Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

Kafka has inspired many of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Consequently, there is an incredible amount of literary criticism devoted to his work. The critical material discussing The Trial falls between two poles. On the one hand, Kafka is viewed through a psychological or religious lens that sees the tensions of his work as derived from an Oedipal complex or the heritage of the Judaic law. At the other extreme, where few tread, are the positivist approaches of Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. This latter approach finds a new philosophy, a new politics, in Kafka that is as yet unexplored. Whatever the approach, there is general agreement that Kafka should be praised for his deft depiction of twentieth-century alienation and bureaucracy at the universal level.

The Trial: What a strange, exciting, original, and delightful book this is … a web of gossamer, the construct of a dream world,” wrote Herman Hesse after reading Max Brod’s version in 1925. “In short,” Hesse continues, “this “trial” is none other than the guilt of life itself.” So Hesse begins the predominant theme of critical approaches to Kafka; he is responding to Judaic and Calvinist philosophers (especially Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth). Hesse was not far from Brod’s own opinion of his friend’s writing. In Frank Kafka: A Biography, after relating the joy Kafka derived from reading chapter one of the novel aloud, Brod asserted that The Trial should be viewed as the old parable of Job. In general, continued Brod, “Kafka’s fundamental principle: pity for mankind that finds it so hard a task to do what is right.”

The religious interpretations were not always so exact. Instead, critics compare Kafka to the Calvinists indirectly and couch their critique in terms of absolutism or, as Albert Camus put it, “[his] work is probably not absurd … His work is universal.” R.O.C. Winkler, in “The Novels,” stands as an example of the religious approach:

In Kafka’s view, there is a way of life for any individual that is the right one, and which is divinely sanctioned. So much is perhaps admitted by most of our moral novelists; but to Kafka this fact itself constitutes a problem of tremendous difficulty, because he believes the dichotomy between the divine and the human, the religious and the ethical, to be absolute. Thus, though it is imperative for us to attempt to follow the true way, it is impossible for us to succeed in doing so. This is the fundamental dilemma that Kafka believes to lie at the basis of all human effort.

Philip Rahr, in “Franz Kafka: The Hero as Lonely Man,” echoes Winkler with a comparison to Gide, “in Kafka’s catastrophic world there is no escape for the protagonist … Kafka never assumes an unmotivated act on the part of his heroes, as Gide does in some of his novels, but invariably an unmotivated situation.” Thomas Mann in “Homage,” summed up this religious approach by labeling Kafka a “religious humorist.”

The autobiographical approach characterizes Kafka’s work as merely the enactment of a struggle with his father. This approach is based on Kafka’s Letter to His Father. Ernst Pawel takes this approach in his The Nightmare of Reason: A Biography of Franz Kafka, and Ronald Hayman in Franz Kafka. Yet even from a biographical viewpoint, Kafka is a very contradictory persona who appears personally incompetent yet wrote professional pieces of high sophistication and technical accuracy. As a result, autobiographical approaches have lost popularity through time.

In addition to that, says Ralph Freedman in “Kafka’s Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative,” “an exclusively psychological explanation leaves vast areas of Kafka’s obscurity unexplained. We need not dwell on the obvious psychoanalytic motif which recurs in his fiction [where, for example] The Trial … can be diagnosed as an enactment of his relationship with his father and with the authoritarian society he found so intolerable.” Freedman prefers richer veins, “for, as we shall see, the shadowy characters who appear to his heroes are independent entities, through which manifold relations are explored.”

Edwin Muir, in “A Note on Franz Kafka,” also prefers to enjoy Kafka’s literary genius. He writes that, “the logic of Kafka’s narrative is so close that it builds up a whole particularized system of spiritual relations with such an autonomous life of its own that it illumines the symbol rather than is illumined by it. It is almost certain, moreover, that Kafka put together this world without having his eye very much on the symbol; his allegory is not a mere re-creation of conceptions already settled; and the entities he describes seem therefore newly discovered, and as if they had never existed before. They are like additions to the intellectual world.”

With Benjamin, who strongly identified with Kafka at a personal level, analysis of Kafka enters a whole new realm. In Illuminations Benjamin writes, “there are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points.” However, Benjamin could only go so far due to his own ideological position. Deleuze and Guattari, however, in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, took up where he left off. “We believe only in a Kafka politics that is neither imaginary nor symbolic. We believe in one or more Kafka machines [and in] Kafka experimentation [resting] on tests of experience.” In other words, instead of locking Kafka into an Oedipal complex, or a show of technical mastery, Deleuze and Guattari explore Kafka at his prophetic word. “By making triangles transform until they become unlimited, by proliferating doubles until they become indefinite, Kafka opens up a field of immanence that will function as a dismantling, an analysis, a prognostics of social forces and currents, of the forces that in his epoch are only beginning to knock on the door.”

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