Who’s afraid of Franz Kafka?


I am. Yet, as a person, he isn’t a figure that brings fear into senses. But his life and his works are a whole different story. The thing I’m afraid of is the possibility that he is right. Kafka speaks about his life and his attitude towards literature and art in general, through his novels. If he got close to the truth then the hope for some of us is lost, for those who somewhat resemble Kafka, that is for those who aim at dwelling in the world of art. Let me get to the point. I’ll consider the Metamorphosis and The Trial in this short text.

<read on ->

It’s not your typical morning if you wake up as a cockroach. The antagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis did.  He became a giant, slippery bug. He couldn’t put on his clothes, he couldn’t go to work and he got his family filled with disguise. What could he do? He haven’t chosen such a fate, he was like a hero of a Greek tragedy, unable to escape his fate. From what I’ve seen the majority of interpretations underline his dehumanization as a bureaucratic employee.  He put his private life aside, he tried to be productive and finally the routine has broken him and his free spirit.

Let me point to a different way of reading it. As we know Kafka’s life was torn between writing and fulfilling the middle-class expectations of his father. Although an artist within, he studied law, which he hated, and then he went on to work in a boring profession. Only time he wrote was at night, while feeling guilty for it. His father frightened him to death (see his ‘Judgement’ story). Now, Kafka had one fantastic quality that made him one of the greatest authors. He was able to put his agonizing fears and insecurities into prose with perfect vividness.

On this account ‘The Metamorphosis’ is an experiment. Kafka wondered how his family would see him if he devoted his life to art. What if he, like this cockroach, would stay in his room the whole day and write page after page. What if he, as an artist, would lose the ability to do all the practical activities, like dressing up, washing etc., just as it was impossible for a cockroach too. On the other hand he would gain a new perspective, a whole different world-view shared by those with an artistic insight, well, just like a cockroach being able to walk up the walls to the ceiling and looking down. Sadly, he probably knew what would happen. The family would develop a strong disgust towards him, even more as he wasn’t earning money for the household. Ultimately he’d die forgotten and isolated in his room, finally discovered by the cleaning lady. This sounds like a pure horror to me still it might explain well what Kafka had in mind.

The similar argument can be made about the Trial. One day, all of a sudden the main character is arrested. Not taken to prison tough, it’s only declared to him. He became curious about the fact, not feeling guilty yet he makes great effort to clear himself from the accusations. Even though he is left to do his job normally, he can’t concentrate on normal life. The search for truth engages him more and more and along the way he witnesses unbelievable corruption and indecency of courts, lawyers and judges. The draconian, illogical system of law makes him confused; his mind comes close to madness. Everyone say he shouldn’t have got involved, he should have led his usual life despite being prosecuted, despite some doubts. Finally he learns that there is no solution to his situation and a terrible death sentence becomes his end.

Here, again, there is a man who cannot deal with a wider insight into the nature of things. Once he starts to be interested in something more than everyday struggle in his bank office he inflicts guilt on himself. He envisions a pitiless court determined to lock him away. While others struggle day to day, he is able to see problems, inequity and violence in the world around him. It’s his 6th sense, an artistic vision such as this of the insect. He saw beyond the petty small talk and down to earth business. He saw people getting hurt, as well as he learned their hopelessness. He also managed to feel the guilt for other people, not only for his individual troubles. That’s how he lost his mind and lost his life in the end. Therefore he should stand as a symbol of a tragic hero, manifesting empathy and absorbing suffering for the good of humanity.

Kafka is among the most pessimistic, depressive figures in the history of literature. The most powerful proof of that fear was his will to burn all the unpublished works, The Trial among them. He could never rest with clean conscience, as he was able to see far more pain around him than any other man.

5 comments on “Who’s afraid of Franz Kafka?

  1. dyssebeia says:

    I haven’t read Kafka in a while, but I’ve been meaning to dive back in. This is an interesting analysis–I had not thought about his works in this way. As a bit of a counter, though, I think it is worth considering that Kafka’s neighbors would hear him, late at night, laughing hysterically at what he had written. (Unfortunately, I forget where I heard this.) This inclines me against an overly pessimistic reading of Kafka. In this same vein, consider that many of Kafka’s plots could equally well work in light-hearted comedies. It’s not all gloom.

    • I’m not sure that hysterical laughter is always connected with good humor, for me it sounds like insanity :> It’s not all gloom, there is some hope in ‘america’ but not much more, I’d argue rarely there is a more depressive author

  2. unpaginated says:

    Kafka’s stories may be pessimistic, but you miss a lot by solely focusing on the dark aspects of his work and life. For instance, Kafka may have had difficulties juggling his writing and his job as an insurance investigator, but from all indications he was very competent at his job and well liked as an employee. His death by tuberculosis overshadows the fact that he was a gymnast during his youth. All of these aspects are reflected to varying degrees in his work. There is also much humor– gallows humor and sometimes cruel humor, but not pure depressiveness. For that I would recommend Gottfried Benn, Thomas Bernard, or, to a lesser extent, W.G. Sebald.

    • geez, my comment disapeared I have to write it again :/ Thank you for commenting. You may be right that I put too much stress on depression and gloom. No life is just a streight line of pain and sorrow, but I’d like to argue that these two stories are rooted in the fact that Kafka was deeply torn inside. He wanted a life of a writer and at the same time he felt that it would be irresponsible – that’s why he tried this scenarios in his novels, where he drowns in guilt. Remember that he was engaged but decided not to be married, as it would led to more serious, stable life. I have a book by Sebald but sadly no time to read it, which torments me in a kafkaesque way ineed.

      • unpaginated says:

        Sebald is great. I definitely recommend reading him as soon as you get the chance, especially the Rings of Saturn. There is less anxiety and overt despair in his work, more of a gentle melancholia along with great moral indignation. Sebald is darker in my opinion on the whole because his work lacks the humor and self-satire of Kafka.

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