Guided the title of Franz Kafka's "A Dream, one theme which must be considered is that of dreams. The entire short story takes place in Josef K.’s dream, and as such it is an important theme to consider. In dreams one can contemplate, explore, and process various thoughts and ideas. Within the dream, the setting is further specified as a graveyard. Naturally themes such as death and the facing of one's own mortality also come to mind.
Let us consider the theme of facing one's own mortality. The narrator tells the reader that Josef K. initially wanted “to go on a walk” but is instead immediately transported to a graveyard. The paths in the graveyard are described to be “highly artificial, impractical in their windings,” which suggests again the difficulty one might face moving through the graveyard. This is, however, no problem for Josef K., who “glided along such a path as if hovering unshakably over raging water.” The dream setting makes this “hovering” possible. However, in the same breath, it takes away the decisive, human element. Josef K. does not choose to walk to the graveyard; he is taken to it as one might be taken by the “raging waters” of a river.
Once he glimpses the “freshly dug burial mound,” he is inexplicably drawn to it:
This burial mound exerted an almost enticing effect on him, and he felt he could not get there fast enough.
In these descriptions, one can consider the dream setting to have taken over direction of the conscious mind. Josef K. does not understand why he is drawn to the graveyard nor the grave; he does not initially choose it. It is only once he is close to the “enticing” burial mound that he seems to make a concerted effort in that he “leaped off, he staggered and fell to his knees right in front of the mound.” These descriptions can be noted as supporting the theme that consciously one is reluctant to face one's own mortality. It is only in the relative safety of a dream that Josef K., with the clumsy movements of a dreamer, stops at the mound out of curiosity. Note that he is as yet unaware that it is his burial mound.
The theme of the ceremonial nature of death is portrayed in the reference to the “flags that twisted and flapped powerfully against one another”, the description of “great rejoicing” which takes place at this burial mound, and the chime which begins “tinkling inopportunely from the tomb chapel.”
The participants in the ceremony of death include the men “holding a headstone between them in the air” and the headstone’s engraver, or artist, who all immediately respond to Josef K.’s arrival. Each has a particular role to play in the ceremony of death. There is a particular order and purpose in this ceremony of death which these three participants urgently wish to complete. Note the indications of urgency (rendered here in bold text) in the following description:
Two men were standing behind the grave, holding a headstone between them in the air; the moment K. showed up, they thrust the stone into the earth, and it stood there as if cemented to the ground. Instantly, a third man emerged from the bushes, and K. promptly identified him as an artist.
There is no room for delay, and the finality of the process is underscored by the forceful movements of the tombstone bearers.
The artist becomes annoyed when the procedures of this death ceremony seem to veer off course. This chime starts to tinkle “inopportunely from the tomb chapel” and stops once the artist raises his hand “wildly.” A moment later, the chime seems to “test its own sound” in preparation for the ceremony of death. Initially the artist begins to elaborately inscribe the tombstone but is halted by frustration and embarrassment. This halt in the burial process seems to stem from Josef K.’s presence at the grave and it is only when K. “with all his fingers” digs into the grave that the artist is able to complete the inscription on the tombstone and, by implication, bring finality to the burial ceremony.
Once Josef K. is in the grave, seemingly accepting his death, the rest of the process occurs rapidly:
But while, with his head still erect on his neck, he was welcomed down below by the impenetrable depth, his name, with tremendous embellishments, rushed across the stone up above.
It would seem that the process of burial—or the ceremony of death—has no patience with the awkwardness of a human facing his mortality.
The awkwardness of dealing with death is elaborated upon in the following description:
This time, K. looked back at the artist, who, he noticed, was very embarrassed but unable to indicate the reason for his embarrassment. All his earlier liveliness had vanished. As a result, K. likewise felt embarrassed; they exchanged helpless glances; there was some kind of misunderstanding between them, which neither of them could clear up.
Josef K. is delivered from the awkward distress he experiences during his misunderstanding with the artist once he enters the grave. It would suggest a type of emotional deliverance upon accepting his own mortality. Not only does he accept it, but he seems to welcome it with the enthusiasm he shows in digging through the “thin crust of earth” covering the grave.
Josef K. wakes from the dream “enraptured” once he has seen his name inscribed on the tombstone. This sense of captivated fascination seems to suggest that once Josef K. becomes aware of the truth nature of the ceremony, he embraces death.