Demystifying Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka, the early 20th-century Jewish humorist, is one of the most studied and admired writers of his era. At the same time, he is also one of the most misunderstood.
Interpretations of his stories, and his personal life, are legion, but many overlook crucial details or make things more complicated than they need to be. The truth is that Kafka’s writings are both much more accessible, and a lot more relevant to people’s everyday lives, than many realize.
Kafka’s Life and Times
Franz Kafka was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the city of Prague. This city, which is located in the modern Czech Republic, has a long and illustrious Jewish history. According to legend, a fourteenth-century rabbi from Prague, popularly known as the Maharal, created a monster called the Golem to protect his community from anti-Semitic attacks. 1 Regardless, Kafka’s family was not religious, and attended synagogue services only a few times a year. His father, Hermann, was a successful entrepreneur who ran a haberdashery shop with the help of his wife, Julie. 2 Young Franz also had two brothers–who died in infancy–and three sisters: Elli, Valli, and Ottla.
Kafka’s childhood was not a happy one. His father was intensely narcissistic and abusive, and his mother, though well-intentioned, was often emotionally distant and neglectful. 3 Kafka recalls, in his autobiographical Letter to His Father, that once when he cried for water as a young boy, his father responded by locking him outside of the apartment in the middle of the night. He also writes of going swimming, and particularly undressing, in front of his father with such horror as to suggest that his father might have sexually abused him in some way during those occasions. Moreover, since both of his parents worked long hours, Kafka and his sisters were largely brought up by the family servants. 4
Although Kafka’s father wanted him to take over the family business, Kafka instead decided to go to university and study law. 5 He held jobs at various insurance agencies, where he helped reduce workplace accidents. This job provided him with a steady income, but he disliked the fact that it took time away from his writing. 6
Kafka himself never married or had children, though his three sisters did. 7 He died in 1924 of laryngeal tuberculosis, not long before the Nazis came to power. Most of Kafka’s remaining family would perish in the Holocaust. Some of his nieces survived, as did his friend Max Brod and his then-girlfriend Dora Diamant. Brod, a writer in his own right who introduced the world to many of Kafka’s most famous works, died in 1968 in Tel Aviv. 8 Diamant, meanwhile, who never found another partner after Kafka, died in London. 9
In Letter to his Father, Kafka speculates that he and his family members each had fundamental, unchanging natures, and that he therefore always would have been weak and anxious. However, this is almost certainly not true. Researchers nowadays believe that sensitive people (as Kafka was) are highly influenced by their formative environment, for better or for worse. 10 As such, had Kafka been raised in a more loving and supportive family, he very likely would have become a completely different sort of person.
Kafka’s Mental Health
Kafka’s mental health was poor for most of his life, although exactly how ill he was, and in what ways, is a matter of some debate. Some of the confusion likely lies with Kafka himself, who was not a very good self-observer. For instance, he was convinced that he was loathsome and unlovable, even though he had many friends and lovers who really liked him! 11
In any event, it is clear that Kafka suffered from depression and anxiety for many years, and many of his stories dwell almost obsessively on alienation, suicide, self-harm, and murder. Of particular note is his short story The Burrow, in which an obsessive-compulsive animal of indeterminate species builds an enormous, labyrinthine burrow in which he can live sheltered from his enemies. When the animal discovers a whistling sound in his burrow that he cannot account for, he completely loses his mind with fear that he has been discovered by a predator. Even the fact that the whistling does not sound like a digging animal brings him no relief:
I can explain the whistling only in this way: that the beast’s chief means of burrowing is not its claws, which it probably employs merely as a secondary resource, but its snout or its muzzle, which, of course, apart from its enormous strength, must also be fairly sharp at the point. It probably bores its snout into the earth with one mighty push and tears out a great lump; while it is doing that I hear nothing; that is the pause; but then it draws in the air for a new push. This indrawal of its breath, which must be an earth-shaking noise, not only because of the beast’s strength, but of its haste, its furious lust for work as well: this noise I hear then as a faint whistling. 12
What makes this story particularly interesting is the way it illuminates a common feature of anxiety disorders: namely, that indulging one’s anxiety tends to make it stronger over the long run. 13 Interestingly, despite his struggles with anxiety Kafka never attempted to self-medicate using alcohol, the one sedative he certainly would have been aware of. 14
The preponderance of evidence suggests that Kafka might have had a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This extremely common neurological condition causes problems with attention, impulsivity, emotional regulation, and often hyperactivity, which impede one’s ability to take productive action. 15 Notably, Kafka’s journal entries surrounding the writing of The Trial refer to periods of writing uninterrupted late into the night, followed by periods of no writing at all. This uneven attention, in which hyperfocus coexists with a lack of focus, is a hallmark of ADHD. 16 People with ADHD also interpret time in unusual ways; it’s often said that they recognize only two times: “now” and “not now.” 17 Indeed, at least two of Kafka’s stories, A Country Doctor and A Common Confusion, seem to distort the characters’ (and readers’) perception of time. In both of these stories, the protagonists go on journeys that take wildly different amounts of time, even when the distance covered remains exactly the same. ADHD also makes one more likely to suffer depression and stress-related disorders, especially obsessive compulsive disorder. 18
An Overview of Kafka’s Writing
Kafka specialized in darkly-humorous short stories and novels that explore the absurdity and alienation of modern life. His novels, in particular, make references to petty bureaucracy and how frustrating it is to deal with. Many of his short stories feature non-human animals who are endowed with a human-like intelligence. A common theme in both is how other people–who are sometimes authority figures and sometimes not–conspire to take things or people away from the protagonists, while they themselves are powerless to stop it. Many of his writings are semi-autobiographical, drawing from episodes in his own childhood, and in a few cases (most notably his novels) Kafka even seems to be writing himself into the story.
