Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Franz Kafka, a Jewish Czechoslovakian who wrote in German, ranks among the twentieth-century's most acclaimed writers. He is often cited as the author whose works best evoke the bewildering oppressiveness of modern life, and though his writings accommodate a vast range of interpretations, his general perspective is inevitably one of anxiety and alienation. His characters constantly face failure and futility, and they struggle to survive in a world that is largely unfeeling and unfamiliar. This world, rendered with great detachment and detail, is one in which the fantastic is entirely normal, the irrational is rational, and the unreasonable seems reasonable. It is a bizarre, senselessly oppressive world in which characters endure between madness and despair, and between defeat and mere failure. Kafka's protagonists subject themselves to extraordinary torture contraptions, negotiate unfathomable bureaucratic mazes, and execute astounding transformations. It is a world in which a man becomes an insect and an ape becomes a sophisticate. Today, with genocide, madness, and even impending doom seen as everyday possibilities, Kafka's voice sounds vital and prophetic


Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, a time when that city was still part of Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout eastern Europe, and in Prague, as in many European cities, Jews were reduced by economic and social disadvantage to congregating in ghettos. Within Prague's Jewish ghetto, Kafka's father, Hermann, owned and operated a dry-goods wholesale store. Hermann Kafka was an uneducated but extremely industrious Czech who had married Julie Loewy, an urbane, German-speaking Jew from a slightly higher social class. Although her husband's superior within Prague's Jewish society, Julie Kafka subordinated herself to him helping in the store most days and joining him at card games most evenings.

Hermann Kafka's domineering manner greatly distressed young Kafka, who found his father loud, impatient, unsympathetic, and, consequently, overwhelming and intimidating. Particularly vivid to Kafka was his childhood memory of an incident in which he repeatedly cried from his bed for water, whereupon his father removed him to a balcony and locked him out of the house. Years later, at age thirty six, the event still powerfully haunted Kafka, and in a missive later published as Letter to His Father he reproached Hermann Kafka for his crude methods. "For years thereafter," Kafka wrote, "I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night, and for almost no reason at all dragging me out of bed onto the pavlatch--in other words, that as far as he was concerned, I was an absolute Nothing."

With Kafka's parents devoting their time and energy to the dry-goods store, his upbringing was left largely to maids and governesses. He found himself further separated from his parents when he finally began his education, for Prague's schools, known as gymnasiums, operated ten months each year and assigned extensive homework. Student life proved arduous and trying for Kafka, who was a minority as both a German-speaker and a Jew; and the school, which was designed to shape children into functionaries for the empire's ever-flourishing bureaucracy, offered little of insight or interest to him. Kafka coped with this unappealing and even alienating approach to education by daydreaming and, in adolescence, by reading extensively, with a preference for the works of evolutionist Charles Darwin and philosophers Benedict Spinoza and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In adolescence Kafka also dwelled obsessively on his own self-perceived inadequacy, rejecting his intellect as inferior and his body as loathsome. As his self-perception degenerated, his grades suffered accordingly, and only with a great deal of relentless studying, and some cheating, did he survive his school's hellish period of rigorous final examinations and thereby complete his studies.

For a graduation present, Kafka's parents financed his vacation to a town near the North Sea. The vacation was his first venture from Prague and was intended, at least by his father, as his respite before entering the family business. Kafka, however, had already decided to enter Ferdinand-Karls University, a German school where he intended to study philosophy. Upon returning home, Kafka announced his scholastic intentions and met with powerful disapproval from his father. Despite the parent's objections and harangues, Kafka entered the university in 1901, and soon afterwards he decided to pursue a law degree.

At Ferdinand-Karls University, Kafka became acquainted with intellectuals and aspiring artists. Like many German-speaking students, he joined the Hall of Lecture and Discourse for German Studies, an organization widely recognized as Prague's leading institution for German culture. The Hall had been conceived as an anti-Semitic organization, but the steady influx of German-speaking Jews gradually transformed it into a predominantly Judaic body. Through this group Kafka met his closest friends, including Max Brod, a sickly, hunchbacked student who played and composed music and wrote poetry. While delivering a lecture on philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Brod had denounced Nietzsche as a fraud, and when Kafka vehemently protested afterwards, their friendship began.

With Brod Kafka began sampling Prague's cultural offerings, which included theatrical productions and more esoteric events such as theosophic and anthroposophic lectures and spiritualist seances. In addition, Kafka and Brod frequented Prague's cafes, which numbered more than two hundred, and visited the city's brothels, which also numbered in the hundreds. As a result of his carousing and extra-curricular studies, Kafka's grades suffered. The insufferable boredom of the gymnasium had been replaced by the equally lethal monotony of law school, in which information was inevitably conveyed by such dull lecturers that it was rendered appallingly useless to Kafka and his fellow students. Briefly, Kafka abandoned law studies for chemistry, then returned to law before leaving it again for German studies and art history. He then returned once more to law and continued in that field throughout the remainder of his education.

In 1905, one year before finishing his studies, Kafka's hectic and demanding life finally affected his health and compelled him recover at a sanatorium. There he enjoyed one of his rare pleasurable relationships with a woman. Although his lover was considerably older, Kafka apparently toyed with the notion of marriage. Once back in Prague, however, he abandoned the affair and resumed his association with Jewish intellectuals and artists. At night he frequented theaters, bordellos, and cafes, and listened as his friends and acquaintances discussed politics, art, and their own writings. Unlike his peers, though, Kafka showed little interest in politics or political concepts such as socialism, choosing instead to continue reading works by masters such as Goethe, Kleist, Kierkegaard, Flaubert, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky.

