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Letters to Felice consists of a voluminous correspondence produced by Franz Kafka, one of the most prominent authors of the twentieth century. It consists of more than five hundred letters written by Kafka to a woman named Felice Bauer during the period from 1912 to 1917. He later destroyed her correspondence to him, but she saved his letters and sold them in 1955 to the New York publisher Zalman Schocken.

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In order to understand the significance of these personal documents, some explanation is in order concerning the relationship between Kafka and Felice Bauer. Kafka met Felice for the first time on August 13, 1912, in Prague, at the home of his best friend, Max Brod. She was then twenty-four years old. She had been born in Silesia and reared in Berlin, the daughter of an insurance agent, Carl Bauer. His first letter to her was dated September 20, 1912. Thus began a strange and often-strained relationship that lasted until December, 1917, when Kafka terminated his marriage engagement to her for the second and last time.

Kafka’s initial impression of her at the Brod home was somewhat negative; he later wrote in his diary that she appeared to him rather average-looking and somewhat like a housemaid. This latter observation is revealing, since it was undoubtedly Felice’s air of bourgeois domesticity that prompted Kafka, despite his distinct misgivings about her, to initiate the correspondence. This apparent contradiction— and his ambivalence toward the idea of matrimony—is crucial to understanding the spirit of Kafka’s letters to Felice and to decoding his often-enigmatic stories.

At the time Kafka first met Felice, he was a twenty-nine-year-old bachelor from an upstanding family of Prague Jews. He lived at home with his parents. In this bourgeois environment, Kafka felt a definite pressure to wed and begin a family of his own. That was the duty of every good middle-class Jewish son. Even the God Jehovah in the Old Testament had advised the Hebrew tribes “to go forth, be fruitful, and multiply.” This conventional life plan posed problems for Kafka for two reasons. Since childhood, his relationship with his father, Hermann, had been a strained one. Hermann Kafka, a brusque and crude man, had greatly intimidated his sensitive son, and the latter suffered from a lifelong inferiority complex. It is clear from Kafka’s letters and diaries that he felt that he could not assume the role of father and husband, that he was ultimately incapable of displacing, in a figurative sense, the position of his father. Psychologically, Kafka felt himself to be condemned to the lifelong role of subservient son.

Marriage to Felice Bauer was problematic for a second reason. Kafka was also intensely dedicated to his art. He claimed that the narrative depiction of his dreamlike inner life was the sole justification for his being, that no other existence was possible for him. For Kafka, the price of such dedication to the spiritual domain of writing was a solitary, almost clerical life-style. The demands of a wife and family would have left him neither time nor energy for writing. Because of his apparent psychological handicap with respect to his father and his commitment to his art, Kafka was in an awkward position: Should he live the bourgeois life of a husband-father or the spiritual life of a writer? In truth, he could not have fulfilled the role of bourgeois family man. He was compelled to write. Thus, his relationship with Felice was doomed before it even began.

The result of such an inner contradiction was a debilitating state of chronic ambivalence. Kafka felt obligated to begin a correspondence with a woman for whom he had little romantic feeling. Letters to Felice reflects this ambivalence in several ways. He was clearly sending Felice rather mixed messages. The fact that he began corresponding with her and that he eventually proposed marriage indicated to her that he was genuinely interested in a serious relationship. The letters, however, are filled with references to his obsession with the solitary act of writing and to his unsuitability for marriage.

Kafka wanted his communication with Felice to be one of words, for the prospect of true physical intimacy was frightening to him. He became engaged to her in April of 1914 but ended the engagement in July of that same year. They were engaged for the second time in July of 1916, but Kafka again terminated the engagement in December of 1917. Felice Bauer was married to a Berlin banker in 1919 and fled to the United States in 1936. She died in 1960. Kafka was never married and died of a tubercular infection in 1924.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131

Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography, 1937.

Canetti, Elias. “Elias Canetti Talks to Idris Parry About the Work of Kafka,” in Listener. LXXXVI (1971), pp. 366-369.

Canetti, Elias. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, 1974.

Dietz, Ludwig. “Franz Kafka: Letters to Felice and Other Correspondence from the Period of His Engagement,” in Literature, Music, Fine Arts. I (1968), pp. 27-28.

Emrich, Wilhelm. Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings, 1968.

Fischer, Wolfgang. “Kafka Without a World,” in The World of Franz Kafka, 1980. Edited by J. P. Stern.

Glatzer, Nahum N. The Loves of Franz Kafka, 1986.

Hayman, Ronald. “Felice,” in Kafka: A Biography, 1981.

Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, 1984.

Winckelmann, John. “Felice Bauer and The Trial,” in The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives of Our Time, 1977. Edited by Angel Flores.

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