The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka approximately 1917
Franz Kafka approximately 1917

Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883 in Prague, Bohemia - June 3, 1924 in Vienna, Austria) was one of the major German language writers of the 20th century most of whose work was published posthumously. His unique body of writing continues to challenge critics, and attempts to classify his work are generally inadequate.



Kafka was born July 3, 1883, into a middle class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, in the Bohemian Kingdom a part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was the dry goods merchant Hermann Kafka (1852-1931) and his mother was Julie Kafka, nee Löwy (1856-1934). Although his native language was German, he also learned Czech as a child, since his father came into Prague from south Bohemian Czech-speaking Jewish community ("kavka" means "jackdaw" in Czech) and he wanted his son to be fluent in both languages. He also had some knowledge of French language and culture; one of his favorite authors was Flaubert and he had a sentimental affinity for Napoleon. He had two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, neither of whom lived two full years and died before Kafka was six, and three sisters, Elli, Valli and Ottla. From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the elementary school (Deutsche Knabenschule) at Masná St. (Fleischmarkt) in Prague and then the high school at Staroměstské náměstí (located in Kinsky Palace) where he finished his Matura exam in 1901. He went on to study law in the University of Prague, and obtained his law degree in 1906, then worked for a worker's accident insurance agency. He began writing on the side. In 1917 he began to suffer from tuberculosis, which would require frequent convalescence during which he was supported by his family, most notably his sister Ottla, with whom he had much in common.

The asceticism and self-deprecation with which Kafka is associated is well-documented in the letters of his and of his friends and family; however, it does need to be put into context. Chronic sickness—whether it was psychosomatic is a matter for debate—plagued him; aside from tuberculosis, he suffered from migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and other ailments. He attempted to counteract this by a regimen of naturopathic treatments, such as a vegetarian diet and consumption of large quantities of unpasteurized milk (the latter possibly the causal factor of his tuberculosis). Most likely today he would have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, but because of this his self-critical attitudes are severely exaggerated. While at school, he took an active role in organizing literary and social events, he did much to promote and organize performances for Yiddish theatre, despite the misgivings of even his closest friends such as Max Brod, who usually supported him in everything else, and quite contrary to his fear of being perceived as both physically and mentally repulsive, impressed others with his boyish, neat, and austere good looks, his quiet and cool demeanor, and his intelligence and odd sense of humor.

Kafka's relationship with his domineering father is an important theme in his writing. In the early 1920s he had an influential love affair with Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenská. In 1923 he briefly moved to Berlin in the hope of distancing himself from his family's influence to concentrate on his writing. His tuberculosis worsened; he returned to Prague, then went to a sanatorium near Vienna for treatment, where he died on June 3, 1924, apparently from starvation (Kafka's condition made it too painful on his throat to eat, and since intravenous therapy had not been developed, there was no way to feed him). His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried June 11, 1924 in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Zizkov.

Kafka published only a few short stories during his lifetime, a small part of his work, and consequently his writing attracted little attention until after his death. Prior to his death, he instructed his friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy all of his manuscripts. His lover Dora Dymant faithfully destroyed the manuscripts that she had, but Brod did not follow Kafka's instructions and oversaw the publication of most of his work, which soon began to attract attention and critical regard. All his published works, except several Czech letters to Milena Jesenská, were written in German.


Kafka's writing is noted for its attention to psychological and physical detail, the recurrence of paradoxes or encounters with absurdity, and the many descriptions of nightmarish predicaments. His most famous works include the short stories "The Metamorphosis", "A Hunger Artist","In the Penal Colony", and novels The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle.

"The Metamorphosis" is probably his most well-known work. Despite its popularity, familiarity with his other works tends to be lacking. Nevertheless, as one of the more important and influential writers of the 20th century, Kafka bears the distinction of being one of the few authors to have an adjective derived from his name: "Kafkaesque." However, what such an appellation means is not easily defined. A couple of very simple but fairly accurate definitions are "marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity: Kafkaesque bureaucracies"[1] and "marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger: Kafkaesque fantasies of the impassive interrogation, the false trial, the confiscated passport . . . haunt his innocence - New Yorker." [2]

Throughout Kafka's works, the characters often find themselves faced with impossibly complex situations, but they often exhibit tenacity and dedication in overcoming their turmoil. Despite their efforts, it is usually the case that the incomprehensibility of their surrounding circumstances forces them to realign their perception. For example, in The Trial, K. is faced with an endless progression of officials and rules which impede his attempts to prove his innocence.

