Franz Kafka


Franz Kafka (* July 3, 1883 in Prague, Austria-Hungary; † June 3, 1924 in Kierling, Austria) was a German-language writer. His main works, in addition to three novel fragments (The Trial, The Castle, and The Lost One), are numerous short stories.

Most of Kafka’s works were published only after his death and against his last will and testament by Max Brod, a close friend and confidant whom Kafka had appointed as executor of his estate. Kafka’s works are counted among the canon of world literature. His way of describing unusual situations is sometimes described with the specially formed adjective “Kafkaesque”.


Franz Kafka’s parents Hermann Kafka and Julie Kafka, née Löwy (1856-1934), came from middle-class Jewish merchant families. The family name derives from the name of the jackdaw, Czech kavka, Polish kawka. His father came from the village of Wosek in southern Bohemia, where he grew up in simple circumstances. As a child he had to deliver the goods of his father, the butcher Jakob Kafka (1814-1889), to surrounding villages. Later he worked as a traveling salesman, then as an independent wholesaler of gallantry goods in Prague. Julie Kafka belonged to a wealthy family from Podiebrad, had a more extensive education than her husband and had a say in his business, where she worked up to twelve hours a day.

In addition to his brothers Georg and Heinrich, who died as infants, Franz Kafka had three sisters who were later deported, presumably to concentration camps or ghettos, where their traces are lost: Gabriele, called Elli (1889-1942?), Valerie, called Valli (1890-1942?), and Ottilie “Ottla” Kafka (1892-1943?). Since the parents were absent during the day, all the siblings were essentially raised by changing, exclusively female servants.

Kafka belonged to the minority of Prague’s population whose mother tongue was German. He also spoke Czech, as did his parents. When Kafka was born, Prague was part of the Habsburg Empire in Bohemia, where numerous nationalities, languages, and political and social currents mingled and coexisted right and wrong. For Kafka, a native of German-speaking Bohemia, in reality neither Czech nor German, it was not easy to find a cultural identity.

He describes his relationship with his hometown as follows: “Prague doesn’t let go.

While Kafka dealt extensively with his relationship to his father in letters, diaries, and prose texts, his relationship to his mother was more in the background. However, there are a large number of relatives, especially from the maternal line, who can be found in Kafka’s characters, including bachelors, eccentrics, Talmudists, and explicitly the country doctor Uncle Siegfried Löwy, who was the model for the story Ein Landarzt.

Childhood, youth and education

From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the German Boys’ School on the Meat Market in Prague. Afterwards, in accordance with his father’s wishes, he went to the German-language humanist state high school in Prague’s Old Town, Palais Goltz-Kinsky, which was located in the same building as his parents’ gallantry store. His friends in high school included Rudolf Illowý, Hugo Bergmann, Ewald Felix Příbram, in whose father’s insurance company he would later work, Paul Kisch, and Oskar Pollak, with whom he remained friends into his university years.

Kafka was considered a privileged student. Nevertheless, his school years were overshadowed by great fears of failure. Fatherly threats, warnings from the domestic servants who looked after him, and extremely overcrowded classes obviously triggered massive anxiety-ridden insecurity in him.

Even as a schoolboy, Kafka was preoccupied with literature. However, his early attempts are lost; he probably destroyed them, as well as the early diaries.

In 1899, the sixteen-year-old Kafka turned to socialism. Although his friend and political mentor Rudolf Illowy had been expelled from school for socialist activities, Kafka remained true to his convictions and wore the red carnation on his buttonhole. After passing his school-leaving examination (Matura) in 1901 with “satisfactory,” the 18-year-old left Bohemia for the first time in his life and traveled with his uncle Siegfried Löwy to Norderney and Heligoland.

Kafka began his university studies, from 1901 to 1906 at the German University in Prague, with chemistry; after a short time he changed to law; then he tried a semester of German studies and art history. In the summer semester of 1902, Kafka listened to Anton Marty’s lecture on basic questions of descriptive psychology. Then, in 1903, he even considered continuing his studies in Munich, only to finally stick to the study of law. In accordance with the program, he completed his doctorate after five years, which was followed by an obligatory one-year unpaid legal internship at the state and criminal court.

Kafka’s most intense pastime from childhood until his later years was swimming. In Prague, along the banks of the Vltava, numerous so-called swimming schools had been established, which Kafka frequently visited. In the diary entry of August 2, 1914, he writes: “Germany has declared war on Russia – afternoon swimming school.”

Professional life

After working for the private insurance company “Assicurazioni Generali” for just under a year (October 1907 to July 1908), Kafka worked from 1908 to 1922 at the semi-public “Workers’ Accident Insurance Institution for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague”. He often described his service as a “bread and butter job”.

Kafka’s job required precise knowledge of industrial production and technology. The 25-year-old made proposals for accident prevention regulations. Outside of his duties, he showed political solidarity with the workers; at demonstrations, which he attended as a passerby, he continued to wear a red carnation in his buttonhole. Initially he worked in the casualty department, later he was transferred to the insurance department. His duties included writing instruction manuals and technical documentation.

From 1910 on, Kafka was a member of the Operations Department as a recipient, having prepared himself for this position by attending lectures on “Mechanical Technology” at the Technical University in Prague. Kafka issued and prepared notices when every five years it was necessary to classify insured companies into hazard classes. From 1908 to 1916, he was repeatedly sent on short business trips to northern Bohemia; he was often in the district administration of Reichenberg. There he visited companies, lectured to entrepreneurs and attended court hearings. As an “insurance writer,” he wrote articles for the annual accountability reports.

In recognition of his achievements, Kafka was promoted four times, in 1910 to concipist, in 1913 to vice-secretary, in 1920 to secretary, and in 1922 to senior secretary. Regarding his working life, Kafka noted in a letter, “I do not complain about work as I do about the laziness of swampy times.” The “pressure” of office hours, staring at the clock to which “all effect” is attributed, and the last minute of work as a “springboard of amusement” – this is how Kafka saw service. To Milena Jesenská he wrote: “My service is ridiculous and miserable easily I don’t know what I get the money for.”

Kafka also found his involvement in his parents’ business (expected by the family) oppressive, to which his brother-in-law’s asbestos factory had been added in 1911, which never quite wanted to flourish and which Kafka tried to ignore, although he had allowed himself to become its silent partner. Kafka’s calm and personal dealings with the workers stood out from his father’s condescending boss behavior.

The First World War brought new experiences when thousands of Eastern Jewish refugees arrived in Prague. Within the framework of “warrior welfare”, Kafka took care of the rehabilitation and vocational retraining of severely wounded people. He had been obliged to do this by his insurance company, which had previously claimed him as an “irreplaceable specialist” and thus protected him from the front (against Kafka’s intervention) after he had been classified as “fully fit for military service” for the first time in 1915. Kafka experienced the flip side of this esteem two years later when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and asked for retirement: The institution balked and only finally released him after five years on July 1, 1922.

Father Relationship

The conflict-ridden relationship with his father is one of the central and formative motifs in Kafka’s work.

Himself sensitive, reserved, even shy and thoughtful, Franz Kafka describes his father, who had worked his way up from a poor background and made something of himself by his own efforts, as a thoroughly capable and hands-on, but also coarse, rumbling, self-righteous and despotic merchant. Hermann Kafka regularly laments in vehement tirades his own meager youth and the well-supplied existence of his descendants and employees, which he alone ensures with effort.

Coming from an educated background, her mother could have been an antithesis to her coarse-minded husband, but she tolerated his values and judgments.

In the letter to his father, Kafka accuses him of having claimed a tyrannical power: “You can only treat a child as you yourself are made, with force, noise and irascibility, and in this case, moreover, this seemed to you to be very suitable because you wanted to raise a strong courageous boy in me.”

In Kafka’s stories, father figures are not infrequently portrayed as powerful and also as unjust. The short story Eleven Sons from the Country Doctor volume shows a father deeply dissatisfied with all his offspring in various ways. In the novella The Metamorphosis, Gregor, who has been transformed into a vermin, is pelted with apples by his father and fatally injured. In the short story Das Urteil (The Judgment), the father, who seems strong and fearsome in proportion, sentences the son Georg Bendemann to “death by drowning” – the latter carries out what he has said in vehement words on himself in anticipatory obedience by jumping off a bridge.


Kafka had a constant circle of friends of about the same age in Prague, which formed during the first university years (Prague Circle). In addition to Max Brod, these were the later philosopher Felix Weltsch and the budding writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.

Max Brod’s friendship was of great importance to Kafka throughout his adult life. Brod believed unalterably in Kafka’s literary genius and repeatedly encouraged and pushed him to write and publish. He encouraged his friend by arranging for his first book to be published by the young Leipzig publishing house Rowohlt. As Kafka’s executor, Brod prevented the burning of his novel fragments against his will.

A friendly relationship developed with Rowohlt publisher Kurt Wolff that lasted for years. Although Kafka’s small works (Betrachtung, Ein Landarzt, Der Heizer) were not a literary success for the publisher, Kurt Wolff believed in Kafka’s special talent and repeatedly encouraged him, even insisted, to give him pieces for publication.

Among Kafka’s friends is Jizchak Löwy, an actor from a Hasidic Warsaw family, who impressed Kafka with the uncompromising way he asserted his artistic interests against the expectations of his Orthodox religious parents. Löwy appears as a narrator in Kafka’s fragment Vom jüdischen Theater and is also mentioned in the letter to his father.

Kafka had the closest family relationship with his youngest sister Ottla. It was she who stood by her brother when he fell seriously ill and urgently needed help and rest.


Kafka had an ambivalent relationship with women. On the one hand, he was attracted to them; on the other, he fled from them. Each of his conquering steps was followed by a defensive reaction. Kafka’s letters and diary entries give the impression that his love life was essentially a postal construct. His production of love letters increased to as many as three daily to Felice Bauer. The fact that he remained unmarried to the end earned him the designation “bachelor of world literature.

In literature, the causes of Kafka’s fear of commitment are suspected to be impotence (Louis Begley) and homosexuality (Saul Friedländer) in addition to his monkish way of working (he was under the compulsion to be alone and without ties in order to be able to write), but there is hardly any evidence for this. That Kafka appealed to women is no longer a secret today, wrote literary critic Volker Hage in 2014 in a Spiegel cover story on Kafka (issue 40

Kafka’s first love was Hedwig Therese Weiler, born in Vienna in 1888 and five years younger than him. Kafka met her in the summer of 1907 in Triesch near Iglau (Moravia), where the two spent their vacations with relatives. Although the vacation acquaintance led to an exchange of letters, they did not meet again.

Felice Bauer, who came from a petty-bourgeois Jewish background, and Kafka met for the first time on August 13, 1912, in the apartment of his friend Max Brod. She was employed at Carl Lindström AG, which manufactured gramophones and so-called parlographs, among other things, and rose there from stenotypist to executive employee.

Reiner Stach gives an account of this first encounter between Franz and Felice: the letters to Felice revolve around one question above all: marriage or devoting oneself to writing in self-imposed asceticism? After a total of around three hundred letters and six brief encounters, the official engagement took place in Berlin in June 1914 – but only six weeks later, the engagement was broken. This was the result of a momentous discussion on July 12, 1914 in the Berlin hotel “Askanischer Hof” between him and Felice in the presence of Felice’s sister Erna and Grete Bloch. At this meeting, Kafka was confronted with statements he had made to Grete Bloch in letters that exposed him as unwilling to marry. In his diaries, Kafka speaks of the “court in the hotel.” According to Reiner Stach, he provided the decisive images and scenes for the novel The Trial. However, a second vow followed during a joint stay in Marienbad in July 1916, during which the two entered into a closer and more blissfully intimate relationship. But this engagement was also broken off again – after the outbreak of Kafka’s tuberculosis (summer 1917).

After the final break with Felice, Kafka became engaged again in 1919, this time to Julie Wohryzek, the daughter of a Prague cobbler. He had met her during a stay at the Stüdl boarding house in the village of Schelesen (Želízy), 30 kilometers from Prague. In a letter to Max Brod, he described her as “an ordinary and an amazing apparition. Possessor of an inexhaustible and unstoppable amount of the most impudent jargon expressions, on the whole very ignorant, more funny than sad”. This marriage vow also remained unfulfilled. In the course of the first post-war summer spent together, a wedding date was set, but postponed due to difficulties in finding housing in Prague. The following year the couple separated. One reason may have been his acquaintance with Milena Jesenská, the first translator of his texts into Czech.

A journalist from Prague, she was a lively, self-confident, modern, emancipated woman of 24. She lived in Vienna and was in a diverging marriage with the Prague writer Ernst Polak. After initial correspondence, which was particularly intense during Kafka’s stay in Merano in the spring of 1920, Kafka visited Vienna. Full of enthusiasm, the returned writer reported to his friend Brod about the four-day encounter, which developed into a relationship with several meetings and, above all, an extensive correspondence. But as with Felice Bauer, the old pattern repeated itself with Milena Jesenská: rapprochement and imagined togetherness were followed by doubt and withdrawal. Kafka finally ended the relationship in November 1920, whereupon the correspondence also broke off abruptly. However, the friendly contact between the two did not break off until Kafka’s death.

Finally, in 1923, the year of inflation, Kafka met Dora Diamant at the Baltic Sea resort of Graal-Müritz. In September 1923, Kafka and Diamant moved to Berlin and made plans to marry, which initially failed due to the resistance of Diamant’s father and ultimately due to Kafka’s state of health. After he retired seriously ill to a small private sanatorium in the village of Kierling near Klosterneuburg in April 1924, he was cared for there by the penniless Dora Diamant, who relied on material support from Kafka’s family and acquaintances, until his death on June 3, 1924.

The verdict

On the night of September 22-23, 1912, Kafka succeeded in putting the story Das Urteil (The Verdict) down on paper in just eight hours. According to later literary scholars, Kafka found himself thematically and stylistically in one fell swoop. Kafka was electrified by the act of writing, which he had never experienced so intensely (“Only in this way can writing be done, only in such a context, with such complete opening of body and soul.”). Also, the undiminished effect of the story after repeated (his own) reading aloud – not only on the listeners, but also on himself – strengthened in him the consciousness of being a writer.

The verdict ushered in Kafka’s first prolonged creative phase; the second followed about two years later. In the meantime, Kafka suffered a full year and a half, as he would later, from a period of literary drought. For this reason alone, an existence as a “bourgeois writer” who could support himself and his own family with his work remained out of reach for him throughout his life. His professional obligations could not have been the only obstacle to writing, since Kafka often had his creative peak phases in times of external crises or deterioration of general living conditions (for example, in the second half of 1914 due to the outbreak of war). Moreover, Kafka knew how to defend his free space with his strategy of “maneuver life” – which meant office hours in the morning, sleeping in the afternoon, writing at night.

According to another common thesis, Kafka’s life and writing after the writing of Judgment was characterized by his renouncing ordinary life in order to devote himself entirely to writing. For this stylized sacrifice of life, he himself provides ample material in the diaries and letters.

Unlike the judgment, however, the later writing was often agonizing and halting for him; this is reflected in the following diary entry:

Judaism and the Palestine Question

Through Kafka’s circle of acquaintances and primarily through Max Brod’s commitment to Zionism, Kafka research was frequently confronted with the question of the writer’s relationship to Judaism and with the controversies about the assimilation of Western Jews. In the letter to his father, Kafka on the one hand complains in a lengthy passage about the “nothingness of Judaism” that was instilled in him in his youth, but at the same time expresses his admiration for the Yiddish actor Yizchak Löwy. His sympathy for Eastern Jewish culture is documented several times. As a writer, he placed a taboo on anything “explicitly Jewish: the term does not appear in his literary work.” Nevertheless, his biographer Reiner Stach interprets the air dogs in Kafka’s parable Forschungen eines Hundes as the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

A significant picture of his fragile religious and individual self-assessment can be seen in a diary entry from January 8, 1914: “What do I have in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should place myself in a corner very quietly, satisfied that I can breathe.

At times Kafka was determined to emigrate to Palestine and studied Hebrew intensively. His deteriorating health prevented him from seriously planning the move in 1923. Reiner Stach sums up: “Palestine remained a dream, which his body finally destroyed.”

Sickness and death

In August 1917, Franz Kafka suffered a nighttime hemorrhage. He was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that was not curable at the time. The symptoms initially improved again, but in the fall of 1918 he came down with the Spanish flu, which resulted in pneumonia lasting several weeks. After that, Kafka’s health deteriorated from year to year, despite numerous long stays in health resorts, including Schelesen (now the Czech Republic), Tatranské Matliare (now Slovakia), Riva del Garda (Trentino in the Dr. von Hartungen sanatorium), Meran (1920), and Graal-Müritz (1923). During his stay in Berlin in 1923

On the question of nationality

Kafka spent most of his life in Prague, which until the end of the First World War in 1918 was part of the multinational state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, it became the capital of the newly founded Czechoslovakia. The writer described himself in a letter as a native German speaker (“German is my mother tongue, but Czech goes to my heart”). The German-speaking population in Prague, which made up about seven percent, lived in an “insular isolation” with their language also referred to as “Prague German.” Kafka also meant this insularity when he wrote in the same letter, “I have never lived among German people.” Moreover, he belonged to the Jewish minority. Even at school, there were heated arguments between Czech- and German-speaking Praguers. The political German Reich remained distant for Kafka – for example during the First World War – and was not reflected in his work. Evidence of a self-perception of an Austrian nationality cannot be found either. Nor did Kafka have any connection to Czechoslovakia, which was founded in 1918. Unlike his German-Bohemian superiors, Kafka retained his position in the Workers’ Insurance Institution after 1918 due to his knowledge of the Czech language and his political restraint, and was even promoted. In official correspondence in Czech, he also used the Czech form of his name František Kafka, as long as he did not abbreviate his first name, as was usually the case.

