Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka

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Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Kafka’s initial letter to Felice, dated September 20, 1912, was written three weeks after he first met her and five days after the engagement of his sister Valli. The pressure to wed was undoubtedly on his mind. The chance to be married offered him an escape from his parents, above all from the father who dominated him. The letter obliquely suggests the ambivalence that characterized their relationship. Kafka initiates a correspondence with the young woman, a romantic approach toward her, but tells her, at the same time, that he is a less than punctual letter writer, a symbolic retreat from the advance he had just made. His second letter to her, dated September 28, 1912, was written immediately upon receipt of her reply and deals with how he wrote his first letter to her. Again, his letter is telling in that the subject is not her reply but rather himself and the act of writing.

Indeed, the person of Felice became for Kafka a stimulus to writing in more ways than this initial correspondence. On the night of September 22, 1912, he wrote the story Das Urteil (1913, 1916; The Judgment, 1945), the work to which Kafka scholars most often refer and certainly one of his best narrative pieces. The story commences a period of intense creativity in the author’s life, and it is significant that it coincides with the beginning of his correspondence with Felice. Other well-known works from the time of the Felice correspondence include Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), In der Strafkolonie (1919; In the Penal Colony, 1941), and the unfinished novel Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937).

Just as Kafka transformed his personal problems into the source material of his fiction, his letters to Felice are very much a literary affair. His diction in the early letters (November 15, 1912, for example) is often eloquently romantic, as if he were wooing her. The letter of December 25, 1912, written a mere three months after he initiated the correspondence, is astonishing in its intensity and projects the literary pose of the impassioned lover. One suspects that at times Kafka was motivated more by the momentum of his words than by the force of his emotions. After the first time he terminated his engagement with her, he waxes eloquent over the guilt he feels because of the suffering he caused her. His letters read at times like a somewhat less intimate version of the diary he faithfully kept; he shares with her his struggles in writing and his doubts about his worthiness and his health. The letters are, like his fiction, a conversation with himself.

Kafka’s correspondence with Felice is also literary in a deeper sense. The letters are a communication of images, of poses. His first letter to her reads like a casual introduction from an urbane young man. He later confessed to Felice that it took him ten days to write the letter; he revised and polished it in order to give it the impression of casualness. In his later letters to her, he makes a virtual fetish of asking about the everyday details of her life: what she did, what she ate, whom she saw, and so on. Yet Kafka began to write intimately almost from the beginning. In his letter of November 1, 1912, he uses a less formal salutation, and on November 11, he employs the informal (intimate) German form of address. Tellingly, however, he informs her in the same letter of his unfitness for marriage and fatherhood; such ambivalence must certainly have confused Felice. He began writing to her more and more frequently; at times he composed two or three letters per day.

The letters...

(The entire section is 895 words.)