illustrated portrait of Bohemian author Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

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Other Literary Forms

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Franz Kafka did not attempt to write drama or poetry. His métier was prose. He was a perfectionist who apparently intended only a portion of what he had written for publication. The three novels and several more volumes of short stories were prepared for publication posthumously by the executor of his literary estate, Max Brod.

Kafka also wrote voluminously in other categories of prose that bear the same distinctive style as his creative work. His diaries and letters contain many comments that aid in the understanding of his stories, and his meticulous legal reports are exemplary professional documents.


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Every year, more secondary literature is published about Franz Kafka than about almost any other author except William Shakespeare. This attests the extraordinary power and alluringly enigmatic content of his works. While his inimitable prose style describes everything as if it were self-evident, he invariably introduces elements of the fantastic and surreal and portrays the demise of his characters as inevitable. His works are imbued with a sense of horror as isolated characters struggle futilely against malign forces that they do not understand.

Kafka unintentionally became the voice of the age. Coming after the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, and being contemporary with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, he captured the existential angst of the generation. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the father no longer worked from the home but dominated the family from a distance. The figure of authority was a stranger.

Other literary forms

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In addition to long fiction, Franz Kafka (KAHF-kah) wrote numerous stories, the most famous of which are Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), Ein Hungerkünstler: Vier Geschichten (1924; A Hunger Artist, 1948), and The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces (1948). He also left behind extensive diaries and letters.


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What W. H. Auden wrote of Sigmund Freud—that he had become less a person than a climate of opinion—is equally true of Franz Kafka. He is the twentieth century prophet of alienation, his name a household synonym for “angst.” His stories—visionary, hallucinatory, yet very controlled artistically—have exerted their powerful influence over modern fiction. Few would dispute the assertion that he is one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. None of this, however, could have been anticipated of a writer who was not widely known at the time of his death.

Kafka’s genius was difficult for him to harness: The fact is that he never completed any of his three novels. Before dying, he left instructions with Max Brod, his friend and executor, to destroy his manuscripts. Reasoning that Kafka was not committed to their destruction as much as he was ambivalent over their fate—could not he have destroyed them had he really wished to do so?—Brod preserved the manuscripts, arranged to have them printed, wrote a biography of his friend, and generously championed his cause. Thus, The Trial and The Castle, books which so remarkably capture Kafka’s paradoxical vision of human existence, came to light.

Discussion Topics

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Is The Trial merely motivated by Franz Kafka’s interest in the law or does it depend significantly on his legal training?

What are the obstacles to effective communication among Kafka’s characters?

How did Kafka’s difficulties with his own father affect his depiction of fathers?

Does Kafka’s fiction reflect an existentialist denial of all absolute principles?

Can any of the stories of The Country Doctor be regarded as optimistic?

Why do the reactions of fear and laughter seem to converge for Kafka’s readers?


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Alter, Robert. Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture . New Haven, Conn.:...

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Yale University Press, 2000. A lucid argument for the complex influence that the Bible has exerted on three important and diverse authors: Franz Kafka, Hayyim Hahman Bialik, and James Joyce.

Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka—A Biographical Essay. New York: Atlas, 2008.

Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. “Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-Level Allegory, and The Metamorphosis.” The Midwest Quarterly 35 (Summer, 1994): 450-467. Argues that Kafka’s ability to combine oppositions without resolving them enables him to simultaneously build and dismantle an allegorical ladder ascending the four levels of traditional interpretation.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Franz Kafka. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of essays, on Kafka himself and on themes that pervade his oeuvre, by distinguished scholars. Includes essays on the short stories “Up in the Gallery,” “A Country Doctor,” “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”), and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”). Contains an excellent index that itemizes specific aspects of the works.

Boa, Elizabeth. Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An excellent study. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Calasso, Roberto. K.. New York: Knopf, 2005. This provocative, scholarly study is a welcome addition to Kafka studies.

