Franz Kafka (1883-1924), among the most highly acclaimed writers of the 20th century, was a Jewish Czechoslovakian who wrote allegorical stories in the German language. As literary critics have pointed out, Kafka’s meticulously constructed tales seem to defy categorization, containing elements of the comedic and satirical as well as the tragic. He has been described as a realist, an absurdist, a Marxist, a sociologist, an existentialist, and a comedic theologian. Now widely considered the paradigmatic artist of his time, Kafka developed a personal idiom of expression that imposed a unique literary order on the disorder of the emerging modern world and gave universal form to his own personal nightmares and obsessions. Many later writers have acknowledged Kafka’s influence, including Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garda Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Salman Rushdie.
A striking aspect of Kafka’s work is in its uncanny foreshadowing of the nightmare of bureaucratic control and mechanized murder that, more than a decade after Kafka’s premature death from tuberculosis, would take shape as the Holocaust. In his novels The Trial and The Castle, both published posthumously, the central characters undergo persecution by petty officials: Joseph K. is anonymously accused of a crime whose nature remains unspecified; his attempts to clear himself only draw him deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine legal system that ultimately issues a death sentence carried out in an impersonal and humiliating manner. The protagonist of The Castle, who is identified only by the initial “K.,” is repeatedly thwarted by a succession of bureaucrats and office holders in his efforts to gain access to the forbidding, enigmatic structure and ultimate source of power that dominates the town where the story is set.
A sense of oppression and anxiety characterizes much of Kafka’s literary output. In the novella The Metamorphosis, which was published during Kafka’s lifetime and received considerable acclaim, the main character, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman and the primary breadwinner for his mother, father, and sister, awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. His efforts to confront the reality of this existential nightmare are described in such a way as to convey the dark humor as well as the horror of his situation.
Otheracclaimed storiesinclude “The Judgment,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” and “A Hunger Artist,” as well as the unfinished novel Amerika, the first chapter of which is the acclaimed story “The Stoker.”
Kafka was born in the cosmopolitan city of Prague, Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. His father Hermann, a businessman, was physically imposing, overbearing, unsympathetic, and intimidating, and their relationship, always difficult, grew more strained as the years passed. The primordial theme of father-son conflict would emerge in Kafka’s writing again and again in the form of confrontations with remote and sometimes hostile authority figures. Kafka refused to work in the family business, intent instead on a university education. After several years of changing majors at Ferdinand-Karls University in Prague, he went on to earn a doctoral degree in law.
As a student Kafka made acquaintances with other intellectuals and aspiring artists. He befriended Max Brod, a lifelong friend and confidant, to whom he would later entrust his literary estate. Throughout Kafka’s life, he would continually battle bouts of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion and would seek rest and treatment at sanatoriums. His first sanatorium stay occurred before he finished his law degree in 1905. In 1906, just after graduation, the pressures of family, professional, and scholarly pursuits overcame him, and again he sought the refuge of the sanatorium.
Two years after graduation, he took employment as an attorney with the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where he worked diligently until shortly before his death. While in this employment, Kafka wrote several articles on the prevention of industrial accidents. In 1909, he published his first stories, excerpts from an abandoned novel, Description of a Struggle, in the journal Hyperion.
Kafka’s complex inner life and his ambivalence concerning intimate relationships caused him to break off several affairs and marital engagements. As a young man, he would confess to his friend Brod that he was unsuitable for marriage and that he could never love a woman if she returned that affection.
Kafka obtained an early retirement from his long-term employer, and in 1922 he wrote “Investigations of a Dog’” and The Castle. By this time his health was seriously affected by the chronic tuberculosis that would eventually take his life. He lived transiently between sanatoriums and his sisters’ homes. In 1922, he befriended a woman named Dora Dymant, with whom he lived briefly and to whom he eventually proposed marriage. Early in 1924, however, increasingly ill and near death, he traveled back to Prague, where he lived briefly with his parents and wrote “Josephine the Singer.” He died on June 3 in a sanatorium near Vienna.
Although Kafka had directed Brod, his literary estate executor and lifelong friend, to destroy all his unfinished manuscripts, Brod salvaged the unfinished manuscripts instead. In the1920s three novels were posthumously published, and in 1931 a collection of incomplete tales was printed, together establishing Kafka as a 20th century literary master who, against the background of a decaying empire, had prophetically glimpsed the outlines of the world that was soon to come and had responded with a sense of dread and foreboding.
See also Dreams; Existentialism; Novels, Time in
Brod, M. (1947). Franz Kafka (G. H. Roberts &
R. Winston, Trans.). New York: Schocken.
Kafka, F. (1948). The penal colony: Stories and short pieces (W. Muir & E. Muir, Trans.). New York: Schocken.
Kafka, F. (1995). The trial (W. Muir & E. Muir, Trans.). New York: Schocken. (Original work published 1925)
Sokel, W. (2002). The myth of power and the self: Essays on Franz Kafka. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.