The name Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) conjures up images of a world without a center, of people alienated both from society and from themselves. Kafka lived at the threshold of the modern technological world, and his stories are prophetic of the bewilderment and anxiety that typify modern frustrations and darkest moods: humans increasingly out of touch with their essential nature or, when confronted by totalitarian oppression, out of touch with society. When Eugene O’Neill’s hairy ape laments that “I ain’t in heaven, and I ain’t on oith, but takin’ the woist from both woilds,” he captured something of the spirit, if not the flavor, of Kafka’s tragic vision. For Kafka, humanity has only glimmerings of its formerly blessed state yet desperately attempts to recover it.
With the story Das Urteil (1913, 1916; The Sentence, 1928; also as The Judgment, 1945), Kafka created the kind of fiction that characterizes his maturity, combining the unreality of dream states with images of startling vividness. In this early story, as in The Trial and The Castle, the protagonist faces a judgment on himself, a fate in which the horrible and the absurd intertwine. In Kafka’s fiction, every interpretation begets an alternative—one that may contradict its predecessor. This is partly a result of narrative technique: In limiting the narrative to the protagonist’s point of view, Kafka ensures that the reader will share his character’s bewilderment without benefit of an omniscient author.
In terms of literary form, Kafka’s stories most closely resemble the parable: simple yet enigmatic. His work may be read for its historical and social import as the reflections of a German Jew living in Czech Prague, a city under Austrian influence. Neither Austrian nor Czech but Jewish, he was an outsider. His work may be viewed psychologically, as an anxious son’s efforts to deal with an accusing father. (Note that all the novels’ protagonists bear the author’s initial, K.) Finally, his work may be read for its religious content, as Everyman’s craving to reconcile the demands of the physical with the yearnings of the spiritual.
Characteristically, Kafka’s protagonist is a man going about his normal domestic business when a violent and inexplicable eruption warns him that his life has gone astray. Often he awakens one morning to discover that some incomprehensible change has occurred. In The Trial, the protagonist discovers men in his room, mysterious functionaries who announce that he has been arrested on charges they will not explain. In the novella The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa arises, or attempts to do so, only to discover that during the night he has been transformed into a giant dung beetle. No explanation is forthcoming. Is this a judgment on Gregor from above or from within, or is it caused by some force whose will is unknown and unknowable? Is the transformation a necessary but painful path to enlightenment or a punishment? One reads on, hoping for an explanation, a hint of rational purpose in such mysterious happenings; one watches fascinated as others respond to the protagonist’s dilemma; one searches for clues in their responses; and one is disarmed at every turn by paradox piled upon paradox, an infinite regression of possibilities that welcome analysis but will never yield to it. Ultimately, the Kafka protagonist perishes or disappears, but whether he is enlightened remains obscure.
In 1911, Kafka began a novel that Brod later published as Amerika. The first chapter was released during Kafka’s lifetime as Der Heizer (1913; the stoker), but his journals refer to this chapter as “TheManWhoWas Lost Sight Of.” The most naturalistic of Kafka’s novels, Amerika relates the story of an innocent youth, not yet sixteen years old, who is forced to leave home for an indiscretion: He was seduced by an older woman, who conceived a child. Like most of Kafka’s fictional parents, Karl Rossmann’s, too, harshly judge their loving son, who, despite their punishment of him, yearns to be reunited with them.
Rossmann’s first intimation of what the new Eden of America will be like occurs when he sees the Statue of Liberty, holding aloft not a torch but a sword (justice? wrath? expulsion from Eden?). This is not the America of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” (1883) but rather a capitalistic/ technological society replete with Mark Twain-like rogues—Robinson and Delemarche— and tycoons à la Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser.
At first, Rossmann seems blessed: His uncle Jacob, a politician and an industrialist, discovers him aboard a ship and takes the lad under his wing. Rossmann quickly perceives, however, that this highly industrialized state called America degrades all those who come in contact with it—workers, rulers, and politicians. Through the familiar device of the picaresque novel, the hero undergoes a series of adventures loosely strung together— adventures among the rich and poor, insiders and outcasts. Rossmann himself is an innocent, hopelessly entangled in a fallen world, and this is the major problem of the work. Unlike the protagonists of the later novels, Rossmann is not part of the world he observes, merely its victim. The reader can pity Rossmann, impressed with Kafka’s diagnosis of a world grown increasingly bureaucratic, but one is not astonished and mesmerized, as readers of the later two novels are. The nightmare in Amerika is someone else’s nightmare, not the reader’s. When Rossmann is vilified and loses his job at the Hotel Occidental for his momentary lapse from duty, the reader is too keenly aware of the injustice, too eager to protest on his behalf.
Compare this, for example, to Kafka’s well-known short story The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor is transformed into a giant insect. At first, one shares the protagonist’s shock—how could such a thing happen, and what does it mean?—but this is quickly succeeded by a more pressing question: How does Gregor know that he is an insect? Not through his senses, for he does not need to look at himself; rather he seems to have intuited the transformation, perhaps invited it. Whether the metamorphosis is a judgment, an injustice, or a signpost to salvation, Gregor’s fate, unlike Rossmann’s, is part of his character.
Still, in Amerika many of Kafka’s familiar themes are developed, however embryonically. The theme of justice is manifest in the opening chapter, when Rossmann unsuccessfully attempts to aid the confused stoker in airing his grievances. As in many scenes that follow, Rossmann will be forced to leave those he cares about without succeeding in accomplishing his aims. His departure from the ship with his Uncle Jacob marks the climax of his good fortune. (Indeed, most of Kafka’s fiction climaxes in the opening chapter, with the rest of the story exploring the consequences of what proves to be an irreversible judgment.) For ingratitude, Rossmann is promptly disinherited by his uncle, a capitalist and exploiter with overtones of Yahweh (the sort of paradox in which Kafka delighted). The sword that the Statue of Liberty holds aloft adds to the impression that Rossmann is being expelled from his American Eden.
Like the stoker, Rossmann will have difficulties with authority. Soon after departing from his uncle, he is employed at the Hotel Occidental in Rameses—in other words, a symbol of civilization, whether Western or Eastern. Under the patronage of the “Manageress,” Rossmann does well at his menial job of elevator operator, but one evening he is caught in a minor infraction. As in the case of the stoker, his efforts to obtain justice—his attempt to justify himself, to minimize his error, to benefit from the help of the Manageress—come to naught, and he is dismissed. The author here creates the kind of nightmarish scene that has become known as Kafkaesque, one in which everything that can go wrong does. The accused cannot stand before authority and state with certainty that he is truly innocent, while the officials on whom his fate depends are blasé, bored, indifferent to petitions, sometimes mocking and malicious.
Leaving the hotel in disgrace (he is even suspected by the police, though no charges have been filed against him), Rossmann is forced once more into the company of the scoundrels Delemarche and Robinson, who have taken up with the former singer Brunelda, a gross embodiment of sensuality who enslaves all three in her love nest. Usually in Kafka’s works, the artist points the way to transcendence, but this singer has given up her art to satisfy her lusts. In a memorable scene, she presses her huge body against Rossmann, literally pinning him to the balcony railing while they watch a political demonstration on the streets. The scene reveals humans given over to their appetites:Onthe balcony, Brunelda pursues carnality; on the streets, the crowd pursues drunkenness. Though this scene is vividly delineated, it reminds the reader once again of the problem Kafka faces here: What has his protagonist to do with the gross bodily appetites which indeed appall him?
At the beginning of the uncompleted final chapter, Rossmann finds himself at the nature theater of Oklahoma. What the author intended here may be inferred from Brod’s report that Kafka wished to end the book on a note of reconciliation. Had Kafka realized these intentions, this work would have been unique in his fiction for its promise of hope and transcendence. The extant fragment, however, suggests that Kafka was deviating from his announced plan. The paradoxes continue: The welcoming angels blowing their horns are not angels, or even good musicians, and they are elevated above common humanity with the aid of ladders that can be seen through their gowns. Rossmann does get a job, but again it is a lowly one, far from a profession. At the novel’s end, he is on a train, presumably heading westward—to a promising future or, as the title suggests, simply to vanish.
“Someone must have denounced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.” Thus begins Kafka’s second novel, The Trial. What are the charges? K. never learns, though he encounters several functionaries of the court, attends preliminary hearings, and hires a lawyer to defend him. This might have been the opening of a novel of political repression, but one quickly discovers that the law here, unlike its operation in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), for example, does not represent the state judiciary system but a shadow court, one that is paradoxically both loftier and seedier. When Kafka speaks of the law, he means what the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Laotzu) called The Way—that style of living that conduces to right conduct and enlightenment. Kafka’s protagonists (and his readers) grope for truth along a path circumscribed by darkness.
