Franz Kafka Essay

Franz Kafka Essay

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Austria-Hungary in 1883 (Brod 1995 3), and died in 1924. He was born into a bourgeois German speaking Jewish family, and German was his first language, although he was also fluent in Czech. All of his published works, with the exception of some private letters, were written in the German language. Most of his work was published posthumously, at the direction and behest of his close friend, Max Brod, who ignored his dying request to have all of his papers burned upon his death. Without the impetus of Max Brod, coupled with the translations of Willa and Edward Muir and judicious editing, it is most probable that today Franz Kafka would be unknown to literature. Only a few short stories were ever published in Kafka’s lifetime, and none of his novels made it into print. His oeuvre is not large, but nonetheless has had an impact on western literature. His existentialist bent is made obvious in his first major short story, “Metamorphosis”, in which the protagonist awakens one morning to find that he has been transformed into a bug. Kafka’s world is largely absurd, and first time readers are often at a loss to explain the heavy symbolism found in virtually ever piece of his writing. Certainly Kafka dealt with modernism, but his self-expression through the use of existentialist thought is all pervasive. This paper will attempt to dissect and analyze the mind and motivation of the protagonist known simply as K in his unfinished novel, The Castle. The paper will attempt to answer the question of what it is that K actually wants out of life, as well as his inner contradictions. Kafka, as a writer, is largely an enigma, and did not explain or analyze his works during his lifetime. Yet, in a larger sense, it is not up to the writer to define what he has said. He is to relate the tale, and it is then up to the reader to decide what it means. Ultimately, with most great works, a body of academicians will take over the task, writing endlessly on what should be understood from the work, yet in the end the reader is left alone to decide if the story speaks to him or her. Kafka does not readily fit into any single niche, but rather is alternately considered of the schools of modernism, existentialism, Freudianism, Marxism, Judaism, and others. He seeks to elaborate on the absurdities of the world, offering a glimmer of hope for those who feel most trod upon, fostering their belief in some pursuit of happiness.

It seems only logical to begin an analysis of a writer’s protagonist by examining the mind of the writer, for the protagonist neither exists in a vacuum nor does he or she spring fully formed from the writer’s mind, like Athena sprang from the forehead of Zeus. Today there is the advantage of being able to look back on a rather long history of analysis, for K has been examined by great minds in literature and been compared to current trends in social sciences.

While it seems popular to disavow Kafka’s links to existentialism, just as Camus disavowed his rather obvious debt, the proof lies in the works. As Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, most readers can recognize existentialism when it rears its head on the pages of the work being read. Sartre considered Kafka a kindred spirit, and Camus considered him an absurdist. However it must be remembered that Camus refused to admit to existentialism in The Plague, wherein he blended Nietzsche and Nazis in allegory personified by the rats of Orun. At first reading Kafka can turn readers off by the bleak and depressing landscapes, populated by the dreary, helpless, and hopeless characters he brings on stage. This view often vanishes with a second reading and it is seen that much of what Kafka has said is tongue-in-cheek. In its original German Kafka’s writing is seemingly complex, for the German language lends itself to complex sentence structures. Acceptable sentences often can run from almost the length of an English paragraph up to a full page. Yet translation, in order to capture the flavor, the essence, of Kafka’s words, is best achieved by short and choppy sentences.

The Castle is unfinished, stopping in mid-sentence. For years readers have been subjected to an artificial ending, not of Kafka’s making. Since Mark Harmans’s translation has been published the reader gets to experience that which is most like the way in which Kafka left it. It simply stops as if Kafka were telling the story, and then he abruptly leaves the room. The reader is left to wonder where he went, and when, if ever, he will return and resume the tale.

What, then, is Kafka’s intention? First and foremost, writers write to be read, no matter what other more lofty reason they may give for what they do. If they did not want to be read they would put their pages in the fire as they finished them. Kafka did not want his writings to be burned or else he would have burned them before he died. So, there comes the question of why he wrote what he did, and why wrote it in the manner he chose. Why did he begin this particular story and what did he want the reader to take from it? He names his protagonist with the single initial K. Kafka’s work is rife with symbolism. Is the enigmatic K actually Franz Kafka? Does this story delve into the psyche of the writer? The truth will never be known as only Kafka could say with certainty. What is known is that The Castle is more hopeful than the companion work, The Trial, which Kafka was writing simultaneously. The Trial is virtually without hope, offering no respite for the lost protagonist. It is bleak and dreary as the settings found in Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-four. It certainly borders on the absurd, if not crossing over the line. The Castle, however, offers a ray of hope for escape from the blind and bloated bureaucracy of the castle and the rigid structure of the village below. There is a feeling that all may not be lost, and that there is a good chance for redemption and reason for hope. K arrives in the village, assured of an appointed position as land surveyor to the castle which protects the village. At this point an aberration occurs which is the hallmark of Kafka’s work, giving rise to the word, Kafkaesque, meaning that which is denoted as senseless, disorienting, and often of a menacing complexity. K quickly learns that he is unable to communicate with the castle and thus is unable to assume his duties( Kafka 1998 p 21). Kafka’s obsession with dreams is evident herein, as the story takes on a dream-like quality, with absurdities becoming the norm, such as when K’s assistant is transformed without explanation (Ibidem). It is necessary to understand that existentialism is not a literary movement, but rather one of philosophy, opening new doors in the mind and allowing different views of man’s existence to be examined. It is in this way that Kafka’s work becomes a precursor to existentialism with all of its inherent values. Sartre said that existence precedes essence, meaning that man or woman must be before they become that which they are. Thus there can be no general statement to define mankind. It is what is becomes. K, in Kafka’s story, is a land surveyor, but only so long as he surveys land, only so long as he is employed in that position, only so long as the castle tells him he is such. Without the force of authority given him by the castle there is no reason for the villages to believe he is what he claims to be. In actuality he is not what he claims to be for he is only a surveyor so long as he holds that position with the bona fides of the castle authority.