Unbeknownst to his friends, Kafka had also begun writing his own novel, one referred to now as Beschreibung eines Kampfes (Description of a Struggle). This work--eventually abandoned by Kafka and given incomplete to Brod, who later provided the title--is a funny and fantastic account of a nameless narrator's adventures on a winter's evening. Among the notable episodes in the story is "Gespraech mit dem Beter" ("Conversation With the Supplicant"), an unsettling church encounter recalled by a grotesque fat man as four nude servants carry him across a river. Upon reading Description of a Struggle, Brod immediately recognized that Kafka had already surpassed his peers as a writer, and in a essay for a local journal he placed Kafka in the "sainted company" of German literature's elite. Kafka received Brod's praise with humility and, characteristically, apprehension. He expressed concern that any writings he published henceforth might disappoint readers aware of his allegedly unmerited stature. To Brod, Kafka confessed that he could never "hope to produce an effect to rival that with which your sentence has endowed my name."

Aside from reading and writing, Kafka also devoted considerable time to preparing for his grueling, extensive final examinations. Upon successfully completing his first two tests, Kafka qualified for work in his prospective field, and in the spring of 1906 he began drafting legal notices for a local attorney. In addition, he also assisted his parents at the family store whenever such involvement was required. His jobs, together with his literary pursuits and his ongoing, seemingly endless studies, considerably diminished his other extra-curricular activities, though he managed to continue indulging in one of his rare athletic interests, swimming.

Strained by constant pressure to fulfill familial, professional, and scholastic obligations and expectations, Kafka again succumbed to exhaustion after earning his law doctorate in June, 1906. Shortly thereafter he re-entered the sanatorium, where he briefly revived his affair with the mysterious older woman. But as before, upon returning home he promptly discontinued the relationship and resumed his relatively carefree social life with Brod and other friends.

Back in Prague Kafka also began writing another story, one now known as "Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande" ("Wedding Preparations in the Country"). This tale--left incomplete by Kafka and consequently titled by Brod--recounts a bridegroom's dread as he travels to meet his beloved. Unlike "Description of a Struggle," which only superficially explores alienation, "Wedding Preparations in the Country" offers a disturbing evocation of apprehension in its all-encompassing banality. The protagonist, Raban, even resorts to childlike optimism by imagining that his two-weeks stay in the countryside will actually be the predicament of someone other than himself. Biographer Ronald Hayman, in Franz Kafka, asserted that Kafka used this strategy in his own personal life and added that the tale itself served as a vehicle for Kafka's displacement. Hayman wrote: "Raban's belief that everything could be explained is a projection of Kafka's need to explain everything, by means of a story about an alter ego."

Upon returning to Prague Kafka also began one year's unpaid apprenticeship in the city's court system. His position, while apparently a career necessity, afforded him little opportunity to free himself from his father's household and authority. This continued dependence resulted in increased anxiety for Kafka in mid-1907 when his father decided to move the family into a new building, one recently constructed on a razed portion of the ghetto. To Kafka's utter dismay, the new dwelling afforded him only minimal privacy, for his bedroom was situated between the living room and his parents' bedroom, thus serving as a nerve-racking vantage point from which could be heard all noises and conversations occurring within the home. Also distressing to Kafka were his father's seemingly constant interruptions and his parents' ineffective discretion within their own room. Relaxing, much less writing, proved extremely difficult for the already hypersensitive Kafka.

Fortunately for Kafka, his social activities afforded him substantial distraction from his tense home life. After graduating, he devoted more time to recreation, including motorcycling, swimming, sunbathing, and billiards. He also entered into his first sustained love affair, though it is unclear whether this romance inhibited his enthusiasm for prostitutes. He had, by this time, also revealed serious literary aspirations to Brod and others. But with typically curious reasoning, he maintained that his income should derive from an occupation quite dissimilar from his literary pursuits, and he therefore sought an undistracting, undemanding position, preferably one abroad.

The job that Kafka eventually obtained, though, was a tedious post at an Italian insurance company with a Prague office. Offering low pay and long hours, the post was immensely unappealing, and Kafka almost immediately began hoping for a transfer. But such wishes were futile, and Kafka, sensing unending and unendurable boredom and poverty, contemplated suicide. In the throes of anguish, he abandoned writing and became a more frequent patron of bordellos and low-life cafes. In addition, he entered into relations with a Jewish student. But, realizing that he was psychologically incapable of reciprocating a woman's love, he confessed to Brod that, conversely, he could only love women unlikely to share his feelings. Thus his relationships with women were, understandably, impaired by his neurotic perspective.

In 1908 Kafka's fortunes improved when a friend's father, responding to Kafka's pleas for help, secured him a post at the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. Although the firm was steadfastly anti-Semitic--Kafka became only the second Jew of two hundred and fifty employees--he was nonetheless offered a promising job, one with regular hours and with greater pay than was accorded him by the Italian company. Seizing the opportunity, Kafka hastily obtained a medical report certifying him as prone to nervousness and agitation. This certificate assured his departure from the Assicurazioni, and in late July he assumed the post that he would hold until his death sixteen years later.

At the Workmen's Institute Kafka rapidly attained a level of substantial responsibility. Despite only limited seniority, he was selected to formally introduce new administrator Robert Marschner at a company gathering, and in the ensuing years he contributed segments on work-place safety to Marschner's annual report of 1910, and produced press releases. In The Nightmare of Reason, Pawel reports that Kafka's work-related writings, including more technical articles on accident prevention, contradict his image as an incompetent and show him, instead, as a serious, forthright employee. Pawel relates that Kafka's articles "combine an astonishing grasp of abstruse detail with a lucidity of presentation seldom encountered in writings of this sort," and he adds that the technical writings "quite incisively refute the caricature of Kafka as a bumbling fool forever sleepwalking in broad daylight and incapable of tying his shoelaces."

Although the change in employment lessened Kafka's anxieties, its increased responsibilities left him little time for writing and carousing. In March, 1908, Kafka had collected eight brief prose pieces under the title Betrachtung ("Meditations") and published them in Franz Blei's journal Hyperion. But these works brought him little recognition, and some readers even mistook them for those of another writer, Robert Walser. Kafka consequently held little enthusiasm for the distractions of writing, and it was only through Brod's own efforts and encouragement that he agreed to produce a review of one of Blei's books. This enterprize, however, only exposed Kafka's ambivalence to writing, for he produced a twisted, tentative report. He later apologized to Blei, and along with that written apology he enclosed several pages containing his contributions to a company report.

