Franz Kafka Kafka, Franz - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Betrachtung 1913

Der Heizer: Ein Fragment 1913

Das Urteil: Eine Geschichte [The Sentence; also translated as The Judgement] 1913

Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis] 1915

Ein Landarzt: Kleine Erzählungen [The Country Doctor: A Collection of Fourteen Short Stories] 1919

In der Strafkolonie [In the Penal Colony] 1919

Ein Hungerkunstler: Vier Geschichten [A Hunger Artist] 1924

Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer: Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus dem Nachlaß [The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces] 1931

*Gesammelte Schriften. 6 vols. 1935-37

The Complete Stories 1946

The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces 1948

Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings 1954

The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections 1970

Stories 1904-1924 1981

Der Prozeß: Roman [The Trial] (novel) 1925

Das Schloß: Roman [The Castle: A Novel] (novel) 1926

Amerika: Roman [America] (novel) 1927

The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1923 (diaries) 1948

The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923 (diaries) 1949

Letter to His Father (letters) 1953

Letters to Felice (letters) 1973

I am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings by Franz Kafka (autobiography) 1974

Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors (letters) 1977

*This work includes: Erzählungen und kleine Prosa (1935; In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works) and Beschreibung eines Kampfes: Novellen, Skizzen, Aphorismen aus dem Nachlaß (1936; Description of a Struggle and The Great Wall of China).

Evelyn Torton Beck (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Beck, Evelyn Torton. “Gender, Judaism, and Power: A Jewish Feminist Approach to Kafka.” In Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction, edited by Richard T. Gray, pp. 35-42. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

[In the following essay, Beck, using a Jewish feminist approach, looks at the influence of Yiddish theater on Kafka's short ficiton.]

Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Long before I became aware of the significance of gender, my approach to the study of literature was both contextual and integrative. I took it as given that art is not separable from life and that establishing the cultural and biographical contexts of an artist's work is as essential to an understanding of a text as is the analysis of symbol, imagery, and language.

Such an integrated approach is especially essential to Franz Kafka, for the membrane separating the life of this writer from his work is particularly permeable. For this reason, I always begin teaching his texts by establishing his historic realities and the value system of the worlds in which he lived. Students must know from the start that Kafka was multiply a minority. He was a German-speaking Jew living in Prague when anti-Semitism was widespread and the German language associated (by Czech natives) with the hostile ruling class. He was a Jew who despised and rejected his father's superficial way of being Jewish but who could neither believe nor entirely give up belief. He was also a man who had difficulty being sexual with women; who feared the responsibility of marriage, which he associated with the bourgeois life he saw as inimical to the artist in him. But, ironically, he also believed, in accordance with Jewish custom, that a man who did not marry would never be more than half a man. In addition, contemporary social pressure and Jewish mores kept him from ever contemplating the meaning of his sexual revulsion for women (made explicit in his letters and diaries) and perhaps facing his homoerotic attractions, which are amply manifest in accounts of his dreams and fantasies as well as in the homosocial worlds of his fiction and fragments (see Beck, “Kafka's Traffic” and “Kafka's Triple Bind”).

These multiple contexts provide a basic framework within which it becomes possible to begin to analyze the stories. Because most students find interpretation of Kafka's fiction so formidable, I first concentrate on demystifying his work by demonstrating the ways in which he transmuted significant elements from Jewish culture and religion and reworked them in his fiction in an abstract way, giving these elements an aura of mystery and terror. In this process I show how Kafka's own method of decontextualizing makes his work so richly layered and open to multiple interpretations.

Becoming more specific, I begin with the influence of Yiddish theater on his work and show the coincidence of Kafka's artistic “breakthrough” in 1912 with the reawakening of his interest in Judaism, brought about by an extended encounter with an eastern European wandering theater troupe that performed Yiddish plays in Prague from 1910 to 1911 (see Beck, Yiddish Theater and “Kafka's ‘Durchbruch'”). Kafka believed that this impoverished, semiprofessional troupe's repertoire of tragicomic plays, dealing with ancient and contemporary Jewish life, represented a more authentic form of Judaism than he had ever encountered, and for a time they gave him some relief from the pressing existential and familial problems that so troubled him. Kafka also became infatuated with both the leading actor and actress of the troupe. In September 1912, directly following this theater experience, he wrote “The Judgment,” the first story to show the characteristic dramatic style that typifies Kafka's mature writing and stands in stark contrast to all his writing before that time (see Beck, Yiddish Theater 31-48).

Having established this background, I demonstrate to students how I came to trace not only the style but also the essential themes of Kafka's entire oeuvre to these Yiddish plays. Specifically, these themes are the impossibility of obtaining justice within the machinery of the law, the struggle against authority (both divine and temporal), the relationship between the individual and the “absolute” as well as the community, the cleanliness toward which Kafka's characters strive, the elusive knowledge they seek, the hunger they cannot sate.

