Franz Kafka’s (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) stories are not about love or success. They do not leave the reader feeling comfortable. Writing was, for him, a necessity. On August 6, 1914, Kafka wrote in his diary: “My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me.” The meaning of the images from his dreamlike inner life was not always clear to him at the time of writing. Sometimes he realized only several years later what he may have subconsciously meant. Toward the end of his life, he decided that psychoanalysis was a waste of time and abandoned that approach in retrospective reading. Critics may not be of the same opinion.
The opening sentence of “The Metamorphosis” is one of the most famous in modern fiction: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” In the story’s first section, Gregor accepts his fantastic transformation matter-of-factly, perhaps wishing to bury its causes in his subconscious mind. Instead of worrying about the mystery of his metamorphosis, he worries about the nature and security of his position as traveling salesperson for a firm whose severity he detests.
In the second section, Gregor’s isolation and alienation intensify. Readers learn about his relations, past and present, with his family; they have been characterized by concealment, mistrust, and exploitation on the father’s part. Gregor’s mother is gentle, selfless, weak, and shallow; in the story’s development she becomes increasingly her husband’s appendage. His sister Grete is his favorite; however, although she ministers to his new animal needs, she fails him emotionally. In the third section, Gregor, defeated, yields up all hope of returning to the human community. His parents and sister shut him out, as his miserable existence slopes resignedly toward death.
Gregor’s metamorphosis accomplishes several of his aims: First, it frees him from his hated job with an odious employer by disabling him from working; second, it relieves him of the requirement to make an agonizing choice between his filial duty to his parents—particularly his father—and his desperate yearning to emancipate himself from such obligations and dependence. It thus enables him to “bug out” of his loathsome constraints yet do so on a level of conscious innocence, with Gregor merely a victim of an uncontrollable calamity. Moreover, Gregor’s fantasies include aggressive and retaliatory action against the oppressive firm. He accomplishes this by terrorizing the pitiless, arrogant office manager, who tells him, “I am speaking here in the name of your parents and of your chief.” On the conscious level, Gregor pursues the clerk to appease him and secure his advocacy for Gregor’s cause at the office; subconsciously, his threatening appearance and apparently hostile gestures humiliate his hated superiors.
Gregor’s change also expresses his sense of guilt at having betrayed his work and his parents, at having broken the familial circle. It is a treacherous appeasement of this guilt complex, inviting his isolation, punishment, and death. His loss of human speech prevents him from communicating his humanity. His enormous size, though an insect (he is at least two feet wide), his ugly features, and his malodorous stench invite fear and revulsion. Yet his pacific temperament and lack of claws, teeth, or wings make him far more vulnerable than when his body was human. His metamorphosis therefore gives him the worst of both worlds: He is offensive in appearance but defenseless in fact, exposed to the merciless attack of anyone—such as his furious father—ready to exploit his vulnerability.
“The Metamorphosis,” then, can be seen as a punishment fantasy with Gregor Samsa feeling triply guilty of having displaced his father as leading breadwinner for the family, for his hatred of his job, and resentment of his family’s expectations of him. He turns himself into a detestable insect, thereby both rebelling against the authority of his firm and father and punishing himself for this rebellion by seeking estrangement, rejection, and death. Insofar as Gregor’s physical manifestation constitutes a translation of the interior self to the external world, “The Metamorphosis” is a stellar achievement of expressionism.
Kafka wrote “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in one sitting through the night of September 22-23, 1912. It was an eminently satisfying experience, the only one of his works that he said came out of him like a birth. When he sat down to write, he had intended to depict a war scene. Then, the story took its own direction, and when he finished, early in the morning, he was not sure what it meant. He knew only that it was good.