As an alternative to the constant demands of the Workmen's Institute, Kafka renewed his interest in boating and swimming. But these activities offered only minimal respite from the company, and in late summer, 1909--several months after the Jewish student had ended their largely epistolary relationship--Kafka finally took a brief vacation with Brod. Earlier that summer, he had published excerpts from his abandoned novel Description of a Struggle in Hyperion, but that publication, like his earlier work in Hyperion, apparently gained him little attention. The vacation, however, sufficiently inspired him to engage in a writing contest with Brod, and in early autumn his piece, a description of airplanes, appeared in the publication Bohemia.

Invigorated by the vacation, Kafka returned to Prague with renewed interest in writing. In January, 1910, he published a book review in Bohemia; in March he produced five prose works for the same periodical; and soon afterwards, he also began a diary. Aside from writing, Kafka improved his physical fitness with daily calisthenics, horseback riding and--in summer--swimming and rowing. These activities, however, failed to ease his increasing digestive distress, and he therefore adopted a vegetarian diet. While converting to vegetarianism, Kafka became preoccupied with his bowel regularity, and he maintained both the vegetarian diet and a bowel obsession throughout his life.

1910 was also the year that Kafka began his interest in Yiddish theater. In May, Brod took him to a performance at a Prague cafe, and Kafka responded enthusiastically. The following autumn--1911--Kafka befriended members of a troupe and even arranged a performance. For Kafka, the Yiddish theater was appealing for various reasons: its coarse melodramas afforded him insights into his ancestry and allowed him to explore aspects of race and nationality detested and ignored by his father, who considered the ethnic tradition a vulgar reminder of the ghetto. Inspired by the troupe and its performances, Kafka began studying Yiddish literature and Judaism and even attended a musical presentation arranged by Zionists. He also fell in love with actress Mania Tschissik, but his affections were not reciprocated, and when the troupe finally left Prague Kafka turned to Brod for solace.

This period was one of almost constant personal turmoil for Kafka. In October, 1911, his brother-in-law, Karl Hermann, founded Prague's first asbestos factory at the behest of Kafka's father. Kafka offered his assistance, assuming that such involvement would be only occasional and menial. His father, however, perceived the factory as an opportunity for his son to redeem his wasted life through application to a family business. Since Karl Hermann was often traveling to promote business, Kafka soon found himself constantly working at the factory after leaving his insurance post each afternoon. The factory's noise and filth immensely disturbed Kafka's already sensitive disposition, and endless confrontations with his father, who demanded greater commitment from him, further exacerbated his anxiety. Even in his room Kafka was hardly free of unnerving distractions, for his father's apparently constant shouting rang throughout the home, and barely muffled sounds from the parents' bedroom continually undermined the son's sense of privacy and decency.

Perhaps as a result of living in a state of nearly unending anxiety, Kafka soon suffered declining health, including weak breathing, migraine headache, and more stomach distress. In June, 1912, he obtained one week's sick leave from the insurance company, and in July he spent three more weeks in a German sanatorium. His stay at the sanatorium, however, was motivated largely by recreational considerations, for he longed to swim and languish in the summer sun. Evenings at the sanatorium he devoted to writing a novel that he referred to as Der Verschollene (which means "The Missing One"). But this work, later developed into Amerika, came slowly to Kafka, and by autumn, when he had already returned to Prague, he was still at work on the first chapter.

Once back in Prague, Kafka also occupied himself by collecting several prose works for publication as the volume Betrachtung. While compiling that work, he realized a sudden burst of creativity, and within three months he produced two of his greatest stories, "Das Urteil" ("The Judgment" ) and "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), and completed the first chapter of Amerika. "The Judgment" is certainly a key work in Kafka's canon, for it constitutes one of his most incisive renderings of the father-son conflict that so devastated his personal life. In the tale, protagonist Georg Bendemann suffers from total subordination to his totalitarian father, a domineering widower. One afternoon, George nervously considers his wedding engagement while alone with his father. He tells his father of a friend in St. Petersburg. His father doubts the existence of such a friend and criticizes his son for besmirching the memory of his mother by succumbing to his fiance's sexual advances. Upon shaming his son, the father then reveals that he actually knows of the St. Petersburg friend and has actually kept him abreast of Georg's engagement. Gleefully proclaiming his deception, the father mocks his son's naivete and condemns him to drown himself. The son complies by dropping himself from a bridge, pausing beforehand only to say, "Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same."

"The Judgment" is hailed as a masterful articulation of a father-son conflict and an extraordinary expression of oppression and anxiety. "The Metamorphosis" is acclaimed for the same qualities, and is prized additionally for its fantastic premise. In perhaps his most memorable and well-known tale, Kafka wrote of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who awakens at home one morning to find that he has become an enormous insect. Like "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis" is often interpreted as a reflection of Kafka's own anxieties, for like Kafka, protagonist Samsa is repulsed by his physical existence and is overwhelmed with guilt for his very presence. Samsa's father, in turn, is both angered and disgusted by his son's transformation, which he considers a personal effrontery. Eventually, the father arms himself with fruit and bombards the hideous insect, sinking one apple deep into his back. For more than one month Samsa lives on while the apple rots and inflames his back. His parents and sister try to ignore him, and he usually remains in his room, where he had taken to crawling on the ceiling before the apple incident somewhat incapacitated him. One evening, however, his parents and recent lodgers are enjoying music when Samsa suddenly appears and repulses everyone. The family then decides that the gigantic insect that is Gregor Samsa must be destroyed. Sensing his inconvenient presence within the otherwise harmonious household, Samsa retreats to his room and thinks of his family with "tenderness and love." The next morning, a cleaning woman discovers his already dried corpse.

