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Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

novelist and short story writer
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro novelist and short story writer
A.K.A. Kafka, František Kafka
Countries Austria-Hungary Czechoslovakia Czech Republic
Occupations Novelist Fabulist Short story writer Aphorist Diarist Translator Lawyer Screenwriter Poet lawyer Claims adjuster Prosaist Writer
Gender male
Birth 3 July 1883 (Prague)
Death 3 June 1924 (Kierling)
Star sign Cancer
Residence Prague
Mother: Julie Kafková
Father: Hermann Kafka
Siblings: Elli KafkaValli KafkaOttla Kafka
Education Karl-Ferdinands-Universität
Notable Works The Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle
Franz Kafka
The details

Franz Kafka ( July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924) was a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work which fused the elements of realism and the fantastic typically featured the isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers and was interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt and absurdity. His best known works included "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), Der Process (The Trial) and Das Schloss (The Castle). The term Kafkaesque entered the English language to describe situations like those in his writing.

Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today the capital of the Czech Republic. He trained as a lawyer and after completing his legal education he was employed by an insurance company, forcing him to relegate writing to his spare time. Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends including his father with whom he had a strained and formal relationship. He became engaged to several women, but never married. He died in 1924 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

Few of Kafka's works are published during his lifetime: The story collections, Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) and individual stories (Such as "Die Verwandlung") are published in literary magazines, but received little public attention. Kafka's unfinished works including his novels, Der Process, Das Schloss and Der Verschollene (Translated as both Amerika and The Man Who Disappeared) are ordered by Kafka to be destroyed by his friend, Max Brod who nonetheless ignored his friend's direction and published them after Kafka's death. His work went on to influence a vast range of writers, critics, artists and philosophers during the 20th century.


Early Life

Hermann and Julie Kafka

Kafka was born near the Old Town Square in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family are German-speaking middle-class Ashkenazi Jews. His father, Hermann Kafka (1854–1931) was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a shochet or ritual slaughterer in Osek, a Czech village with a large Jewish population located near Strakonice in southern Bohemia. Hermann brought the Kafka family to Prague. After working as a traveling sales representative, he eventually became a fashion retailer who employed up to 15 people and used the image of a jackdaw (Kavka in Czech, pronounced and colloquially written as kafka) as his business logo. Kafka's mother, Julie (1856–1934) was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Poděbrady and was better educated than her husband.

Plaque marking the birthplace of Franz Kafka in Prague, designed by Karel Hladík and Jan Kaplický, 1966

Kafka's parents probably spoke a German influenced by Yiddish that was sometimes pejoratively called Mauscheldeutsch, but as the German language was considered the vehicle of social mobility, they probably encouraged their children to speak Standard German. Hermann and Julie had six children of whom Franz was the eldest. Franz's two brothers, Georg and Heinrich died in infancy before Franz was seven. His three sisters are Gabriele ("Ellie") (1889–1944), Valerie ("Valli") (1890–1942) and Ottilie ("Ottla") (1892–1943). They all died during the Holocaust of World War II. Valli was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in occupied Poland in 1942, but that was the last documentation about her. Ottilie was his favorite sister.

Hermann was described by the biographer, Stanley Corngold as a "huge, selfish, overbearing businessman" and by Franz Kafka as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind [And] knowledge about human nature". On business days, both parents were absent from the home with Julie Kafka working as many as 12 hours each day helping to manage the family business. Consequently, Kafka's childhood was somewhat lonely and the children are reared largely by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka's troubled relationship with his father was evident in his Brief an den Vater (Letter to His Father) of more than 100 pages which he complained about being profoundly affected by his father's authoritarian and demanding character. His mother in contrast was quiet and shy. The dominating figure of Kafka's father had a significant influence on Kafka's writing.

The Kafka family had a servant girl living with them in a cramped apartment. Franz's room was often cold. In November 1913, the family moved into a bigger apartment, although Ellie and Valli married and moved out of the first apartment. In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know that their husbands are in the military and moved back in with the family in this larger apartment. Both Ellie and Valli also had children. Franz at age 31 moved into Valli's former apartment, quiet by contrast and lived by himself for the first time.


From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule German boys' elementary school at the Masný trh/Fleischmarkt (Meat market), now known as Masná Street. His Jewish education ended with his Bar Mitzvah celebration at the age of 13. Kafka never enjoyed attending the synagogue and went with his father only on four high holidays a year.

An ornate four-storey palatial building
Kinský Palace where Kafka attended gymnasium and his father owned a shop

After leaving elementary school in 1893, Kafka was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school at Old Town Square within the Kinský Palace. German was the language of instruction, but Kafka also spoke and wrote in Czech. He studied at the gymnasium for eight years, achieving good grades. Although Kafka received compliments for his Czech, he never considered himself fluent in Czech, though he spoke German with a Czech accent. He completed his Matura exams in 1901.

Admitted to the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague in 1901, Kafka began studying chemistry, but switched to law after two weeks. Although this field did not excite him, it offered a range of career possibilities which pleased his father. In addition, law required a longer course of study, giving Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. He also joined a student club, Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten (Reading and Lecture Hall of the German students) which organized literary events, readings and other activities. Among Kafka's friends are the journalist Felix Weltsch who studied philosophy, the actor Yitzchak Lowy who came from an orthodox Hasidic Warsaw family and the writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.

