Kafka’s protagonists have a hard time. They awaken from restless dreams and find themselves transformed into vermin in bed. They are accused and led to the sheep without knowing why. A man dies at the gate after waiting for admission. Another drowns himself in the river because his father tells him to.
Kafka’s work is characterized by nightmarish scenarios. He describes them with the same cool distance of a bureaucrat that often animates his characters. It is this style, the withdrawn versus the unheard of, that makes Kafka’s stories unfathomable in a unique way. So unfathomable that there is a separate adjective for it.
But we can very well find out what makes Kafkaesque. How can you interpret Kafka? What are his most important works? And where does Kafka come from? What kind of person is he?
What Does Characterizes Modern Literature?
Kafka’s literature belongs to the epoch of literary modernism. To understand Kafka, we must learn about what shaped his literature. Since his writing is a big inspiration behind the modern literature, we need to be aware of this literary genre first.
It only started at the time of Kafka’s creation. Modernism as a literary era is characterized by a fragmented worldview, subjectivity, and its openness to experimentation, it includes a wide variety of writing styles. That Kafka’s very own view of the world comes out so clearly in his idiosyncratic style can, therefore, be seen as a typical feature of the era.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a new attitude towards life emerged. New scientific discoveries make the world seem increasingly complex. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity plunges physics into a crisis of meaning. Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis as a separate science. The ego, the life of the soul, comes into focus. Freud shows that people do not fully control their thinking and acting. His works have a great influence on many writers.
While the man is insecure on a spiritual level, he finds himself ruled by a flawlessly functioning state on a social level. The division of labor has never been more efficient than now. However, this entails, as it were, an oversized bureaucracy. The individual is often alienated from the bureaucratic system. A new consciousness arises: The world is so confusing that people only understand it in fragments.
Together with the attitude towards life, the literature also changes. It now often focuses on a single person and is limited to their very specific view of the world. Many stories are told from the perspective of their main characters. Their inner monologues and streams of consciousness are typical identifying marks for texts of literary modernism. In addition, there is the speech experienced, in which it is often not clear who is speaking. The character or the narrator. The omniscient narrator, on the other hand, who only rarely appears in naturalism, is increasingly disappearing.
Unlike other literary eras, modernity cannot be clearly delineated in terms of style or time. It begins around the turn of the century, around 1900, and is only replaced by postmodernism from the 1950s. Although the epoch of literary modernism is considered closed, modern spellings still exist today.
About Franz Kafka
Bureaucracy in particular is of great concern to Kafka. A crippling bureaucracy accompanies many of the characters from his stories. Kafka’s stories often revolve around the subject of justice. A look at Kafka’s biography explains why he is so concerned with the subject.
In 1883, Kafka was born into a Jewish merchant family in Prague. Kafka grew up in a large German-speaking enclave in the middle of Prague. His family spoke German. German schools, universities, theaters, and newspapers shape their cultural environment. The cultural city of Prague will be the center of Kafka’s life.
Kafka was already interested in literature when he was at school. Nevertheless, he cannot bring himself to study literature. His authoritarian and enterprising father, Hermann Kafka, urged him to study law. Father and son could hardly be more different. Hermann Kafka worked his way up from poor backgrounds and achieved professional success. He leads a civil life. Franz is not very interested in such life-world things. He tries in vain to understand this from his father.
The father interprets Franz Kafka’s sensitivity and sensitivity as a weakness. Hermann Kafka behaves despotic, rough, and self-righteous towards his son. The father-son conflict will persecute Franz Kafka throughout his life and runs through his entire literary work. Following the desire for recognition from his irascible father, Franz Kafka completed his law degree and did his doctorate. He then successfully worked as a lawyer in an insurance company.
However, he continues to pursue his passion, literature, in private. He joins circles of authors in coffeehouses where literary writers from Prague meet and discuss their texts. Here Kafka gets to know the writer Max Brod, who becomes his closest friend and confidant. The two are very different. But Brod will support and advise Kafka all his life.
