Franz Kafka, the author behind the term kafkaesque, is mainly venerated for his absurdist writing technique, which involves portraying terrifying situations in an objective tone. The modern perception of Kafka’s impact, however, fails to take into account the overarching messages he infuses into his work: the danger of bureaucratic trappings. Having inserted his own autobiographical elements into his writing, Kafka produced a great display of an artist’s experience navigating the corporate world. Born into a wealthy family, Kafka felt stifled by his father’s heavy expectations and fell into a career he hated vehemently. He satiated his love for writing in solitude, feverishly working after long shifts late into the night that processed his nightmarish thoughts in a detached manner. Kafka’s chosen topics of artistry, corporate life, and their subsequent delicate balance are ones he experienced so heavily that they completely engulfed his mind. Kafka reflects on himself in many of his protagonists as he explores the harrowing race of capitalist society as a tortured artist. This approach serves as a major contribution beyond the literary realm with implications on modern exploitative political and professional climates, and ought to be reflected in modern understandings of his life and legacy.
Kafka’s modern impact has been condensed mainly to his singular writing style, aptly coined kafkaesque. This term refers to Kafka’s practice of evoking feelings in the reader—not by describing the emotions of his characters, but rather the objects they encounter. This technique thrusts the reader into the consciousness of his characters, without revealing their inner feelings. Kafka scholar Rene Marill-Alberes demonstrates Kafka’s style by explaining how “Joseph K. is strikingly real in The Trial … because he is not thinking of his trial but of passageways, a door, the manner of opening a door” (53). Kafka forces his audience to navigate completely nonsensical situations, such as waking up and finding oneself arrested as does the unfortunate protagonist in The Trial, through an objective, painfully detailed lens, heightening the sense of reality and utter resignation of his characters.
However, the effect of his mastery of harsh brutalism was not new to his primarily German-speaking audience, and thus it should not solidify his legacy. Though artistically ingenious, Kafka’s surrealism was not unfamiliar to his German-speaking audience. Emerging after the hold of literary realism of the 1860s-90s, Kafka was interested in German Romanticism and relished in the style of this symbolist period (Maril-Albérès 20). Alienation, especially self-alienation, are motifs characteristic of Kafka as well as his peers (Pribic 2). What sets Kafka apart is his ability to bury his own life into his themes, taking his reader on a raw emotional journey.
To analyze Kafka and his themes through an autobiographical lens is not only a valid approach but a valuable one. Those who knew him intimately affirmed that Kafka’s lived experience had a strong influence on his writing. His closest friend, Max Brod, recognized that “whole chapters of novels The Trial and The Castle derive their realistic wrappings from the atmosphere Kafka breathed in the Worker’s Accident Institute” (Brod 84). In his published Diaries, Kafka himself documented the “great need to root out my anxiety by describing it … as it comes out of the depths of me to the depths of this paper” (Maril-Albérès 87). His writing served as an outlet for his most raw thoughts, as much of it he never intended to meet the public eye. Kafka’s intent to pour his life onto the page can be found throughout his work, as argued by scholars of Kafka’s writing such as Margaret C. O’Riley: “Whether his name is Joseph K., Raban, Gregory Samsa, the Land Surveyor, Georg Bendemann, Josephine the Singer, the Hunger Artist, or the Trapeze Artist, the hero of his books is none other than Kafka himself” (Maril-Albérès 2). The dispersion of Kafka’s life into his literature is a testament to the consuming hold writing had on him, providing a meaningful perspective on his capability to provide such authentic insight on the bureaucratic culture of his age.
Kafka’s own experience and the value that it provides to thematic development in his fiction is clearly demonstrated by his short story “A Hunger Artist.” The titular hunger artist seems to torture himself for his art of fasting, but when he is able to freely practice his art with no limits and is at the point of dying, he reveals it was all “‘because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else’” (8). This strange character manifests Kafka’s belief that art is innate to the artist, and that it pours out naturally and is outside of validation. Despite the arduous labor, an artist will continue his work no matter the strenuous effects it begins to have. Creating an allegory for his own experience with writing, “Kafka, with an ironic smile, reveals that starving is the easiest thing in the world” (Thiher 88).
Although Kafka’s writing took a large toll on his physical and mental health, he maintained engrossed by his craft. Anxious to spend time away from his writing, Kafka “escaticaly devoted his nights” to his best work and lamented having to go into work and waste his energy (Maril-Albérès). The dedication to his work above all else can be shown by Kafka regarding his diagnosis of tuberculosis as something positive because the sickness would give him ample time to write (Felisati and Serati). Kafka and the Hunger Artist are parallel in their self-destruction and completely engrossing work: like his Hunger Artist, Kafka will not stop writing until he is emaciated.