Most people assume that Kafka’s stories are very difficult to understand. Indeed, one research article coined the term “the Kafka effect” to explain how an encounter with something strange or confusing can improve people’s ability to recognize patterns in other areas. 19 The problem is that the researchers did not use any of Kafka’s original stories, but only a modified version of the story A Country Doctor which transformed the doctor into a dentist. The stories used in the study also omit the most important aspect of A Country Doctor, which is that doctors in the modern secular age occupy a loftier position than they deserve or, indeed, even want.
In any event, Kafka’s stories are nowhere near as baffling as they are often made out to be. In order to read them properly, however, one must learn to ignore their stranger and more confusing aspects or, at very least, be selective about which ones they pay attention to. Once the reader engages their willing suspension of disbelief, the stories’ overarching meanings become clear almost immediately, and most of them aren’t that subtle, either.
Jewish Themes in Kafka’s Writing
Although Kafka was never conventionally religious, his Jewish heritage played a major role in his writing. Probably the only twentieth-century Jewish writer to leave a greater impression on the non-Jewish world is Anne Frank. References to Jewish culture and practice abound in Kafka’s stories, with varying degrees of subtlety. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading his stories, from a Jewish perspective, is to enter a world in which Jewish ways of thinking are simply accepted as normal.
One way in which Kafka talks about Jewish life is to compare Jews to non-human animals, such as apes (A Report to an Academy), dogs (Investigations of a Dog), or mice (Josephine the Singer). A Report to an Academy is particularly interesting because it could be interpreted as a jab at Kafka’s own father. This story depicts an ape who has learned to speak and dress as a human, and thus declares that he is now a man and no longer an ape. Kafka’s father, similarly, lived a life indistinguishable from that of the wider non-Jewish culture and was openly contemptuous of religious Jews–including many of Kafka’s own friends. Kafka takes his father to task for this in Letter to His Father:
Through my intervention Judaism became abhorrent to you, Jewish writings unreadable; they “nauseated” you.–This may have meant you insisted that only that Judaism which you had shown me in my childhood was the right one, and beyond it there was nothing. Yet that you should insist on it was really hardly thinkable. But then the “nausea” […] could only mean that unconsciously you did acknowledge the weakness of your Judaism and of my Jewish upbringing, did not wish to be reminded of it in any way, and reacted to any reminder with frank hatred. 20
This type of attitude, which has its roots in millennia of expulsions, persecutions, and murder, is still prevalent among a certain class of Jews today, and one blogger known by the handle Elder of Ziyon labels it “galut (diaspora) mentality.” He explains it thusly:
This mentality is one where the Jews know that they not [sic] truly a full member of society. They are like guests in someone else’s house, and the host can choose to kick them out if they become too demanding.
[For such people] the Jews, and seemingly only the Jews, must always be subservient, undemanding of their own rights. Other peoples – devout Muslims, First Peoples, Chinese – can proudly celebrate their own culture and beliefs in front of the world, but the Jew must be quiet and deferential.
The twin rules of the assimiliated[…] Jew is [sic] to dilute Judaism to the minimum possible and to not tolerate any Jew who actually stands up for specifically Jewish rights. 21
The central irony of A Report to An Academy is that however much the protagonist may deny it, he is still an ape after all. He can never truly become a man, no matter how hard he tries to act like one. This, too, echoes the belief of both Jews and many anti-Semites that it is impossible for a Jew to ever be anything else, no matter what kind of life they live.