It is also Brod who urges Kafka to continue writing and publishing his work. However, Kafka, who is plagued by self-doubt, is very careful. Only a fraction of his texts appear during his lifetime. After Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924, Brod made a serious decision. Kafka wanted all of his unpublished manuscripts burned. But contrary to his decision addressed to Max Brod, his best friend decides to posthumously publish Kafka’s texts. Not an easy decision. But if Max Brod had followed Kafka’s will, there would be fewer masterpieces of world literature today.
Precise Language, Confused Plot, Adapted Characters Became Kafka’s Writing Style
To understand Kafka’s very specific style, you should take a closer look at some of his most important works. In 1912 and 1913, Kafka had an extremely productive creative phase. With his novella, The Judgement, the writer achieved a breakthrough. It is one of the few texts that Kafka published during his lifetime. It also begins to develop Kafka’s very personal style.
The grotesque aspect of Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, one of his most famous, is even more potent. The Metamorphosis, written in 1912, published in 1916, is about a man who has mutated into a man-sized beetle overnight. The novella begins with one of the best-known first sentences in world literature. “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed into enormous vermin in his bed.” Neither the protagonist nor his family attaches great importance to his transformation. Gregor initially believes in a temporary situation.
The Samsas worry about how to hide their problems and avoid cuts. But this condition remains unsustainable for a long time. Before his transformation, Gregor earned his family’s living alone. Now that he can no longer work, his parents and sister need to go to work. Gregor Samsa, who is now locked in his room, gradually realizes that in this form he is only a burden to his family. Communication is impossible because he cannot speak. Mother and sister avoid him, his room becomes a storage room. When the authoritarian father throws him apples in a tantrum, Gregor suffers a serious injury. Weakened, guilty and willingly, he awaits his death. The family members breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a new beginning.
Who or what is Gregor’s transformation for? Does it stand for a revolt against the father and the profession at the beginning? In the end, Gregor seems to be the loser himself. His disgusting appearance becomes a mirror of his inner state of mind.
As in The Judgment, Die Verwandlung also uses the narrative voice and perspective in such a way that the event must appear bizarre. Kafka tells almost continuously from the third person point of view, but always from Gregor Samsa’s perspective. It is only after Gregor’s death that the narrative perspective necessarily changes to a higher one.
The outrageous plot and the unexcited, almost impassive narrative tone alienate the reader from the action. This is why he succeeds in what the protagonist fails. He is placed at a critical distance from the action. Kafka leaves the reader alone. He neither provides explanations nor is he outraged in the form of his protagonists about unrealistic events. Despite the created distance, the protagonist’s feeling of suffering becomes palpable.
The story is created in just one night. Kafka writes deep into the morning. He also strives for this ideal writing condition later. Inevitably, his professional life always puts a spanner in the works.
The Judgment is about a father-son conflict that smoldering for a long time until it escalates because the son wants to get married. When the protagonist Georg Bendemann learns that his father reveals details about Georg’s professional and private success to his pen pal, he feels deeply offended. His father does not pay attention to Georg’s privacy, nor does he take into account that the descriptions could hurt the less successful pen friend. Conflict arises from these two blatantly different characters. In the dispute, the father accuses the son of having taken over the family business and of choosing a fiancé who is unworthy of him. Finally, the father condemns the son to drown. Thereupon Georg Bendemann rushes to the river and executes the cruel judgment of the father himself with words.
Autobiographical references are difficult to deny here. Kafka’s father actually opposed his marriage wishes. In addition to the parallels at the level of action and figure psychology, the precise style of the narrative is also interesting. Kafka’s language is simple and concise, without frills. Adjectives are rare. All details related to each other.
It also shows in The Judgment Kafka’s characteristic narrative strategy. The text captivates the reader by choosing the protagonist’s perspective. The reader experiences his self-deception first hand. In 1912 this narrative form, which disturbed the reader, meant a radical break with the convention. The narrator as an omniscient authority does not exist here, and suddenly grotesque, inexplicable things happen that the reader has to interpret alone.