At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life. Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life. Together, he and Brod read Plato's Protagoras in the original Greek on Brod's initiative and Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale and La Tentation de St. Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in French at his own suggestion. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Grillparzer and Heinrich von Kleist to be his "true blood brothers". Besides these, he took an interest in Czech literature and was also very fond about the works of Goethe. Kafka was awarded the degree of Doctor of Law on July 18, 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.


Former home of the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute

On November 1, 1907 Kafka was hired at the Assicurazioni Generali, an insurance company where he worked for nearly a year. His correspondence during that period indicated that he was unhappy with a working time schedule—from 08:00 until 18:00—making it extremely difficult to concentrate on writing which was assuming increasing importance to him. On July 15, 1908 he resigned. Two weeks later, he found employment more amenable to writing when he joined the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. The job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers and accidents such as lost fingers or limbs are commonplace at this time owing to poor work safety policies at the time. It was especially true about the factories that are fitted with machine lathes, drills, planing machines and rotary saws which are rarely fitted with safety guards.

The management professor Peter Drucker credited Kafka with developing the first civilian hard hat while employed at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, but this was not supported by any document from his employer. His father often referred to his son's job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally "bread job" which was a job done only to pay the bills. Kafka often claimed to despise it. Kafka was rapidly promoted and his duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports and handling appeals from businessmen who thought that their firms are placed in too high a risk category which cost them more in insurance premiums. He would compile and compose the annual report on the insurance institute for the several years that he worked there. The reports are received well by his superiors. Kafka usually got off work at 2 P.M. so he had time to spend on his literary work which he was committed. Kafka's father also expected him to help out at and take over the family fancy goods store. In his later years, Kafka's illness often prevented him from working at the insurance bureau and at his writing. Years later, Brod coined the term Der enge Prager Kreis ("The Close Prague Circle") to describe the group of writers which included Kafka, Felix Weltsch and him.

In late 1911 Elli's husband Karl Hermann and Kafka became partners in the first asbestos factory in Prague, known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co., having used dowry money from Hermann Kafka. Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business, but he later resented the encroachment of this work on his writing time. During that period, he also found interest and entertainment in the performances of Yiddish theater after seeing a Yiddish theatre troupe perform in October 1911. For the next six months, Kafka "immersed himself in Yiddish language and in Yiddish literature". This interest also served as a starting point for his growing exploration of Judaism. It was at about this time that Kafka became a vegetarian. Around 1915, Kafka received his draft notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment because his work was considered essential government service. Later, he attempted to join the military, but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis which he was diagnosed in 1917. In 1918, the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a pension due to his illness which there was no cure at the time and he spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoriums.

Private life

Kafka never married. According to Brod, Kafka was "tortured" by sexual desire and Kafka's biographer, Reiner Stach stated that his life was full of "incessant womanising" and he was filled with a fear of "sexual failure". He visited brothels for most of his adult life and was interested in pornography. In addition, he had close relationships with several women during his life. On August 13, 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relative of Brod who worked in Berlin as a representative of a dictaphone company. A week after the meeting at Brod's home, Kafka wrote in his diary:

Miss FB. When I arrived at Brod's on August 13, she was sitting at the table. I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted at once. Bony, empty face that wore it's emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse thrown on. Looked very domestic in her dress although, as it turned out, she by no means was. (I alienated myself from her a little by inspecting her so closely.) Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat straight, unattractive hair, strong chin. As I was taking my seat, I looked at her closely for the first time. By the time that I was seated, I already had an unshakeable opinion.

Shortly after this, Kafka wrote the story, "Das Urteil" ("The Judgment") in only one night and worked in a productive period on Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) and "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"). Kafka and Felice Bauer communicated mostly through letters over the next five years, met occasionally and are engaged twice. Kafka's extant letters to her are published as Briefe an Felice (Letters to Felice). Her letters did not survive. according to biographers, Stach and James Hawes. Around 1920, Kafka was engaged a third time to Julie Wohryzek, a poor and uneducated hotel chambermaid. Although the two rented a flat and set a wedding date, the marriage never took place. During this time, Kafka began a draft of the Letter to His Father who objected to Julie because of her Zionist beliefs. Before the date of the intended marriage, he took up with yet another woman. While he needed women and sex in his life, he had low self-confidence, felt that sex was dirty and was shy—especially about his body.

Stach and Brod stated that during the time that Kafka knew Felice Bauer, he had an affair with a friend of hers, Margarethe "Grete" Bloch, a Jewish woman from Berlin. Brod said that Bloch gave birth to Kafka's son, although Kafka never knew about the child. The boy whose name was not known was born in 1914 or 1915 and died in Munich in 1921. However, Kafka's biographer, Peter-André Alt claimed that, while Bloch had a son, Kafka was not the father as the pair are never intimate. Stach stated that Bloch had a son, but there was not solid proof and moreover contradictory evidence that Kafka was the father.

Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in August 1917 and moved for a few months to the Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem in the Czech language) where his sister, Ottla worked on the farm of her brother-in-law, Karl Hermann. He felt comfortable there and later described this time as perhaps the best time in his life, probably because he had no responsibilities. He kept diaries and Oktavhefte (Octavo). From the notes in these books, Kafka extracted 109 numbered pieces of text on Zettel, single pieces of paper in no given order. They are later published as Die Zürauer Aphorismen oder Betrachtungen über Sünde, Hoffnung, Leid und den wahren Weg (The Zürau Aphorisms or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering and the True Way).

