Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Kafka’s unique style of narration and the intensely psychological and existential nature of his fiction, letters, and diaries have made him one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century.
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in the city of Prague, which at that time was part of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire and which is today the capital of Czechoslovakia. His father, Hermann, was a prominent merchant in the Josefstadt, the Jewish ghetto section of Prague. A crude, uneducated man, Hermann Kafka had worked his way up from very poor and humble beginnings. Like many such men, he was a domineering husband and father. A lifelong conflict between father and son developed early and remained a pivotal issue in Kafka’s fiction. His mother, Julie, was a more accommodating individual and often served as the family peacemaker. Kafka also had three younger sisters, Elli, Valli, and Ottla, who later perished during the Nazi Holocaust.
Kafka was graduated from secondary school in 1901 and began his studies at the German University of Prague with a major in law. In 1902 he met another student, Max Brod, who would later become his close friend and confidant. Kafka completed his legal program in 1906; after a law practicum, he found a job with the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute.
During these early years, Kafka had begun to write fiction, and by 1911 he had published a number of short prose pieces. His writing fulfilled an inner desire that he would increasingly come to see as the one true vocation in life. This vocation, however, later became the focus of major psychological conflicts. The tension between the bourgeois life—career, marriage, and children—valued by society and the solitary and marginal social existence necessary to the artist’s creative ability came to tear at Kafka’s psyche. During his lifetime, he kept a number of diaries that contain details of the emotions and ideas that motivated his writing. The thematic issues of Kafka’s fiction are in many essential respects intimately bound to the personal conflicts he experienced.
During the night of September 22-23, 1912, the then twenty-nine-year-old Kafka wrote a story entitled Das Urteil (1913, 1916; The Sentence, 1928; better known as The Judgment, 1945), and this short text marked the breakthrough to the unique style of his mature fiction. This dreamlike story of Georg Bendemann, his bizarre confrontation with his aging father, and Georg’s suicide upon his father’s condemnation was precipitated by Kafka’s meeting with a young woman, Felice Bauer, the month before. He soon began a correspondence with her, and, in his mind, the possibility of marriage soon arose. The demands of his father for a married son and a successful businessman clashed with the son’s need to write, and Kafka seemed to be paralyzed by a tense and debilitating ambivalence. The complex psychological conflict apparently engendered by this meeting led to this unusual text as well as to several other of Kafka’s more famous stories.
Die Verwandlung (1915; “The Metamorphosis,” 1936) undoubtedly remains the best known of the author’s short texts, and it illustrates the unique quality of his writing. Composed during the months of November and December, 1912, this story also reflects the psychic tensions occasioned by Kafka’s relationship with Felice Bauer. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a huge insect. Kafka’s narrative conveys the nightmarish horror of this transformation with such convincing detail that it all seems plausible. His approach transforms the subjective nature of dreams and inner emotional experience into the concrete reality of the everyday. Kafka’s prose manages to attain a unique balance between subjective and objective in what has been termed a style of “narrated monologue.” He tells a story from the subjective perspective of the protagonist—as if it were a first-person monologue—but he does so using the traditional third-person narrative form. The effect is one which recalls the logic and quality of dream experience. As in The Judgment, a conflict between father and son develops in “The Metamorphosis,” and again the central character perishes. A variant of this father-son conflict occurs in the well-known story In der Strafkolonie (1919; “In the Penal Colony,” 1941), written in November, 1914. In this latter text, however, the father figure begins to assume the dimensions of an institutional authority.
In June, 1913, Kafka, apparently yielding to the inner and outer pressures that demanded he adopt a proper middle-class life, proposed marriage to Felice, and she accepted. Their engagement was officially announced in April of 1914. In the following July, however, he met with Felice and her parents in a Berlin hotel and broke off the planned marriage. He noted in his diary that the entire episode made him feel as if he were being put on trial. This notion was the germ for...
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The first of six children Franz Kafka was born in 1883. His father, Hermann Kafka, was an industrious man; he owned a dry-goods store in the Jewish ghetto in the city of Prague. Hermann was ashamed of his Jewish heritage and tried, as much as possible, to appear German. He married into a higher social class when he married Julie Loewy, Franz’s mother.
A bright child, Kafka was an excellent student at a prestigious German high school. When he grad- uated his parents rewarded him with a trip to the North Sea. Afterwards, instead of entering the family business, Kafka decided to go to university. As a student, his rebelliousness led to reckless living and deteriorating health. In 1902 Kafka met the writer Max Brod, and the two men became close friends. Kafka published his first work, Description of a Struggle, in 1904. In 1906, Kafka received his doctorate in law from the German university, Karls-Ferdinand, in Prague.
