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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