In the course of “The Judgment,” the main character, Georg Bendemann, experiences a complete reversal in his plans. At the outset, he announces his engagement to Frieda Brandenfeld. At the end, he commits suicide. The transition from good news to bad and the descent from normalcy into apparent madness are subtly accomplished. With hindsight, one can see that warning signs are held up all the way. Yet none of these signs is in itself shocking enough to alienate the reader. Only their cumulative effect is overwhelming. Kafka’s stories wield their powerful influence over the reader’s mood by always remaining plausible. While never losing the semblance of logical reportage, Kafka creates scenes of horror, which both spring from and give rise to psychological suffering. Anything resembling such scenes has come to be called “Kafkaesque.”
Kafka writes metaphorically, letting characters, actions, and objects represent emotional and psychological states. Thus, the works are understood best not as narrative advancing a plot but in terms of the protagonist’s attempts to transcend absurdity, depersonalization, and alienation. There is a strong autobiographical element in all the stories.
Most critics equate Georg Bendemann with Kafka, and Georg’s father with Kafka’s father. The issue to be dealt with, then, is why the father would violently oppose the son’s engagement to a woman from a well-to-do family. To accept that, one has to subscribe to an inverse standard. Kate Flores interprets this aspect of “The Judgment” in an anthropological way, explaining that for precivilized man it was an act of insubordination to supplant the dominant male. Certainly, “The Judgment” does contain elements of a primal struggle. Also consistent with this reading is the father’s tenacious hold on Georg’s watch chain, as if to halt the inexorable advance of time and the aging process. There is also the fact that Kafka’s father did indeed deride one of his engagements, although at a much later date than when “The Judgment” was written.
Kafka’s stories support many interpretations. It is important, when reading “The Judgment,” that one not concentrate on the apparent polarity of father and son to the exclusion of the curious figure of the friend in Russia, to whom the first third of the story is devoted. In fact, preposterous though it may seem, the most comprehensive reading results from considering all three male figures—the friend in Russia, Georg Bendemann, and his father—to be different aspects of the same person, namely Kafka. It is significant that only one name is provided.
The friend in Russia immediately becomes associated with writing, because Georg has been writing to him for years. This association is reinforced when the father, surprisingly, also claims to have been writing to the friend. After Georg has brought up the matter of an engagement on three separate occasions, the friend in Russia responds by showing some interest, but as with his emotionless reaction to the death of Georg’s mother, the friend’s interest in human affairs seems perfunctory. He has few social contacts, has let his business slide, and seems to be in a general state of ill health and decline. His life has dwindled dreadfully. This identifies him with Kafka the writer.
Georg Bendemann’s business seems to have been operating in inverse proportion to that of his friend in Russia. It is thriving, and he has recently become engaged. The thriving business and the engagement go hand in hand in “The Judgment.” Both are traditionally recognized outward signs of success. Kafka, at the time of writing “The Judgment,” was already a successful lawyer, well established in his firmand becoming interested in Felice Bauer, who seems to be represented in the story by her close namesake, Frieda Brandenfeld. Frieda makes a remark to Georg that, on the surface, is very puzzling. She tells him that since he has friends such as the one in Russia, he should never have gotten engaged. This is the warning sign that either Frieda or the friend in Russia will have to go. The application to Kafka’s life seems clear: Either Felice or the writing will have to go.
The most interesting and complex of the three male figures is the father. While appearing to oppose Georg, the older man can, in this case, actually be relied on to say what Georg wants to hear. Faced with the irreconcilable conflict between loyalty to his longtime friend in Russia and loyalty to his new fiancé, Georg finds himself inexplicably going to his father’s room, where he has not been for some time. The sunlight is blocked by a wall, the father is surrounded by ancient newspapers, and the window is shut. It is a trip into the dark and the past, which is sealed off from the outside world. The father represents the subconscious. He is also the progenitor, and he is still, despite some deceptive signs of senility, the figure of authority.
The father’s first remark, which points beyond the frame of the surface story, is his question of whether Georg really has a friend in St. Petersburg. What the father really seems to be asking is whether the friend can continue to be called a friend when he has been so neglected. Georg at this point is still inclined to decide in favor of Frieda and an outwardly successful life, so he endeavors to quell the troubling reference to his friend by carrying his father from the dark out into the light and then covering him up, thereby forcibly suppressing the question of the friend.