Armed with his law degree, Kafka entered the insurance business. Through a family contact, he began a successful sixteen-year career as one of a handful of Jews working in the semi-public German Workers’ Accident Insurance in 1908. There he produced technical writings with a masterful lucid prose. He worked long hours and then managed his brother’s factory. Seeing the obvious strain on his friend, Brod begged for help from Kafka’s mother. She secretly hired a manager to take her son’s place. During this time, Kafka lived at home, in a room between the living room and his parents’ noisy bedroom. He gained some recognition as a writer when he was awarded the Theodor Fontane Prize in 1915.
Kafka never married. He had several long-term relationships but companionship troubled him and he wrote in his Diaries that he viewed “coitus as the punishment for the happiness of being together.” Kafka sabotaged his long engagement with Felice Bauer in 1917. Two years later he was engaged to the daughter of a janitor. Kafka’s father said that the shame of such a match would be so disastrous that he would have to sell his business and emigrate. In response, Kafka wrote the angry and self-lacerating Letter to His Father and gave it to his mother. She decided against giving it to her husband. Kafka broke off the relationship just after they had found an apartment together.
Not surprisingly, work and family strains began to take their toll and Kafka took restorative vacations for his health. Finally, in 1923, he retired from business in order to devote himself to writing. He also moved to Berlin. Missing the activity and tensions of home, he returned. His health problems persisted, however, and he traveled to find a kinder climate for his fragile condition. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Kierling (near Vienna, Austria).
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Franz Kafka’s literary achievements are all the more remarkable when one considers that he lived to be only forty, was increasingly ill with tuberculosis during the last seven years of his life, and up until two years before his death held a full-time position as a lawyer.
While his lifestyle was in keeping with that of his mother’s bachelor brothers, one of whom was a country doctor, Kafka and his father were very different in personality. The efforts of the robust, self-confident, and sometimes abusive businessman to rear a frail, insecure, and sensitive son led to a constant state of friction between the two. Unlike his younger sisters, who married and established families of their own, Kafka lived mainly with...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Despite the strange occurrences that animate Franz Kafka’s fiction, the events of his life are colorless and mundane. Like Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau, however, Kafka could, by sheer imagination, transform the most ordinary life into fascinating reading. Tirelessly, he penned his impressions of his life, recording the nuances of his thoughts and actions in ethical and ontological terms.
Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia, into a bourgeois German-Jewish family. The Czechs of Kafka’s day felt oppressed by the Austrian-Germans and in turn oppressed the Jews, so from his earliest days Kafka was accustomed to the pain of a threefold prejudice—as non-Austrian, as non-Czech, and as a Jew. Franz...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Franz Kafka (KAHF-kah) was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague (now in the Czech Republic), the first child born to Hermann and Julie Kafka. A second son died in infancy, leaving Franz as the only son, with three younger sisters. Kafka reacted negatively to his paternal forebears. His grandfather had been a butcher, something that Kafka found so repugnant that he became a vegetarian. His works contain descriptions of meat and wounds that reflect this revulsion. His father was in business and owned his own shop, and Kafka was bothered by his father’s gruff and insulting treatment of his employees. This recollection is perhaps reflected in Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), in Gregor Samsa’s...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Franz Kafka is uncontestedly one of the strongest, most original literary voices of the twentieth century. His unpretentious prose, while seemingly rooted in the everyday, penetrates deeply into the reality of the human psyche. All rings true on the psychological level, bizarre though the scenes and circumstances of the narrative may be. Moral precepts shimmer in the distorting light of multiple interpretations, for the works are absolute and support many different interpretations.
Like dreams, Kafka’s writing is both fantastic and vividly entertaining and evokes powerful emotional responses ranging from fear to sustained laughter. He was unique, a sovereign artist, a writer for all time.
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IntroductionOne of the most acclaimed and influential twentieth-century writers, Kafka is renowned for prophetic and profoundly enigmatic stories that often portray human degradation and cruelty. In his works, Kafka presents a grotesque vision of the world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals vainly seek to transcend their condition or pursue some unattainable goal. His fiction derives its power from his use of precise, dispassionate prose and realistic detail to relate bizarre, often absurd events, and from his probing treatment of moral and spiritual problems. -- Franz Kafka Criticism
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Franz Kafka (KAHF-kah) is one of the key figures in modern literature, the prophet of alienation, existential angst, Freudian guilt, and the tragicomic failure of the human quest for spiritual fulfillment. He was born in 1883 to a domineering father, Hermann Kafka, and an unassuming, introspective mother, whose maiden name was Julie Löwy and whose quiet inwardness he inherited. He resided until his thirty-first year with his parents and in the shadow of his father’s intimidating presence. Most of his literary achievements, despite their having become requisite to any study of twentieth century Western literature, are fragmentary and incomplete—like his life, one could say, which was marked by four inconclusive love affairs and...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)