The milieu in which Kafka grew up, that of assimilated Western Jews, was emphatically loyal to the emperor, which is why patriotism was unquestioningly accepted. Kafka himself took part in a patriotic event at the beginning of the First World War and commented on it: “It was splendid. In doing so, he referred to “the greatness of the patriotic mass experience” that “overwhelmed him.” It also fits into this picture that he subscribed to considerable sums of war bonds. After the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, the anti-German and anti-Semitic resentment among the majority population in Prague, which was already barely veiled, intensified, and Kafka, too, took notice of this and used it as an opportunity to concretize his own migration plans, without, however, thereby coming closer to the Zionist ideologues from his environment (e.g. Max Brod): “All afternoons now I am in the alleys, bathing in Jew-hatred. Prašivé plemeno I have now once heard the Jews called. Isn’t it the natural thing to go away from where you are so hated (Zionism or national feeling is not even necessary for that)?”

Conjectures about Kafka’s sexual orientations

A statement by Kafka from his diaries reads: “Coitus as a punishment for the happiness of being together. To live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only way for me to endure marriage. But her?” Sexual encounters with his girlfriends Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenka seem to have been frightening for him. On the other hand, Kafka’s visits to brothels are well known. At the same time, Kafka was a man with multiple platonic relationships with women in conversations and letters, especially during his spa visits.

In diaries, letters and in his works, women are often described as unflattering. His unusual view of the relationship between men and women should be mentioned here. Women are strong, physically superior, sometimes violent. In The Missing appear the maid whom Karl Rossmann literally rapes, or the factory owner’s daughter Klara who forces an unequal fight on him, or the monstrous singer Brunelda whom he is forced to serve. The women in the castle are predominantly strong and coarse (with the exception of the delicate but headstrong Frieda).

Male figures, however, are described several times as beautiful or charming. Karl Rossmann, the missing man, the beautiful boy, or in the castle the beautiful, almost androgynous messenger Barnabas and the charming boy Hans Brunswick, who wants to help K..

Homoerotic approaches

Kafka’s diary entries focus on his friendships with Oskar Pollak, Franz Werfel, and Robert Klopstock, with rapturous, homoerotic overtones.

Homoerotic allusions are undisguisedly evident in his work. Already in one of his early larger stories description of a battle, when the narrator and an acquaintance on a hill have a fantastic conversation about their mutual relationship and resulting wounding. Karl Rossmann in The Missing develops a barely understandable attachment to the stoker he has just met on the ship. The stoker had invited him into his bed. When he leaves, he doubts that his uncle will ever be able to replace this stoker for him.

In the castle, K. enters the room of the official Bürgel. In his fatigue, he lies down in bed with the official and is also welcomed by him. During his sleep, he dreams of a secretary as a naked god.

Sadomasochistic fantasies

In a letter to Milena Jesenska in November 1920, he wrote: “Yes torturing is extremely important to me, I am concerned with nothing else but being tortured and being tortured.”

In the diary of May 4, 1913, he notes:

Already in the transformation a sadomasochistic moment appears. The giant beetle fights for the image of a woman in fur, which brings to mind the novella Venus in Fur by Sacher-Masoch.

In the penal colony, torture with the help of a “peculiar apparatus” is the main theme. In the process, a shift occurs between victim (naked convict) and perpetrator (officer). The officer initially believes in the cathartic effect of torture by the sophisticated machine he demonstrates to the traveler. In his emotion, the officer embraces the traveler and rests his head on his shoulder. But the traveler is in no way persuaded by this kind of adjudication by torture, and thus brings about a verdict on the machine to which the officer voluntarily submits by placing himself under the working machine. But the officer recognizes no guilt of his own.

The beating scene in the trial is a distinctly Sado-Maso staging. There are two guards who were absent because of K.. They are to be beaten naked with a rod by a half-naked beater in black leather clothing. This procedure obviously lasts for more than two days.

Even the short stories such as The Vulture and The Bridge contain torturous, bloodthirsty depictions.

From literature, philosophy, psychology and religion

Kafka saw in Grillparzer, Kleist, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky his literary “blood brothers”. The influence of Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from the Cellar Hole, for example, is unmistakable, anticipating many peculiarities of Kafka’s work, but also, for example, the idea of the transformation of man into an insect in the story The Metamorphosis.

According to Nabokov, Flaubert exerted the greatest stylistic influence on Kafka; like the latter, Kafka abhorred well-crafted prose, instead using language as a tool: “Gladly taking his terms from the vocabulary of lawyers and natural scientists, he imbued them with a certain ironic precision, a process by which Flaubert had also achieved a unique poetic effect.”

As a high school graduate, Kafka studied Nietzsche intensively. He seems to have been particularly captivated by Also sprach Zarathustra.

Regarding Kierkegaard, Kafka wrote in his diary, “He confirms me like a friend.”

Sigmund Freud’s theories on Oedipal conflict and paranoia may have come to Kafka’s attention due to the time, but he does not seem to have been interested in these topics.

Kafka studied the Jewish religion intensively through extensive reading. He was particularly interested in religious legends, stories and instructions for action, which were originally passed down orally. He had personal contact with the Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber.

However, Kafka was also closely connected with the philosophy of Franz Brentano, who was present in Prague. Together with his friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, he listened to lectures on Brentano’s theories by Anton Marty and Christian von Ehrenfels at Charles University. The empirical psychology developed by the Brentanists had a lasting influence on the young Kafka’s poetics.