Has K. really done nothing “wrong”? He is certainly innocent of civil or criminal wrongdoing. A respected bank official, his conduct has been apparently irreproachable. Yet he is under arrest—a curious form of arrest, in which he is not “prevented from leading [his] ordinary life.” Curiously, the “criminal” must not only defend himself but also discover his crime. Critics diverge in their efforts to understand the nature of the charge against him. According to Brod, K. is unable to love; according to another commentator, his mediocrity condemns him. A third argues that his crime lies in his suppression of his guilt. For yet another, K. is one who refuses to act in accordance with his knowledge of good and evil because he lacks the strength for such action. No easy answer emerges. Whether humanity is indeed guilty or is falsely accused by a divinity unable or unwilling to help it comprehend its own essence is never defending his innocence.
What sort of man is K.? Like most Kafka protagonists, he is a bachelor, uncommitted to others. He dwells in a rooming house, ignoring both his cousin, who lives in town, and his mother, who lodges in the country. His friends are mainly business associates; his lover, awoman visited once a week. No doubt, Kafka, in his diaries, often expressed contempt for such an existence (“My monotonous, empty, mad bachelor’s life”), but is this K.’s crime? If so, he could easily have been informed of that by any number of the officials he encounters. Moreover, K. seems to be living a life similar to that of most of the officials of the court. Can the priest denounce him for bachelorhood? The Examining Magistrate or the painter Titorelli for womanizing? The Magistrates for vanity? Lawyer Huld for placing his profession before his personal life? Rather, Joseph K. is a flawed human being, flawed in some fundamental spiritual way, one who lacks self-confidence. The best clue to understanding his situation is the guilt he only halfway acknowledges. He is told, “Our officials never go hunting for guilt in the populace, but, as the Law decrees, are attracted by guilt, and must then send out us warders.” The implication is that K. himself lured the warders to him in the interests of self-realization and self-extermination—the two are synonymous in Kafka’s fiction.
Joseph K., respectable, even dignified in the world’s eyes, experiences a number of humiliations, each of which will signify the hopelessness of his position. Arrested in his own bedroom by intruders who offer to sell his clothing (they confiscate his underwear), observed by a couple across the courtyard as well as by his landlady and three of his subordinates at the bank, K. finds his privacy, self-respect, and professional competence shredded. He has indeed awakened to a nightmare.
What authority has this court? It is independent of the civil judiciary system; K. is notified that his first hearing is to be held on a Sunday, in a shabby part of town. In fact, he discovers, he is being tried in an attic; most of the attics in the city, he learns, house divisions of this omnipresent bureaucracy. Very likely, Kafka is suggesting that most people are under indictment. The hearing is alternately comic and maddening. At the outset, the judge mistakes the chief clerk of a bank for a house painter. Have they arrested the wrong man? Are they incompetent, or are they simply ignorant underlings blindly administering a form of justice they themselves do not comprehend?
K.’s efforts to denounce these outrageous proceedings, however, reveal that he does not grasp the nature or gravity of his situation. However clownish these officials may appear (the Examining Magistrate browses over obscene drawings throughout the hearing), their power should not be underestimated. K.’s speech mocking the court proceedings does not reveal confident selfsufficiency but swaggering ignorance. “I merely wanted to point out” remarked the Examining Magistrate afterward, “that today . . . you have deprived yourself of the advantage an interrogation usually confers on an accused man.” Unfortunately, this and all the other bits of information about the court that K. receives, whether valid or invalid (and how is he to distinguish between them?), are equally useless to him.
Of K.’s plight the philosopher Martin Buber remarked that, though men and women have been appointed to this world, they are forever caught in the thick vapors of a mist of absurdity. Is divinity unwilling to reveal itself? Possibly. “The highest court . . . is quite inaccessible to you, to me, and to all of us,” K. is told. It is equally possible, though, that it reveals itself every moment but that people either blind themselves or are simply ill-equipped to internalize the message. Near the novel’s conclusion, the priest shrieks out to him, “Can’t you even see two inches in front of your nose?” K. both can and cannot: Indeed, the tragedy of human relations with divinity is the near-impossibility of communication between them.
