Franz Kafka, who wrote relatively little in his short life and who published less, has been enormously influential on later writers, including writers in North America. He is considered an exponent of German expressionism—his work deals with a world that seems normal and recognizable but is also surreal, seemingly influenced by emotional and subconscious states, especially guilt.
Kafka has inspired a lengthy list of American writers. By creating a parallel between anguish and hope, employing a tightly controlled perspective, and adding a liberal sprinkling of black comedy, Kafka’s work may be said to have influenced the works of writers as diverse as Edward Albee, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, and Walker Percy.
Kafka’s frequently anthologized short story “The Metamorphosis” is the tale of a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning to find he has become an enormous beetle. This transformation and estrangement reflects Kafka’s view of the desperation connected with the human struggle for redemption. Gregor is killed as a result of his father’s throwing an apple at him; the psychological and biblical symbolism of this act is clear but unstated. Kafka’s emphasis on guilt and his technique of presenting the grotesque in bland, everyday language are perhaps most evident in the works of the Southern American writers in general and of Flannery O’Connor in particular. O’Connor recorded her observations about the story in her journal.
Kafka and O’Connor employ grotesque characters—physically or spiritually malformed—to demonstrate the human condition. Both writers are intrigued by a transcendent moment of grace, wherein a person can seek and be granted redemption. The two writers also share a biblical preoccupation with guilt and with parable. As does Kafka, O’Connor uses the world of the human spirit, the external world and the world within to demonstrate a collision of values. Gregor Samsa is destroyed by an apple, depicting the Fall; O’Connor’s protagonists are often destroyed by the acknowledgement of their humanity. In the works of both writers there is often a veiled dialogue between the real and the symbolic. Many North American writers have incorporated Kafka’s themes and techniques into their work, including his father-son confrontation, his disproportion between guilt and punishment, his emphasis on spiritual ambiguity, and his refined literary style.