Another influential piece that Kafka connects to his own experiences as a struggling office worker is “Metamorphosis.” In this story, he explores the consciousness of Gregor Samsa, a salesman who wakes up and finds himself transformed into a scuttling multiped. Kafka toys with the idea of how stress and low self-esteem muddle reality and devalue one’s humanity. Gregor’s descent into verminhood begins when he disregards his new condition to make an attempt to get to his detested job. Still not absorbing the reality of his condition, he frets: “Even if he [Gregor] caught the train, there was no avoiding a blow up with the boss, because the firm’s errand boy would’ve waited for the five o’clock train and reported the news of his absence long ago.” Gregor is still wracked with mundane anxieties about his job despite his unreal circumstances. The contrast of his concerns and his condition serves to show his job has completely overtaken him, leaving no mental capacity to think about his own wants and needs. Kafka uses the character of Gregor Samsa to comment on the encroachment of corporate stress onto one’s life and the demoralizing effects of its constant bombardment. Ironically, in some aspects Gregor becomes more human in his initial days as a multiped, as he can no longer incessantly worry about his work. Forcefully separated from his career responsibilities, Samsa finds comfort in the art and literature his family provides for him in the aftermath of his condition.
One of Kafka’s diaries unearthed by Brod reveals he faced a similar struggle as his character: he wrote that producing work for his office was like “tearing off a piece of flesh” (Brod 88). Kafka found working for his office imposed on his dedication to his art and he fulfilled his dull responsibilities resignedly. This journal entry exemplifies how his job tore away at him until he felt he was losing himself, much like Samsa loses his humanity due to his work. Kafka scholars note that his original translation describes Gregor the multiped as a Unzeigefer, a word for vermin connotated with dirt and defilement that he also applies to several of his characters and even himself in his autobiographical Letters To His Father, thus solidifying his self-identification with Samsa (Thiher 41). The infusion of Kafka’s frustrations with his own experiences gives the reader a look into the life of the typical underworked and undervalued rung on the corporate ladder.
Kafka’s genuine reflections have been influential across the globe as well as throughout history. Gaining traction years after his death, his work’s “absurd sensibility” corresponded greatly with the anguish of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, as well as with nations in the midst of political turmoil such as Argentina (Aberès-Martin 90). The depiction of Samsa the insect as the face of the working class was heavily discussed in Eastern Europe, as Stalin banned the author for the ideas of alienation he presented to the people of the Soviet Union (Goldstücker).
The value of Kafka’s work has not depreciated by any means, as the alienation of the worker in the face of our globalized society has dramatically increased. The profit margins of corporations demand to be met, no matter how many undervalued and overtaken Samsas are created overseas and domestically. The vastly expanded workforce has only augmented the facelessness of the working class. Kafka’s experience as an individual isolated from his passions is practically universal across the industrialized world, as many are bombarded with the ever-present need to provide within the confines of an exploitative corporate culture. Today, Kafka’s work has the potential to have the same impact as it did during his posthumous fame in a society just as tormented as he was.
Albérès, R. M., and Pierre de Boisdeffre. Kafka : The Torment of Man. Philosophical Library, 1968.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka, a Biography. 2d, [Translated from the German by G. Humphreys Roberts and by Richard Winston], Schocken Books, 1960.
Felisati, D, and G Sperati. “Famous Figures: Franz Kafka (1883-1924).” Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica : Organo Ufficiale Della Societa Italiana Di Otorinolaringologia e Chirurgia Cervico-Facciale, Pacini Editore SpA, Oct. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2639911/.
Goldstücker, Eduard. “Ten Years after the Kafka Symposium of Liblice.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 8, no. 2, Berghahn Books, 1974, pp. 22–26.
Kafka, Franz. A Hunger Artist. Sheba Blake Publishing, 2013. .
Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. Penguin Classics, 2016.
Pribic, Rado. Alienation, Irony, and German Romanticism – UPRRP. Lafayette College.
Thiher, Allen. Franz Kafka : A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne Publishers, 1990.
About the Author
Anna Von Holten is a rising sophomore from Long Island, New York studying at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. She plans on majoring in Comparative Literature and minoring in Theology while on a Pre-Education track. Her goals for this summer are to get through her reading list, relax on the beach, and run ten miles. She would like to thank her high school English teacher for introducing her to Franz Kafka and inspiring her with his life story.