Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Major works:
"The Judgment" (1913)
"The Metamorphosis" (1915)
The Trial (1925)
The Castle
Amerika (1927)

Biographical Notes

Kafka was born into a middle-class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague—the capital of Bohemia, at the time, now the Czech Republic.  Kafka
lost self-confidence early in childhood and never seemed to regain it: he felt himself a failure at every turn, and he felt crushingly inferior to his father, in particular, whom Philip Rahv has described as "a figure fully corresponding to that Freudian terror, the Primal Sire.  Energetic, overbearing, capricious, successful, respectable, [Kafka's] father, not so much by malicious intention as by being simply what he was, exposed to ridicule his son's impractical inclinations and spiritual wandering" (xv-xvi).  Even as an adult, Kafka stuttered whenever he was in his father's presence, though much less otherwise.  Modern clinical psychologists believe Kafka suffered from acute depression and social anxiety disorder, among other likely mental illnesses. In 1906 Kafka completed a law degree at the University of Prague and, after serving a mandatory year as an unpaid law clerk, found work in an insurance office, though his real passion from this time forward was writing fiction, which he did in fits and starts as the demands of his insurance work permitted.  Twice Kafka was engaged to Felice Bauer (no relation to Jack), but both times he broke off the engagement, partly, or ostensibly, from feelings of his inadequacy to support a wife financially. 

In 1917 Kafka contracted tuberculosis, which he (wrongly) thought psychosomatically induced.  On a 1923 vacation he met and fell in love with Dora Diamont, and the couple lived together briefly in 1923-1924 in Berlin, where Kafka hoped he might escape the influence of his family and be able to write more successfully.  Only a handful of his short stories were published during his lifetime, none bringing him any significant fame or notice, and as he was dying of complications from tuberculosis in 1924 Kafka wrote his lifelong friend Max Brod asking that he burn all remaining manuscripts of his fiction after his death.  Fortunately, Brod did not destroy Kafka's manuscripts, and thus all of Kafka's novels and the bulk of his short fiction were published posthumously.  Early readers of Kafka were fascinated by many of his bizarre and haunting works but found them mystifying more than of significant literary importance.  By the middle of the twentieth century, however, Kafka gained world-wide recognition as a major and influential innovator in fiction, breaking the bonds of tradition and exploring the "modern human condition" (alienation, existentialism, et al) through unprecedented depths of experimental symbolism and nightmarishly fluid narratives often considered "magical realism."    

Excerpts from Philip Rahv's introduction to Selected Stories of Franz Kafka:

bullet If Kafka so compellingly arouses in us a sense of immediate relatedness, of strong even if uneasy identification, it is because of the profound quality of his feeling for the experience of human loss, estrangement, guilt and anxiety—an experience increasingly dominant in the modern age. (viii-ix)

bullet That Kafka is among the most neurotic of literary artists goes without saying. It accounts, mainly, for the felt menace of his fantastic symbolism and for his drastic departure from the well-defined norms of the literary imagination. . . .[But] Kafka is something more than a neurotic artist; he is also an artist of neurosis, that is to say, he succeeds in objectifying through imaginative means the states of mind typical of neurosis and hence in incorporating his private world into the public world we all live in. (ix)

bullet [In "The Metamorphosis,"] the clerk's metamorphosis is a multiple symbol of his alienation from the human state, of his "awakening" to the full horror of his dull, spiritless existence, and of the desperate self-disgust of his unconscious fantasy-life, in which the wish to displace the father and take over his authority in the family is annulled by the guilt-need to suffer a revolting punishment for his presumption.

