edited by Harold Bloom; Sympathy for the Abyss: A Study in the Novel of German Modernism: Kafka, Broch, Musil and Thomas Mann by Stephen D. Dowden, 1986; The Loves of Kafka by Nahum N. Glatzer, 1986; Kafka's Use of Law in Fiction: A New Interpretation of In der Strafkolonie, Der Prozess and Das Schloss by Lida Kirchberger, 1986; Outside Humanity: A Study of Kafka's Fiction by Ramón G. Mendoza, 1986; As Lonely as Kafka by Marthe Robert, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1986; Kafka (1883-1983): His Craft and Thought edited by Roman Struc and J. C. Yardley, 1986; Kafka's Contextuality edited by Alan Udoff, 1986; The Dove and the Mole: Kafka's Journey into Darkness and Creativity edited by Ronald Gottesman and Moshe Lazar, 1987; Kafka's Prussian Advocate: A Study of the Influence of Heinrich von Kleist on Kafka by John M. Grandin, 1987; Constructive Destruction: Kafka's Aphorisims by Richard T. Gray, 1987; The Jewish Mystic in Kafka by Jean Jofen, 1987; Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings edited by Alan Udoff, 1987; On the Threshold of the New Kabbalah: Kafka's Later Tales by Walter A. Strauss, 1988; Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics and the fin de siècle edited by Mark Anderson, 1989; A Hesitation Before Birth: The Life of Kafka by Peter Mailloux, 1989; Kafka's Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading by Clayton Koelb, 1989; After Kafka: The Influence of Kafka's Fiction by Shimon Sandbank, 1989; Kafka by Pietro Citati, 1990; Critical Essays on Kafka by Ruth V. Gross, 1990; Kafka and Language: In the Stream of Thoughts and Life by Gabriele von Natamer Cooper, 1991; Someone Like K: Kafka's Novels by Herbert Kraft, translated by R. J. Kavanagh, 1991; Kafka's Relatives: Their Lives and His Writing by Anthony Northey, 1991; A Life Study of Kafka by Ronald Gestwicki, 1992; Kafka's Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg fin de siècle by Mark M. Anderson, 1992; Kafka: Representative Man by Frederick Karl, 1993; Franz Kafka and Prague by Harald Salfellner, 1996; Kafka: Gender, Class and Race in the Letters and Fictions by Elizabeth Boa, 1996; Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz, 1996; Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis by Stanley Taikeff, 1996; Franz Kafka by Ronald Speirs, 1997; Constructing China: Kafka's Orientalist Discourse by Rolf J. Goebel, 1997.* * *
W. H. Auden observed that Franz Kafka bears the same relationship to our age that Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe bore to theirs: that is, he defines and exemplifies the modern spirit. Indeed, the modern age is too often "Kafkaesque": a nightmarish world of ethical, religious, and philosophic uncertainty. No writer has more memorably dramatized the alienation of the individual in a fathomless world than Kafka in his short fiction.
Kafka's short stories writhe with strain and struggle, with seeking, searching, questing, asking. They almost never resolve themselves by answering, finding, arriving. Inevitably the struggle ends in death ("The Metamorphosis," "Before the Law"), in the realization that the struggle is endless ("The Hunter Gracchus"), or in the even more bitter conclusion that the concept of "goal" or "end" is itself a deception ("The Departure"). In the hands of another writer the very intensity of the struggle might imply a certain existential affirmation, but not so in Kafka, where the greater the struggle, the more cruel the "punch line" at the end.
Indeed, many of Kafka's stories, especially those later collected under the title Parables and Paradoxes, have a sort of cosmic joke structure. Perhaps the most famous example is "Before the Law," which was also incorporated as a section of Kafka's great novel Der Prozess (The Trial). The law of the title can be interpreted as meaning literally the law of the land, or more generally the bureaucracy that forms so much of the unwieldy apparatus of modern life, or the fundamental governing principles of life (the answers to all the hard questions, in other words), or, perhaps, God. At the beginning of the brief parable a man appears before the open door of the law but is denied entry by the gatekeeper. It is possible he will be permitted entry later, says the gatekeeper, but perhaps not. The man is tempted to push on past (shouldn't everyone be granted free access to the law? he wonders), but decides against it. Instead, he sits on a stool provided by the gatekeeper for days, months, years. His life passes in growing exasperation and bitterness. Near death, he finally asks the question that's been troubling him for years: if everyone wants to be admitted to the law, why has no one else appeared at this particular door? Then comes the cosmic punch line: because, "roars" the gatekeeper, the door was made for that man alone. The parable ends with the gatekeeper preparing to close the door.