Moreover, the effect of power on the Jew (particularly the Jewish male) is central to the Yiddish plays and made concrete in battles of power between fathers and sons within the nuclear family, king and Jew in the nation-state, individual Jew and rabbinic leader in Jewish communal life, and God and subject in the Jewish religious sphere. While heterosexual marriage, procreation, and adherence to Jewish law are offered in these plays as ideals to all Jews, women are also expected to be subservient to men and to sacrifice themselves willingly for the benefit of men. Kafka saw as important the guilt and punishment associated with disobedience of Jewish law and disavowal of Jewish ethics and values; in these plays such defiance inevitably leads to apostasy and abandonment of the community.

Kafka's echo of these themes should make it evident that the influence of Yiddish theater was particularly strong on the short stories under discussion in this volume, stories in which such themes appear in transmuted form without specific reference to Jewish history. The stories also include entire scenes whose origins can be traced to the plays, which Kafka saw several times in the space of a few months just before he wrote “The Judgment.”1

The Yiddish plays themselves were aesthetically uneven and produced on a limited budget in a tiny theater in one of the poorest sections of Prague. Kafka's parents, especially his father, strongly disapproved of his interest in this theater. The plays performed there were written between 1880 and 1907 but remained untouched by the spirit of modernism that was sweeping Europe in those years; rather, they were composed of elements taken from the traditional five-act play, the melodrama, and the burlesque.2 Because the plays were performed under poor conditions, even the tragic scenes sometimes became comic, as for example when during one performance the dying hero's wig slipped off in the middle of a tragic speech. Kafka recorded such details in his diaries and seemed actually to find such juxtapositions oddly effective.3 The familiar figure of the wedding jester, whose stylized mocking declamations infused traditional Jewish weddings in the small towns of eastern Europe, also found his way into these plays and, through them, into Kafka's narratives.

To make the relation of Kafka's fiction to Yiddish theater more concrete, I focus on “The Judgment” (1913) and “The Metamorphosis” (1915), which show the direct influence of three of these plays with particular clarity. The plays in question are Jacob Gordin's God, Man, and Devil and The Savage One and Abraham Scharkansky's Kol Nidre; or, The Secret Jews of Spain. In Kol Nidre the overlap of the father-child and God-Jew conflicts is particularly prominent. In God, Man, and Devil the father is a retired wedding jester who (under the influence of wine) inappropriately reverts to his public role in the midst of a family gathering. In “The Judgment” Georg's father echoes this jester role in a grotesquely comic fashion that quickly becomes menacing when Georg cannot withstanding his father's psychological attack (see Beck, Yiddish Theater 70-121).

In both Kafka's story and Gordin's play, a son is at first embarrassed by his father's out-of-control behavior (leaping onto a chair, wild gesticulation, and verbal attacks) but then takes control by carrying the father off to bed, where the old and foolish belong; in both works, however, the father ultimately triumphs over his son. Although the stark simplicity of the action in “The Judgment” may seem far removed from the involved plot of God, Man, and Devil, many of the story's most bizarre elements, and all the theatrical ones, correspond strikingly to the details of Gordin's play. Both works build up to a scene of trial and judgment, followed by the self-inflicted death of the hero, whose demise marks a return to order. Both fathers accuse their sons of abandoning them in favor of business opportunities and financial success associated with taboo sexual activity.

In each work, however, the father's accusation bears a unique relation to the realities of its respective text, and for this reason a comparison of the two is extremely instructive. While in the Yiddish play the son is truly engaged in an inappropriate, if not outright incestuous, relationship with his...

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Kenneth Hughes (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kenneth. “A Psychoanalytic Approach to ‘The Judgement.’” In Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction, edited by Richard T. Gray, pp. 84-93. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

[In the following essay, Hughes employs psychoanalytic theory in his reading of “The Judgement.”]

By definition, the psychoanalytic approach to literature takes as its object some psyche involved at some point of the literary process. The most convenient objects to have offered themselves to date are the mind of the author, the mind of a text's narrator or of a character, and the mind of the reader. This sequence, which recapitulates the...

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Henry Sussman (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sussman, Henry. “The Text That Was Never a Story: Symmetry and Disaster in ‘A Country Doctor.’” In Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction, edited by Richard T. Gray, pp. 123-34. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995.

[In the following essay, Sussman argues that the structure of “The Country Doctor” creates an extended metaphor, but not a complete story.]

Although organized, perhaps, by an intense oedipal pain, Kafka's “A Country Doctor” never becomes what might be properly called a story. The results are so inconclusive, the characters so blurred as to deny any pretense to narrative cohesion on the part of this brief...

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Kurt Fickert (essay date fall 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt. “An Epiphany in ‘Vor dem Gesetz.’?” Germanic Notes and Reviews 27, no. 2 (fall 1996): 97-101.