Both "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis," like most of Kafka's subsequent writings, have inspired a wide range of interpretations, and both works have been categorized in often contrasting terms. "The Judgment" has been appraised as both realistic and absurd, while "The Metamorphosis," though more consistently considered a fantastic allegory, is nonetheless perceived by some critics as comedy and by others as tragedy. Despite making these diverging assessments, many critics agree that the tales are dream-like masochistic fantasies reflecting Kafka's father-son conflict and his own traumas and insecurities. Ronald Hayman, for instance, notes in his biography Kafka that "Kafka draws on his flow of anxieties" in writing "The Metamorphosis" and adds that even the tale's "root idea... was a gift from his father--an invitation to think of himself as verminous."

In 1912, aside from writing "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis," Kafka also completed "Der Heizer" ("The Stoker"), the first chapter of his novel Amerika. Kafka apparently delighted in reading aloud from this novel, which concerns the odd adventures of a naive young man sent to the United States after having seduced a maid. Upon publication in May, 1913, this chapter drew impressive praise from prominent novelist Robert Musil and received comparisons with the work of Heinrich von Kleist, whom Kafka had long admired as an artist. The next month, "The Judgment" appeared in Brod's periodical Arkadia, earning Kafka further recognition as a prominent new writer.

But Kafka was not immediately able to enjoy his newfound celebrity, for as early as 1912 the family factory began amassing imposing debts. The factory's problems were hardly Kafka's fault, for he worked regular hours at the insurance company and devoted only afternoons and some weekends to the plant's operations. But as Karl Hermann was constantly away on business, Kafka had been presumed responsible for the factory by his father, who claimed that various employees were swindling funds. Enduring the harangues of his desperate and incompetent parent, Kafka suffered migraine headaches and further stomach pains, and he once again considered suicide. He expressed such thoughts in a letter to Brod, who consequently wrote to Kafka's mother and urged her to intercede on her son's behalf. She responded by secretly hiring Karl Hermann's brother to fulfill Kafka's management duties. The plan ensued without Hermann Kafka's knowledge, and until the outbreak of World War I it enabled Kafka to live his already traumatic life free of the troublesome family business.

Once freed from his duties at the factory, Kafka devoted greater energy to his budding romance with Felice Bauer, an independent woman he met through Brod. Confident and extroverted, Bauer was the opposite of the insecure and inhibited Kafka in temperament, and biographer Pawel notes in The Nightmare of Reason that Kafka was attracted to precisely those qualities that he lacked. With Bauer he quickly established a close, and often confused, relationship, soliciting her opinions on his soon-to-be-published short prose works. Their communication was largely epistolary, with Kafka re-introducing himself to her through a missive on which he labored intermittently for ten days. Pawel calls this first letter "a masterpiece... of cunning and dissimulation," one designed by Kafka to present an acceptable image of himself as earnest, educated, and fairly sophisticated.

In his first several letters to Bauer, Kafka obsessively pursued her as a correspondent, writing daily and vigorously encouraging her to reciprocate. In Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, Elias Canetti notes the almost parasitic nature of these initial missives. Kafka, Canetti writes, "was establishing a connection, a channel of communication, between [Bauer's] efficiency and health and his own indecisiveness and weakness." Canetti adds that Kafka derived a great deal of strength from these letters, and that strength, in turn, led to a great increase in his self-assurance as a writer. Shortly after writing his first letter to Bauer, Kafka felt sufficiently invigorated to produce "The Judgment" in one evening-long burst of creativity,

and upon completing the tale he was still so euphoric with thoughts of Bauer that he dedicated the story to her.

Initially, Bauer did not share Kafka's obsession for letter writing. Kafka's extraordinary intimacy and sheer volume of correspondence, however, eventually convinced her of his passionate sincerity and prompted her to begin writing on a daily basis too. Increasingly, Kafka used his correspondence with Bauer as a forum for explaining his phobias, fears, and failures. He also began subordinating himself to her, describing himself as unworthy of her affection. Though more worshipful than reasonable, Kafka proposed marriage in the summer of 1913. Bauer accepted, and the couple's largely epistolary relationship--though they lived only six hours apart by train--seemed destined to result in matrimony.

Soon after becoming engaged, though, Kafka questioned the appeal of marriage. He feared the loss of the very solitude that seemed to him so integral to his recent fortunes as a writer, and in his diary he expressed extreme reservations about his suitability as a spouse. His anxieties led to physical distress, including heart pains. Upon soliciting his father's counsel, he was criticized as an unsuitable marriage prospect. Although Kafka had repeatedly tried to persuade Bauer of their folly, his father's words proved disheartening and unsettling.

In the autumn of 1913, seeking a respite from his traumatic personal life, Kafka entered a sanatorium, where he had a brief, inconsequential affair with a young Swiss woman. After returning to Prague he met with Bauer's friend Grete Bloch, who had agreed to help reconcile differences between the engaged couple. Bloch recounted Bauer's own personal difficulties, including dental decay, which Kafka found particularly repellant. Unable to articulate his objections to the impending marriage, Kafka spontaneously departed for Bauer's home in Berlin. But they met there only briefly before Bauer left to fulfill personal obligations, and so Kafka returned home full of doubt and uncertainty about the status of his engagement.

When Bauer failed to write to him after his brief visit to Berlin, Kafka decided that he could not live without her. In his biography Kafka, Hayman recounts a letter to Bauer in which Kafka both confessed his recent infidelity and stressed his love as nonetheless strong: "I love you, Felice, with everything in me that's humanly good, everything that makes me worthy of staying among the living." Instead of responding to Kafka, Bauer once again appealed to her friend Bloch, who reacted by disclosing to Kafka the contents of Bauer's letters to her. Soon Kafka and Bloch had developed their own correspondence, and though by mid-1914 he and Bauer had renewed their engagement, shortly thereafter he and Bloch began their own affair.