"Before the Law" dramatizes a typical Kafkan conflict. A man comes near to something he greatly desires but is forestalled for no very clear reasons. Indeed, the lack of any justification or explanation for the bitter thing that his life has become is at least as painful as the fact that he fails to achieve his goal. It may also occur to the reader that the man must assume a good deal of the blame for his life due to his indecisiveness (why not charge through the door?) and his obsessiveness (why not simply leave?). Hence, the end is both cruelly ironic and appropriate. The man has appeared before the law, sentence has been passed, and judgment has been carried out—only the man did not realize it was happening to him all along.
One level of despair beyond the forestalled seeker is another archetypal figure in Kafka's short fiction: the man who is beyond goals, beyond hope. One of the purest examples is a brief fiction called "The Departure." In a very few sentences Kafka dramatizes the plight of a man alienated in a world of non-understanding. His servant does not understand his simple order to saddle his horse. Only the narrator hears the sound of a distant trumpet. After the man saddles his own horse the servant asks where he is going. He replies:
"I don't know … just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it's the only way I can reach my goal."
"So you know your goal?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, "I just told you. Out of here—that's my goal." (translated by Jania and James Stern)
Kafka's famous death wish is obvious in "The Departure." Indeed, although specific facts from his life rarely intrude on his fiction, Kafka was the most autobiographical of writers. "The Burrow" is a good example of a work in which we sense the writer beset by his private demons. The protagonist of the tale is a mole-like animal who constructs his labyrinthine burrow as a haven against the horrors lying in wait, supposedly, outside. Inevitably, the burrow becomes less a haven than a trap. The mole is afraid of life "outside" yet is wretchedly miserable and alone in the world of his own making. Beyond the obvious religious and philosophical parallels, it is tempting to see the mole as Kafka and the burrow as his art, which was both his relief from the pressures of living and an obsession that prevented him from living the "normal" life that he so desired. Indeed, the agony that writing too often was for Kafka (as witnessed in his diaries) is dramatized in the mole's method of "composition":
So I had to run with my forehead, thousands and thousands of times, for whole days and nights, against the ground, and I was glad when the blood came, for that was proof that the walls were beginning to harden; and in that way, as everybody must admit, I richly paid for my Castle Keep. (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
Kafka richly paid for everything. It is an appropriate irony for this crown prince of alienation that his agonizing investment would pay little dividend until after his death. It is difficult today to overestimate Kafka's influence on the way we see the world and the way writers see the potential of fiction, especially short fiction. By World War II a sort of quotidian realism had come to dominate the world of short fiction to the exclusion of virtually all other modes. It was Kafka and those influenced by him, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Donald Bartheleme, who broke the stale molds and demonstrated what vivid, profound, fanciful, and provocative realms were available to writers and readers of short fiction.
The Czech-born German novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) presented the experience of man's utter isolation. In his works man finds himself in a labyrinth which he will never understand.
Franz Kafka was born July 3, 1883, the eldest of six children of a middle-class merchant who had come from southern Bohemia to the beautiful old city of Prague, its capital, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up as a member of a minority (the Jewish community) within a minority (the German-speaking population) at a time when there was little or no communication between these two groups or with the predominantly Czech-speaking citizens of Prague. When he failed to be accepted by either group, he sank into bitterness, distrust, insecurity, and hatred. Although he acquired early in life a thorough knowledge of Czech and a deep understanding of its literature, the gap remained, and this alienation was reflected in his writing, most notably in the protagonists of his stories, who were for the most part outcasts constantly asking, "Where do I belong?" or "Where does man belong?"
An even greater source of frustration for Kafka was his domineering father, a powerful, robust, imposing man, successful in his business, who considered his son a weakling and unfit for life. His childhood and youth were overshadowed by this conflict with his father, whom he respected, even admired, and at the same time feared and subconsciously hated. Kafka later transformed this total lack of communication into the relationship between God-Father and man in his literary production.