Kafka's letter to his father

The single most crucial factor in virtually all of Kafka's fiction is his extreme fear of his father, evident most patently in such short stories as "The Judgment," where the protagonist's father takes over his friends, his fiancee, essentially his entire life, and then orders his son to commit suicide at the end of the story, which he does.  In Kafka's later and longer works, the father-figure is represented symbolically as various bureaucratic entities of "the state." While Kafka's fiction has drawn productive and significant interest from various critical camps (psychological and psychoanalytical, of course, also Marxist, existentialist, religious, and more), an understanding of Kafka's feelings about his father is of the utmost importance to a full appreciation. In 1917, at the age of thirty-four, Kafka wrote a forty-five page letter to his father expressing these feelings quite pointedly—he delivered the letter to his mother and asked her to give it to his father, but she returned it to Franz without letting his father see it.  You can find the entire text of this letter here:  Below I have copied three typical paragraphs just to give a taste:

Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and—oddly enough—self-pity. I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods, and besides, in talk at home and particularly at the shop the words of abuse went flying around me in such swarms, as they were flung at other people's heads, that as a little boy I was sometimes almost stunned and had no reason not to apply them to myself too, for the people you were abusing were certainly no worse than I was and you were certainly not more displeased with them than with me. And here again was your enigmatic innocence and inviolability; you cursed and swore without the slightest scruple; yet you condemned cursing and swearing in other people and would not have it.

You reinforced abusiveness with threats and this applied to me too. How terrible for me was, for instance, that "I'll tear you apart like a fish," although I knew, of course, that nothing worse was to follow (admittedly, as a little child I didn't know that), but it was almost exactly in accord with my notions of your power, and I saw you as being capable of doing this too. It was also terrible when you ran around the table, shouting, grabbing at one, obviously not really trying to grab, yet pretending to, and Mother (finally) had to rescue one, as it seemed. Once again one had, so it seemed to the child, remained alive through your mercy and bore one's life henceforth as an undeserved gift from you. This is also the place to mention the threats about the consequences of disobedience. When I began to do something you did not like and you threatened me with the prospect of failure, my veneration for your opinion was so great that the failure became inevitable, even though perhaps it happened only at some later time. I lost confidence in my own actions. I was wavering, doubtful. The older I became, the more material there was for you to bring up against me as evidence of my worthlessness; gradually you began really to be right in a certain respect. Once again, I am careful not to assert that I became like this solely through you; you only intensified what was already there, but you intensified it greatly, simply because where I was concerned you were very powerful and you employed all your power to that end.

You put special trust in bringing up children by means of irony, and this was most in keeping with your superiority over me. An admonition from you generally took this form: "Can't you do it in such-and-such a way? That's too hard for you, I suppose. You haven't the time, of course?" and so on. And each such question would be accompanied by malicious laughter and a malicious face. One was, so to speak, already punished before one even knew that one had done something bad. Maddening were also those rebukes in which one was treated as a third person, in other words, considered not worthy even to be spoken to angrily; that is to say, when you would speak ostensibly to Mother but actually to me, who was sitting right there. For instance: "Of course, that's too much to expect of our worthy son," and the like. (This produced a corollary in that, for instance, I did not dare to ask you, and later from habit did not even really much think of asking, anything directly when Mother was there. It was much less dangerous for the child to put questions to Mother, sitting there beside you, and to ask Mother: "How is Father?"—so guarding oneself against surprises.) There were, of course, also cases when one was entirely in agreement with even the worst irony, namely, when it referred to someone else, such as Elli, with whom I was on bad terms for years. There was an orgy of malice and spiteful delight for me when such things were said of her, as they were at almost every meal: "She has to sit ten feet back from the table, the big fat lump," and when you, morosely sitting on your chair without the slightest trace of pleasantness or good humor, a bitter enemy, would exaggeratedly imitate the way she sat, which you found utterly loathsome. How often such things happened, over and over again, and how little you really achieved as a result of them! I think the reason was that the expenditure of anger and malice seemed to be in no proper relation to the subject itself, one did not have the feeling that the anger was caused by this trifle of sitting some way back from the table, but that the whole bulk of it had already been present to begin with, then, only by chance, happened to settle on this matter as a pretext for breaking out. Since one was convinced that a pretext would be found anyway, one did not try very hard, and one's feelings became dulled by these continued threats. One had gradually become pretty sure of not getting a beating, anyway. One became a glum, inattentive, disobedient child, always intent on escape, mainly within one's own self. So you suffered, and so we suffered. From your own point of view you were quite right when, clenching your teeth and with that gurgling laughter that gave the child its first notions of hell, you used to say bitterly (as you did only just recently in connection with a letter from Constantinople): "A nice crowd that is!"

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