K. can never get beyond dealing with underlings; humans lack the spiritual strength and the understanding necessary for their quest. In the often excerpted passage of the doorkeeper of the Law, the priest suggests that the petitioner might have merely stepped through the first door of justice had he the temerity and the wisdom. Presumably, the same applies to K., but all of his efforts to assert himself—to demonstrate that he is innocent or that the Law is in error—come to naught. Even the women from whom he has sought comfort have misled him. He has made many errors, and now, the priest informs him, his guilt is all but proved.
Earlier, K. had met another functionary of the court, the painter Titorelli. The name itself is a pseudonym, an amalgam of the names of famous Italian artists. In reality, he is a hack court painter, as degenerate as another artist, Brunelda, in Kafka’s Amerika. Efforts that artists once dedicated to the glory of God, during an age of worship, Titorelli now dedicates to cynical aggrandizement of petty officials. From the painter, K. learns of the three possible directions for his case: definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. Even this, however, may be merely a joke: Definite acquittals do not occur. “I have never heard of one case,” avers the artist. Ostensible acquittal grants provisional freedom, which may last for years or only for an hour, followed by re-arrest. Postponement seems to be the tactic another accused man, Mr. Block, has resolved to follow, but such an approach would deny K. an opportunity to face his creator and accuser; it would reduce him to the status of a beggar, more a cringing beast than a man. Are the courts merely playing with people? Possibly: Titorelli’s drawing of Justice makes her look “exactly like the Goddess of the Hunt in full cry.”
Exactly one year after K.’s arrest, when K. is thirtyone years old (Kafka’s age at the time the novel was written), two men come for him. Garbed in black, K. is prepared for his executioners. Somber as this scene is, however, it has comically grotesque elements. “Tenth rate old actors they send for me,” he muses. “Perhaps they are tenors.” Joseph K. is led through the streets; at times he even does the leading, indicating acceptance of his fate. The final scene is richly textured and enigmatic. His executioners require that he lie down on the ground and intimate that he is to reach for the knife and execute himself. Wordlessly, K. refuses. Is this further evidence of his rebellious nature or his own judgment of the shameful justice rendered by the court? He is stabbed and dies “like a dog, it was as if the shame should survive him.” As one critic has asked, whose shame, that of the man or of the court? On this ambiguous and troubling note, Kafka’s unfinished novel ceases.
Sometime in 1922, less than two years before his death, Kafka began his final novel, the longest and most thematically complex of his narratives. In The Castle, Kafka’s settings grow even sparer than those of his earlier works, reinforcing the parablelike nature of the tale. The Castle is the story of K., a land surveyor, who leaves his village to live and work near the castle. Unlike Joseph K., who is summoned to trial, K. seeks out the castle of his own volition: He wishes to be the castle’s land surveyor. Unable to enter the castle, he attempts to secure an interview with the Court Official in charge of land surveyors, Klamm. Like the petitioner who has come to the Law in The Trial, K. finds his way barred. No matter what he attempts, he is no nearer the castle at the novel’s end than he was on the first day. His quest wears him out, and though Kafka never concluded this novel, he did make it clear that K. was to die, exhausted by his efforts.
Again, Kafka’s enigmatic art has kindled various interpretations. Brod interprets the castle theologically, as the attempt to secure DivineLawand Divine Grace. Others assert that Kafka’s novels describe human efforts to overcome limitations as physical beings to grapple with the spiritual self in a vain effort to unify the two sides. Another group perceives this novel as a denunciation of the bureaucracy that ruled Kafka’s country. All sides can adduce strong arguments—more testimony to the paradoxical and allegorical nature of Kafka’s art.
K. is an outsider, an Everyman attempting to find a meaningful life in a world that has lost its spiritual moorings. In doing so, he looks toward the castle, but whether the castle is even occupied, whether it has corporeal existence or is the inward world the narrator yearns to reach, must remain a mystery: At the novel’s opening, K. stands “for a long time gazing into the apparent emptiness above him.” This emptiness echoes and amplifies the spirit of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; The Decline of the West, 1926-1928). The never seen owner of the castle is named Count Westwest.
Like many of Kafka’s protagonists, K. is aroused from a deep sleep to face an identity crisis. He claims at the inn where he is staying that he has been summoned by the castle, but a telephone call to the castle brings a hasty denial; then, before K. can be ejected from the inn, another call reverses the first judgment. The issue of K.’s status is further complicated when he observes that the castle “was accepting battle with a smile.” The castle accepts the intruder’s invasion but its smile is not easily decipherable. Much suggests that it is mocking. The assistants assigned to him are childish and troublesome, very likely dispatched as spies. The messages he receives are so ambiguous in language, so ill-informed regarding his activities, that he despairs after receiving them, despite the fact that he wants nothing more than to be acknowledged. One official, Bürgel, even informs him that the present moment holds the key to his hopes, implying that if he were to present his petition at once, it would be accepted. Alas, K. has fallen asleep.