Bloch, though sexually involved with Kafka, nonetheless continued advocating Bauer as his wife. Kafka, once again confronted with the likelihood of marriage, responded by pursuing Bloch instead of his fiance. Events culminated in a confrontation between Kafka and both Bloch and Bauer in a hotel room, where Bauer berated him for his infidelity and indecisiveness. She ended their engagement and departed with Bloch, who, unbeknownst to Kafka, was pregnant with his child. Seemingly free of romantic ties, Kafka then vacationed with friends at a Danish seaside resort. Around this time, the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the kingdom of Austro-Hungary, was assassinated. His death sparked World War I.

With Karl Hermann and his brother fighting in the war, Kafka once again entered the family's asbestos factory. He also continued working at the insurance company, where he had earlier been promoted to deputy secretary. Though working these two jobs, Kafka still found time for his writing. By July he had begun another novel, Der Prozess (The Trial), and in November he wrote "In der Strafkolonie" ("In the Penal Colony"). The latter work, largely viewed as one of Kafka's most disturbing, concerns an interrogating officer who becomes so proud of his mechanistic torture device--which involves long needles writing a proclamation onto victims' flesh--that he voluntarily submits himself to its deathly function. Like most of Kafka's fiction, "In the Penal Colony" has prompted a vast array of interpretations and has consequently been described in terms ranging from realism to absurdity and from comedy to tragedy. Critics analyzing from a psychological perspective see the tale as an expression of Kafka's own susceptibility for self punishment, while Hayman speculates in his biography that the story may have been influenced by accounts of World War I trench fighting.

After completing "In the Penal Colony" in late 1914, Kafka returned to several others stories in various stages of completion. Believing that he could easily lose inspiration, he often worked on his tales long into the night. His concentration, however, was disrupted by his responsibilities at both the insurance company and the family factory. In addition, he experienced continued poor health, including headaches, exhaustion from insomnia, and severe chest pain, though an earlier doctor's examination disclosed no indication of physical abnormality.

As a result of both business obligations and health problems, Kafka completed few works between the winters of 1914, when he produced "In the Penal Colony," and of 1916, when he wrote "Ein Landarzt" ("A Country Doctor" ). During that two-year interim he experienced various changes in his personal life. Most significant was his departure from his parents' household: When one of his sisters returned with her children for the duration of her husband's military service, Kafka moved to another sister's apartment, one vacated when she moved in with her in-laws, and he stayed there more than a year before renting an entire flat in March, 1917, around the same time that the factory finally closed. By that time he and Felice Bauer had once again renewed their courtship. Nearly five months later, he again suffered severe stomach pains, and in August, 1917, two months after he and Bauer announced their second official engagement, Kafka experienced his first tubercular hemorrhage.

By the time of his renewed engagement to Bauer, Kafka was once again writing regularly. "A Country Doctor," his first sustained effort since "In the Penal Colony," recounts a doctor's gruesome, surreal experience on a snowy evening. Summoned to a village, the doctor rides through a blizzard until he arrives at a farmhouse in which a young boy is apparently dying. The doctor initially pronounces the boy healthy, though the lad pleads for death. Upon closer examination, the doctor discovers, near the youth's right hip, a gaping hole in which worms wriggle through clotted blood. After noting the source of the boy's distress, the doctor is inexplicably stripped of his clothing and left alone with the youth, who proclaims that his repulsive hole is his "sole endowment" in the world. The doctor reassures the boy that the wound is relatively slight, whereupon the boy falls silent. The doctor then flees and rides home naked, seemingly unable to either retrieve his clothing or return home in time to salvage his medical practice.

Kafka followed "A Country Doctor" with "A Report to an Academy," in which a socially integrated ape recounts his experiences as a wild animal, and "The Great Wall of China," an ultimately uncompleted account of the wall's construction and its suitability as a defense measure. These works signaled the end of Kafka's very brief period of renewed creativity, for by the end of summer his health had declined seriously and his personal life had once again degenerated into despair and confusion. Following his first sign of internal bleeding, Kafka proceeded to the insurance company and only consulted a physician after having worked that day. His ailment was misdiagnosed as bronchial catarrh, and though he bled again that evening, he waited nearly one month before seeing a specialist. By that time he had also experienced fever, particular during evenings, and shortness of breath. His first doctor, however, had assured him that tuberculosis was unlikely.

With his health uncertain, Kafka returned to his parents' residence, and in September, at Brod's behest, he consulted a specialist and learned that both lungs were congested. He appealed to his employers for a leave of absence and received three months leave. Inexplicably, Kafka disregarded sanatoriums and stayed instead with his sister Ottla in the Bohemian countryside. There he met with Bauer, to whom he was once again engaged, and at that meeting he was fairly unresponsive to her presence. He subsequently neglected her correspondence, then wrote to her that death was preferable to their troubling relationship. In December Kafka returned to Prague, and at Christmas he met with Bauer at the home of Brod, who had earlier interceded on Bauer's behalf. Soon afterwards Kafka and Bauer parted at the train station, whereupon Kafka visited Brod and told him that the engagement was ended. Brod later recalled the occasion as the only one at which he saw Kafka weep.

In explaining to Brod the engagement's demise, Kafka declared that, as a Western Jew, he was unsuited for marriage. But in January, 1919, he entered into a romance with Julie Wohryzek at the Pension Stuedl, where he had begun a four-month convalescence in December. Kafka had entered the Pension Stuedl weak from his tuberculosis and a recent bout of Spanish influenza. His relationship with Wohryzek was initially frivolous, but when the couple rejoined in Prague in March, he found himself once again drawn to marriage. He announced their engagement that summer, much to the disapproval of his father, who implied that Wohryzek was merely a Jewish seductress. Though burdened by poor health and the strain of personal obligations and familial conflict, Kafka pursued the engagement and even found a desirable flat in Prague-Wrschowitz. When the flat proved unattainable, however, Kafka abruptly withdrew from the marriage plans and proposed instead that Wohryzek live with him in Munich, where he hoped to work for publisher Kurt Wolff. Plans for that job failed, though, and both Kafka and Wohryzek remained, separately, in Prague.

