Analysis of Franz Kafka’s Amerika

The Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) wrote Amerika between 1911 and 1914, but the novel was not published until 1927, several years after the author’s death. Kafka never crossed the Atlantic to America, and much of his knowledge of the New World was drawn from family lore and writings by Charles Dickens (who wrote of his travels in the United States) and the fantasist Karl May. Kafka’s narrative depicts the inconclusive struggle of a young man named Karl Rossman who ventures to the United States in order to escape a pregnancy scandal in his homeland. Karl’s attempts to gain a foothold in an alien, incomprehensible country are perpetually stymied by various restrictive scenarios and domineering personalities.

America is represented as alternately emancipatory and confining. Upon his arrival and serendipitous encounter with his Uncle Jacob, Karl feels relatively positive about his new environment. But despite his preconceived idealization of America and the luxurious accommodation at his uncle’s home, Karl becomes increasingly claustrophobic. Effectively imprisoned in his room, he is governed by his uncle, who “frowned with annoyance if he ever found Karl out on the balcony.” When the pair visit Mr. Pollunder’s country house, Karl feels oppressed by its “endless corridors, the chapel, the empty rooms, the darkness everywhere” and by Pollunder’s daughter Clara, who attempts to seduce him.

Franz Kafka

Eventually expelled by his uncle for breaking curfew, Karl travels deeper into the country and hooks up with two scoundrels, Robinson and Delamarche. In the town of Ramses, Karl becomes “the lowest and most dispensable employee in the enormous hierarchy of the hotel’s domestics.” The work is grueling, and the exhaustion it produces in Karl compounds his sense of alienation: “After a twelve-hour shift, coming off duty at six o’clock in the morning, he was so weary that he went straight to bed without heeding anyone.” Karl does, however, befriend a young secretary named Therese, but after being falsely accused of thievery, Karl is once again dismissed. One regime is swiftly exchanged for another, as Karl moves on to work for a despotic, obese woman named Brunelda, who is Delamarche’s mistress. Robinson warns Karl that “this isn’t service here, it’s slavery.”

Karl’s sense of conscription is expressed by the physical “embraces” he receives from people he encounters. An interrogating Mr. Pollunder “put his arm round Karl and drew him between his knees” and “involuntarily [Karl] struggled to free himself from Pollunder’s arm.” Later, when Karl finds himself literally suffocated by Brunelda’s fleshiness, “he fl inched in an involuntary but unsuccessful attempt to escape from the pressure of her body.” These episodes of forced engagement are microillustrations of the larger restrictive systems within which the immigrant Karl must function. In each case, Karl’s attempts to extricate himself from the embrace are described as “involuntary”—as if his aversion to this form of contact is a reflexive matter of self-preservation and not merely discomfort. The incidents with Brunelda, where “his head, which was pressed against her breast . . . could move neither backwards nor sideways,” as well as Clara Pollunder’s erotic advances, recall Karl’s earlier experience with a maidservant. It was she who forcibly seduced him and became pregnant—the instance of physical coercion that had led to Karl’s exile in the first place.

Instead of a land of freedom, America, both materially and symbolically, becomes Karl’s land of bondage. The Nature Theater of Oklahoma—whose advertisement banners declare “Everyone is welcome!”— becomes the next and (in the context of this unfinished novel) “final” means of escape. The theater’s recruitment event abounds in the metaphors and rhetoric of salvation: A group of trumpet players dressed up as angels greet the prospective employees, and Karl notes that even “destitute, disreputable characters” are hired. Furthermore, the train journey to Oklahoma is an optimistic one, if only because it impresses upon Karl the sheer enormity of his adoptive country: “Everything that went on in the little compartment, which was thick with cigarette-smoke in spite of the open window, faded into comparative insignificance before the grandeur of the scene outside.” Images of wide-open landscapes abound in the novel’s final scene: “Masses of blue-black rock rose in sheer wedges to the railway line; even craning one’s neck out the window, one could not see their summits.”

The religious resonances in Amerika are profound. Parallels can be drawn between Karl and the biblical Joseph, who is blamed for an older woman’s sexual advances and is forced to leave his home. Like the Israelites’ exodus, which is guided by a pillar of fire, Karl’s arrival in America is marked by a bright light: “A sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty.” Rather than a torch, however, the Statue of Liberty holds a sword, foreshadowing, perhaps, impending conflict and struggle. Karl is entering territory which may prove to be the antithesis of the promised land he expects, in the same way that that Joseph discovered in Egypt the land of his people’s eventual enslavement. As the Jews fled Egypt, so too does Karl leave the land of slave labor for an unknown but promising territory; as he departs, “hundreds of women dressed as angels in white robes with great wings on their shoulders were blowing on long trumpets that glittered like gold.” Moreover, the Nature Theater’s claim that it “can find employment for everyone, a place for everyone” echoes Moses’ insistence on everyone’s inclusion in the new land.

Since Kafka never finished writing Amerika (the manuscript, along with his other work, was edited and published by Max Brod after Kafka’s death from tuberculosis), it remains unclear whether Oklahoma will offer the freedom that Karl seeks. Kafka had told Brod that the Nature Theater of Oklahoma chapter was going to be the novel’s last, and that the story would end with Karl finding a job, a home, freedom, and even his parents in this “almost limitless” environment. However, on another occasion, Kafka said that Karl would eventually be executed. The original (working) title of the novel, The Man Who Disappeared, would affirm this moribund prediction; Karl’s decision to join the theater and, in particular, the name he provides to the recruiters—“Negro”—may signal a final acquiescence to marginality and oppression, an opting out of the social and economic systems in which he had formerly been eager to participate. The theater may thus be less a salvation and more, as the German Marxist literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin has asserted, “a place where the self is disconfirmed.”

Analysis of Franz Kafka’s Stories

Analysis of Franz Kafka’s Novels

BIBLIOGRAPHY Bridgwater, Patrick. Kafka’s Novels: An Interpretation. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003. Brod, Max. Franz Kafka, a Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1960. Cooper, Gabriele von Natzmer. Kafka and Language: In the Stream of Thoughts and Life. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1991. Kafka, Franz. Kafka—The Complete Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books, 1976. Karl, Frederick Robert. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. Loose, Gerhard. Franz Kafka and Amerika. Frankfurt am Main: V. Klostermann, 1968. Mailloux, Peter Alden. A Hesitation before Birth: The Life of Franz Kafka. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989. Pawel Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: