Karel Čapek Čapek, Karel - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Karel Čapek 1890-1938

Czechoslovakian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, journalist, and travel writer.

One of Czechoslovakia's foremost writers, Čapek is best known for his science fiction, primarily the drama R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) and the novel Válka s mloky (War with the Newts). Čapek also wrote a number of stories over the course of his brief career as a journalist for Lidové noviny; the majority of his stories were first published in that newspaper between 1920 and 1938. They express Capek's ardent humanism, as well as his philosophical belief in the plurality and relativity of truth.

Biographical Information

Čapek was born in Malé Svatoňovice, a small village in northeastern Bohemia. A frail and sickly child, he was especially close to his older brother Josef, and as adults the brothers frequently collaborated on short stories and plays. Čapek began writing poetry and fiction in high school; soon after graduation he was publishing stories, written in collaboration with Josef, in Czech newspapers. After studying at universities in Prague, Berlin, and Paris, Capek earned a doctorate in philosophy at Prague's Charles University in 1915. Two years later, he began a career as a journalist whose articles often championed the cause of Czech nationalism. As World War II approached, Čapek and his brother, both outspoken opponents of fascism, were advised to leave Prague, but chose to remain and continue their opposition to Nazism. Čapek died three months before the Nazis invaded Prague; the secret police, unaware of his death, arrived at his home seeking his arrest. Josef was interned in a concentration camp, where he died shortly before the end of the war.

Major Works

Čapek's stories are marked by stylistic diversity and continual shifts in subject matter. Indeed, as Peter Steiner noted, "There is hardly a form of writing that he did not try." Čapek's early short fiction is overtly political and replete with his ideological convictions; "No poetic isolation releases a writer from the civic context," wrote Čapek in 1935, adding "as long as he shares others' worries, the troubles of the time, and love for the nations, he has a right and, perhaps, even a manly duty not to defect from others' struggles." His use of fiction to comment on the political climate of his day is most apparent in Kniha apokryfů (Apocryphal Stories). The twenty-nine tales in Apocryphal Stories, which appeared in Lidové noviny during an eighteen-year period, were published posthumously as a collection in 1945. Most of the stories were written to commemorate a holiday or a day of historical significance. They serve as snapshots of Western civilization in which Čapek rewrites historical events, using irony, parody, parables, allegories, and hyperbole. Čapek's "Hamlet" was inspired by a Croatian terrorist raid in Hungary and Germany that resulted in the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, who was a close ally of the Czechs. In this story the hero is a budding playwright who wonders how he can influence an intolerable political situation. Published on the sixteenth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic, it provided Čapek with the opportunity to reflect on his role as a literary figure during an unstable time in his country's history.

Čapek's 1917 collection Boží muka (Wayside Crosses) is more philosophical than his newspaper stories. Deeply pessimistic, this collection reflects the author's spiritual crisis during the First World War. In "The Footprint," which is based on David Hume's speculations about an isolated print in the sand, two men find a mysterious, single footprint in fresh snow that leads nowhere. One of the men considers the footprint a miracle, a manifestation of God, but the second man dismantles the usefulness of miracles, arguing that they have no place in a rational world; "That footprint will not change me and will not save me, and will redeem me from nothing; it only torments me, it obsesses me and I cannot get rid of it. And I do not believe it; a miracle would content me, but that footprint is the first step to uncertainty. It would be better if I had not seen it." The theme of unsolved mysteries represented in "The Footprint" reappears in Čapek's pocket stories. Mysteries in these stories, however, do not follow the suspense-filled style of traditional detective stories. Instead, Čapek's mysteries often remain unsolved or are solved incidentally by unsuspecting lay persons. In "The Poet," for example, a detective fruitlessly questions a poet who witnesses a hit-and-run accident. The detective later discovers that a poem written by the witness contains the clue he needs to solve the mystery.

Critical Reception

Capek's short fiction is not widely known in the United States, partly because many of his tales have not been translated into English. Critics have compared Čapek's stories to those of G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells, but have noted themes and ideas in Čapek's works sometimes stand in the way of plot and characterization. Nevertheless, Čapek's stones have been widely praised for their keen interest in humanity and its future. Clarence A. Manning regarded Čapek as "a man who combined a deep human philosophy and understanding, a sympathy for human life as it is, with a keen analytical sense of the source of the woes of the twentieth century." William E. Harkins added, "The tragedy of his homeland and his premature death cut short the philosophical and creative development of a great writer, a profound thinker, and a great human spirit."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Zárivé hlubiny [with Josef Čapek] 1916