Kafka attended only German schools: from 1893 to 1901 the most severe grammar school, the Deutsches Staatsgymnasium in the Old Town Square, and from 1901 to 1906 the Karl Ferdinand University of Prague. He started out in German literature but changed in his second semester to the study of law. In June 1906 he graduated with a degree of doctor of jurisprudence. Even as a youngster, Kafka must have wanted to write. For his parents' birthdays he would compose little plays, which were performed at home by his three younger sisters, while he himself acted as stage manager. The lonely boy was an avid reader and became deeply influenced by the works of Goethe, Pascal, Flaubert, and Kierkegaard.
In October 1906 Kafka started to practice at the criminal court and later at the civil court in Prague, while serving as an interne in the office of an attorney in order to gain some practical experience. In early 1908 he joined the staff of the Workmen's Compensation Division of the Austrian government, in a semigovernmental post which he held until his retirement for reasons of ill health in July 1922. Here he came to know the suffering of the underprivileged workmen and wrote his first published work, "Conversation with a Beggar" and "Conversation with a Drunkard," two sections from Die Beschreibung eines Kampfes (Description of a Struggle). In 1909 these two pieces were published by Franz Blei in his journal, Hyperion.
Kafka's first collection of stories was published in 1913 under the title Betrachtung (Contemplation). These sketches are polished, light impressions based on observation of life in and around Prague. Preoccupied with problems of reality and appearance, they reveal his objective realism based on urban middle-class life. The book is dedicated "To M. B.," that is, Max Brod, who had been his closest friend since their first meeting as university students in 1902.
In September 1912 Kafka met a young Jewish girl from Berlin, Felice Bauer, with whom he fell in love—an affair which was to have far-reaching consequences for all his future work. The immediate result was an artistic breakthrough: he composed in a single sitting, on the night of September 22/23, the story Das Urteil (The Verdict), dedicated to his future fiancée, Felice, and published the following year in Brod's annual, Arcadia. The story contains all the elements normally associated with Kafka's world, the most disorderly universe ever presented by a major artist. The judgment is passed by a bedridden, authoritarian father on his conscientious but guilt-haunted son, who obediently commits suicide. In this story Kafka successfully blends the disparate aspects of his writing—fantasy, realism, speculation, and psychological insight—into a new unity.
Kafka's next work, completed in May 1913, was the story Der Heizer (The Stoker), later incorporated in his fragmentary novel Amerika and awarded in 1915 the Fontane Prize, his first public recognition.
Early in 1913 Kafka became unofficially engaged to Felice in Berlin, but by the end of the summer he had broken all his ties, sending a long letter to her father with the explanation that his daughter could never find happiness in marriage to a man like himself whose sole interest in life was literature. The engagement, nevertheless, was officially announced in June 1914, only to be dissolved 6 weeks later.
The year 1913 saw the publication of Kafka's best-known story about the man degraded to an animal, Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). By means of an unerhörte Begebenheit (outrageous event), Kafka creates for his reader a world of psychotic delusion which his narrative art preserves as a reality in its own right: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." In spite of Gregor's gallant efforts to master his new situation, he dies.
One of Kafka's most frightening stories is the novella In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony), written in 1914. In spite of this literary output, Kafka maintained his position in Prague and his relations with Felice Bauer until the end of 1917, when he found that he had tuberculosis. The stories written during the war years, from 1916 to 1918, were published in 1919 in a collection dedicated to his father and entitled Der Landarzt (The Country Doctor), and the following year, in October, Die neue Rundschau published his story Ein Hungerkünstler (The Hunger Artist). Again, as in Die Verwandlung, it is the outsiders, however sensitive and gifted, who succumb, whereas the healthy realists survive in the struggle for existence. Ein Hungerkünstler became the title story for the last book published during the author's lifetime, a collection of four delicate stories that appeared in 1923.
One of Kafka's most important writings is the 100-page letter to his father, written in November 1919 as an attempt to clarify his conscience before his father and to assert his final independence of the latter's authority. "Dearest Father," it begins, "you once asked me why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I did not know how to answer you, partly because of this very fear I have of you, and partly because the explanation of this fear involves so many details that, when I am talking, I can't keep half of them together." There follows a detailed analysis of the relationship between father and son, essentially a short autobiography, emphasizing the years of his childhood.
Kafka's three great novel fragments, Amerika, Der Prozes (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle), might have been lost to the world altogether had it not been for the courage of Max Brod, who edited them posthumously, ignoring his friend's request to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts.
The first of them, begun in 1912 and originally referred to by Kafka as Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), was published in 1927 under the title Amerika. The book, which may be considered a Bildungsroman, or novel of education (in the tradition of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister), recounts the adventures of Karl Rossmann, who, banished by his father because he was seduced by a servant girl, emigrates to America. Perhaps his "love affair," in which he was the passive party, explains Karl's vague sense of guilt, a feeling from which most of Kafka's heroes suffer.