Contrary to Georg’s intent, this results in the father’s exploding into action. In an extraordinarily dramatic scene, he hurls off the blankets, leaps to his feet, and, standing upright on the bed and kicking, denounces Georg’s plans for marriage and accuses him of playing the false friend all these years. Georg realizes that he should be on his guard against attack but then forgets again and stands defenseless before his father.
The father’s second remark that seems rather incredible in terms of the surface story is that the friend in Russia has not been betrayed after all, because he, the father, has also been writing to him all along and representing him. Suppressed talents are only strengthened in the subconscious. The father now unquestionably has the upper hand and pronounces his judgment over Georg: He was an innocent child, but he has been a devilish human being. Presumably, it was during childhood that Georg cultivated the friend now in Russia. As an adult, getting ever more into business and thoughts of marriage, Georg has been devilish by denying his true self, the writer. The father finishes by sentencing Georg to death by drowning. To drown is to be plunged into the creative element.
Georg confirms the validity of his father’s verdict by carrying out the sentence. It is important for the reader to remember that as the father crashes on the bed exhausted, the subconscious having asserted itself, and as Georg lets himself fall from the bridge, effectively ending the business career and the engagement, it is the formerly faded and foreign true self, the writer, who remains. Thus, what seems on first reading to be a horror story of insanity and suicide is actually not a disaster at all but an exercise in self-preservation. No sooner had Kafka become romantically involved with Felice than he had worked out subconsciously how detrimental such a relationship would be to his career as a writer. With such personal material, it is no wonder the writer in Kafka felt inspired to finish “The Judgment” in one sitting. Ironically, his conscious mind was at that point still so far behind the insights of the subconscious that he dedicated the story to none other than Felice Bauer.
The subtitle of Heinz Politzer’s book on Kafka, Parable and Paradox, evokes the elusive nature of Kafka’s story lines, which are charged with opposing forces seeking synthesis. Although most of the stories are grim, the reader cannot help but be amused at the outrageous, at times burlesque turns of events. Only the bleak and disquieting desperation of the characters contradicts the humor inherent in their situations. Also, many of the stories end with the main character dead or reduced to a state of utter hopelessness. Many of the longer stories, such as “The Judgment,” are so complex that they can be confusing. Kafka’s shorter stories, consisting of only a paragraph or a page or two, sometimes leave a more lasting impression, because they each center on one main event.
Give It Up!
Politzer begins his study with a lengthy discussion of a 124-word commentary that Kafka wrote late in 1922. In the commentary, which has become known as “Give It Up!,” a traveler heading for the train station early one morning becomes disconcerted when he checks his watch against a clock tower and thinks that he must be late. In his haste, he becomes uncertain of the way and has to ask a police officer. The officer repeats the question, then tells the man to give up and turns away from him. The police officer’s reply is both hilarious and profoundly unsettling. It is hilarious because it is completely out of line with what a police officer would say. It is unsettling because it lifts the story out of the mundane into a world where not only time but also, apparently, place have lost their relevance and it is impossible to determine one’s way. The issue has become existential.
Before the Law
Kafka innately distrusted figures of authority and frequently portrayed them maliciously misleading and abusing those who came under their power. The 1922 commentary is simply a lighter variation on the theme that Kafka stated unforgettably in 1914 in his parable “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”). This moving and perfect piece of writing was later incorporated into chapter 19 of Kafka’s novel Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937).