In 1920, Kafka began an intense relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and writer. His letters to her are later published as Briefe an Milena. During a vacation in July 1923 to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. Kafka, hoping to escape from the influence of his family to concentrate on his writing moved briefly to Berlin and lived with Diamant. She became his lover and caused him to become interested in the Talmud. He worked on four stories which he prepared to be published as Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist).


Kafka feared that people would find him mentally and physically repulsive. However, those who met him found him to possess a quiet and cool demeanor, obvious intelligence and a dry sense of humor. They also found him boyishly handsome, although of austere appearance. Brod compared Kafka to Heinrich von Kleist, noting that both writers had the ability to describe a situation realistically with precise details. Brod thought that Kafka was one of the most entertaining people that he met. Kafka enjoyed sharing humor with his friends, but also helped them in difficult situations with good advice. According to Brod, he was a passionate reciter who was able to phrase his speaking as if it was music. Brod felt that two of Kafka's most distinguishing traits are "absolute truthfulness" (Absolute Wahrhaftigkeit) and "precise conscientiousness" (Präzise Gewissenhaftigkeit). He explored details, the inconspicuous, in depth and with such love and precision that things surfaced that are unforeseen, seemingly strange, but absolutely true (Nichts als wahr).

Although Kafka showed little interest in exercise as a child, he later showed interest in games and physical activity as a good rider, swimmer and rower. On weekends, he and his friends embarked on long hikes, often planned by Kafka himself. His other interests included alternative medicine, modern education systems such as Montessori and technical novelties such as airplanes and film. Writing was important to Kafka. He considered it a "form of prayer". He was highly sensitive to noise and preferred quiet when writing.

Pérez-Álvarez claimed that Kafka may have possessed a schizoid personality disorder. His style not only in "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), but in various other writings appeared to show low to medium-level schizoid traits which explained much of his work. His anguish could be seen in this diary entry from June 21, 1913:

The tremendous world that I had in my head. But how to free myself and free them without ripping apart? And a thousand times rather tear in me that they held back or buried. For this, I am here. That was quite clear to me.

and in Zürau Aphorism number 50:

Man could not live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both that indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.

Though Kafka never married, he held marriage and children in high esteem. He had several girlfriends. He may have suffered from an eating disorder. Doctor Manfred M. Fichter of the Psychiatric Clinic, University of Munich presented "evidence for the hypothesis that the writer, Franz Kafka suffered from an atypical anorexia nervosa" and Kafka was not just lonely and depressed, but also "occasionally suicidal". In his 1995 book, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient, Sander Gilman investigated "why a Jew might have been considered 'hypochondriac' or 'homosexual' and how Kafka incorporated the aspects of these ways about understanding the Jewish male into his own self-image and writing". Kafka considered committing suicide at least once in late 1912.

Political views

Prior to World War I, Kafka attended several meetings of the Klub mladých, a Czech anarchist, anti-militarist and anti-clerical organization. Hugo Bergmann who attended the same elementary and high schools as Kafka fell out with Kafka during their last academic year (1900–1901) because "[Kafka's] socialism and my Zionism are much too strident". "Franz became a socialist. I became a Zionist in 1898. The synthesis of Zionism and socialism did not yet exist". Bergmann claimed that Kafka wore a red carnation to school to show his support for socialism. In one diary entry, Kafka made a reference to the influential anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin: "Do not forget Kropotkin!"

During the communist era, the legacy of Kafka's work for Eastern bloc socialism was hotly debated. The opinions ranged from the notion that he satirized the bureaucratic bungling of a crumbling Austria-Hungarian Empire to the belief that he embodied the rise of socialism. A further key point was Marx's theory of alienation. While the orthodox position was that Kafka's depictions about alienation are no longer relevant for a society that supposedly eliminated alienation, a 1963 conference held in Liblice, Czechoslovakia on the eightieth anniversary of his birth re-assessed the importance of Kafka's portrayal of bureaucracy. Whether or not Kafka was a political writer was still an issue of debate.

Judaism and Zionism

Kafka in 1910

Kafka grew up in Prague as a German-speaking Jew. He was deeply fascinated by the Jews of Eastern Europe who he thought possessed an intensity of spiritual life that was absent from Jews in the West. His diary was full of references to the Yiddish writers. Yet, he was at times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life: "What did I have in common with Jews? I had hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner. I am content that I could breathe". In his adolescent years, Kafka declared himself an atheist.

Hawes suggested that Kafka, though very aware about his own Jewishness did not incorporate it into his work which according to Hawes lacked Jewish characters, scenes or themes. In the opinion of literary critic, Harold Bloom, although Kafka was uneasy with his Jewish heritage, he was the quintessential Jewish writer. Lothar Kahn was likewise unequivocal: "The presence of Jewishness in Kafka's oeuvre was no longer subject to doubt". Pavel Eisner, one of Kafka's first translators interpreted Der Process (The Trial) as the embodiment of the "triple dimension of Jewish existence in Prague . His protagonist, Josef K. was (Symbolically) arrested by a German (Rabensteiner), a Czech (Kullich) and a Jew (Kaminer). He stood for the 'guiltless guilt' that imbued the Jew in the modern world, although there was no evidence that he himself was a Jew".

