Franz Kafka

…Once more the odious courtesies began, the first handed the knife across K. to the second, who handed it across K. back again to the first. K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself, as it traveled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast. But he did not do so, he merely turned his head, which was still free to move, and gazed around him. He could not completely rise to the occasion, he could not relieve the officials of all their tasks; the responsibility for this last failure of his lay with him who had not left him the remnant of strength necessary for the deed….


–from The Trial
Franz Kafka, b. Prague, Bohemia (then belonging to Austria), July 3, 1883, d. June 3, 1924, has come to be one of the most influential writers of this century. Virtually unknown during his lifetime, the works of Kafka have since been recognized as symbolizing modern man’s anxiety-ridden and grotesque alienation in an unintelligible, hostile, or indifferent world. Kafka came from a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in the shadow of his domineering shopkeeper father, who impressed Kafka as an awesome patriarch. The feeling of impotence, even in his rebellion, was a syndrome that became a pervasive theme in his fiction. Kafka did well in the prestigious German high school in Prague and went on to receive a law degree in 1906. This allowed him to secure a livelihood that gave him time for writing, which he regarded as the essence–both blessing and curse–of his life. He soon found a position in the semipublic Workers’ Accident Insurance institution, where he remained a loyal and successful employee until–beginning in 1917– tuberculosis forced him to take repeated sick leaves and finally, in 1922, to retire. Kafka spent half his time after 1917 in sanatoriums and health resorts, his tuberculosis of the lungs finally spreading to the larynx.

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Kafka lived his life in emotional dependence on his parents, whom he both loved and resented. None of his largely unhappy love affairs could wean him from this inner dependence; though he longed to marry, he never did. Sexually, he apparently oscillated between an ascetic aversion to intercourse, which he called “the punishment for being together,” and an attraction to prostitutes. Sex in Kafka’s writings is frequently connected with dirt or guilt and treated as an attractive abomination. Nevertheless, Kafka led a fairly active social life, including acquaintance with many prominent literary and intellectual figures of his era, such as the writers Franz Werfel and Max Brod. He loved to hike, swim, and row, and during vacations he took carefully planned trips. He wrote primarily at night, the days being preempted by his job.


None of Kafka’s novels was printed during his lifetime, and it was only with reluctance that he published a fraction of his shorter fiction. This fiction included Meditation (1913; Eng. trans., 1949), a collection of short prose pieces; The Judgment (1913; Eng. trans., 1945), a long short story, written in 1912, which Kafka himself considered his decisive breakthrough (it tells of a rebellious son condemned to suicide by his father); and The Metamorphosis (1915; Eng. trans., 1961), dealing again with the outsider, a son who suffers the literal and symbolic transformation into a huge, repulsive, fatally wounded insect. In the Penal Colony (1919; Eng. trans., 1961) is a parable of a torture machine and its operators and victims–equally applicable to a person’s inner sense of law, guilt, and retribution and to the age of World War I. The Country Doctor (1919; Eng. trans., 1946) was another collection of short prose. At the time of his death Kafka was also preparing A Hunger Artist (1924; Eng. trans., 1938), four stories centering on the artist’s inability either to negate or come to terms with life in the human community.


Contrary to Kafka’s halfhearted instruction that his unprinted manuscripts be destroyed after his death, his friend Max Brod set about publishing them and thus became the architect of his belated fame. The best known of the posthumous works are three fragmentary novels. The Trial (1925; Eng. trans., 1937) deals with a man persecuted and put to death by the inscrutable agencies of an unfathomable court of law. The Castle (1926; Eng. trans., 1930) describes the relentless but futile efforts of the protagonist to gain recognition from the mysterious authorities ruling (from their castle) the village where he wants to establish himself. Amerika (1927; Eng. trans., 1938), written early in Kafka’s career, portrays the inconclusive struggle of a young immigrant to gain a foothold in an alien, incomprehensible country. In all of these works, as indeed in most of Kafka’s mature prose, the lucid, concise style forms a striking contrast to the labyrinthine complexities, the anxiety-laden absurdities, and the powerfully oppressive symbols of torment and anomie that are the substance of the writer’s vision. Kafka’s fiction, somewhat like ink-blot tests, elicits and defeats attempts at conclusive explanation. Practically every school of modern criticism has produced a corpus of interpretations. Kafka’s own aphorisms, however, may come the closest to offering a key.


Bibliography: Brod, Max, Franz Kafka, 2d ed. (1960); Citati, Pietro, Kafka (1990); Flores, Angel, ed., The Kafka Debate (1977); Glatzer, N. N., The Loves of Franz Kafka (1985); Gray, Ronald, ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962); Hayman, Ronald, Kafka (1982); Heller, Erich, Franz Kafka (1975); Karl, Frederick R., Franz Kafka: Representative Man (1992); Lawson, R. H., Franz Kafka (1987); Pawel, E., The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka (1984); Politzer, Heiny, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (1962); Sokel, Walter H., Franz Kafka (1966); Udoff, Alan, ed., Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance (1987).

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka In his parable Before the Law, Franz Kafka suggests that obstacles that one faces in life can either be used to mold one’s success or bring about one’s failure. If one can overcome challenges that they face they grow in a unique type of way, for every individual perceives each situation in a distinct fashion. That unique type of growth is what establishes a person’s character and perception of the world. However if one cannot overcome their obstacles, then they cut of their means for growth and are left uninspired, forgetting any dreams or aspirations. It is through the man’s interaction with the doorkeeper, and his inability to overcome this obstacle, that eventually leads him down the path of complacency and failure.

It is the doorkeeper in this parable that keeps the man from gaining access to the law, and his inability to pass this doorkeeper that leads to his demise. It is important to realize that the man strives to reach ‘the law’, however he winds up getting only as far as the doorkeeper. However, what would have happened if he would have overcame the doorkeeper? The doorkeeper himself provides the answer to this question when he warns the man that he is “only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after the other, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” Of course “these are difficulties that the man from the country has not expected, “and instead of taking his chances, “the doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door.” The man failed to realize that even if there were another doorkeeper behind the first door, he would have been able to face him with the experience and knowledge gained by overcoming the initial doorkeeper. This concept applies to life as well.

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When one overcomes their challenges, the knowledge gained from that experience merely provides them with the necessary tools to face a more difficult situation. This continues on until they are finally able to cope with difficulties that they initially never would have been able to. Unfortunately the man accepts the stool that the doorkeeper offers him where “he sits for days and years.” The man never gains any sort of stature, for he looses out on all of the potential growth he could have gained by standing up to the doorkeeper. Before the man knows he has reached a state where he is looked down upon, and questions asked of him “are put indifferent, as great lords put them.” Unaware of the hole he has dug for himself, the man eventually loses total sight of his original goal of reaching ‘the law’, and “the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper.” He even reaches the point of begging the fleas in the doorkeeper’s coat to grant him access to ‘The Law’ If only the man would have realized from the beginning that the gate was placed there for his own personal self-development. The lessons he could have learnt by pushing beyond the initial doorkeeper would have built him into a totally new person, with unique talents and insights gained from his experience. Instead he grows old and never achieves his aspiration, and the doorkeeper finally points out, that “no one else could be admitted here, since the gate was made only for you.

I am now going to shut it.” The lesson learnt from the man in Franz Kafka’s parable Before the Law, bears an important lesson about the life one leads. One must be prepared to face the trials that life present. If one is able to overcome their challenges, they will grow from their experience and form their own unique personality. If one cannot overcome their obstacles, they may spend their entire life stuck in a rut of complacency, never achieving any goals or dreams that they once had. English Essays.

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