[In the following essay, Fickert analyzes “Vor dem Gesetz,” part of Der Prozess.]

With some notable exceptions (see below) critics analyzing Kafka's brief prose piece “Vor dem Gesetz” have been inclined to neglect its appearance as an independent work while they emphasize the key role the same text plays as a part of the novel Der Prozeß.1 Since Kafka obviously intended “Vor dem Gesetz” to have a unique and therefore significant place among the works he held to be publishable and never even contemplated seeing it in...

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Martin Wasserman (essay date spring 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wasserman, Martin. “Kafka's ‘The Animal in the Synagogue’: His Marten as a Special Biblical Memory.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 2 (spring 1997): 241-45.

[In the following essay, Wasserman posits that the marten-like character in “The Animal in the Synagogue” symbolizes the female prophet Huldah.]

Exploring the identity of Kafka's marten-like creature in his story, “The Animal in the Synagogue,” Marthe Robert speculated that it should be viewed as the memory of something sacred (113-14). Elaborating on Robert's conjecture, I would argue that the marten specifically symbolized the female prophet, Huldah.1


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Michael P. Ryan (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ryan, Michael P. “Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death, and Rebirth in ‘The Metamorphosis.’” The German Quarterly 72, no. 2 (spring 1999): 133-52.

[In the following essay, Ryan utilizes the eastern philosophy Samsara to explore suffering, death, and rebirth in “The Metamorphosis,” and ultimately offers a new interpretation of it.]

The variety of suffering which plagued the life of Franz Kafka is well documented. The illness which hounded him, relegating him to a life of fitful coughs and extended stays at various sanitariums, is clearly not the least of them. Before dying in Kierling of tuberculosis, Kafka would constantly suffer the most...

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Leena Eilittä (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eilittä, Leena. “Kierkegaardian Redefinition of Identity: Erstes Leid (1921), Ein Hungerkünstler (1922), Josefine, die Sängerin oder das Volk der Mäuse (1924).” In Approaches to Personal Identity in Kafka's Short Fiction: Freud, Darwin, Kierkegaard, pp. 149-208. Finland: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1999.

[In the following essay, Eilittä explores the influence of Kierkegaard's religious-existential philosophy on Kafka's attempts through short fiction to regard the notion of identity.]

Kafka's relationship with Søren Kierkegaard's (1813-1855) philosophical ideas has been a source of constant controversy in Kafka criticism during...

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Rochelle Tobias (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tobias, Rochelle. “A Doctor's Odyssey: Sickness and Health in Kafka's ‘Ein Landarzt.’” The Germanic Review 75, no. 2 (spring 2000): 120-31.

[In the following essay, Tobias examines the character of the doctor in “Ein Landarzt” in order to analyze his purpose of and the question of to whose sickbed is he called.]

Of all the accusations made against the country doctor in Kafka's tale by the same name, none seems more harsh than the one the patient whispers as the doctor is laid next to him in bed: “[Du] kommst nicht auf eigenen Füßen.”1 While this observation would scarcely seem to compare with the usual charges made against the...

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Kurt J. Fickert (essay date fall 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt J. “The Failed Epiphany in Kafka's ‘In der Strafkolonie.’” Germanic Notes and Reviews 32, no. 2 (fall 2001): 153-59.

[In the following essay, Fickert investigates the dramatic epiphany that occurs in “In the Penal Colony” and compares it to other works by Kafka.]

The literary device of the “epiphany” or moment of inner revelation has been put to use in the early work of Franz Kafka with remarkable subtlety and, in the case of his “In der Strafkolonie” (written in 1914, published in 1919), with dramatic intensity. Although Kafka makes no reference to the celebrated concept of the epiphany that James Joyce put to use in...

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Larry Vaughan (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Larry. “Franz Kafka's ‘Eine kaiserliche Botschaft’ through an Hasidic Prism.” Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 51, no. 2 (2001): 151-58.

[In the following essay, Vaughan employs Hasidic tales to come to an understanding of Kafka's parable “Eine kaiserliche Botschaft.”]

Das stärkste Mittel, auf die himmlischen

Sphären einzuwirken, ist das Gebet.

Alexander Eliasberg1

Schreiben als Form des Gebets

Franz Kafka2


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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Whitlark, James S. “Kafka's Parodies of Sexual Homicide.” Journal of the Kafka Society of America 22, no. 1-2 (June/December 1998): 70-80.

Examines the theme of sexual homicide in Kafka's works.

Wiley, David. “Divinity and Denial in Franz Kafka's ‘The Metamorphosis’ and The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz.Canadian-American Slavic Studies 31, no. 2 (summer 1997): 171-176.

Investigates oblivion to divinity in characters of “The Metamorphosis” and The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz.

Additional coverage of Kafka's life and career is contained in the following...

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