From the cinema, Yiddish theater and entertainment establishments

In a letter from December 1908 Kafka expresses: ” how else could we keep ourselves alive for the cinematograph”. In 1919 he wrote to his second fiancée Julie Wohryzek that he was “in love with the cinema. Kafka, however, was obviously less impressed by film plots (rather, his texts themselves reflect a cinematic point of view. His narrative develops its special character through the processing of cinematic movement patterns and subjects. It lives from the grotesque image sequences and exaggerations of early cinema, which appear here in a literarily condensed linguistic form. Film is omnipresent in Kafka’s stories: in the rhythm of metropolitan traffic, in chases and double-crossing scenes, and in gestures of fear. These elements are especially present in the novel fragment The Prodigal.

The hefty performances of the Lviv Yiddish theater, which Kafka often attended and with whose members he was friends, also contained many of the aforementioned elements; Kafka had a strong sense of authenticity here. Kafka’s interest in Yiddish language and culture in Eastern Europe is evidenced by two small works from his estate, namely Vom jüdischen Theater and Einleitungsvortrag über Jargon.

Until about 1912, Kafka also participated actively in nightlife with cabaret performances. This included visits to cabarets, brothels, vaudevilles, etc. A number of his late stories are set in this milieu; see First Sorrow, A Report for an Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josefine, the Singer, or The People of the Mice.

Franz Kafka can be seen as a representative of literary modernism. He stands alongside writers such as Rilke, Joyce or Döblin.

The novel fragments

As in a nightmare, Kafka’s protagonists move through a labyrinth of opaque circumstances and are at the mercy of anonymous powers. Literary critics speak of a “dream logic”. The courthouses in Der Process consist of a widely ramified tangle of obscure rooms, and in Der Verschollene (published by Brod under the title Amerika), too, the strangely unconnected settings – including a ship, a hotel, the “Natural Theater of Oklahoma,” and the apartment of the uncle of Karl Roßmann, the hero – are gigantic and unmanageable.

In particular, the relationships of the acting persons also remain unclear. In the castle, Kafka creates doubts about the protagonist K.’s position as a “surveyor” and the content of this term itself, thus creating room for interpretation. Only fragmentarily does K., and with him the reader, learn more about the officials of the castle and their relations to the villagers in the course of the novel. The omnipresent, but at the same time inaccessible, fascinating and oppressive power of the castle over the village and its people becomes increasingly clear. Despite all his efforts to become at home in this world and to clarify his situation, K. does not gain access to the authoritative bodies in the castle administration, just as the defendant Josef K. never even gets to see the indictment in the trial.

Only in the novel fragment Der Verschollene – Das Schloss and Der Process also remained unfinished – does the vague hope remain that Roßmann can find lasting security in the almost boundless, paradisiacal “Natural Theater of Oklahoma.”

The narratives

In many of Kafka’s stories, e.g. The Burrow, Researches of a Dog, Little Fable, the failure and futile striving of the characters is the dominant theme, often portrayed in a tragic-serious manner, but sometimes with a certain comedy.

An almost universal theme is the hidden law, which the respective protagonist unwillingly violates or fails to achieve (Before the Law, In the Penal Colony, The Blow at the Court Gate, On the Question of Laws). The motif of the code hidden from the protagonist, which governs the course of events, is found in the novel fragments Process and Castle and in numerous stories.

In his incomparable style, especially in his stories, Kafka describes extremely clearly and soberly the most incredible facts. The cool meticulous description of seemingly legal cruelty In the Penal Colony or the transformation of a man into an animal and vice versa, as in The Metamorphosis or A Report for an Academy, are characteristic.

Kafka published three anthologies during his lifetime. These are Betrachtung 1912 with 18 small prose sketches, Ein Landarzt 1918 with 14 stories, and Ein Hungerkünstler 1924 with four prose texts.

Hidden topics

In addition to Kafka’s major themes, i.e. the relationship with the father, impenetrable large bureaucracies or cruelty of a system, there are a number of other motifs in his works, which appear again and again rather inconspicuously.

One thing to mention here is the shying away from performance and work.

The officials of the castle in their multiple fatigue and illness, which even causes them to receive their parties in bed and in the morning, trying to repel the work assigned to them. Similar to the lawyer Huld from the trial.

The miners in A Visit to the Mine, who rest work all day to watch the engineers.

The city’s coat of arms tells of the construction of a gigantic tower. But it is not started. The opinion prevails that the construction art of the future is better suited for the actual erection of the tower. Later generations of builders, however, realize the futility of the project. In the construction of the Great Wall of China, as the title indicates, a great building project is also the subject. But the execution, at first deliberate and many times weighed, always consists of patchy wall segments. Since no one overlooks the overall project, it ultimately remains unrecognized whether it would be capable of any real protective function at all.

In The Test, a servant appears who has no work and does not push himself to do it. Other servants in the mansion also seem idle. An examiner joins in and certifies that doing nothing and not knowing is exactly right.

The Great Swimmer features a famous swimmer who is confused by the great celebrations surrounding his person and who claims that he does not know how to swim at all, although he had wanted to learn for a long time, but no opportunity had presented itself.

Humorous moments

As dark as the novel The Trial is, there are small humorous interludes here in particular. Kafka is said to have laughed out loud many times while reading the novel aloud. The judges study pornographic magazines instead of legal texts, they have women brought to them on a tray like sumptuous food, one courtroom has a hole in the floor, now and then a defense lawyer hangs his leg in the room below. Then a slapstick scene when old officials keep throwing newly arriving advocates down the stairs, but they keep going back up.

Some of them are only small scenes, as in the castle, when the surveyor meets his messenger in wintry night, who hands him an important document from the official Klamm. As he is about to read it, his assistants stand beside him and in a useless manner alternately raise and lower their lights over K.’s shoulder. Or how the surveyor throws the two assistants out the door, but they quickly come back in at the window.

The short story Blumfeld, an elderly bachelor contains slapstick and pursuit. The elderly bachelor is pursued by two small white balls that cannot be shaken off. Two little eager girls from the house want to take care of the two balls.

Kafka’s narrative structure and choice of words

At first glance, there seems to be a tension between subject matter and language. Stylistic renunciation appears as Franz Kafka’s aesthetic principle. The shocking incidents are reported in an unadorned, sober language. Kafka’s style is devoid of extravagances, alienations and commentaries. His aim is the highest possible increase in the effect of the text by virtue of the utmost limitation of linguistic means. Kafka was very successful in his effort to achieve a highly objective style. Through the objective, cool reporting style, the astonishing and inexplicable is accepted by the reader as fact. The more concise the formulations, the more the reader is stimulated to comprehend what is being narrated. The narrated event is suggested as so real that the reader does not even come to think about its (im)possibility.

Kafka’s aim was to represent adequately rather than to alienate, that is, to practice poverty of language. This relationship to language results in Kafka’s characteristic tendency toward an epic without a commenting or omniscient narrator. The apparent simplicity of Kafka’s use of words is the result of a strict choice of words, the result of a concentrated search for the most catchy and direct expression in each case. Max Brod emphasized as Franz Kafka’s highest poetic virtue the absolute insistence on the truthfulness of expression, the search for the one, completely correct word for a matter, this sublime faithfulness to the original, which was not satisfied with anything that was even the slightest bit deficient.

Another of Kafka’s stylistic devices is to reveal the whole future disturbing problematic in a concentrated way already in the first movement of the work, as in The Metamorphosis, The Prodigal or The Trial.

With his style and his disconcerting content, Kafka does not simply recreate an attitude to life, but creates a world of his own with its own laws, the incomparability of which the term “Kafkaesque” attempts to circumscribe.

The interpretive interest of interpreters after 1945 is perhaps due to the fact that his texts are open and hermetic at the same time: On the one hand, their language, plot, imagery, and relatively small scope make them easily accessible; on the other hand, however, their depth is almost impossible to fathom. Albert Camus said, “It is the fate and perhaps the greatness of this work that it presents all possibilities and confirms none.” Theodor W. Adorno says of Kafka’s work, “Every sentence speaks: interpret me, and no one will tolerate it.”

Apart from text-immanent criticism, different interpretations of Kafka’s work point in the following directions, among others: psychological (as in corresponding interpretations of Hamlet, Faust, or Stiller), philosophical (especially to the school of existentialism), biographical (e.g., by Elias Canetti in Der andere Prozess.  e.g., by Elias Canetti in The Other Trial), religious (a dominant aspect of the early reception of Kafka, which today is considered rather questionable, among others by Milan Kundera), and sociological (i.e., examining the socio-critical content). An important question in the interpretation of Kafka’s works is that of the influence of Jewish religion and culture on the work, which was already answered by Gershom Scholem to the effect that Kafka belonged to Jewish rather than German literary history. This interpretive hint was widely supported by Karl E. Grözinger in his publication Kafka und die Kabbala. Das Jüdische im Werk und Denken von Franz Kafka. Berlin

Kafka relates many characters in his novels and stories to Christianity: in Process, Josef K. looks very closely at a picture of Christ’s burial, and in Judgment, Georg Bendemann is addressed by the waitress as “Jesus!” on the way to his self-sacrifice. In the Castle, the surveyor K. spends the first night of his (novel) life in an inn on a straw sack, much like Jesus, and in the same novel Barnabas, who is closest to the surveyor of all the male characters in the novel, bears the name of a Jew to whom Christianity became more important than Judaism (Acts 13:2 EU).

Particularly characteristic of Kafka are the frequent repetitions of motifs, especially in the novels and many of the most important stories, in some cases across all creative periods. These repetitive motifs form a kind of web over the entire work and can be made fruitful for an authoritative interpretation of it. Two of the most important motifs of repetition are the motif “bed,” an unexpectedly frequent place of residence and encounter of characters, where or in which disaster begins and continues for many protagonists of the texts, and the motif “door” in the form of the argument about its passing (the best-known example is the gate to the law in the text Vor dem Gesetz, the so-called “Türhüterlegende”).

Regardless of the respective interpretations, the term Kafkaesque is used to describe an atmosphere that is “enigmatically threatening,” which, according to Kundera, “should be seen as the only common denominator of situations (both literary and real) that cannot be characterized by any other word and for which neither political science nor sociology nor psychology provide a key.”

Kafka was already known to literary connoisseurs such as Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Walter Benjamin and Kurt Tucholsky in the 1920s. His work only achieved worldwide fame after 1945, first in the USA and France, then in the 1950s in German-speaking countries. Today, Kafka is the most widely read author in the German language. Kafka’s reception extends into everyday life: in the 1970s, for example, there was an advertising slogan “I drink Jägermeister because I haven’t cracked Kafka’s lock.”

Kafka’s own view of his work

During his lifetime, Kafka was unknown to the general public.

Kafka was at odds with himself. His doubts went so far that he instructed his executor Brod to destroy the texts that had not yet been published (including the now famous novel fragments). In the second order addressed to Brod, dated November 29, 1922, Kafka stated:

Today there is widespread agreement in literary circles that Brod made a beneficial decision when he overrode his friend’s last will and published his work.

However, Kafka himself destroyed an indeterminable part of his texts, so that Brod was too late.

Kafka as a forbidden author

During the period from 1933 to 1945, Kafka was included in the relevant list of banned authors during the Nazi era as a producer of “harmful and undesirable written material”. His works, like many others, fell victim to the book burnings.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) did not rehabilitate Kafka after the Second World War, but classified him as “decadent”. In the novel The Trial, one found undesirable echoes of the denunciations and show trials in the Eastern Bloc states. In general, Czechoslovakia at the time of communism hardly identified with Kafka, probably also because he had written almost exclusively in German.