During the period of his involvement with Julie Wohryzek, Kafka's relations with his father strained further. In May, 1919, Kafka presented Hermann Kafka with a copy of In der Strafkolonie upon its publication by Kurt Wolff. His father paid scant attention to the book, telling Kafka to place it on the bedside table. Kafka was deeply offended by what he perceived as his father's deliberate disregard for the book. Soon afterwards, Kafka's sensitivity was further violated when his father reacted to the engagement announcement by questioning his son's maturity and Wohryzek's integrity. Kafka vented his frustration by writing the missive posthumously published as Letter to His Father, in which he tirelessly examined and analyzed the failings of their relationship. In the letter, which Kafka never delivered, he decried his father as grossly inconsiderate and condemned his behavior as dictatorial. But Kafka, inevitably susceptible to self-doubt, also filled the work with recriminations against his own worthiness and dwelled on his own inadequacies and insecurities. Ultimately, Kafka refrained from attributing his shortcomings to his traumatic childhood, and the entire letter is, perhaps, best seen today as an insightful document into Kafka's ambivalence about himself and others. Erich Heller, in his book Franz Kafka, notes as much when writing that Kafka "was unable to sustain any particular indictments against anyone except himself--and even not quite against himself."

Though still ill in December, 1919, Kafka returned to the insurance company, and in early 1920 he received a promotion and a salary increase. By April, however, he was once again weak and in need of another leave from work. After failing to secure occupancy at a sanatorium, he stayed briefly at a hotel, then moved to a pension. At this time he began corresponding regularly with Milena Jesenska-Polak, who had earlier written him seeking permission to translate his tales into Czech. Kafka's first letters were cordial and even kindly, with Kafka sympathizing with Jesenska-Polak's own lung disease and warning her not to squander unnecessary energy on translations of his modest works.

After exhausting his sick-leave, Kafka used his vacation time to remain at the pension, from which he soon adopted a more intimate tone in his correspondence with his translator. Undaunted by Jesenska-Polak's marriage, Kafka wrote to her that through their literary relationship he already possessed her and that, though unworthy of her love, he nonetheless demanded it. He felt that Jesenska-Polak understood him more profoundly than had any other woman, and he courted her accordingly. He disclosed as much to Julie Wohryzek, who tearfully withdrew from his life, whereupon Kafka immediately began doubting Jesenska-Polak's sincerity.

Such suspicions were nearly accurate, for Jesenska-Polak refused to leave her husband. She did, however, comply with Kafka's wish that they meet, and in August they shared a weekend. At this time Kafka renewed his interest in writing, producing preliminary drafts for the novel Das Schloss (The Castle). But his health proved consistently tenuous, and by autumn he was frequently feverish and suffering labored breathing. After a medical examination disclosed further infection in both his lungs, Kafka entered a clinic in the nearby mountains. He intended to leave after three months, but when that time elapsed he was still weak with coughing spasms and breathing difficulties. Deciding to remain through the winter, Kafka grew increasingly lethargic and spent most days reclining and reading. He socialized rarely, as he was easily repulsed by the often advanced state of other patients' physical deterioration, and he wrote not at all, for at the sanatorium--despite his grave state--he was free of the tension and emotional anxiety that was apparently necessary to his creativity. When spring came, Kafka finally began taking walks in the sanatorium's wooded countryside, and by August he recovered sufficiently to leave the institution and return to work in Prague.

Almost immediately upon resuming his insurance work, though, Kafka ran a constant fever. By September, a cold, and consequent cough, had ravaged him still further, and by autumn, doctors once again urged him to enter a sanatorium. But Kafka did not heed his medical counsel, choosing instead to remain in Prague and endure further physical and emotional distress. Now obsessed with his own demise, Kafka was unable to relax or overcome his overwhelming anxiety. In early 1922, despite securing yet another sick leave from the insurance company, he suffered three weeks of only minimal sleep. As that insomnia threatened to undermine his already tenuous mental and emotional equilibrium, he finally left Prague.

In late January, 1922, Kafka arrived at a mountain resort, where he showed surprising enthusiasm and energy for outdoor activities, including mountain climbing. Within a few days, however, he collapsed while outside, and pneumonia seemed inevitable. Though hardly undaunted by his illness, he showed little of the anxiety that normally characterized his reaction to adversity. Instead, he anticipated emancipation from the trials of life, though such emancipation might bring sorrow, at least temporarily, to his loved ones. But he avoided exacerbating his already serious condition, and by February he was back in Prague, though he still had several weeks left of his sick leave.

To distract himself from anxiety and despair, Kafka turned once more to writing, and in February he completed his celebrated tale "Ein Hungerkuenstler" ("A Hunger Artist"), about a man whose celebrity derives from his refusal to eat. This tale, at once both tragic and comedic, and both absurd and disturbingly realistic, culminates in grim humor when the hunger artist explains his motivation. Diminished to a nearly skeletal state, the dying hunger artist reveals that he had refrained from eating simply because he could not obtain palatable food. "If I had found it," he tells an inquisitive fellow, "believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." Like much of Kafka's fiction, "A Hunger Artist" is often perceived by critics as an absurdist perspective on his condition. Kafka's own wasting away from tuberculosis lends credibility to this interpretation of the tale, though other approaches--including allegorical and even literal interpretations--may seem equally valid.

In early 1922 Kafka also wrote both "Forschungen eines Hundes" ("Investigations of a Dog"), an ultimately unfinished tale about a dog's recollections of life in the "canine community," and most of The Castle, his account--also unfinished--of a land surveyor's desperate attempt to secure an audience with obscure and distant higher authorities. By this time Kafka, having obtained his employer's permission for temporary retirement, lay bedridden with near-constant fever and exhaustion. Believing that death was near, he wrote to Brod requesting that he destroy any manuscripts left incomplete, including "Investigations of a Dog" and the novels-in-progress Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.