In the two-page parable, a man from the country seeks access to the law. He is told by the doorkeeper that he may not enter at the moment but possibly later. The man is deterred from entering without permission by the doorkeeper’s telling him that this is only the first of many doors that are guarded by increasingly powerful doorkeepers. The man spends the rest of his life there waiting for admittance and gives away everything he owns in unsuccessful attempts to bribe the doorkeeper. Finally, in his dying hour, he asks why no one else has come to that door, only to hear the doorkeeper say: “This door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
The parable is not enlightening. By the time the man finds out that he should go through the door after all, it is shut in his face. The story seems, rather, to be a comment on the human condition as Kafka experienced it in early twentieth century Europe. The rise of science and industry had displaced but could not replace religion, with the result that human beings could no longer find their way. The human institutions, the apparent absolutes represented by the law, prove to be fallible, imperfect, and unreliable. Nothing now can fill the human need for direction in life. Reality has become fragmented and disjunctive. “Before the Law” is particularly poignant because the reader cannot help but believe that, before the law, human beings are all people from the country, simple, helpless creatures who have lost their way.
The Bucket Rider
The way out of this impossible situation is brilliantly described with humor and sadness in Kafka’s three-page story “Der Kübelreiter” (“The Bucket Rider”), written during a coal shortage in the winter of 1916. The main character has no coal, and it is bitterly cold. He also has no money but goes to the coal dealer anyway, to ask for only a shovelful. To show how desperate he is, he rides there on his empty coal bucket, sailing through the air and calling down from high above the dealer’s house. The dealer is deeply moved by the voice of an old customer, but it is his wife who goes to the street to investigate. Once she finds that the bucket rider cannot pay immediately, she claims to see no one and waves him away with her apron. The bucket is too light to offer any resistance. The rider ascends “into the regions of the ice mountains” and is “lost for ever.”
This story contains the delightful, dreamlike element of the fantastic that is a source of great beauty in Kafka’s works. The moment the main character decides to ride on his bucket, which occurs at the beginning of the second paragraph, he is lifted out of everyday reality, in which he would surely have frozen to death. Kafka shows, once again, that it is useless to plead with others, especially those who have some authority. Rather than send his main character on an empty bucket back to his freezing room, Kafka has the bucket whisk him away into the ice mountains, never to return. Coal and indeed all mundane concerns cease to be a problem as the bucket rider leaves behind the human habitat. Thwarted by everyday pettiness, he has moved instead into a timeless mental space that seems infinitely more interesting. In “The Bucket Rider,” Kafka represents that space with the image of distant ice mountains. In his fifty-second aphorism, he writes a literal description of that saving space: “There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one, and what we call evil is only a necessary moment in our endless development.” The bucket rider has transcended the evil phase.
A Country Doctor
The winter of 1916 was one of Kafka’s most prolific periods and one in which he seemed especially visually oriented and inclined toward the fantastic. His seven-page masterpiece “Ein Landarzt” (“A Country Doctor”) is one of his most involved works. It contains all Kafka’s main themes and the salient features of his style.
As in “The Bucket Rider,” the setting of “A Country Doctor” is an icy winter, and the mood is one of confused, melancholy desperation. The situation is hopeless, and the doctor sees no way out of it. Unlike “The Bucket Rider,” which has only one main event, “A Country Doctor” is a richly textured work. The most rewarding interpretive approach is that employed here in examining “The Judgment.” There are three main male characters: the country doctor, the groom, and the sick boy. They seem to represent different aspects of the same person, and the story, once again, seems to be autobiographical.
The country doctor is an older man who has been working for a long time in his profession, and he is disillusioned. The local people, while placing many demands on him, do nothing to help him. Not one of the neighbors would lend him a horse in an emergency. In keeping with the spirit of the age, the people have lost their faith in religion and look instead to science and medicine to perform the miracles, backing up the doctor’s efforts with choral chanting as if he were a medicine man. He is the only one sadly aware of the limitations of his profession but plays out the charade in a resigned fashion, eventually lying outright to the boy by minimizing the severity of his fatal wound.
Kafka was a professional as well, a lawyer who in 1916 had already worked nine years after articling. Although he was a dedicated and valued member of his firm, he regarded his work as a necessary evil, as his means of earning a living so that he could write in his spare time. He was not disillusioned with law, but neither did he harbor any cherished illusions about his distinguished profession. He believed that, as it did to the man from the country in “Before the Law,” law was wearing him out. Readers will equate the country doctor with Kafka the lawyer.