Almost 100 years ago Max Weber espoused the theory of a charismatic leader, supported by multiple layers of bureaucracy below. Kafka did not accept this idea and railed against it for most of his literary life. He did not actually accept the bleak prospects which are required for such a theory to be most effective. Still, his close friend, Max Brod (1995) had this to say, “It must be pointed out here how great a role for Kafka the principle of authority played, alongside the elements of the dignity of man, that is to say democracy … in The Castle (22). While he did not live into the days of Hitler and the Nazi regime, he seems to have understood how such theories as those of Max Weber and Karl Marx would foster, aid, and abet a charismatic rise to power, building an insulation of incredibly dense bureaucracy beneath itself as insulation against the will of the people. Kafka seems to have taken to heart some of the admonition of Max Weber, for in Weber, Runciman, & Matthews (1978) Weber quotes Georg Simmel as saying, “One need not be Caesar to understand Caesar” (p. 66). Kafka seems to have had a keen grasp of both Caesar and Kaiser, for he poked fun at such regimes in his work.

Yet in this seemingly bleak milieu Kafka has interjected some hope. The landscape of The Castle is not as dreary and that seen in The Trial, where there is little but angst and recrimination, and no hope for a good outcome to the situation. The Castle offers some ray of hope to the reader that K is who and what he claims to be and there is simply a minor mix-up. Soon all will rectified and K will assume his rightful position in the castle as well as in the village below. Perhaps K is a doppleganger for Kafka, so if it can be determined what it is that K wants then that answer may perhaps be extrapolated and the reader can eventually determine what it is that Kafka himself actually wants. K certainly wants to become a part of the village community and that may well translate to Kafka feeling alienated from his nation, his village, and his family. He, like K, lived his life on the ragged edge of the laws, never certain, like K, exactly which silly rule he might have broken. But as can be seen in most of Kafka’s works, he is not concerned with the rules which dictate what it is that constitutes legitimate writing. Few professors would dispute the point that should a first year student turn in a totally original short story such as Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, said student’s paper would be relegated to the dust heap of collegiate literary attempts, and he would be lucky to escape flogging. Kafta did not believe, apparently, in character development or plot. In true existentialist fashion, he simply began. When his story was finished, he stopped. He concerned himself almost entirely with situations, wherein he would drop a character with no background and no prospects of future. A part of what K and Kafka want seems obvious. Kafka was virtually obsessed with the existence of bloated bureaucracy. Kafka, the citizen, was a member of the fog-bound corporate bureaucracy, having labored most all of his adult life within the confines of a business devoted to profits. K wants respect, love, admiration, and all of the other givens which a human would like to expect from his family and community. In this work there is a hope that K may actually find all that he seeks.

The reader, however, is in for a let down, if he gets the impression that for once Kafka may not be Kafkaesque, rather leaving the reader with the hope that K may succeed. In apparent contradiction, K, or Kafka, cannot stand success. K aligns himself with a woman who has, he believes, some tenuous connection to the castle, and that she may be able to help him make contact with the proper authorities who will affirm his position as land surveyor, giving him his rightful authority, and making all right with the world. Ultimately he abandons this woman in favor of a family of folk as outcast and alienated as he is. He leaves the woman who might be able to fulfill his hopes and dreams in favor of a family who can do nothing for him but sit and console him in his misery.

K and Kafka search for meaning in what is essentially a meaningless void. In earlier works Kafka sees no hope. His protagonist in The Trial seeks to find and confront those who have condemned him, yet ultimately there is no answer for it is god or fate or simply life which has condemned him to death by virtue of the act of being born. It is this hope for a unity in this life which makes Kafka existential. Thus the contradiction remains that Kafka gives K a ray of hope. It is not all bleak, but rather there is a chance that K will find the metaphorical key to the castle, unlock the riddle and suddenly become accepted and loved by all. Still, whether this happens is up to the mind of the reader, for the author decides not to decide. Kafka seeks the same acceptance which K seeks within his own life and in his literary works.


Brod, M. Franz Kafka New York: First Da Capo Press 1995

Kafka, F. The Castle New York: Pantheon Books 1998

Weber, M., Runciman, W., and Matthews, E. (1978) Max Weber:

Selections in Translations Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge

Related Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *