Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now the Czech Republic. He was from a German-speaking Jewish family; he could speak Czech, but he wrote his literary works in German. After earning a law degree, Kafka worked in insurance, which paid the bills while he tried to find the time to write. Only a fraction of what Kafka wrote has survived, since he burned most of his works during his lifetime. Although he did publish a few stories, Kafka left instructions to burn the remaining works after his death. His executor, Max Brod, published the manuscripts instead, and Kafka became famous posthumously. Many readers have noticed similarities between the author and some of his characters—specifically, the ones who have tedious jobs, a profound distrust of bureaucracy, a fear of authority, a feeling of powerlessness, and an entire set of Freudian complexes, especially where fathers are concerned. The stories can be viewed through the lenses of Existentialism, Surrealism, religious parables, psychoanalysis, and social criticism, to name a few. The terrifying power of bureaucracy is perhaps the most famous theme in Kafka’s works, leading to the term “Kafkaesque” to describe being trapped in nightmarish and surreal situations (most famously in his work The Trial, in which the protagonist is never told what his crime was). While Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) shares that feeling of helplessness, it is also full of his unique brand of tragi-comic humor. As much pity as one might feel for Gregor, the novel’s protagonist, there is something inherently ridiculous about his calm acceptance of his transformation into a giant cockroach-like bug. The fact that Gregor’s biggest concern at that moment is being late to his job is both sad and funny: an indictment not only of bureaucracy’s dehumanizing effects, but also of the human tendency to rationalize the absurdities of life.
Consider while reading:
- Which parts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis are funny? Which parts do you think are meant to be taken seriously, and why?
- Why does Gregor react the way that he does? What do you think about his family’s reactions?
Written by Laura Getty