Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Karl Rossman

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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 748 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.