The anonymous hero of Kafka's next novel fragment, The Trial, which was begun in 1914 and published in 1925, is suddenly arrested and accused of a crime, the nature of which is never explained. Put before a mysterious court, he is finally condemned to death and executed on the eve of his thirty-first birthday. Though he does not understand his fate, he accepts the trial and follows the orders of the court conscientiously. Kafka shows man to be awakened to the consciousness of original sin: all men are condemned to death in this world in which there is no justice. Joseph K., the protagonist, has only one basic guilt: that he is a human being, a mortal who, by ordinary civil standards, would undoubtedly be considered innocent. The book, therefore, is a parable of an average man in a state of crisis, and of his defeat.
The third and longest novel fragment is The Castle, begun in 1918 and published in 1926. The anonymous hero tries in vain to gain access to a mysterious castle— somehow symbolizing security—in which a supreme master dwells. Again and again he seeks to settle in the village belonging to the castle, but his every attempt to be accepted as a recognized citizen of the village community is thwarted. In one of his aphorisms about his own work, Kafka once said that all of his parables or metaphors were intended to convey the message "that the incomprehensible cannot be comprehended."
During the years 1920 to 1922, when he was working on The Castle, Kafka's health was badly threatened, and he was forced to take sick leave for cures in Meran and the Tatra Mountains. In the summer of 1923 Kafka and his sister Olga were vacationing in Müritz on the Baltic when he met a 19-year-old girl, Dora Dymant, an employee of the Berlin Jewish People's Home. He fell deeply in love with her. She remained with him until the end, and under her influence he finally cut all ties with his family and managed to live with her in Berlin. For the first time he was happy, independent at last in spite of parental objections. Kafka left Prague at the end of July 1923 and moved to Berlin-Steglitz, where he wrote his last, comparatively happy story, "The Little Woman," returning to Prague only 3 months before his death on June 3, 1924.
The basic biography of Kafka was written by his closest friend, Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (trans. 1947); it is available in a second, enlarged edition (1960) with good illustrations. A welcome supplement, again by a friend, comprises the notes written after each discussion with Kafka by Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka: Notes and Reminiscences (trans. 1953); rev. ed., trans. by Goronwy Rees, 1971).
The greatest authority on Kafka in the United States is Heinz Politzer, whose monograph, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (1962), is the standard critical interpretation. The best contemporary critical opinion is in Ronald D. Gray, ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). The many Kafka studies include Angel Flores, ed., The Kafka Problem (1946); Paul Goodman, Kafka's Prayer (1947); Charles Neider, The Frozen Sea: A Study of Franz Kafka (1948); Angel Flores and Homer Swander, Franz Kafka Today (1958); Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (1966); R. M. Albérès and Pierre de Boisdeffre, Kafka: The Torment of Man (trans. 1968); Michel Carrouges, Kafka versus Kafka (trans. 1968); Wilhelm Emrich, Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings (trans. 1968); and Martin Greenberg, The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature (1968). □
KAFKA, FRANZ (1883–1924), Czech-born German novelist, whose work has had an enormous impact on western art and literature. Kafka, who was born and raised in Prague, studied law at the German University there. He worked in a law office and then for an insurance company, writing only in his spare time. A tyrannical father greatly affected Kafka's psychological development. He never married, but three women played an important part in his life. The first was Felice Bauer, known only as F. or F.B. from Kafka's Diaries until she sold his letters to her to Schocken in 1955; they were finally published in 1967 as Briefe an Felice (Letters to Felice, 1973). Kafka met her in 1912 and they were engaged twice before Kafka finally broke off their tortured relationship in 1916. Representing for Kafka the "real" world, the world of home and family, she could not overcome the pull of Kafka's other world, the world of his literary imagination. The second woman was the journalist Milena Jesenska, wife of the Jewish intellectual Ernst Pollak, with whom he maintained a close relationship from 1920; the last was Dora Dymant, a Polish Jewess who nursed him in his last illness. During his lifetime, Kafka published some collections of sketches and stories: Betrachtung (1913); Das Urteil (1916); Die Verwandlung (1916; The Metamorphosis, 1937); In der Strafkolonie (1919; The Penal Colony, 1948); and Ein Landarzt (1919; The Country Doctor, 1945). Kafka suffered from migraine and insomnia for years. In 1917 his illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis, and he spent much of the rest of his life in a sanatorium. He deposited his manuscripts with his close friend and eventual biographer, Max *Brod, and when he was dying left instructions that they were to be burnt. Brod, however, was fully aware of the importance of Kafka's work, and succeeded in getting it published. Kafka's most famous novels are Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937); Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930); and Amerika (1927; America, 1938). Between 1925 and 1937 Brod published Kafka's collected works, together with his Tagebuecher und Briefe.