Boží muka 1917

Krakonošova zahrada [with Josef Čapek] 1918

Trapné provídky [Money, and Other Stories] 1921

Povidky z jedné kapsy [Tales from One Pocket] 1929

Povidky z druhé kapsy [Tales from the Other Pocket] 1929

Kniha apokryfú [Apocryphal Stories] 1945

Other Major Works

Lásky hra osudna [with Josef Čapek] (drama) 1910

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) [R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)] (drama) 1921

Továrna na absolutno [The Absolute at Large] (novel) 1922

Vec Makropulos [The Makropoulos Secret] (drama) 1922

Ze života hmyzu [with Josef Čapek; The Insect Play] (drama) 1922

Anglické listy [Letters from England] (travel sketches) 1924

Krakatit [Krakatit] (novel) 1924

Adam Stvořitel [with Josef Čapek; Adam the Creator] (drama) 1927

Hordubal [Hordubal] (novel) 1933

Provétroñ [Meteor] (novel) 1933

Obyčejny zivot [An Ordinary Life] (novel) 1934

Válka s mloky [War with the Newts] (novel) 1936

Bilá nemoc [The White Plague] (drama) 1937

Privni parta [The First Rescue Party] (novel) 1937

Matka [The Mother] (drama) 1938

Život a duo skladatele Foltyna [The Cheat] (unfinished novel) 1939

Oliver Elton (essay date 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Karel Čapek: Short Tales and Fantasias," in Essays and Addresses, Longmans, Green & Co., 1939, pp. 151-90.

[In the following excerpt, Elton provides a laudatory overview of öapek's short stories.]

Čapek earned his European fame, justly enough, by R. U.R., The Insect Play, The White Sickness (translated as Power and Glory), and other dramas. They satirize the social order and depict, often in symbolic form, the perils that threaten it with shipwreck. Their wealth of ideas, their strength of purpose, and their pertinence to-day, must be recognized. And yet, considered as works of art, they have perils of their own. They are full of faults and fissures which will hardly stand close analysis and which are easily passed over in the theatre; and in any case, they cannot compare with the best of Čapek's stories. Most of these, though not all, have been translated; but to an Englishman the author's name suggests, above all, the Robots and the Slugs, and perhaps also his horrified and humorous drawings of the London buses and posters. The stories are seldom mentioned in our critical press; although the novels of the 'trilogy' (Hordubal, The Meteor, An Ordinary Life) and The First Rescue Party, may fairly be called classics. Many of the contes rank with those of Chekhov or of Maupassant. There are, first and last, more than eighty of them, and it must be enough to single out a few.

The first group of tales is included in three volumes: Shining Deeps (1916); Calvaries, or Wayside Crosses (literally, 'God's Suffering') (1917); and Painful Tales (1921). They had been preceded by a curious miscellany of anecdotes and fancies, Krakonos's Garden, the work of Karel Öapek and his brother Josef, who was also his partner in Shining Deeps and afterwards in several of his plays. Calvaries is the work of Karel alone; but these two books have a common atmosphere not easy to define. They are tentative; the authors are exploring their talent, seeking for a line. They deal in delicate burlesque, or in gay Italian scenes with a background of red murder; but, above all, they are penetrated by a sense of mystery; and this, in its many shapes, pervades most of Karel Čapek's work in fiction. There is the passion for the unknown, the urge of the traveller to escape from home and bonds; a thirst that can never be satisfied, for there is always an enigmatical Beyond. Most of us have known men who cannot rest from travel: Are they impelled by vis a tergo, or by vis a fronte? Do they know, themselves? In 'The Island', one such wanderer is marooned among savages and takes a native mate; he longs to escape, but when the rescuers come he hides from them and cannot leave her. In 'The Living Flame', Manoel is on his deathbed, and is told to confess his sins. He has killed men, he has taken women where he could get them, and he has been all over the world, lured always by great distances, 'which frightened me like some abyss, and yet I have always rushed into them, delightedly and never wavering'. 'But what of your sins ?' cries the priest; and departs in anger when he finds that the man does not repent at all.

A still more haunting enigma is that of Time: not the time of the clock, but real time—whatever that may be. 'Nothing is more tormenting than the present', says a speaker in The Waiting Room; the burden of life is that you have to wait, and 'you wait for one thing only', for 'an end to the waiting, for liberation from waiting', for some sort of painful 'deliverance', which never comes. In a little prose lyric called 'The Standstill of Time', the student at his table holds his breath in the silence of the night, which is both within him and without him; and all objects seem to him like an infinite plane surface, a sheet of linen, without time or content, and quite dead. 'And the thing that is standing still, is time'; he dare not move for fear of its 'breaking up into a thousand moments' which would 'drop down, dead as dust'. The sound of steps upon the pavement dissolves the impression, and time moves on again.