The novel The Trial, written in 1914, sounds similarly nightmarish. From the perspective of the protagonist Josef K., the story of his mysterious arrest and the subsequent story is told. The plot begins on the morning of his 30th birthday with Josef K’s arrest and ends on the eve of his 31st birthday with his executioner with the butcher knife. Once again, Kafka’s own narrative technique shows up, which seems very cramped when reading.
The arrested Josef K. tries to live his life without any changes and adjusts himself to the abnormal situation. He is arrested but is not in prison. He can do his job during the day but is guarded around the clock. Every now and then he attends an opaque process, the labyrinthine confusions of which he endures with stoic equanimity. At no time did Josef K. or the reader learn the reason for the arrest.
Many critics find his writing to be linked to the later events of Nazi Germany and he is placed in the position of a prophetic observer. Even the Metamorphosis is another masterpiece which believed to have guessed the upcoming German Holocaust.
What crime is Josef K. supposed to have committed? What kind of guilt is it? It is not even clear who the judge is. The protagonist speaks of innocence but behaves like a guilty person right from the start. He complies easily with his fate.
Central to this narrative is the atmosphere of being handed over to an unnamed authority. Josef K’s civil servant mentality shows in a conscientious effort not to do anything wrong. This increasingly prevents him from seeing through or questioning the processes of the life-threatening, inevitable bureaucracy.
In addition to the Kafkaesque narrative situation, the topic in particular makes the text a very modern one. The image of a person’s alienation emerges, which is degraded to a mere act and faces an overpowering system that no longer reveals any external meaning. This feeling is underlined by the detailed descriptions of the events, which, however, leave the overall sense completely undisturbed.
How Do We Understand Kafka?
In literary studies, the interpretation of Kafka’s writing was often searched for parallels to his biography. It is not only the subject matter and the constellation of figures that speak for a biographical reading. The names of the characters themselves cry out for such an interpretation. They are called Gregor Samsa, Josef K., or just K.
Similarly, the female figure in The Judgment is named Frieda Brandenfeld with the same initials as Kafka’s fiancée Felice Bauer. Since Kafka has also noted many of his manuscripts in his diaries, the boundaries between the literary and the private are sometimes blurred.
A particularly controversial text by Kafka is the approximate 100-page letter to the father. The letter was probably once intended for his father. However, Kafka never got around to handing him the letter. The letter, which was written in 1919, simultaneously represents the analysis and justification of his work.
Kafka insistently outlines the temperamental, hard-working, and self-righteous personality of the father and contrasts it with that of the son. The father, who never questions his own actions and believes that he is always right. Because of his authority alone, he does not care about his own contradictions. In his sudden anger, it can happen that today he claims the opposite of yesterday. He appears as a much simpler, but also more vivacious person than the son.
On the other hand, the son ponders a lot, can never make up his mind, and is attached to dreams that are far from realistic. The father interprets Kafka’s sensitivity and his feeling for the weakness and unnecessary state of mind. The clash of these two personalities, according to Kafka’s quintessence, is simply fatal.
The letter to the father sparked great debates among critics. Strictly speaking, this letter is not a letter at all because it never reached its addressee. It is also very literary. Can the facts described therein be taken at face value? How much biography is in the letter and how much fiction? And where should you publish it? Together with Kafka’s oeuvre or with his diaries and correspondence?
This is followed by another question relevant to literary studies. How much weight should the author be given when interpreting his writings? Shouldn’t critics prefer to look at writing detached from the authors? There are literary scholars who believe that the author should increasingly disappear behind the text. They no longer ask for the author’s intention. Instead, the reader comes to the fore. If one paid less attention to the biography and psychology of the author, the readers would have more space for their own for new interpretations. In this context, one speaks of the ” death of the author ” and the “birth of the reader”.
This approach is to be understood as an appeal to all readers to constantly reinterpret Kafka’s puzzling images. Much more can be extracted from them than biographical references. A narrowing and hostile system with wrong paths, a fatal transformation, a misplaced as well as serious judgment, all these are images that can always be charged with new meanings. If this is the case, Kafka’s writing could be the most versatile and riddle-like and readers could have a lot of interpretation.