illustrated portrait of Bohemian author Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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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 inThe 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 a novel, Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), which he began in July of 1914 but never completed. Much of the text, however, is finished in rough-draft form. It deals with the fate of Josef K., a bachelor, who is arrested one morning as he awakens and spends much of his time attempting to defend himself before the vague instance of the “Court.” He finally accedes to the judgment of the Court and willingly goes to his execution. This novel, as well as the other stories Kafka wrote during the period of 1912-1914, all deal with complex psychological issues of guilt and judgment; the court ultimately exists within Kafka’s mind. The crime is one of ambivalence, as is made clear in the parable told to Josef K. by the priest in The Trial. In this parable, a man from the country seeks admittance to the “Law” through a doorway that is guarded by a large man. Seemingly intimidated by the guard, the man waits for permission and spends his whole life waiting. He dies a pitiful death. Kafka was unable to accept the demands of his family and society to choose a bourgeois life and equally unable to reject them in order to embrace the path of the artist. In this wavering state of mind, he sinned, he believed, against both life and the spirit. At this point in his life, he was preoccupied with thoughts of suicide, seemingly the only release from the tensions he suffered.

In July, 1916, Kafka became unofficially engaged to Felice for a second time, and they made it formal in July the following year. By December, 1917, however, they had quarreled several times, and the engagement was again terminated. During these years, Kafka was plagued by increasing ill health, and in August, 1917, he suffered a lung hemorrhage that was the first sign of tubercular infection. In his diary, he interpreted his illness as a symbol of Felice and the inner conflict that tormented him.

Kafka’s relationship with his father and the kind of life the latter represented to the son formed the major issue of the writer’s existence. In November, 1919, at the age of thirty-six, Kafka wrote a long and involved letter to his father. Later published as Brief an den Vater (1953; Letter to His Father, 1953), the document represents Kafka’s attempt to justify his personality and art to his father. It is both an attempt at reconciliation and an attack on his father’s treatment of him. He describes, for example, an incident when, as a very young child, his father locked him out of the apartment, and he stood waiting before the door for the “big man” to let him in. Kafka claims that all his writing is merely a kind of “sobbing” at the breast of the man before whom he had so much fear. Again the psychological basis of Kafka’s writing is evident in such documents. He gave this letter to his mother so that she would pass it on to his father, but she never did.

Kafka’s tubercular condition gradually grew worse over the following years, but he continued to write. In 1919, a woman named Milena Jesenská-Polak wrote to Kafka asking for permission to translate his published works into Czech. They began a brief love affair and a correspondence that lasted until shortly before his death. In 1920, he began the first sketches for a planned novel entitled Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), which would involve a land surveyor named K. who seeks admittance to the higher bureaucratic authorities of a castle town. Another of his well-known short texts, Ein Hungerkünstler (1922; “A Hunger Artist,” 1945), was also written during this period. In June, 1922, ill health forced Kafka to apply for retirement from his job. Knowing that he would not live much longer, he instructed his friend, Max Brod, to destroy all of his manuscripts, including his unfinished novels, after his death. Brod was well aware of Kafka’s immense talent and never carried out his friend’s orders. He later edited and published these texts.

In July of 1923, Kafka met a young Jewish woman, Dora Dymant, a student who was half his age, and in September he moved with her to Berlin. His condition worsened, however, and in March of 1924 he returned to Prague and moved in with his parents again. By April his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he was forced to enter a sanatorium near Vienna. Suffering from advanced tuberculosis of the larynx and therefore unable to eat or drink, Kafka died during the morning of June 3, 1924.


Franz Kafka’s impact has been primarily within the area of literature. Much of modern and postmodern narrative fiction is unthinkable without the Prague author’s body of texts. Modern writers as varied as Alain Robbe- Grillet, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Philip Roth, and Gabriel García Márquez—to name only a few—have acknowledged a profound debt to his surreal and disturbing prose. The unique ability of Kafka’s writing to capture the logic and ambience of dream reality has been a formative influence on fiction in a decidedly post-Freudian universe. Kafka’s writing and Freud’s depth psychology as well are the natural extensions of nineteenth century Romantic literature and thought. The Romantic exploration of the inner dimensions of human experience generated a questioning of the nature of objective meaning and subjective perception, and it is in precisely such a universe that Kafka’s characters move.

Kafka’s depiction of the individual who is alienated from his own unconscious and from the experience of those around him has been regarded as a seminal rendering of the existential condition of twentieth century man. The struggles of Josef K. against the anonymous authority of the Court and the efforts of the land surveyor K. to gain entrance to the Castle have been seen by many readers as an image of the estranged individual facing the impersonal bureaucracies of modern society. Kafka was gifted with an artistic talent that enabled him to transform his personal dilemmas into literary texts that have universal significance and appeal.


Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. Translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston. New York: Schocken Books, 1947, 2d enlarged ed. 1960. The first Kafka biography, written by his friend and literary executor. Though dated, this firsthand account remains indispensable. Includes a chronology.

Emrich, Wilhelm. Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings. Translated by Sheema Z. Buehne. An English translation of a major scholarly study originally published in German. Contains notes and a bibliography.

Hall, Calvin S., and Richard E. Lind. Dreams, Life, and Literature: A Study of Franz Kafka. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970. A brief interpretation of the author’s life and works with a distinct emphasis on Freudian approaches. Contains appendices, bibliography, and index.

Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An excellent critical biography which draws on previously unpublished material. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Mailloux, Peter. A Hesitation Before Birth: The Life of Franz Kafka. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988. The fullest account of Kafka’s life available in English, complemented by a thorough analysis of his works. Illustrated; includes a bibliography, notes, and an index.

Politzer, Heinz. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962. One of the first extended critical interpretations of the author’s writings. Contains notes, an index, and a bibliography.

Sokel, Walter H. Franz Kafka. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A brief but excellent introduction to Kafka’s life and texts by one of the foremost scholars. Contains a selected bibliography.

Sussman, Henry. Franz Kafka: Geometrician of Metaphor. Madison, Wis.: Coda Press, 1979. A scholarly interpretation of Kafka’s use of language which utilizes aspects of poststructuralist literary theory. Contains notes.


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