Franz Kafka 1883-1924
Austro-Czech short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, and diarist.
The following entry presents criticism of Kafka's short fiction works from 1995 to 2001. See also A Hunger Artist Criticism and The Metamorphosis Criticism.
One of the most acclaimed and influential twentieth-century writers, Kafka is renowned for prophetic and profoundly enigmatic stories that often portray human degradation and cruelty. In his works, Kafka presents a grotesque vision of the world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals vainly seek to transcend their condition or pursue some unattainable goal. His fiction derives its power from his use of precise, dispassionate prose and realistic detail to relate bizarre, often absurd events, and from his probing treatment of moral and spiritual problems.
Kafka was born to financially secure Jewish parents in Prague, a prominent provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father had risen from poverty to success as a businessman, and the family had been assimilated into Prague's Czech community by the time of Kafka's birth. Seeking acceptance into the German-speaking elite of the city, Kafka's father sent him to German rather than Czech schools. Despite this fact, the dichotomy between the German and Czech communities led to Kafka's early feelings of alienation. As the eldest child and only surviving son, Kafka was expected to follow a planned course in life, but beginning in childhood he considered himself a disappointment to his father and felt inadequate when compared with him. Against his own wishes, Kafka studied law at the German University in Prague, earning his doctorate in 1906. Unhappy with the prospect of a legal career, he instead accepted a position with an insurance firm in Prague. He worked there from 1908 until 1922, when the debilitating effects of tuberculosis finally forced him to retire. Kafka spent his remaining years in various sanatoriums, writing fiction until his death in Kierling, Austria, in 1924. In his will, Kafka ordered nearly all of his manuscripts burned, but Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, ignored this request and organized Kafka's writings into several posthumous publications.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Kafka was plagued by the discord between his vocation and literary ambitions and by his ambivalence about marriage, which he believed offered the greatest happiness, but which he feared would stifle his creativity. Some considered his relationship with Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged twice but never married, the catalyst to a fertile period of literary production that began in 1912. During this time Kafka wrote “Das Urteil” (1913; “The Judgement”) and Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis). Many critics cite “The Judgement” as Kafka's “breakthrough” story, the one that established his central thematic preoccupation: the conflict between father and son that produces guilt in the younger character and is ultimately reconciled through suffering and expiation. Kafka's next major work, “The Metamorphosis,” is one of the most frequently analyzed stories in world literature. This elusive work, which portrays the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a man into an insect, has inspired diverse interpretations. In 1919, Kafka published “In der Strafkolonie” (“In the Penal Colony”), which is a characteristic fantasy of psychological and physical brutality that suggests a variety of readings due to the obscure nature of the events. From 1916 to 1917, Kafka wrote a series of prose pieces, known as the “Country Doctor Cycle,” which reflects a sense of decaying order in Europe during World War I. These tales were later collected and published as Ein Landarzt (1919; The Country Doctor). The stories in the last book published by Kafka during his lifetime, Ein Hungerkunstler (1924; A Hunger Artist), depict characters whose extreme isolation represents the status of the artist in a modern industrialized world.
Kafka is ranked among the most important writers of the twentieth century for works that express modern humanity's loss of personal and collective order. His writing has inspired the term “Kafkaesque,” which has come to describe situations of psychological, social, political, and metaphysical instability and confusion that defy logical explanation and which typify Kafka's conception of humanity's absurd relationship with the universe. Although Kafka's work has elicited various critical interpretations, he himself characterized his fiction as symbolic manifestations of his “dreamlike inner life” in which he attempted to reconcile feelings of guilt and insecurity. In recent years, some critics have explored Kafka's relationship with Judaism as demonstrated by his texts. For many critics, Kafka's greatness resides in his ability to transform his private torment into universal fables.