The notion of mixing realistic and detailed description with bizarre or surreal events is also very important in Kafka's works. Often, strange things are described in a very impersonal, matter-of-fact way, which actually has the effect of exaggerating the emotional conflict within the stories, because it forces traumatic events to be considered as mundane and trivial: just another link in a chain of cruel, illogical events. Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez are known to be influenced by Kafka, and many of their works reflect this "impossible as mundane" style.

Some ideas recurring throughout his works: absurdity, alienation/isolation, anxiety, artistic/consumeristic dynamic, cruelty, dark humor, doubt, fasting and starvation, formality (both in writing style and in the behavior of the characters), futility, guilt (often without any specific or even logical source), infinity, insignificance, labyrinths (sense of disorienting complexity), master/slave or dominant/submissive dynamics, meaninglessness, nature-technology conflicts, non-arrival (characters often set out on journeys in which they never arrive at their destinations), transcendence (not necessarily in a spiritual sense, but in the sense of escaping, or attempting to escape, social and mental limitations), transformation (in a physical as well as mental sense).

Critical interpretation

There have been many critics who have tried to make sense of Kafka's works by interpreting them through certain schools of literary criticism—as modernist, magical realist, and so on. The apparent hopelessness and the absurdity that seem to permeate his works are considered emblematic of existentialism. Others have tried to locate Marxist influence in his satirization of bureaucracy in pieces such as In the Penal Colony, The Trial, and The Castle. Still others have interpreted his works through the lens of Judaism (because he was Jewish and had an interest in Jewish culture, though he only cultivated it late in life)—Borges made a few perceptive remarks in this regard; through Freudianism (because of his familial struggles); or as allegories of a metaphysical quest for God (Thomas Mann was a proponent of this theory). Themes of alienation and persecution are repeatedly emphasized, and this emphasis—notably in the work of Marthe Robert —partly inspired the counter-criticism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who argued that there was much more to Kafka than the stereotype of a lonely figure writing out of anguish, and that his work was more deliberate, subversive and yet "joyful" than it appears to be.

Kafka in Cinema

  • Orson Welles wrote and directed an adaptation of The Trial in 1962 starring Anthony Perkins. Welles considered it to be his best film.
  • A film in which Jeremy Irons stars as the eponymous author was released in 1991. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie mixes his life and fiction providing a semi-biographical presentation of Kafka's life and works. The story concerns Kafka investigating the disappearance of one of his work colleagues. The plot takes Kafka through many of the writer's own works, most notably The Castle and The Trial.
  • Franz Kafka's 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1993) is a short film written and directed by Peter Capaldi and starring Richard E. Grant as Kafka. The film blends "Metamorphosis" with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life with extremely amusing results.
  • "Metamorphosis", 1987
  • "Die Verwandlung" (1975)
  • "Förvandlingen" (1976/I)
  • Prevrashcheniye (2002)
  • "Menschenkörper" [3] (2004)

The IMDb filmography lists the following titles:

  1. Menschenkörper (2004) (story)
  2. Prevrashcheniye (2002) (novel Die Verwandlung)
     ... aka Metamorphosis (2003/II) (Europe: English title: festival title)
  3. K (2002) (stories)
  4. Am Ende des Ganges (1999) (novel Der Prozess)
  5. Sickroom, The (1998) (story)
  6. Schloß, Das (1997) (novel Das Schloß)
     ... aka Castle, The (1997/II) (Canada: English title)
  7. Nachtland (1995)
  8. Spivachka Zhosefina i myshachyj narod (1994) (story)
     ... aka Josephine, the Singer and the Mice People (1994)
  9. Zamok (1994) (novel Das Schloss)
     ... aka Castle, The (1994)
 10. Amerika (1994) (novel)
 11. Rastreseno gledanje kroz prozor (1993) (story)
     ... aka Distracted Viewing Trough a Window (1993) (International: English title)
 12. Trial, The (1993) (novel)
 13. Metamorphosis (1987/II) (TV) (novel)
 14. Linna (1986) (novel Das Schloss)
 15. Château, Le (1984) (TV) (novel Das Schloss)
 16. Klassenverhältnisse (1984) (novel Amerika)
     ... aka Amerika, rapports de classe (1984) (France)
     ... aka Class Relations (1984)
 17. Vorüberlaufenden, Die (1983) (short story)
 18. Levél apámhoz (1982) (TV)
 19. Fraticidio (1981) (story)
 20. Ante la ley (1980) (story)
 21. Bratrovrazda (1977) (story)
     ... aka Case of Fratricide, A (1977)
 22. Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, The (1977) (story)
 23. Redogörelse framlagd för en akademi (1976) (TV) (story)
 24. Förvandlingen (1976/I) (novel Die Verwandlung)
     ... aka Metamorphosis (1976) (USA)
 25. Informe para una academia, Un (1975) (play)
 26. Verwandlung, Die (1975) (novel)
     ... aka Metamorphosis (1975/I)
 27. Colonia penal, La (1970) (story)
     ... aka Penal Colony, The (1970) (USA)
 28. Schloß, Das (1968) (novel)
     ... aka Castle, The (1968) (USA)
 29. Grafbewaker, De (1965) (story)
 30. Procès, Le (1962) (novel)
     ... aka Processo, Il (1963) (Italy)
     ... aka Prozess, Der (1963) (West Germany)
     ... aka Trial, The (1963) (USA)
 31. Schloß, Das (1962) (TV) (novel)
 32. Confusión cotidiana, Una (1950) (short story)

Online texts

to be added



Short Stories

  • Description of a Struggle (Beschreibung eines Kampfes - 1904-1905)
  • Wedding Preparations in the Country (Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande - 1907-1908)
  • The Judgment (Das Urteil - September 22-23, 1912)
  • The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung - November-December 1912)
  • In the Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie - October 1914)
  • The Village Schoolmaster (The Giant Mole) (Der Dorfschullehrer or Der Riesenmaulwurf - 1914-1915)
  • Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor (Blumfeld, ein älterer Junggeselle - 1915)
  • The Warden of the Tomb (Der Gruftwächter - 1916-1917), the only play Kafka wrote
  • A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt - 1917)
  • The Hunter Gracchus (Der Jäger Gracchus - 1917)
  • The Great Wall of China (Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer - 1917)
  • A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie - 1917)
  • The Refusal (Die Abweisung - 1920)
  • A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler - 1922)
  • Investigations of a Dog (Forschungen eines Hundes - 1922)
  • A Little Woman (Eine kleine Frau - 1923)
  • The Burrow (Der Bau - 1923-1924)
  • Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk (Josephine, die Sängerin, oder Das Volk der Mäuse - 1924)

Many collections of the stories have been published, and they include:

  • Kafka, Franz (ed. Nahum N. Glatzer). The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.


Diaries and notebooks

  • Diaries of Franz Kafka
  • The Blue Octavo Notebooks


  • Letters to Felice
  • Letters to Ottla
  • Letters to Milena
  • Franz Kafka: Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors

On Kafka

  • Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
  • Brod, Max. The biography of Franz Kafka, tr. from the German by G. Humphreys Roberts. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.
  • Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Theory and History of Literature, Vol 30). Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1986.
  • Greenberg, Martin, The terror of art; Kafka and modern literature. New York, Basic Books,1968.
  • Hayman, Ronald. K, a Biography of Kafka., London: Phoenix Press, 2001.
  • Murray, Nicholas. Kafka. New Haven: Yale, 2004.
  • Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York : Vintage Books, 1985.
  • Thiher, Allen (ed.). Franz Kafka: A Study of the Short Fiction (Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction, No 12).

See also

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:29:28
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