In his essay, Sadness in Palestine?!, Dan Miron explored Kafka's connection to Zionism: "It seemed that those who claimed that there was such a connection and Zionism played a central role in his life and literary work and those who denied the connection altogether or dismissed it's importance are both wrong. The truth lied in some very elusive place between these two simplistic poles". Kafka considered moving to Palestine with Felice Bauer and later with Dora Diamant. He studied Hebrew while living in Berlin, hiring a friend of Brod's from Palestine, Pua Bat-Tovim to tutor him and attending Rabbi Julius Grünthal's and Rabbi Julius Guttmann's classes in the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (College for the Study of Judaism).

Livia Rothkirchen called Kafka the "symbolic figure of his era". His contemporaries included numerous Jewish, Czech and German writers who are sensitive to Jewish, Czech and German culture. According to Rothkirchen, "This situation lent their writings a broad cosmopolitan outlook and a quality of exaltation bordering on transcendental metaphysical contemplation. An illustrious example was Franz Kafka".

Toward the end of his life, Kafka sent a postcard to his friend, Hugo Bergman in Tel Aviv, announcing his intention to emigrate to Palestine. Bergman refused to host Kafka because he had young children and was afraid that Kafka would infect them with tuberculosis.


A tapering six-sided stone structure lists the names of three deceased persons: Franz, Hermann, and Julie Kafka. Each name has a passage in Hebrew below it.
Franz Kafka's grave in Prague-Žižkov designed by Leopold Ehrmann

Kafka's laryngeal tuberculosis worsened and in March 1924, he returned from Berlin to Prague where the members of his family, principally his sister, Ottla took care of him. He went to Dr. Hoffmann's sanatorium in Kierling just outside Vienna for treatment on April 10 and died there on June 3, 1924. The cause of death seemed to be starvation: The condition of Kafka's throat made eating too painful for him and since parenteral nutrition was not yet developed, there was no way to feed him. Kafka was editing "A Hunger Artist" on his deathbed which was a story whose composition that he began before his throat closed to the point that he could not take any nourishment. His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried on June 11, 1924 in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Žižkov. Kafka was virtually unknown during his own lifetime, but he did not consider fame important. He rose to fame rapidly after his death, particularly after World War II. The Kafka tombstone was designed by architect Leopold Ehrmann.


an old letter with text written in German
First page of Kafka's Letter to His Father

All of Kafka's published works, except some letters that he wrote in Czech to Milena Jesenská are written in German. What little was published during his lifetime attracted scant public attention.

Kafka finished none of his full-length novels and burned around 90 percent of his work and much of it during the period that he lived in Berlin with Diamant who helped him burn the drafts. In his early years as a writer, he was influenced by von Kleist whose work that he described in a letter to Bauer as frightening and whom he considered closer than his own family.


Kafka's earliest published works are eight stories which appeared in 1908 in the first issue of the literary journal, Hyperion under the title, Betrachtung (Contemplation). He wrote the story, "Beschreibung eines Kampfes" ("Description of a Struggle") in 1904. He showed it to Brod in 1905 who advised him to continue writing and convinced him to submit it to Hyperion. Kafka published a fragment in 1908 and two sections in the spring of 1909, all in Munich.

In a creative outburst on the night of September 22, 1912, Kafka wrote the story, "Das Urteil" ("The Judgment", literally: "The Verdict") and dedicated it to Felice Bauer. Brod noted the similarity in names of the main character and his fictional fiancée, Georg Bendemann and Frieda Brandenfeld to Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer. The story was often considered Kafka's breakthrough work. It dealt with the troubled relationship of a son and his dominant father, facing a new situation after the son's engagement. Kafka later described writing it as "a complete opening of body and soul" and a story that "evolved as a true birth, covered with filth and slime". The story was first published in Leipzig in 1912 and dedicated "to Miss Felice Bauer" and in subsequent editions "for F."

In 1912, Kafka wrote "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis" or "The Transformation"), published in 1915 in Leipzig. The story began with a traveling salesman waking to find himself transformed into a ungeheures Ungeziefer, a monstrous vermin, Ungeziefer being a general term for unwanted and unclean animals. The critics regarded the work as one of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century. The story, "In der Strafkolonie" ("In the Penal Colony"), dealing with an elaborate torture and execution device was written in October 1914, revised in 1918 and published in Leipzig during October 1919. The story, "Ein Hungerkünstler" ("A Hunger Artist"), published in the periodical Die neue Rundschau in 1924 described a victimized protagonist who experienced a decline in the appreciation of his strange craft of starving himself for extended periods. His last story, "Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse" ("Josephine the Singer or the Mouse Folk") also dealt with the relationship between an artist and his audience.


He began his first novel in 1912. It's first chapter was the story, "Der Heizer" ("The Stoker"). Kafka called the work which remained unfinished, Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared or The Missing Man), but when Brod published it after Kafka's death, he named it Amerika. The inspiration for the novel was the time spent in the audience of Yiddish theater in the previous year, bringing him to a new awareness of his heritage which led to the thought that an innate appreciation for one's heritage lived deep within each person. More explicitly humorous and slightly more realistic than most of Kafka's works, the novel shared the motif of an oppressive and intangible system putting the protagonist repeatedly in bizarre situations. It used many details about the experiences of his relatives who emigrated to America and was the only work which Kafka considered an optimistic ending.

During 1914, Kafka began the novel, Der Process (The Trial), the story of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him or to the reader. Kafka did not complete the novel, although he finished the final chapter. According to Nobel Prize winner and Kafka scholar, Elias Canetti, Felice was central to the plot of Der Process and Kafka said that it was "her story". Canetti titled his book on Kafka's letters to Felice Kafka's Other Trial in recognition of the relationship between the letters and the novel. Michiko Kakutani noted in a review for The New York Times that Kafka's letters had the "earmarks of his fiction: The same nervous attention to minute particulars; the same paranoid awareness of shifting balances of power and the same atmosphere of emotional suffocation—combined, surprisingly enough with moments of boyish ardor and delight."

According to his diary, Kafka was already planning his novel, Das Schloss (The Castle) by June 11, 1914. However, he did not begin writing it until January 27, 1922. The protagonist was the Landvermesser (Land surveyor) named K. who struggled for unknown reasons to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who governed the village. Kafka's intent was that the castle's authorities notified K. on his deathbed that his "legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was to be permitted to live and work there". Dark and at times surreal, the novel was focused on alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal. Hartmut M. Rastalsky noted in his thesis: "Like dreams, his texts combined precise "realistic" detail with absurdity, careful observation and reasoning on the part of the protagonists with inexplicable obliviousness and carelessness."

Publishing history

A simple book cover displays the name of the book and the author
First edition of Betrachtung, 1912

Kafka's stories are initially published in literary periodicals. His first eight are printed in 1908 in the first issue of the bi-monthly Hyperion. Franz Blei published two dialogues in 1909 which became part of "Beschreibung eines Kampfes" ("Description of a Struggle"). A fragment of the story, "Die Aeroplane in Brescia" ("The Aeroplanes at Brescia"), written on a trip to Italy with Brod appeared in the daily Bohemia on September 28, 1909. On March 27, 1910, several stories that later became part of the book, Betrachtung are published in the Easter edition of Bohemia. In Leipzig during 1913, Brod and publisher, Kurt Wolff included "Das Urteil. Eine Geschichte von Franz Kafka." ("The Judgment. A Story by Franz Kafka.") in their literary yearbook for the art poetry, Arkadia. In the same year, Wolff published "Der Heizer" ("The Stoker") in the Jüngste Tag series where it enjoyed three printings. The story, "Vor dem Gesetz" ("Before the Law") was published in the 1915 New Year's edition of the independent Jewish weekly Selbstwehr. It was reprinted in 1919 as part of the story collection, Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) and became part of the novel, Der Process. The other stories are published in various publications including Martin Buber's Der Jude, the paper, Prager Tagblatt and the periodicals, Die neue Rundschau, Genius and Prager Presse.

Kafka's first published book, Betrachtung (Contemplation or Meditation) was a collection of 18 stories written between 1904 and 1912. On a summer trip to Weimar, Brod initiated a meeting between Kafka and Kurt Wolff. Wolff published Betrachtung in the Rowohlt Verlag at the end of 1912 (With the year given as 1913). Kafka dedicated it to Brod, "Für M.B." and added in the personal copy given to his friend "So wie es hier schon gedruckt ist, für meinen liebsten Max‍—‌Franz K." ("As it was already printed here, for my dearest Max").

Kafka's story, "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis") was first printed in the October 1915 issue of Die Weißen Blätter, a monthly edition of expressionist literature edited by René Schickele. Another story collection, Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) was published by Kurt Wolff in 1919, dedicated to Kafka's father. Kafka prepared a final collection of four stories for print, Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) which appeared in 1924 after his death in Verlag Die Schmiede. On April 20, 1924, the Berliner Börsen-Courier published Kafka's essay on Adalbert Stifter.

Max Brod

A simple book cover in green displays the name of the author and the book
First edition of Der Prozess, 1925

Kafka left his work, both published and unpublished to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod with explicit instructions that it should be destroyed on Kafka's death. Kafka wrote: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything that I left behind me  in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (My own and others'), sketches and so on [Was] to be burned unread". Brod ignored this request and published the novels and collected works between 1925 and 1935. He took many papers which remained unpublished with him in suitcases to Palestine when he fled there in 1939. Kafka's last lover, Dora Diamant (Later, Dymant-Lask) also ignored his wishes, secretly keeping 20 notebooks and 35 letters. These are confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933, but the scholars continued to search for them.

As Brod published the bulk of the writings in his possession, Kafka's work began to attract wider attention and critical acclaim. Brod found it difficult to arrange Kafka's notebooks in chronological order. One problem was that Kafka often began writing in the different parts of the book; sometimes in the middle, sometimes working backwards from the end. Brod finished many of Kafka's incomplete works for publication. For example, Kafka left Der Process with unnumbered and incomplete chapters and Das Schloss with incomplete sentences and ambiguous content; Brod rearranged chapters, copy edited the text and changed the punctuation. Der Process appeared in 1925 in Verlag Die Schmiede. Kurt Wolff published two other novels, Das Schloss in 1926 and Amerika in 1927. In 1931, Brod edited a collection of prose and unpublished stories as Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China) including the story of the same name. The book appeared in the Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag. Brod's sets are usually called the "Definitive Editions".