The action in most of Kafka's books is centered in the hero's unremitting search for identity. The nature of this identity is never revealed and can only be vaguely conjectured from the obstacles placed in the hero's path and his failure to reach his goal. The story generally begins with an event outside normal everyday experience: "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K. for without his having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning." This is the opening of The Trial, a sentence which, in its sheer simplicity, foreshadows the nightmare quality of the novel. The hero never knows what he is accused of, never discovers the nature of his tribunal, and is either unconscious of any guilt, or only too conscious of it. The Trial has a tragic finale, but in the other novels there is no ending at all. The Castle is even more obscure: no goal is ever reached, the castle can never be entered.
Few writers are as difficult to interpret as Kafka. Some critics see in his works a mirror of his own life; others are psychoanalytical, stressing his relationship with his father. There are those who explain the alienation of his heroes from their environment in terms of the Jew's isolation in the world. Most interpreters, however, sense in his works a symbolic representation of the religious plight of contemporary man. Even these interpretations range from nihilistic existentialism to a positive faith in divine salvation. The latter view is that of Max Brod. However, Kafka must be regarded primarily as a creative artist, not as a prophet or a philosopher. Through his imaginative writing, he tried to elevate his own existential situation into the realm of what he himself called "the true, the pure, the indestructible." His prose is unusually lucid, with a melodic range that lifts it to the heights of poetry. His narration is full of surprises, sudden shifts of perspective, and contradictions whose humor only accentuates the grimness of a particular situation.
In common with most assimilated Prague Jews, Kafka was at first only vaguely conscious of his Jewish heritage, but learned about Zionism from Max Brod and Hugo *Bergman. He heard about Jewish life in Eastern Europe from Isaac Loewy, an actor in a Yiddish theatrical troupe with whom he struck up a friendship. Through the writer Georg Langer, he became interested in *Hasidism. He studied Hebrew, attended lectures at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin and, when he came to know Dora Dymant, toyed with the idea of settling in Palestine with her. This progress toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of Judaism corresponds to Kafka's search for his ideal of genuineness and his intense longing for a pure life.
Kafka's novels have been translated into many languages, including Hebrew. They have been adapted for plays, operas, and movies. The Theater of the Absurd is unthinkable without Kafka, and "Kafkaesque" has become an international word to describe the feeling of being trapped in a maze of grotesque happenings. In the introduction to the collection of unpublished stories and fragments issued in 1931 as Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer ("The Building of the Chinese Wall"), Kafka is eulogized as "a master-stylist and a master of the short story, a novelist to be compared only with the very greatest, and an inexorable molder and interpreter of our time." It was not, however, until 1964 that the Czech Communist government thought fit to rehabilitate this "decadent" genius.
kafka literature: R. Hemmerle, Franz Kafka, eine Bibliographie (1958); H. Järv, Kafka-Literatur (1961), contains about 5,000 titles. studies by max brod, the principal authority on kafka: Franz Kafka, a Biography (1947); Franz Kafka's Glauben und Lehre (1948); Franz Kafka als wegweisende Gestalt (1951); Verzweiflung und Erloesung im Werk Franz Kafkas (1959); Der Prager Kreis (1966); in: Jewish Quarterly, 6:1 (1958), 12–14. works by other critics: J. Starobinski, in: E.J. Finbert (ed.), Aspects du Génie d'Israël (1950), 287–92; A. Flores and H. Swander, Franz Kafka Today (1958), includes bibliography; F. Weltsch, Franz Kafka, Datiyyut ve-Humor be-Ḥayyav u-vi-Yẓirato (1959); W. Emrich, Franz Kafka (Eng., 1968); Binder, in: ylbi, 12 (1967), 135–48; M. Greenberg, The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature (1968); J. Urzidil, There Goes Kafka (1969). add. bibliography: E. Canetti, Der andere Prozess (1969; Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (1974)); E. Pavel, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka (1984); N. Murray, Kafka (2004).
