Franz Kafka Criticism

Short reviews of all Kafka's published fiction, The Trial, The Castle, America, The Best of Twentieth Century German Literature

Franz Kafka is one of the most interesting novelists to come out of Europe in the twentieth century. Although he died fairly young and gained little critical acclaim during his lifetime, his novels and short stories are now seen as brilliant evocations of aliention from society and as very imaginative predictions of the world of totalitarianism that swept Europe in the decades after his death in 1924, at the age of 41.

Kafka was the son of a rich family, jewish and based in Prague. His early life was undistinguished, working in Prague in the insurance business, before he moved to Berlin to write. Here he met his on and off fiance Felice Bauer, but they were never married. In 1917 he was diagnosed a suffering from tuberculosis and in his latter days he continued to write, before entering a hospital in 1923, dying in 1924.

During his lifetime he only published short stories and left instructions in his will that his unpublished work, including all three novels, should be destroyed. This was ignored however, and they have since gone on to become heavily studied.

Short Stories:

Kafka's short stories are available collected in a single volume in most countries.

Metamorphosis: Alongside 'the Trial' this is perhaps Kafka's most famous, maybe even notorious work. A long short story of about 18000 words, it deals with the character of Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning no longer as a human but as a giant insect. The story deals with his attempts to come to terms with the transformation, and then of his depression at his family's repulsion to him. No explanation is ever given for his transformation, the point of the story is rather the difference betwen Gregor's coming to terms with the change and the way that all the other human characters refuse to treat him as family, employee and so on. It is Gregor who should be the most affected, but the only change in his character comes about as a result of the continuing neglect of his family. None of the characters in the story liked him much before, and they have not lost as much as he has, but they are the most affected. The banality of the narration enhances Gregor's relative innocence and the injustice of his situation, but no attempt is ever made to justify any of the actions of any of the characters. Overall metamorphosis is both hilarious and thought provoking as a metaphor for the way in which we have no choivce about being born as humans and little control over our destinies from then on.

The Great Wall of China: This story takes the form not of a narrative about tyhe wall, but rather a meditation about the wall on the part of unspecified character, who is a native and a contemporary of the wall, but who has little idea either of the wall's purpose or the people who built it so close to him. This is not one of the most immediately striking of Kafka's tales, and it requires a great deal of effort to take an interest in the same way that its narrator does. The lack of understanding about the wall and the contrast between the clarity of its physical details and the mystique of its intentions can be seen as making a point about the bizarreness of how from a new world evolved humans and undertakings like the wall which seem totally incongruous to the earth as it was formed.

Investigations of a Dog: This is a story which is told from the perspective of a dog, but of a dog which has been in the influence of humans for so long tht it is almost alienated from real dogs. As such, the titular investigations are into dogss, as well as by a dog. This story is therefore about the classic Kafka preoccupation of not belonging to a crowd while everyone else in the world seems to do so. the focus of the storyb is the dog's attempt to understand the music and dance of one particular group of dogs, because he feels like the music would be transcendetal if it could be understood, but because he is a domesticated dog they reman aloof. This is a fairly typical Kafka story with some excellent details, and with yet again a central character in cultural isolation who finds no answer to it.

The Burrow: Again the story revolves around the meditations of a siingle character, and once again it is an animal. However there is little information given about the animal, except that it has spent its entire life creating a perfect and unassailable burrow, which it continues to refine out of a combination of obsesssive pedanticity and simple paranoia. There is a development when it begins to feel threatened by a noise which sems to come from all directions and to pose a trheat to the burrow, which simply sends the central character even further into his own compulsions. The Burrow is a fantastic and seemingly underappreciated story, about uncertainty and paranoia, all of which is hsown to be pointless by the final words, 'but all remained unchanged,' after the previous ten pages have been spent in a paranoid frenzy about the threat of this invisible opponent. There is never a reason given for the construction and maintenance of the burrow, it is simply a preserve against a threat that doesn't exist. There are many bizarre details, and the character created is both a comedic and vaguely disturbing one.

In the Penal Settlement: like America, this is a story about a man in an alien culture who is unaware of whether his concerns are shared, if the madness on show really is madnes or if it is simply regional eccentricity. The premise is that a man goes to a foreign penal colony on a diplomatic visit and is taken to see the ritual method by which offenders are killed, by a machine which writes their crime in knives through their bodies, a layer of flesh at a time.

He meets a operator who is in charge of this machine, and after an argument about the morals and the impending banning of ths machine by new warders, the operator decides to end his own life on the machine he lovees, but it malfunctions and kills him in excrutiating pain. As well as being one of the more simple narrative Kafka stories, this is an interesting study of morality and of the cruelty of coincidenc. The gory detail with which it is told is also very effective in emphasising its morals.

The Giant Mole: A quite bizarre story about the alleged sightings of a giant mole in a reote town, and the two men who write papers about it. The ridiculous subject amkes a point hard to infer, but the fact that one researcher is unhappy with the details while the other is unhappy at someone using his research for basis, with neither being happy or the existence of the mole being proved, implies that again it is a story about human conflict and insignificance.


Again, in most countries the novels are available as a collection, or individually. All were published posthumously.

The Trial: Perhaps because there are various film versions, even one in English, this is the novel for which Kafka is known best. It also features an archetypally Kafkan plot, Joseph K is arrested on suspicion of a crime, and told that he will stand trial for it. Over the next few weeks he does everything in his power to find out what either his offence, his punishment or his escape will be, but despite meeting all the characters of the court and one young woman who works there and dores her best to help him, he never actually find out what his crime is, and is executed for it in this state of ignorance. 'The Trial' is written in Kafka's trademark banal style, with officious detailing on the part of Joseph K, and this simply adds to the feeling of impotence, K starts thenovel almost outraged by his circumstance, but as everyone begins to frown on him for his dealings with the court and the day of his trial draws nearer, he is reduced to pathetic desperation, not for escape but simply for the kowledge of what he has done. The book is a very effective satire on the political system, it also has something in comon with the french existentialists in the way that authority is portrayed, and its depiction of what random persecution can do to a man seems quite prescient in the wake of the Nazis.

America: Unusually this novel does not deal with a man coming to terms with an unexplained change in his environment as the majority of Kafka stories do, but like 'In the Penal Colony' it examines a man put in a foreign land with no guides as to the alien culture. In this case it is the story of a young amn sent to America by his parents for impropriety with a servent, who is forced to make his own way after being rejected by his wealthy uncle for not wanting to follow in his footsteps. Rather than show someone out of place and alone, it shows its hero out of place in a number of positions and friendships ordained for him by people who want to exploit him. Kafka himsellf never went to America, and so his vision of the country is like an illusion to the hero, who can not find anything to anchor him in a world of characters who baffle him while they amuse the reader.

The Castle: kafka's longest novel, and quite a bizarre one, it is similar to 'the Trial' in the construction of its plot , a surveyor is ent out to a remote town bt when he arrives he is told firstly that he is not needed and then tht his purpose is in the Castle, where he cannot get entry, thus being trapped in limbo between a comunity that revile him and a castle that won't accept him. His inability to find a purpose is caused bysociety's unwillingness to assign him one, and again there is no cause for this other than existence, no one person or group is shown to be responsible for his isolation, he seems to have been almost randomly assigned a place outside acceptance. The Castle is less focused than the other novels, and the characters are slightly less weird than others in Kafka's work. It is probably his least successful novel

Letters and Diary:

Kafka's diary from 1912 onwards and the collected letters he wrote to his friends Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenska-Pollack have all been published. They are not great in their own right, but are intresting background to the character of Kafka, who put a lot of himself into every character he put in a strange situation.

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