The story that gives the title to the volume Shining Deeps reminds us, by its musical repetition, of a double theme, of De Quincey's Vision of Sudden Death, for death and love are the themes; and they echo in the memory of an imaginary passenger who has survived the foundering of the Oceanic (namely, the Titanic). The disaster itself is related, more than once; and Čapek has studied the published evidence: there is the gay scene, the growing suspense, the doom realized, the heroic bearing, the singing of the hymn. . . . Yet the real subject is different. There was a nameless girl on board, to whom the traveller had never spoken, and she had perished. She crosses and recrosses his vision; and behold, she and no other was his ideal, and his love, sudden and final, had lent her 'the likeness of beauty'. After this, he cries, 'my life only seems to exist, and it ends in nothing; take pity on my soul!'

But Čapek is already evolving a new technique: he feels the need of some definite plot, or web of concrete circumstance, in order to heighten our awareness of the x, the inscrutable factor, that lies at the heart of it. So he begins to invent 'detective' tales which, as Dr. Wellek observes, are of a very unusual kind, being 'without any solution for the mysteries; the very disappointment of our expectation is their main point'. In 'The Mountain' neither murderer nor victim is identified. The former remains a vague bulk, a complaining voice, a somebody who is chased over the mountain by constables and amateurs, and who is at last found dead. A musician who has joined the party and who has parleyed with that voice in the mist feels pity and sympathy for the criminal, and he twangs one startling note upon his fiddle by way of symbol or of epitaph. The mystery lies not in what the matter-of-fact policemen may or may not discover but in the depths of human motive. Čapek, as will appear, was afterwards to show surprising resource in this kind of narrative.

In the preface to his play The Makropulos Affair (1922), he gallantly repudiates the charge of pessimism; the only real pessimism, he says, is defeatism—giving up hope and doing nothing. And certainly his own creed is Carlylean; it is the creed of work, and of faith in mankind. Still, some of the Painful Tales, published only a year previously, are overhung with gloom, and suggest the Everlasting No of Sartor Resartus. Every window is bricked up, every blink of hope excluded. 'In the Castle' describes the fate of a governess who is in the employ of a tyrannous old count and his wife. She is bullied by them, defied by the child her pupil, and she suffers from the coarse overtures of the young handsome tutor. She plans to run away, but her unlettered mother needs her wages, and she dare not go. At last, driven to the wall and in order to get something out of life, she opens her door to the tutor. One night, wandering in the park, she had espied him, a nude and splendid athlete, doing his exercises. 'Helena' is the story of a plain girl of twenty-five, who is drawn with bitter precision and a kind of merciless compassion. She has exalted notions, believes that there is something 'higher than love', and goes about frankly with a man older than herself rather blasé, who thinks her just a delightful friend. The flaw in the story is his incredible blindness to the true state of the case. In Helena there is a sudden explosion of hopeless passion. She comes to the man and confesses it, and he has to undeceive her. She is no Tatyana, but he talks to her somewhat like a bourgeois Evgeny Onegin. She goes off, they never meet again; she thinks he has done her a grievous wrong.

These are miseries of the private life; in 'The Tribunal' the horizon is far wider. Čapek is often found brooding on the imperfection of human law and of legal justice. It is so...

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George Gibian (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Karel Capek's Apocrypha and Franz Kafka's Parables," in The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XVIII, April, 1959, pp. 238-47.

[In the excerpt below, Gibian discusses similarities between the tales of Čapek's Apocryphal Stories, concluding "His apocrypha amuse, rather than disturb us. Even their iconoclasms and satire are mild, optimistic, gentle."]

The general principle basic to Capek's apocrypha is to take an historical situation and retell (and reinterpret) it by filling in background, adding to it, recreating, looking at it from a fresh angle, elaborating, taking a highly magnified or distorted view of it.


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William E. Harkins (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Luminous Depths," "The Lost Way," and "The Offended," in Karel Čapek, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 46-50; 51-61; 62-65.

[In the following essay, Harkins traces Čapek's philosophical development through three collections, Zářivé hlubiny, Boži muka, and Trapné providky, which he renders as Luminous Depths, Wayside Crosses, and Painful Tales, respectively.]

The neo-classical period had been only a passing phase in the work of the Brothers Čapek, though the formal discipline it provided is felt in several new stories they published in 1911 and 1912. These, along with the two Italian tales, were subsequently collected...

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Igor Hajek (review date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Truth in People," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3822, June 6, 1975, p. 629.

[In the following review of Čapek's Apocryphal Stories, Hajek argues that the author's philosophy is easily recognizable in these stories.]

Although the name of Karel Čapek is still well known in England, his books, quite popular in this country between the wars, are nowadays hard to come by. Only a handful of his lesser works have been kept in print over the years by Allen and Unwin, while the more recent OUP paperback of R.U.R., the play which introduced the word "robot" into many languages, uses an old translation which is in fact an adaptation of the...