In order of appearance, the second male character in “A Country Doctor” is the groom. That he belongs to the country doctor or is part of him is evidenced by the servant girl’s remark, “You never know what you’re going to find in your own house.” Certainly, the groom represents a source not tapped in a long time—so long, in fact, that the country doctor is surprised when the man emerges from the abandoned pigsty. By association with the steaming horses, by the birthlike nature of their emergence, and by his rape of Rose, the groom stands for vitality, sensuality, and sex. He is also associated with savagery and filth.
At the time of writing “A Country Doctor,” Kafka had broken off his first engagement to Felice Bauer and had had several short-lived affairs. He was attracted to women but still believed that marriage and his work as a writer were mutually exclusive. His belief that marriage was not for him was based also on his perception of the sexual act as something terrible. Just as the groom represents a repressed aspect of the country doctor, who had all but ignored Rose, so, too, he represents the sexual fulfillment that Kafka decided again and again to sacrifice in order to continue his writing. Readers will equate the groom with Kafka the lover.
The groom and the two horses emerge from the pigsty together, then go off in different directions. While the groom was pursuing Rose, the unearthly horses transported the country doctor to the sick boy. Perhaps the boy was only to be reached by supernatural means. There is a fairy-tale quality to the ten-mile journey. It took only a moment, and the blinding snow was gone, replaced by clear moonlight. The nature of the journey is significant for the reader’s interpretation of the boy. Kafka has placed him in the spiritual world.
Whereas the country doctor is only one of many, as stressed by the indefinite article in the title, the boy is unique. His father, family, and the villagers have no understanding of the boy’s condition. Clearly, the boy is having a hard time of it in these surroundings. Even the doctor feels ill “in the narrow confines of the old man’s thoughts.” Disheartened, the boy at first wants to die. So does the doctor. Once the doctor becomes aware of the unique nature of the boy’s great wound, however, which is both attractive and repulsive, rose-colored and worm-eaten, the boy decides that he wants to live. By then, though, it is too late. The blossom in his side is destroying him.
Like the friend in Russia in “The Judgment,” the boy in “A Country Doctor” appears sickly but turns out to be of supreme importance. Kafka was not physically strong. In 1916, his tuberculosis had not yet been diagnosed, but he suffered from stomach problems. He lived with his parents, who were concerned that the long hours he spent writing were ruining his health. It is therefore fitting that those characters in his stories who represent Kafka the writer appear to be sickly. Readers will equate the boy with Kafka the writer.
Like the surface level of “The Judgment,” the surface level of “A Country Doctor” reads like a tragedy of unequaled proportions. Unable to help the boy, the country doctor finds himself also unable to get home, for the trip away from the boy is as slow as the trip to him was fast. “Exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages,” the doctor realizes that, as a result of this trip, he has not only sacrificed his servant girl but also lost his flourishing practice to his successor. What this translates into, though, is a triumph. Kafka the writer has subjugated Kafka the lawyer and Kafka the lover. The famous, peremptorily fatalistic last line of the story reveals its double meaning. “A false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever.” Once Kafka accepted his gift as a writer, he could never abandon that link with the spiritual world.
Kafka’s works show, simultaneously and paradoxically, not only the existential angst inherent in the human condition but also a way out of that hopeless state. If the various characters are considered as elements of a personality seeking integration, the stories end not bleakly but on a transcendent note. Kafka’s refuge was in his writing, in the spiritual world, and in laughter.
Other major works
Novels: Der Prozess, 1925 (The Trial, 1937); Das Schloss, 1926 (The Castle, 1930); Amerika, 1927 (America, 1938; better known as Amerika, 1946).
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).
Nonfiction: Brief an den Vater, wr. 1919, pb. 1952 (Letter to His Father, 1954); The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1948-1949; Tagebücher, 1910-1923, 1951; 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).
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