By summer, having once again avoided pneumonia, Kafka left Prague to live with his sister Ellie in the German seaside town Mueritz. There he befriended Dora Dymant, a volunteer worker at a nearby camp for Jewish children. Though weak from fever and chronic coughing, Kafka mustered enough energy to enjoy Dymant's company, and by September he was living with her in Berlin-Steglitz. This residence was intended as temporary, for both Kafka and Dymant, who shared his recent interest in Hebrew studies, planned on immigrating to Palestine.

In Berlin-Steglitz, Kafka and Dymant continued their Hebrew readings, and Kafka, despite his frail condition, even attended lectures at the nearby Academy of Hebrew Studies. He also wrote, but only when rare bursts of energy enabled him to produce an entire work in one sitting. Such was the case in November when he produced "Der Bau" ("The Burrow"), his story about an animal and its obsession with its burrow. Initially, the animal is quite confident of its security within its well hidden, expertly organized domain. So proud is the creature--presumably, a mole--that it even conceals itself outside the burrow and marvels at its concealment. But, as one would expect in a Kafka tale, anxiety and suspicion slowly undermine the animal's confidence, and the creature imagines that the burrow is actually part of a much larger one built by a creature that will soon discover the vulnerable intruder. Eventually, the animal discerns whistling from within the burrow and suspects an unwelcome presence. Though Kafka provided an ending for the tale, it was either destroyed or lost, and the story stops with the creature determined to move from the whistle's direction.

Kafka wrote "The Burrow" in November, 1923, after moving with Dymant into two rooms of a home also occupied by a physician. He saw little of his parents, for they disapproved of Dymant and her background of traditional Judaism, and they condemned the couple's living arrangement. Despite these objections, the parents did supply him with occasional funds, which were useful supplements to his own modest pension. But by early 1924, when digestive troubles joined Kafka's continual fever, even the two rooms proved too costly, and in February he and Dymant moved into one inexpensive room. There he continued to study Hebrew on a daily basis, but his health severely diminished his energy for any sustained activity.

In March, when Brod visited him, Kafka suffered from constant fever and bouts of racking coughing. Dying he traveled back to Prague and once again stayed with at his parents' home. There he produced his final tale, "Josefine die Saengerin oder Das Volk der Mauese" ("Josephine the Singer; or, The Mouse Folk"), about a singing mouse and her effect on others in her community. Josephine is prized by other mice for her beautiful singing voice, but when she argues that her talent should exempt her from more menial tasks, she is denied the privilege. She then refrains from singing and withdraws from the community, which, it is expected, will soon forget her.

Soon after completing "Josephine," Kafka experienced extreme swelling in his tubercular larynx. Swallowing became painful and difficult, and eating became impossible. He was moved to a sanatorium, and Dora Dymant was told that Kafka would probably die within three to four months. When a subsequent diagnosis revealed an improved condition, Kafka was so overwhelmed with happiness that he proposed marriage to Dymant. But within two weeks he suffered great pain and pleaded for his physician to administer morphine. Injections were given, and an ice pack was set on Kafka's throat. On June 3, he awoke and threw the ice pack from himself, then lapsed again into unconsciousness and death.

To his credit, Brod ignored Kafka's will and salvaged the incomplete tales and novels. During the next few years he organized and edited these works, occasionally shaping various drafts into coherent texts and even supplying titles and chapter headings. In the mid-1920s Kafka's three incomplete novels were published, and in 1931 a collection of his incomplete tales--including "The Great Wall of China"--was also printed. Additionally, Brod organized editions of Kafka's complete works and edited collections of his diaries and letters. These posthumous volumes, as much as Kafka's previous publications, established Kafka as one of the twentieth century's major literary figures, a master writer whose works, perhaps more than those of any other artist, reflect the alienation and frustration of modern life.

Critically, Kafka's works have prompted a vast and varied array of interpretations. He has been hailed as a realist, an absurdist, a sociologist, and even, by Thomas Mann, as a comedic theologian. Some writers have emphasized the psychological in analyzing his works, others have concentrated on the Judaic aspects; some have traced his fiction as thinly disguised autobiography, and others have noted the same works as full-fledged fantasies. Consistent in these divergent interpretations is the respect accorded Kafka's works as unique and compelling, and the regard for Kafka as a literary master. More than a few critics share the opinion of Vladimir Nabokov, himself a highly regarded writer, who called Kafka, in Lecturers on Literature, "the greatest German writer of our time."


From: "Franz Kafka." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.