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Wilma Iggers (review date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Apocryphal Stories, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 199-200.

[Below, Iggers recognizes both humorous and serious elements in Čapek's Apocryphal Stories.]

Karel Čapek is known in America, if at all, as the writer of R.U.R., the expressionistic play in which mankind narrowly escapes the fate of being replaced by robots. The author's concern for the threat of technology to the human environment (and mind) was but one of his many interests, which ranged from human society to insects, from the personality of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk to "philosophical detective stories." The unifying link in Čapek's...

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Veronika Heé (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pocket-Stories of Karel Čapek," in Studia Slavica, Vol. XXII, Nos. 3-4, 1976, pp. 401-14.

[In the following essay, Heé examines the techniques Čapek employed in his "pocket" stories to convey his philosophical ideas, discusses the success of these works as short stories, and considers their relation to the genre of detective fiction.]

The whole literary career of Karel Čapek is characterized by a restless search for human values that could act as ideals for man in the 20th century. In his literary works different phases of this searching process can be distinguished from the formation of an ideal through loosing faith in it to the creation of a new...

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Sergej Davydov (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales from One Pocket: Detective and Justice Stories of Karel Čapek," in The Structure of the Literary Process: Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Felix Vodička, edited by P. Steiner, M. Červenka, and R. Vroon, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 95-107.

[In the essay below, Davydov measures the stories in Čapek's Tales from One Pocket against the traditional detective genre.]

When Karel Čapek began his Tales from One Pockety he intended to write a series of detective tales. However, what appeared in 1929 under this title can hardly be termed "detective tales" in the conventional sense. Only half of the stories deal...

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Marina Warner (review date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revelling in Hope," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4565, September 28, 1990, p. 1036.

[In the following review of Nine Fairy Tales and One More Thrown in for Good Measure, Warner notes the didactic nature of the stories and compares them to those of the Grimm brothers, concluding "the Grimm Brothers led quiet lives, but in their fairy-tales dealt more in fatalism; Čapek's revel in hope, against all the odds.]

The Czech playwright, novelist and fantasist Karel Čapek coined the word "robot", and in his drama of 1920, RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots) imagined the death of the world after robots have been manufactured to spare man labour; a few...

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William Harkins (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Čapek's Early Work," in On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, Harkins discusses Čapek's early convictions as they are exemplified through the stories collected in Krakonošova zahrada and Boži muka, here rendered as The Garden of Krakonoš and Wayside Crosses.]

The idea behind the present talk was conceived last summer when I visited a Czech friend of mine, one who was all his life a fervent member of the artistic avantgarde. We were discussing Čapek, whom he had always praised in my hearing. This time he praised him again, but added, "I'm only thinking of...

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Peter Steiner (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Neglected Collection—Čapek's Apocryphal Stories as Allegory," in On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992, pp. 65-86.

[In the following essay, Steiner provides the historical context for Čapek's Apocryphal Stories. The critic claims that, in addition to their philosophical and aesthetic value, the stories have political significance, asserting "The allegorical mode of writing permitted Čapek to close the gap between poetics and politics, to satisfy his artistic ambitions without giving up the civic responsibilities he felt so keenly."]

The word "apocrypha" is, according to the OED, derived...

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Bettina Drew (review date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Karel Capek's Tales of Truth and Detection," in Tribune Books, Chicago, August 21, 1994, pp. 1, 9.

[Here, Drew argues that Čapek's "pocket" stories should not be categorized as detective fiction because they focus on larger themes than crime and detection, mainly humanity, justice, and truth.]

A generation or two ago, Karel Capek (pronounced "Chopek") was the world's most renowned Czech man of letters, the author of six novels, six plays and many volumes of stories, travel writing, criticism and children's books. Several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, buried among the Czech immortals, Capek achieved instant fame in the 1920s when his play R.U.R.:...

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B. R. Bradbrook (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Story Writer," in Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, pp. 123-45.

[In the essay that follows, Bradbrook presents a comprehensive overview of Capek's short fiction, noting in particular the author's thoughts and motives regarding his stories.]

"Short story will always be one of the most attractive matters for an author, both in form and content."

"To write short stories you need good fortune or (and mainly) a good deal of realism. Literature which shirks realism will not be able to produce short stories." K. Č.


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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. "Early Writings." In Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust, pp. 21-36. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

Discussion of Capek's early works, primarily the short stories written in collaboration with his brother Josef.

Doležel, Lubomir. "Karel Čapek—a Modern Storyteller." In On Karel Capek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, edited by Michael Makin and Jindřich Toman, pp. 15-28. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992.

Places Capek within the Bohemian tradition of storytelling, concluding "Capek is an innovative, experimental, thoroughly modern...

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