Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
Karl Rossman, a fifteen-or sixteen-year-old youth who leaves his native Prague to seek his fortune in America. A sensitive, naïve adolescent who has been treated unfairly by his parents, Karl arrives in America with little money and few possessions but with a strong determination to triumph over circumstances. He is hardworking, eager to learn, and willing to make sacrifices—in many ways, it would seem, the ideal immigrant. His first experiences in America, however, are nightmarish, comically so in their reversal of the immigrant’s dreams. Karl sees justice travestied, is himself falsely accused and beaten, and becomes a fugitive, finding a place only among the outcast. After a hiatus in the narrative (perhaps several years), however, Karl regains hope and responds to a poster advertising jobs with the Theatre of Oklahoma (apparently a government project on a fan-tastic scale). In a spirit of rejoicing, Karl leaves on a rail journey across America, secure in the belief that in Oklahoma he will at last realize his dreams for himself in the New World.
Senator Edward Jacob
Senator Edward Jacob, Karl’s wealthy uncle, a proud, stuffy, self-made man. Karl meets this red-faced gentleman with a thin bamboo cane in the ship’s office. The owner of Jacob Despatch Agency in New York, he has acquired American citizenship and severed all ties to his European past. Jacob exults in saving his nephew from a life of wretchedness, doing so partly because of pity and partly because of his strong dislike for his own relatives who have set the boy adrift. He takes him into his lavish surroundings, sup-porting and advising him and indulging the youth in every modern advantage. At the same time, he tyrannizes over him, expecting Karl to seek his unconditional approval in every situation. Without a word of warning, he castigates Karl for unintentionally going against his wishes. Convinced that nothing good can come from Karl’s family, Jacob disappears from Karl’s life just as unexpectedly as he entered it.
The Stoker, a ship employee. A huge, brawny man who confines Karl in a tiny compartment below the decks of the ship in New York Harbor so as to have an audience for his complaints against his superior, Schubal, who, he says, bullies him. Although Karl argues for him before the captain, the Stoker loses his case, because Schubal has fifteen noisy witnesses to support him.
Grete Mitzelbach (GREH-teh MIHT-zehl-bahkh), the fifty-year-old manageress of the Hotel Occidental. Herself an immigrant from Vienna, she benignly takes on Karl as her protégé but finds herself powerless to defend him against the Head Waiter’s charges of dereliction.
Therese Berchtold (teh-RAY-zeh BEHRKH-tohlt), an eighteen-year-old Pomeranian girl who serves as Grete Mitzelbach’s typist. Having warned Karl to stay away from Robinson and Delamarche, she is grief-stricken at his dismissal from the Hotel Occidental.
Brunelda, a wealthy, fat singer, the former wife of a cocoa manufacturer. She keeps Delamarche in her suburban flat with Robinson as their servant. She spends most of her time lying on a filthy couch in her red gown.
Robinson, an Irishman who attaches himself to Karl and ultimately causes him to lose his job as lift boy. He becomes a lazy drunk who lies on the balcony at Brunelda’s flat and attempts to get Karl to perform the housework so that he can care for Brunelda personally.
Delamarche (deh-lah-MAHRSH), a Frenchman who succeeds in the New World by binding himself to Brunelda as her kept man.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
The novel’s uncertainty, or doubleness, is implied in Karl’s surname. As Rossmann, he is both horse (in German, Ross) and man (Mann), animal and human, flesh and spirit. Fifteen or sixteen years old (Kafka was inconsistent on this point), Karl is both a child and an adult. He is a sympathetic figure insofar as he seeks to be just and to be treated justly, yet he is comical as well in his naivete and in his pompous, ill-founded certainties. Although banished from his home for having fathered a child by a maidservant, Karl is, in fact, more child than man and less the seducer than the one seduced. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the novel as the ever-hopeful, ever-trustful man-child succumbs to the charms not only of women but of all of his guides and benefactors as well. In a sense, Karl is doomed by his own will to believe, by a religious sensibility that makes him yearn for something more than he has, something finer and more final. Not entirely innocent, he is also not exactly guilty—whether the accusation is that of fathering an illegitimate child or shirking his duties as a lift boy. Ultimately, Karl is an undefinable being, the perfect hero for a novel of comic absurdity, a hero whose quest is less Odyssean than adolescent and whose nature is at once naive and perverse, malleable yet intractable. As the half-maternal, half-sensual manageress tells him, “You’re very obstinate, when people mean well by you and try to do you a good turn, you do your best to hinder them.”
The reader may well agree, but—unlike the manageress—the reader will nevertheless have considerably greater difficulty in defining Karl. The entire novel, and the last two chapters in particular, make clear that Karl is searching not only for a home but for himself as well. He is looking for a role that will make him feel more secure, more at home in the vast and nameless void that Kafka has here chosen to call Amerika. Knowing this, the reader can better understand the appeal of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma: not money (wages are never discussed or even mentioned) but, as the placard proclaims, “Employment for everyone, a place for everyone” (with the emphasis on place). The exact role Karl is meant to play in this Nature Theatre is left as vague as the nature of the Theatre itself, which combines aspects of the Christian afterlife, a vast carnival, a settlement company, a confidence game, a volunteer army of the unemployed, a relief agency, a quack religion, and an amateur theater on a national scale.
By the end of the novel, Karl has in a very real sense simply ceased to exist. Following the novel’s relentless dream logic, Karl is too shy to give the recruiters his own name and provides them instead with “the nickname he had had in his last post: ‘Negro.’” (This post and this name are the subjects of a chapter Kafka may have imagined but never actually wrote.) In this way, Karl, still hoping to fulfill “his old daydream” of becoming an engineer, is transformed into “Negro, technical worker,” some hybrid of Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim, of citizen and outcast, free man and slave. It is unclear whether this second issue of illegitimacy engendered by Karl marks the loss of his true self or instead constitutes a way of preserving it by keeping his essential self hidden under this pseudonym. What is less ambiguous is the fact that another of Karl’s desires remains as strong as ever: “Besides, he kept on telling himself, it was not so much a matter of the kind of work as of establishing oneself permanently somewhere.” Karl finds himself—or at least hopes to find himself—by losing himself in the vastness and variety of America itself. In this way, he proves to be just what Kafka called him in the novel’s working title, Der Verschollene: the boy who disappeared. Easily distinguishable from all the novel’s other characters, Karl is also quite like them with his immigrant status and all that it implies. Thus Karl, the only protagonist in a Kafka novel to have a complete name (the others are known simply as “K” and “Joseph K”), becomes an Everyman and, by virtue of his disappearance, a No-man as well—perhaps the only kind of Everyman still possible in these modern times.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography, 1960 (second edition).
Gray, Ronald D. Franz Kafka, 1973.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography, 1982.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, 1984.
Politzer, Heinz. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, 1962.
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