KAFKA, FRANZ (1883–1924), Austrian German author.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Bohemia, at that time one of the major population centers of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The German enclave in Prague developed a literary German that reflected its hyperawareness of its isolation within the Czech majority. Kafka's German prose is considered among the cleanest, strongest expressions of the German language throughout its literary history. Kafka considered himself a graphic artist, and his drawings accompanied his manuscripts throughout his life. He turned gradually to prose while studying law, publishing his first book of eight short stories in 1908.
Upon graduating law school, Kafka worked for the Austrian government in the seminationalized Workers' Accident Insurance Institute in Prague from 1908 until a year before his death in 1923. His experience in the law informed his stories and novels: His posthumous novels Der Prozess (1925; The Trial) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle) deal with criminal and civil litigation as symbols and processes of human existence in culture. Kafkaesque is the adjective that expresses the absurdity, indeed surreal horror of plunging into these processes in the conduct of a life. Kafka's vision of the individual caught in the mazes of the twentieth-century state resonated in his time, as well as in the light of the totalitarian state that arose shortly after his death, and early critical appreciation of him highlighted this existential plight.
Kafka's visual intelligence, attested to by his lifelong friend and first biographer Max Brod, was enhanced by his studies of the descriptive psychology of Franz Brentano (1838–1917) and Anton Marty (1847–1914), and his familiarity with Sigmund Freud's understanding of the expressions of mind in human gesture. His prose has been described as that of the exact human gesture by the Weimar German critic Walter Benjamin and his own Austrian German contemporary Robert von Musil.
Kafka's prose was directed at two audiences, the average reader and the writer. His appeal to the ordinary reader is achieved by his clean, disarmingly simple prose. Kafka is said to have read children's stories before he wrote, taking a preparatory cue from one of his own favorite authors, Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880). Kafka directed his publisher, Kurt Wolff, to issue his 1919 collection of stories Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) with the larger type face of a primer. Kafka increasingly brought myths and legends into his stories to broaden the appeal to an ordinary audience. The mythic material is given interesting twists to provoke reader deliberation of meaning.
The narrative level that is directed to his contemporary writers is an encoded one, wordplay and imagery that even in its simple prose is designed to evoke reflection on past literary as well as pictorial methods of comprehending reality. Kafka saw himself as a writer in a tradition of the written story that stretched back into the earliest modern prose experiments of the seventeenth century. He believed that only through an aesthetic perspective could people guide themselves toward an authentic, that is, truthful life, and that his generation of artists had a mission to augment the aesthetic understandings of their predecessors. Kafka agreed with Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) and his contemporaries that aesthetics could engender a more rigorous knowing and living. As he wrote in his journals of 1918: "Art flies towards the truth, but with the decisive intent not to be burnt. Its gift lies in its ability to find the saving beam of light in the dark emptiness, without previously knowing of its existence" (1953, p. 104). The best criticism of the late twentieth century took up Kafka's concern with aesthetics, both visual and verbal. While controversy still occurs over the chapter sequences of his three major novels, still unpublished in his lifetime, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, there is a consensus among scores of scholars that Kafka's own aesthetic concerns justify a critical focus on literary theory, linguistics, and semiotics as the major avenues for comprehending the intent and meaning of his prose.
Kafka's engagement to Felice Bauer before World War I and his later romance with Milena Polak, née Jesenská, were the most intense dramas of his life, generating two collections of love letters that are as humanly instructive as his fiction. The women of his novels have the strength and sexual aliveness that he retreated from in his actual relations, which he justified by an unwillingness to commit to a relationship that might compromise his artistry.
See alsoNietzsche, Friedrich.
——. Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande. Frankfurt am Main, 1953. Journal. Translated as Wedding Preparations in the Country, and Other Posthumous Prose Writings, with notes by Max Brod. Translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. London, 1973.
Gray, Richard T., ed. Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction. New York, 1995. A collection of criticism, selected by the Modern Language Association of America.
Preece, Julian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge, U.K., 2002. Includes sociological and gender studies, alongside the aesthetic analyses.
Rolleston, James, ed. A Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka. Rochester, N.Y., 2002. A range of critical perspectives that includes the social historical as well as linguistic and semiotic.
Mark E. Blum
The Czech-born German novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka presented man's experience of total isolation or separation from the environment around him. In his works man finds himself in a maze that he will never understand.