Modern editions

In 1961, Malcolm Pasley acquired most of Kafka's original handwritten work for the Oxford Bodleian Library. The text for Der Process was later purchased through auction and was stored at the German Literary Archives in Marbach am Neckar, Germany. Subsequently, Pasley headed a team (Including Gerhard Neumann, Jost Schillemeit and Jürgen Born) which reconstructed the German novels. S. Fischer Verlag republished them. Pasley was the editor for Das Schloss, published in 1982 and Der Process (The Trial), published in 1990. Jost Schillemeit was the editor of Der Verschollene (Amerika) published in 1983. These are called the "Critical Editions" or the "Fischer Editions".

Unpublished papers

When Brod died in 1968, he left Kafka's unpublished papers which are believed to number in the thousands to his secretary, Esther Hoffe. She released or sold some, but left most to her daughters, Eva and Ruth who also refused to release the papers. A court battle began in 2008 between the sisters and the National Library of Israel which claimed that these works became the property of the nation of Israel when Brod emigrated to British Palestine in 1939. Esther Hoffe sold the original manuscript of Der Process for US$2 million in 1988 to the German Literary Archive Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar. Only Eva was still alive as of 2012. A ruling by a Tel Aviv family court in 2010 held that the papers must be released and a few including a previously unknown story are released, but the legal battle continued. The Hoffes claimed that the papers are their personal property while the National Library argued that they are "cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people". The National Library also suggested that Brod bequeathed the papers to them in his will. The Tel Aviv Family Court ruled in October 2012 that the papers are the property of the National Library.

Critical response

Critical interpretations

The poet, W. H. Auden called Kafka "the Dante of the twentieth century". The novelist, Vladimir Nabokov placed him among the greatest writers of the 20th century. Gabriel García Márquez noted that the reading of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" showed him "that it was possible to write in a different way". A prominent theme of Kafka's work, first established in the short story "Das Urteil" was the father–son conflict: The guilt induced in the son was resolved through suffering and atonement. The other prominent themes and archetypes included alienation, physical and psychological brutality, characters on a terrifying quest and mystical transformation.

Kafka's style was compared to that of Kleist as early as 1916 in a review of "Die Verwandlung" and "Der Heizer" by Oscar Walzel in Berliner Beiträge. The nature of Kafka's prose allowed for varied interpretations and the critics placed his writing into a variety of literary schools. The marxists sharply disagreed over how to interpret Kafka's works. Some accused him of distorting reality where others claimed that he was critiquing capitalism. The hopelessness and absurdity common to his works are seen as emblematic of existentialism. Some of Kafka's books are influenced by the expressionist movement, though the majority of his literary output was associated with the experimental modernist genre. Kafka also touched on the theme of human conflict with bureaucracy. William Burroughs claimed that such work was centered on the concepts of struggle, pain, solitude and the need for relationships. Others such as Thomas Mann saw Kafka's work as allegorical: A quest, metaphysical in nature for God.

According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the themes of alienation and persecution, although present in Kafka's work are over-emphasized by the critics. They argued that Kafka's work was more deliberate and subversive and more joyful than they first appear. They pointed out that reading the Kafka work while focusing on the futility of his characters' struggles revealed Kafka's play of humor. He was not necessarily commenting on his own problems, but rather pointing out how people tended to invent problems. In his work, Kafka often created malevolent, absurd worlds. Kafka read the drafts about his works to his friends, typically concentrating on his humorous prose. The writer, Milan Kundera suggested that Kafka's surrealist humor may have been an inversion of Dostoyevsky's presentation of characters who are punished for a crime. In Kafka's work, a character was punished although a crime was not committed. Kundera believed that Kafka's inspirations for his characteristic situations came both from growing up in a patriarchal family and living in a totalitarian state.

The attempts are made to identify the influence of Kafka's legal background and the role of law in his fiction. Most interpretations identified the aspects of law and legality as important in his work which the legal system was often oppressive. The law in Kafka's works, rather than being representative of any particular legal or political entity was usually interpreted to represent a collection of anonymous, incomprehensible forces. These are hidden from the individual, but controlled the lives of the people who are innocent victims of systems beyond their control. The critics who supported this absurdist interpretation cited the instances where Kafka described himself in conflict with an absurd universe such as the following entry from his diary:

Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country. I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension, though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals. I could not resist.

However, James Hawes argued that many of Kafka's descriptions of the legal proceedings in Der Process—metaphysical, absurd, bewildering and nightmarish as they might appear are based on accurate and informed descriptions of German and Austrian criminal proceedings of the time which are inquisitorial rather than adversarial. Although he worked in insurance, as a trained lawyer, Kafka was "keenly aware about the legal debates of his day". In an early 21st-century publication that used Kafka's office writings as it's point of departure, Pothik Ghosh stated that with Kafka, law "had no meaning outside it's fact of being a pure force of domination and determination".


