Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Kafka seemed to intuit that being someone, or anyone, in the geographical vastness of America was not altogether different from the problem of being someone in the bureaucratic vastness of German-dominated Prague. Establishing an identity was, moreover, a problem compounded by the question of home, a question that was important both to the immigrant and to the Czech. “I want above all to get home,” Karl points out early in the novel. By “home,” he literally means the house of his Uncle Jacob but, figuratively, he is referring to that dream of a familiar place where he will feel secure, understood, accepted: the garden from which Karl, like Adam, has been banished. Because of his original sin, he has been condemned to wander the earth in search not only of a home, or refuge, but of justice and mercy as well. As he comes to realize, however momentarily, “It’s impossible to defend oneself where there is no good will.” What this sudden revelation suggests is that the absence of mercy, whether human or divine, makes justice impossible. Just as important, this situation renders all Karl’s efforts not only existentially futile but—and this is Kafka’s genius—comically absurd as well. The chance encounters that characterize the novel, the arbitrary exercise of authority by those who are in power (parents, uncles, head porters, and the like),the uncertain rules and regulations, and the various characters’—especially Karl’s—precarious status constitute Kafka’s fictional world.

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This is a world that has as much in common with silent film comedies as with the philosophical essays, plays, and fictions of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Above all, it is a world that is blackly humorous. When Karl asks Robinson why he stays with Brunelda and Delamarche even though they treat him so badly, Robinson responds to Karl’s “stupid question” with these words: “You’ll stay here too, even if they treat you still worse. Besides they don’t treat me so very badly.” Robinson’s words perfectly embody Kafka’s point; they make ironically clear how desperately the individual (whether Robinson, Rossmann, or the readers) needs a place—any place, no matter what kind. These words also make clear, in Robinson’s “Besides,” how prepared the individual is to delude himself about what is intolerable and what is not, to confuse the ridiculous with the sublime.

Drawing on a host of sources—including Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the poetry of Walt Whitman—and calling to the reader’s mind an even more formidable array of literary analogues—from William Shakespeare’s one play set in the Americas, The Tempest, to Henry James’s international novels and Horatio Alger’s Mark the Match Boy guidebooks for country bumpkins dreaming of making their way in late nineteenth century urban America, Kafka conjures an America more fabulous than factual. Appropriately enough, in Kafka’s America much of the action takes place in the deepest night, at the deepest levels of the subconscious and of the spirit.

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