Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Franz Kafka Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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...

(The entire section is 3,821 words.)