The earliest English translations of Kafka's works are by Edwin and Willa Muir who in 1930 translated the first German edition of Das Schloss. This was published as The Castle by Secker & Warburg in England and Alfred A. Knopf in the United States. A 1941 edition including a homage by Thomas Mann spurred a surge in Kafka's popularity in the United States during the late 1940s. The Muirs translated all shorter works that Kafka saw fit to print. They are published by Schocken Books in 1948 as The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces including additionally The First Long Train Journey, written by Kafka and Brod, Kafka's "A Novel about Youth", a review of Felix Sternheim's Die Geschichte des jungen Oswald, his essay on Kleist's "Anecdotes", his review of the literary magazine, Hyperion and an epilogue by Brod.

Later editions, notably those of 1954 (Dearest Father. Stories and Other Writings) included the text, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser which was deleted by the earlier publishers. Known as "Definitive Editions", they included the translations of The Trial, Definitive, The Castle, Definitive and the other writings. These translations are generally accepted to have a number of biases and are considered to be dated in interpretation. Published in 1961 by Schocken Books, Parables and Paradoxes presented in a bilingual edition by Nahum N. Glatzer's selected writings, drawn from notebooks, diaries, letters, short fictional works and the novel, Der Process.

New translations are completed and published based on the recompiled German text of Pasley and Schillemeit‍—‌The Castle, Critical by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998), The Trial, Critical by Breon Mitchell (Schocken Books, 1998) and Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared by Michael Hofmann (New Directions Publishing, 2004).

Translation problems to English

Kafka often made extensive use of a characteristic particular to the German language which permitted long sentences that sometimes could span an entire page. Kafka's sentences delivered an unexpected impact just before the full stop. This was the finalizing meaning and focus. This was due to the construction of subordinate clauses in German which required that the verb should be positioned at the end of the sentence. Such constructions are difficult to duplicate in English so it was up to the translator to provide the reader with the same (Or at least equivalent) effect found in the original text. German's more flexible word order and syntactical differences provided for multiple ways which the same German writing could be translated into English. An example was the first sentence of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" which was crucial to the setting and understanding of the entire story:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt. (Original)

As Gregor Samsa one morning from restless dreams awoke, found he himself in his bed into an enormous vermin transformed. (Literal word-for-word translation)

Another difficult problem that the translators are facing was how to deal with the author's intentional use of ambiguous idioms and words that had several meanings which resulted in phrasing that was difficult to translate precisely. One such instance was found in the first sentence of "The Metamorphosis". The English translators often rendered the word Ungeziefer as "insect". In Middle German, however, Ungeziefer literally meant "an animal unclean for sacrifice". In today's German, it meant vermin. It was sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" —a very general term, unlike the scientific "insect". Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor, the protagonist of the story as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor's disgust at his transformation. Another example was Kafka's use of the German noun, Verkehr in the final sentence of "Das Urteil". Literally, Verkehr meant intercourse and as in English could have either a sexual or non-sexual meaning. In addition, it was used to mean transport or traffic. The sentence could be translated as: "At that moment, an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge". The double meaning of Verkehr was given added weight by Kafka's confession to Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking about "a violent ejaculation".


Literary and cultural influence

Unlike many famous writers, Kafka was rarely quoted by others. Instead, he was noted more for his visions and perspective. Shimon Sandbank, a professor, literary critic and writer identified Kafka as having influenced Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Eugène Ionesco, J. M. Coetzee and Jean-Paul Sartre. A Financial Times literary critic credited Kafka with influencing José Saramago and Al Silverman, a writer and editor stated that J. D. Salinger loved to read Kafka's works. In 1999, a committee of 99 authors, scholars and literary critics ranked Der Process and Das Schloss the second and ninth most significant German-language novels of the 20th century. Sandbank argued that despite Kafka's pervasiveness, his enigmatic style had yet to be emulated. Neil Christian Pages, a professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Binghamton University who specialized in Kafka's works said that Kafka's influence transcended literature and literary scholarship. It impacted visual arts, music and popular culture. Harry Steinhauer, a professor of German and Jewish literature said that Kafka " made a more powerful impact on literate society than any other writer of the twentieth century". Brod said that the 20th century would one day be known as the "century of Kafka".

Michel-André Bossy wrote that Kafka created a rigidly inflexible and sterile bureaucratic universe. Kafka wrote in an aloof manner full of legal and scientific terms. Yet, his serious universe also had insightful humor, all highlighting the "irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world". His characters are trapped, confused, full of guilt, frustrated and lacking the understanding about their surreal world. Much of the post-Kafka fiction, especially science fiction followed the themes and precepts of Kafka's universe. This could be seen in the works of authors such as George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

The following are examples of works across a range of literary, musical and dramatic genres which demonstrated the extent of cultural influence:

Title Year Medium Remarks Ref
"A Friend of Kafka" 1962 short story By Nobel Prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer about a Yiddish actor called Jacques Kohn who said that he knew Franz Kafka. In this story, according to Jacques Kohn, Kafka believed in the Golem, a legendary creature from Jewish folklore.
The Trial 1962 film The film's director, Orson Welles said, "Say what you like, but The Trial was my greatest work, even greater than Citizen Kane".
Watermelon Man 1970 film Partly inspired by "The Metamorphosis" where a white bigot woke up as a black man.
Klassenverhältnisse 1984 film Film adaptation of Amerika directed by Straub-Huillet.
Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24 1985 music By Hungarian composer, György Kurtág for soprano and violin, using the fragments of Kafka's diary and letters.
Kafka's Dick 1986 play By Alan Bennett which the ghosts of Kafka, his father, Hermann and Brod arrived at the home of an English insurance clerk (And Kafka aficionado) and his wife.
Kafka 1991 film Starred Jeremy Irons as the eponymous author; written by Lem Dobbs and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie mixed his life and fiction providing a semi-biographical presentation of Kafka's life and works. Kafka investigated the disappearance of one of his colleagues, taking Kafka through many of the writer's own works, most notably The Castle and The Trial.
Das Schloß 1992 opera German-language opera by Aribert Reimann who wrote his own libretto based on Kafka's novel and it's dramatization by Max Brod, premiered on September 2, 1992 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, staged by Willy Decker and conducted by Michael Boder.
Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life 1993 film Short comedy film made for BBC Scotland, won an Oscar, was written and directed by Peter Capaldi and starred Richard E. Grant as Kafka.
Bad Mojo 1996 computer game Loosely based on The Metamorphosis with characters named Franz and Roger Samms, alluding to Gregor Samsa.
In the Penal Colony 2000 opera By Philip Glass.
Kafka on the Shore 2002 novel By Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami on The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2005 list, World Fantasy Award recipient.
Kafka's Trial 2005 opera By Danish composer, Poul Ruders, based on the novel and parts of Kafka's life; first performed in 2005, released on CD.
Kafka's Soup 2005 book By Mark Crick, was a literary pastiche in the form of a cookbook with recipes written in the style of a famous author.
Introducing Kafka 2007 graphic novel By Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz, contained text and illustrations introducing Kafka's life and work.
A Country Doctor 2007 short film By Kōji Yamamura.
"Kafkaesque" 2010 TV series Breaking Bad Season 3 episode written by Peter Gould & George Mastras. Jesse Pinkman, at a group therapy meeting described his new workplace as a dreary, "totally corporate" laundromat mired in bureaucracy. He complained about his boss and he was not worthy to meet the owner who everyone feared. "Sounded kind of Kafkaesque," The group's leader responded.
Kafka the Musical 2011 radio play By BBC Radio 3 produced as part of their Play of the Week program. Franz Kafka was played by David Tennant.
Sound Interpretations – Dedication To Franz Kafka 2012 music HAZE Netlabel released musical compilation Sound Interpretations — Dedication To Franz Kafka. In this release, the musicians rethought about the literary heritage of Kafka.
Google Doodle 2013 internet culture Google had a sepia-toned doodle of a roach in a hat opening a door, honoring Kafka's 130th birthday.
The Metamorphosis 2013 dance Royal Ballet production of The Metamorphosis with Edward Watson.
Café Kafka 2014 opera By Spanish composer, Francisco Coll on a text by Meredith Oakes, built from the texts and fragments by Franz Kafka. Commissioned by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and Royal Opera Covent Garden.


Kafka's The Metamorphosis was even reprinted in the June 1953 issue of the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries

The term "Kafkaesque" was used to describe concepts and situations reminiscent of his work, particularly Der Process (The Trial) and "Die Verwandlung" (The Metamorphosis). The examples included instances which bureaucracies overpowered people often in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evoked the feelings of senselessness, disorientation and helplessness. The characters in a Kafkaesque setting often lacked a clear course of action to escape from a labyrinthine situation. The Kafkaesque elements often appeared in existential works, but the term transcended the literary realm to apply to real-life occurrences and situations that are incomprehensibly complex, bizarre or illogical.

The statue is a man with no head or arms, with another man sitting on his shoulders
Jaroslav Róna's bronze Statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

Numerous films and television works are described as Kafkaesque and the style was particularly prominent in dystopian science fiction. The works in this genre that described included Patrick Bokanowski's 1982 film, The Angel, Terry Gilliam's 1985 film, Brazil and the 1998 science fiction film noir, Dark City. The films from the other genres which are similarly described included The Tenant (1976) and Barton Fink (1991). The television series, The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone are also frequently described as Kafkaesque.

However, with common usage, the term became so ubiquitous that Kafka's scholars noted that it was often misused. More accurately then, according to author, Ben Marcus, paraphrased in "What it Meant to be Kafkaesque" by Joe Fassler in The Atlantic, "Kafka’s quintessential qualities are affecting the use of language which was a setting that straddled fantasy and reality and a sense of striving even in the face of bleakness—hopelessly and full of hope."


The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague was dedicated to Kafka and his work. A major component of the museum was an exhibit The City of K. Franz Kafka and Prague which was first shown in Barcelona in 1999, moved to the Jewish Museum in New York City and was finally established in 2005 in Prague in Malá Strana (Lesser Town) along the Moldau. The museum called it's display of original photos and documented Město K. Franz Kafka a Praha (City K. Kafka and Prague) and aimed to immerse the visitor into the world which Kafka lived and about what he wrote.

The Franz Kafka Prize was an annual literary award of the Franz Kafka Society and the City of Prague established in 2001. It recognized the merits of literature as "humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, it's existential, timeless character, it's generally human validity and it's ability to hand over a testimony about our times". The selection committee and recipients came from all over the world, but are limited to the living authors who had at least one work published in the Czech language. The recipient received $10,000, a diploma and a bronze statuette at a presentation in Prague's Old Town Hall on the Czech State Holiday in late October.

San Diego State University (SDSU) operated the Kafka Project which began in 1998 as the official international search for Kafka's last writings.

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