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, the eldest of six children of a middle-class merchant. He grew up as a member of a minority (the Jewish community) within a minority (the German-speaking population) at a time when there was little or no communication between the two groups or with the mainly Czech-speaking citizens of Prague. Even though Kafka acquired a thorough knowledge of Czech and a deep understanding of its literature early in his life, he was not accepted. This alienation (the state of being rejected or turned away) was reflected in his writing, most notably in the protagonists (main characters) of his stories, who were for the most part outcasts constantly asking, "Where do I belong?" or "Where does man belong?"
An even greater source of frustration for Kafka was his domineering father, a successful businessman who was a powerful, imposing (impressive) man. Conflict with his father overshadowed Kafka's childhood and youth. It was from his mother that he inherited his sensitive and dreamy qualities. In his literary works, Kafka transformed this total lack of communication into the relationship between authority figures and man.
Even as a youngster Kafka must have wanted to write. For his parents' birthdays he would compose little plays, which were performed at home by his three younger sisters, while he himself acted as stage manager. He was also an avid reader. Kafka attended a German grammar school from 1893 to 1901, and the Karl Ferdinand University of Prague from 1901 to 1906. He started out studying German literature but changed to the study of law in his second semester. In June 1906 he graduated with a degree of doctor of jurisprudence (the science of law).
In October 1906 Kafka began his practice of law. In early 1908 he joined the staff of the Workmen's Compensation Division of the Austrian government, a post he held until his retirement for reasons of ill health in July 1922. Here he came to know the suffering of the underprivileged workmen and wrote his first published works, "Conversation with a Beggar" and "Conversation with a Drunkard," which were published in 1909. Kafka's first collection of stories was published in 1913 under the title Contemplation. These sketches are polished, light impressions based on observations of life in and around Prague.
In September 1912 Kafka composed the story "The Verdict" in a single night. The story contains all the elements normally associated with Kafka's world, the most disorderly universe ever presented by a major artist. In "The Verdict" a bedridden authoritarian (domineering) father passes judgment on his conscientious (highly principled) but guilt-haunted son. His next work, completed in May 1913, was the story "The Stoker," later incorporated in his novel Amerika and awarded the Fontane Prize in 1915, his first public recognition.
The year 1913 saw the publication of Kafka's best-known story, The Metamorphosis. For the reader Kafka creates a world of psychotic delusion (absurd and extreme mental perception not based on reality) by means of an outrageous event: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." In spite of Gregor's gallant efforts to master his new situation, he dies.
In 1914 Kafka published a novella (short novel), In the Penal Colony. Several stories were published in 1919 in a collection dedicated to his father and entitled The Country Doctor. His story "The Hunger Artist" was published the following year, and a collection of four stories was published in 1923. Again, as in The Metamorphosis, it is the outsiders (outcasts of society), however sensitive and gifted, who fall into psychotic delusions—not the healthy realists, who always seem to survive the struggle for existence.
One of Kafka's most important writings is the one-hundred-page letter to his father. Written in November 1919, it is an attempt to explain his conscience (one's own ideals and sense of wrong or right) to his father and to declare his final independence from his father's authority.
Kafka's three great novel fragments, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, might have been lost to the world altogether had it not been for the courage of his friend Max Brod (1884–1968). Editing them after Kafka's death, Brod ignored his friend's request to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts.
In The Trial, published in 1925, a man is arrested and convicted by a mysterious court. He tries to learn the nature of the guilt he feels, and the nature of the court, but he fails. He dies in ignorance. The Castle, published in 1926, presents a newcomer's futile (having no useful result) struggle to win acceptance and enter a castle in which an unknown supreme authority resides. Amerika is about the adventures of a teenage European immigrant in America.
During the years 1920 to 1922, Kafka's health was badly threatened, and he was forced to take sick leave. Kafka left Prague at the end of July 1923 and moved to Berlin-Steglitz, where he wrote his last, comparatively happy story, "The Little Woman." He returned to Prague three months before his death on June 3, 1924.
Franz Kafka is regarded as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. His works present a world that is both realistic and dreamlike. Individuals in it struggle with guilt, isolation, and fear. Kafka once said that all of his stories were intended to convey the message that "the incomprehensible [that which cannot be understood by the intellect] cannot be comprehended."
For More Information
Adler, Jeremy D. Franz Kafka. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2002.
Hayman, Ronald. K: A Biography of Kafka. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984.