  • Further Reading
    • Anders, Gunther, Franz Kafka, translation by A. Steer and A. K. Thorlby, Bowes & Bowes, 1960.
    • Armstrong, Raymond, Kafka and Pinter: Shadow-boxing: The Struggle between Father and Son, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
    • Bauer, Johann, Kafka and Prague, Praeger, 1971.
    • Boa, Elizabeth, Kafka: Gender, Class and Race in the Letters and Fictions, Oxford University Press, 1996.
    • Brod, Max, Franz Kafka, translation by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston, Schocken, 1960.
    • Buber-Neumann, Margarete, Mistress to Kafka, Secker & Warburg, 1966.
    • Buber-Neumann, Margarete, Milena: The Tragic Story of Kafka's Great Love, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, Arcade, 1997.
    • Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, translation by Justin O'Brien, Knopf, 1955.
    • Canetti, Elias, Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, translation by Christopher Middleton, Schocken, 1982.
    • Carrouges, Michel, Kafka versus Kafka, translation by Emmet Parker, University of Alabama Press, 1968.
    • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 81: Austrian Fiction Writers, 1875-1913, Gale, 1989.
    • Dodd, W. J., Kafka: "The Metamorphosis", "The Trial", and "The Castle", Longman, 1996.
    • Dowden, Stephen D., Kafka's Castle and the Critical Imagination, Camden House, 1995.
    • Eisner, Pavel, Franz Kafka and Prague, Arts, Inc., 1950.
    • Emrich, Wilhelm, Franz Kafka, Ungar, 1968.
    • Flores, Angel, editor, The Kafka Problem, New Directions, 1946.
    • Flores, Angel, and Homer Swander, editors, Franz Kafka Today, University of Wisconsin Press, 1958.
    • Flores, Angel, editor, The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time, Gordonian Press, 1977.
    • Frynta, Emanuel, Kafka and Prague, Batchworth Press, 1960.
    • Gilman, Sander L., Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient, Routledge, 1995.
    • Goebel, Rolf J., Constructing China: Kafka's Orientalist Discourse, Camden House, 1997.
    • Golz, Sabine I., The Split Scene of Reading: Nietzsche/Derrida/Kafka/Bachmann, Humanities Press, 1998.
    • Goodman, Paul, Kafka's Prayer, Vanguard, 1947.
    • Gray, Richard T., Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction, Modern Language Association of America, 1995.
    • Gray, Ronald, Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
    • Gray, Ronald, Franz Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
    • Greenberg, Martin, The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature, Basic Books, 1968.
    • Greozinger, Karl-Erich, Kafka and Kabbalah, Contimuum, 1994.
    • Hall, Calvin S., and Richard E. Lind, Dreams, Life, and Literature: A Study of Franz Kafka, University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
    • Hayman, Ronald, Kafka, Oxford University Press, 1982.
    • Heidsieck, Arnold, The Intellectual Contexts of Kafka's Fiction, Philosophy, Law, Religion, Camden House, 1994.
    • Heller, Erich, Franz Kafka, edited by Frank Kermode, Viking, 1974.
    • Heller, Erich, The Disinherited Mind, Harcourt, 1975.
    • Herman, David, Universal Grammar and Narrative Form, Duke University Press, 1995.
    • Hockaday, Mary, Kafka, Love, and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenska, Overlook Press, 1997.
    • Howe, Irving, Modern Literary Criticism: An Anthology, Beacon Press, 1958.
    • Hsia, Adrian, editor, Kafka and China, P. Lang (New York City), 1996.
    • Hughes, Kenneth, Franz Kafka: An Anthology of Marxist Criticism, New England University Press, 1981.
    • Janouch, Gustav, Conversations with Kafka, translation by Goronwy Rees, New Directions, 1971.
    • Kazin, Alfred, The Inmost Leaf: A Selection of Essays, Harcourt, 1955.
    • Kempf, Franz R., Everyone's Darling: Kafka and the Critics of His Short Fiction, Camden House, 1994.
    • Krauss, Karoline, Kafka's K. Versus the Castle: The Self and the Other, P. Lang, 1996.
    • Kuna, Franz, editor, On Kafka: Semi-Centenary Perspectives, Harper, 1976.
    • Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers, Harcourt, 1980.
    • Nagel, Bert, Franz Kafka, Schmidt, 1974.
    • Pascal, Roy, Kafka's Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
    • Pawel, Ernst, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Farrar, Straus, 1984.
    • Pilipp, Frank, ed., The Legacy of Kafka in Contemporary Austrian Literature, Ariadne Press, 1997.
    • Politzer, Heinz, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell University Press, 1966.
    • Robert, Marthe, Kafka, Gallimard, 1968.
    • Robert, Marthe, The Old and the New: From Kafka to Don Quixote, University of California Press, 1977.
    • Robert, Marthe, As Lonely as Franz Kafka, Harcourt, 1982.
    • Rolleston, James, Kafka's Negative Theater, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974.
    • Schur, David, The Way of Oblivion: Heraclitus and Kafka, Harvard University Press, 1998.
    • Short Story Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1990.
    • Seltzer, Alvin J., Chaos in the Novel, the Novel in Chaos, Schocken, 1974.
    • Sokel, Walter H., Franz Kafka, Columbia University Press, 1966.
    • Spann, Meno, Franz Kafka, Twayne, 1976.
    • Speirs, Ronald, and Beatrice Sandberg, Franz Kafka, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
    • Spilka, Mark, Dickens and Kafka: A Mutual Interpretation, Indiana University Press, 1963.
    • Stern, J. P., The World of Franz Kafka, Holt, 1980.
    • Stringfellow, Frank, The Meaning of Irony: A Psychoanalytic Investigation, State University of New York Press, 1994.
    • Suchoff, David Bruce, Critical Theory and the Novel: Mass Society and Cultural Criticism in Dickens, Melville, and Kafka, University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
    • Sussman, Henry, Franz Kafka: Geometrician of Metaphor, Coda Press, 1979.
    • Tauber, Herbert, Franz Kafka: An Interpretation of His Works, Kennikat, 1968.
    • Thorlby, Anthony, Kafka: A Study, Heinemann, 1972.
    • Tiefenbrun, Ruth, Moment of Torment: An Interpretation of Franz Kafka's Short Stories, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
    • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1979; Volume 6, 1982; Volume 13, 1984; Volume 29, 1988; Volume 47, 1993; Volume 53, 1994.
    • Unself, Joachim, and Paul F. Dvorak, Franz Kafka, A Writer's Life, Ariadne Press, 1994.
    • Urzidil, Johannes, There Goes Kafka, Wayne State University, 1968.
    • Wagenback, Klaus, Kafka's Prague, Overlook Press, 1996.
    • West, Rebecca, The Court and the Castle: Some Treatments of a Recurrent Theme, Yale University Press, 1957.
    • Ziolkowski, Theodore, Dimensions of the Novel: German Texts and European Contexts, Princeton University Press, 1969.
    • Zischler, Hanns, Kafka Goes to the Movies, translated by Susan H. Gillespie, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2002.