Corngold, Stanley. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Chapter 3 (43 pages) contains what is very likely the definitive analysis of “The Metamorphosis.” Also includes excellent analysis of “The Judgment,” in chapters 2 and 7, discussions of form and critical method, and comparisons with other authors. Corngold also wrote a critical bibliography of “The Metamorphosis” in The Commentator’s Despair (1973).

Flores, Angel, ed. The Problem of “The Judgement”: Eleven Approaches to Kafka’s Story. New York: Gordian Press, 1976. An English translation, followed by a valuable collection of essays on the short story that Kafka considered his best. Harmut Binder reveals a surprising number of background sources in literature and legend. Kate Flores writes a convincing analysis based on the nature of human fatherhood. Walter Sokel provides an extensive interpretation. Very worthwhile.

Glatzer, Nahum N. The Loves of Franz Kafka. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.

Hayman, Ronald. K: A Biography of Kafka. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. More than a biography, this study contains many helpful discussions of the literary works, showing how they arose in response to specific situations and linking them with contemporary passages from Kafka’s diary and letters. A moving portrayal particularly of Kafka’s last days, when his steps toward liberation coincided tragically with the final stages of tuberculosis.

Heinemann, Richard. “Kafka’s Oath of Service: ‘Der Bau’ and the Dialectic of Bureaucratic Mind.” PMLA 111 (March, 1996): 256-270. Analyzes “Der Bau,” as a literary representation of what Kafka called the bureaucratic mind, which reflects both the acceptance of authority as a foundation for attachment to a community and the paralysis of a restlessly critical consciousness that makes impossible any reconciliation between self and other.

Jofen, Jean. The Jewish Mysticism of Kafka. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. A detailed, learned examination of Kafka’s connections to Jewish writers, including Y. L. Peretz, Martin Buber, Morris Rosenfeld, and other Yiddish authors. Contains notes but no bibliography.

Kafka, Franz. Franz Kafka: The Office Writings. Edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner. Princeton: Princeton University, 2009. Unlike many books about Kafka’s life, this one stresses the connections between his creative and professional interests. The editors make the claim that he liked his job working in an insurance office and even wrote nonfiction pieces about the insurance business. The eighteen documents in this volume are well translated and come with endnotes and commentary that provide information about the issues that Kafka was addressing. This is essential reading for anyone interested in Kafka.

Karl, Frederick Robert. Franz Kafka, Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991.

Krauss, Karoline. Kafka’s K. Versus the Castle: The Self and the Other. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A good analysis of The Castle. Bibliographical references are included.

Oz, Amos. “A Log in a Freshet: On the Beginning of Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor.’” Partisan Review 66 (Spring, 1999): 211-217. Argues that the story is not a story of crime and punishment, nor is it a fable about making the wrong decision. The feelings of guilt the doctor experiences are not the result of any action. Under the terms of Kafka’s contract, the doctor is guilty a priori, convicted from the start, despite his innocence.

Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984. An excellent biography, remarkable in that Pawel’s meticulous research has extended beyond Kafka to include the fates of all those lives he touched. Conveys detailed knowledge of the school and university systems of the time and of the stages of social and political unrest in Prague. Beautifully written.

Politzer, Heinz. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox. Revised and expanded edition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. A seminal work in Kafka scholarship. Proceeding from a detailed analysis of one paragraph, Politzer discusses several of the short stories at length (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “In the Penal Colony”) and touches on all the stories. Entertains many alternative readings and compares the works with one another.

Preece, Julian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A volume from the series Cambridge Companions to Literature.

Reiner, Stach. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. First published in Germany in 2002, this stellar work serves as the first of a projected three volume Kafka biography. Inclues photos, thorough notes, bibliography and several indexes.

Spann, Meno. Franz Kafka. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Spann’s familiarity with the 250 books in Kafka’s library enables him to identify sources and influences. He corrects many misleading errors in the English translations, provides lucid overviews of diverse critical approaches, and offers his own concise readings of the works. Good discussions of the major short stories.

Speirs, Ronald, and Beatrice Sandberg. Franz Kafka. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Chapters on “a writer’s life” and on the novels and short stories. Provides detailed notes and extensive bibliography.


Critical Essays