In May 1963, on the occasion of the writer’s 80th birthday, the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, on the initiative of Eduard Goldstücker, held an international Kafka conference at Liblice Castle near Prague, which dealt with the writer who was still largely rejected in the Eastern Bloc at the time, as well as with the thematic focus of alienation. It was honored by many speakers. This conference is considered a starting point of the Prague Spring of 1967

Today Czech Republic

With the opening of the Czech Republic to the West and the influx of foreign visitors, Kafka’s local importance grew. In 2018, a doctoral student at Prague’s Charles University succeeded in rediscovering and publishing a contemporary work description of Franz Kafka’s short stories Before the Law and A Report for an Academy, which had previously been thought lost.

In 2003, a Franz Kafka monument was erected in the Josefov Jewish quarter of Prague on the initiative of the Franz Kafka Society. The Prague Franz Kafka Society is dedicated to Kafka’s works and tries to revive Prague’s Jewish heritage. In the Kafka Year 2008 (125th birthday), Kafka was highlighted by the city of Prague to promote tourism. There are many sites for Kafka encounter, bookstores and souvenir items of all kinds. Since 2005, the Kafka Museum on Prague’s Lesser Town (Cihelná 2b) has hosted the exhibition The City of K. Franz Kafka and Prague. Since 2014, Prague has been home to the kinetic sculpture Franz Kafka Head.

International impact

As early as 1915, Kafka was indirectly awarded the “Theodor Fontane Prize for Art and Literature”: The official laureate Carl Sternheim gave the prize money to Kafka, who was still largely unknown.

Kafka’s great influence on Gabriel García Márquez is well known. In particular, García Márquez says he took courage from Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis to form his “magical realism: Gregor Samsa’s awakening as a beetle, according to García Márquez himself, showed his “life a new path, even with the first line, which is now one of the most famous in world literature.” Kundera, in his work Betrayed Legacies (p. 55), recalls an even more precise statement by García Márquez about Kafka’s influence on him: “Kafka taught me that one can write differently.” Kundera explains, “Different: that meant by going beyond the limits of the probable. Not (in the manner of the Romantics) to escape the real world, but to understand it better.”

In a conversation with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, Kafka biographer Reiner Stach refers to Samuel Beckett as “Kafka’s heir.”

Among contemporary writers, Leslie Kaplan often refers to Kafka in her novels and in statements about her working methods to depict human alienation, murderous bureaucracy, but also the scope for freedom that thinking and writing, above all, open up.

Even beyond artistic criteria, Kafka finds great admiration. For Canetti, Kafka is a great poet because he “expressed our century most purely.

Kafka’s work has inspired implementation in the visual arts:

Dispute over the manuscripts

Before his death, Kafka had asked his friend Max Brod to destroy most of his manuscripts. Brod, however, resisted this request and ensured that many of Kafka’s writings were published posthumously. In 1939, shortly before the German troops entered Prague, Brod managed to save the manuscripts to Palestine. In 1945 he gave them to his secretary Ilse Ester Hoffe, as he also recorded in writing: “Dear Ester, Already in 1945 I gave you all Kafka’s manuscripts and letters that belong to me.”

Hoffe sold some of these manuscripts, including letters and postcards, the manuscript for Beschreibung eines Kampfes (now owned by the publisher Joachim Unseld), and the manuscript for the novel Der Process, which was auctioned off to Heribert Tenschert at Sotheby’s auction house in London in 1988 for the equivalent of 3.5 million marks. This can now be seen in the permanent exhibition at the Literaturmuseum der Moderne in Marbach. Hoffe donated the remaining manuscripts to her two daughters Eva and Ruth Hoffe during her lifetime.

After the death of their mother in 2007, Eva and Ruth Hoffe agreed to sell the manuscripts to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which led to a dispute between the two sisters and the Literature Archive on the one hand, and the State of Israel, which sees the rightful place of Kafka’s manuscripts in the National Library of Israel, on the other. Israel bases its claim to the manuscripts on a paragraph from Max Brod’s will, although Ester Hoffe had received the manuscripts as a gift from Max Brod and also gave them to her daughters and did not bequeath them. Since 1956, all of the manuscripts still in Hoffe’s possession have been in bank vaults in Tel Aviv and Zurich. On October 14, 2012, an Israeli family court ruled that the manuscripts are not the property of the Hoffe sisters. Kafka’s estate is to go to the National Library of Israel. Eva Hoffe announced that she would appeal. On August 7, 2016, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected the appeal in the last instance and awarded the estate to the National Library of Israel. David Blumenberg, the library’s director, then announced that the collection would be made available to the general public. Since part of the bequest was also kept in bank safes at UBS in Zurich, another court decision was needed to enforce the judgment. What was needed was Swiss recognition of the Israeli judgment, which the Zurich District Court granted at the beginning of April 2019. Only on this basis could UBS hand over the contents of the safes to the National Library of Israel in July 2019.

Published during his lifetime

All 46 publications (some of them multiple publications of individual works) during Franz Kafka’s lifetime are listed on pages 300 ff. in Joachim Unseld: Franz Kafka. A Writer’s Life. The History of His Publications. ISBN 3-446-13554-5.

Published posthumously

In parentheses the year of creation.

Audiobook collections

Kafka wrote letters intensively and over a long period of his life, some of them very personal. They demonstrate his high sensitivity and convey his view of the threatening aspects of his inner world and his fears in the face of the outside world. Some authors do not consider Kafka’s letters to be an addition to his literary work, but see them as part of it. In particular, his letters to Felice and letters to Milena are among the great epistolary documents of the 20th century. The letters to Ottla are a moving testimony to Kafka’s closeness to his favorite sister (presumably murdered by the Nazis in 1943). In the letter to his father, the precarious relationship of the highly gifted son to his father becomes clear, whom he describes as a despot capable of living, who is extremely critical of the son’s way of life. The letters to Max Brod are documents of a friendship without which only fragments of Kafka’s work would have survived. With some exceptions, the respective letters of reply have not been preserved, which is extremely regrettable, especially with regard to the missing letters of the journalist and writer Milena Jesenská, who was for Kafka the admired example of a free person without fear. Letters to Ernst Weiß, to Julie Wohryzek and to Dora Diamant have been lost until today due to the circumstances of the National Socialist era.