As in The Trial, the protagonist’s efforts to justify himself before officialdom prove fruitless. His superior, Klamm, is perceived by K. through a peephole, but all attempts to speak to him are rebuffed. To K.’s request for an interview comes the reply “Never. Under no conditions!” Resolutely, K. determines to intercept Klamm at his carriage, but the official will not venture forth. Stalemated, K. feels he
had won a freedom such as hardly anybody else had ever succeeded in winning, as if nobody could . . . drive him away . . . [but] at the same time there was nothing more senseless, nothing more hopeless, than this freedom.
K. cannot be driven away, but he will never be recognized.
By means of subplots, mainly involving the family of K.’s messenger, Kafka reinforces his theme that humans are alienated from their society, their inner self, their God. The reader who is familiar with the Aristotelian formula of a protagonist who successfully completes an action will be disarmed by Kafka’s novel, in which developments serve only to clarify the impossibility of a successful completion of the goal.
Like Joseph K. of The Trial, K. discovers some respite in women. Frieda (peace), the mistress of Klamm, represents domestic pleasure, the highest Earth has to offer. Although she agrees to leave Klamm for K., his Faustian spirit is not satisfied. Forsaking the sensual and domestic comforts, K. continually leaves Frieda in pursuit of his goal, transcendence of the merely mundane, while maintaining that he does so in part for her. This paradoxical attitude probably mirrors Kafka’s own relationship with Felice Bauer. Kafka was torn between committing himself to his fiancé and freeing himself for his art, an ambivalence reflected in K.’s inconsistent behavior with Frieda. After losing her, K. remarks that though he “would be happy if she were to come back to me . . . I should at once begin to neglect her all over again. This is how it is.” Thus, the reader sees why K. can never know peace, why he is doomed to wear himself out.
In addition to Frieda, K. is intimate with Olga, Barnabas’s sister. Like K., she is desperate to reach the castle to redress a wrong done to her family by one of its officials. Olga’s sister, Amalia, has been grossly propositioned by one of the castle officials. Her family has worn itself out, as K. is doing, in a fruitless attempt to justify themselves before the authorities, to gain access to the Law; even the villagers find the authorities inaccessible. From K.’s perspective, the authorities seem impersonal, aloof. In ruling, they are attentive to trivial detail but bureaucratically indifferent to human considerations. Though Kafka did not complete The Castle, his intended ending was communicated to Brod. Around K.’s
deathbed the community assembles and from the castle comes this decision: that K. has no claim to live in the castle by right—yet taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, it is permitted him to live and work there.
With remarkable prescience, Kafka had sketched his own epitaph. Consider the treatment accorded his memory: Czech authorities placed signs in five languages to mark his grave, yet for more than twenty years they forbade sale of his works.
Short fiction: Betrachtung, 1913 (Meditation, 1948); Das Urteil, 1913, 1916 (The Sentence, 1928; also known as The Judgment, 1945); Die Verwandlung, 1915 (The Metamorphosis, 1936); “In der Strafkolonie,” 1919 (“In the Penal Colony,” 1941); Ein Hungerkünstler: Vier Geschichten, 1924 (A Hunger Artist, 1948); Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer: Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus dem Nachlass, 1931 (The Great Wall of China, and Other Pieces, 1933); Erzählungen, 1946 (The Complete Stories, 1971); The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, 1948; Selected Short Stories, 1952.
Nonfiction: The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1948- 1949; Tagebücher, 1910-1923, 1951; Brief an den Vater, 1952 (wr. 1919; Letter to His Father, 1954); Briefe an Milena, 1952 (Letters to Milena, 1953); Briefe, 1902- 1924, 1958; Briefe an Felice, 1967 (Letters to Felice, 1974); Briefe an Ottla und die Familie, 1974 (Letters to Ottla and the Family, 1982); I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings, 1974 (Nahum N. Glatzer, editor); Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, 2009. miscellaneous: Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande und andere Prosa aus dem Nachlass, 1953 (Dearest Father: Stories, and Other Writings, 1954; also known as Wedding Preparations in the Country, and Other Posthumous Prose Writings, 1954).
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