Letter issues

Kafka’s diaries have been largely preserved for the period from 1909 to 1923 (shortly before his death in 1924). They contain not only personal notes, autobiographical reflections, elements of the writer’s self-understanding of his writing, but also aphorisms (see, for example, The Zürauer Aphorisms), drafts of stories, and numerous literary fragments.

Editions of the diaries

As an employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institution for the Kingdom of Bohemia, Franz Kafka wrote essays, expert opinions, circulars and other items. See above the section “Professional life”.

Editions of the official publications

Drawings editions

Poems editions

Since Kafka’s texts had become known to the public (see “Reception” above), composers were also inspired to set them to music. Yet Kafka was rather reserved in his personal attitude toward music. In his diary, for example, there is the remarkable statement: “The essence of my non-musicality is that I cannot enjoy music coherently; only now and then does an effect arise in me, and how rarely is it a musical one. The music I hear naturally draws a wall around me and my only permanent musical influence is that I am so confined, other than free.” To his fiancée Felice Bauer he once confided: “I have no musical memory at all. My violin teacher, out of desperation, preferred to make me jump over sticks he held himself in music lessons, and the musical progress consisted in holding the sticks higher from lesson to lesson.” Max Brod, Kafka’s close confidant, “did attest to his childhood friend ‘a natural feeling for rhythm and melos’ and dragged him along to concerts, but soon gave it up. Kafka’s impressions were purely visual. Typical, I suppose, that only such a colorful opera as ‘Carmen’ could inspire him.”

Remarkably, little attention has been paid to the phenomenon of Kafka’s musical settings. Only in 2018 did a wide-ranging collection of essays on the topic of “Franz Kafka and Music” begin to come to light. In response to the question of what might so attract composers to Kafka’s texts that they transform the texts into musical compositions, Frieder von Ammon attempts an answer with the key concept of “music illegitimacy.” Using Kafka’s text Das Schweigen der Sirenen (The Silence of the Sirens) as an example, he shows that the literary model per se “has no desire” to “become music.” While the text is by no means “unmusical,” it poses a special challenge to composers in that it forces composers to “rigorously examine” the “compositional means to be used in the process, and it is precisely in this moment, in the specific unruliness of Kafka’s texts, in their anti-culinary, anti-operatic basic attitude, which at the same time necessitates critical self-reflection, that a special fascination for composers must lie. There is no other way to explain the large number of Kafka compositions”.

“Apparently Max Brod was the first to set a Kafka text to music; he himself reports that in 1911 he provided the poem Kleine Seele – springst im Tanze with a simple melody,” writes Ulrich Müller in an account of the settings of Kafka’s texts (1979). Apart from this youthful work of Brod’s, his songs Tod und Paradies for voice and piano (1952) and the song Schöpferisch schreite! from the song cycle op. 37 (1956) are artistic testimonies to his personal bond with the poet. – Of historical importance are the “in the years 1937

In the aforementioned account of the settings, Ulrich Müller notes that it was not until “the early 1950s that Kafka’s great impact in music” began. Important settings were written primarily in Eastern Europe, where the existential threat to the individual characteristic of Kafka’s work was still palpable in the reality of the composers’ lives. “Incidentally, perhaps the most famous setting is based not on Kafka’s novels but on his letters and diaries. The Hungarian György Kurtág noted down individual sentences from them for years in his sketchbook. Their world of concise language formulas, filled with sadness, despair and humor, subtlety and so much at the same time, did not let me go,” he once said. From this, a cycle of 40 ‘Kafka fragments’ for soprano and violin gradually developed in the 1980’s. It was originally to be called ‘Meine Gefängniszelle – meine Festung’ (My prison cell – my fortress), because it is also to be understood autobiographically. The result is a work of extreme expressiveness and haunting brevity.” Kurtág makes use of a musical presentation method that corresponds to Kafka’s typical treatment of language: it is the “reduction” to small gestures and formulations that Klaus Ramm has established as a narrative principle in Kafka’s work. Several CD recordings attest to the high degree of appreciation that Kurtág’s Kafka fragments have found in a very short time. The following is a list of Kafka settings written after the Second World War (in chronological order). The works are sorted by genre:



  1. Franz Kafka
  2. Franz Kafka
  3. Johannes Reiss: Kafkas Grabinschrift. In:
  4. Sander L. Gilman (2005). Franz Kafka. Reaktion Books. p. 31. ISBN 9781861892546. “Through his consumption of such books Kafka rejected both capitalism and religion as a teenager – declaring himself to be a socialist and an atheist.”
  5. J. E. Luebering, ed. (2009). “Franz Kafka”. The 100 Most Influential Writers of All Time. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 272. ISBN 9781615300969. “Kafka’s opposition to established society became apparent when, as an adolescent, he declared himself a socialist as well as an atheist.”
  6. «A Short Biography of Franz Kafka». Consultado em 10 de janeiro de 2020
  7. ^ Guido Sommavilla, Uomo, diavolo e Dio nella letteratura contemporanea, Ed. Paoline, 1993 p.100
  8. ^ Dizionario Oxford della letteratura inglese a cura di Margaret Drabble, Jenny Stringer, V. De Simone, Colasanti, p. 286
  9. a b c d e f g Steinhauer 1983, 390–408. o.
  10. Pók, 254. o.
  11. a b Gilman 2005, 20–21. o.
  12. Northey 1997, 8–10. o.
  13. Kohoutikriz 2011.
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