The Metamorphosis: Kafka’s Most Famous Story
Of all of Kafka’s writings, The Metamorphosis is the one people are most familiar with. This novella-length work describes the transformation of a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa into a giant insect. His family is horrified, not least because he can no longer provide for them, which means that they have to find work themselves. Gregor’s sister and mother attempt to care for him at first, by providing him with food and cleaning up after him, but eventually everyone in the family grows to despise him and see him as a tremendous burden. Once, when he emerges from his room, his father throws apples at his head, one of which ends up seriously injuring him. Gregor tries to remain hidden away as much as possible, but when the family takes in some boarders, he can’t resist sneaking out of his room to hear his sister play them a song on her violin. Gregor’s family is furious that he spoiled their evening, and in the aftermath, Gregor retreats to his room, from which he never again emerges. Meanwhile, his family members go about their daily lives and don’t miss him in the slightest bit.
As is the case with most of Kafka’s stories, people assume that The Metamorphosis is more esoteric than it actually is. The metaphor at the heart of the story becomes perfectly straightforward, however, when one considers what an insect is. Insects, after all, are invertebrates, a type of creature defined by its lack of a backbone.
In other words, the real point of The Metamorphosis is that Gregor is, figuratively, spineless. Despite his family’s cruel and dismissive treatment of him, Gregor never bothers to stand up for himself and almost never takes any action to improve his position. The text points out that he never asks for food, no matter how hungry he is, and that he preemptively hides away when his sister comes to clean his room, even after she has had months to get used to his new appearance. Moreover, it’s implied that his family cared little for him even when he was working and essentially relegated him to the role of a money machine. As long as he brought home money, they stayed at home and refused to go to work, even though Gregor only took the job as a salesman to pay off his father’s debts. Yet, Gregor went along with this arrangement until he simply could not work anymore. Over the course of the story Gregor allows his family to walk all over him until he becomes a literal invertebrate, and subsequently loses control even over his own body.
There is one occasion in which Gregor does contemplate taking action. As his sister plays her violin for the family’s boarders, Gregor becomes spellbound and revisits his plan of sending her to a conservatory to study music.
He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the sofa, bend down her ear to him and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatorium, and that, but for his mishap, last Christmas–surely Christmas was long past?–he would have announced it to everybody without a single objection. After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar. 22
However, he doesn’t have the strength to follow up on this plan. Instead, when his family rejects him yet again, he goes back to his bedroom and gives up on life completely. He accepts that his family would be better off if he disappeared, and–supposedly–bears them no ill will for it. The implication is that if he can’t take action, or get back at his family for their mistreatment of him, then he will resign himself to being a martyr so that he can be above reproach.
The Metamorphosis also speaks to a problem that has often confronted Jewish communities. Many times throughout the centuries, Jews who had been valued by their local communities for bringing in money found themselves treated like vermin with almost no warning. The Nazis, in particular, were noted for their writings and pictures describing the Jews as vermin or diseases. 23
The Trial and the Kafkatrap
The Trial is Kafka’s most famous and widely-read novel, and is also well-respected in the genre of dystopian fiction. In this story, a man named Joseph K. is arrested one day for no apparent reason, and ordered to report to a mysterious Law Court, completely removed from the official law court in his country, for trial. Along the way, K. interacts with many characters involved in the Law, among them a sociopathic lawyer named Dr. Huld, a servant-girl named Leni, and a painter named Titorelli. These individuals give K. information and advice, but do little to affect the course or outcome of the trial, which eventually takes over K.’s entire life. Ultimately, two men show up at K.’s home and execute him by stabbing him through the heart with a knife. K.’s last words are “Like a dog.” The exact sequence of events in the novel is unclear, since it was published posthumously and Kafka never bothered to arrange the chapters in order.
The Trial also gave rise to the term “kafkatrap” which was coined in 2010 by a blogger named Eric Raymond. The basic formulation of a kafkatrap is that any refusal to admit that one is guilty of heresy or thoughtcrime is itself proof that one is guilty of heresy and/or thoughtcrime. The standard kafkatrap also has a number of corollaries and addenda, some of which include the following:
Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of [heresy], you are guilty because you have benefited from the [heretical] behavior of others in the system.
Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of [heresy], you are guilty because you have a privileged position in the [heretical] system.
The act of demanding a definition of [heresy] that can be consequentially checked and falsified proves you are [a heretic].
Even if your innocence is proven in a court of law, this not only confirms your guilt; it also confirms the guilt of the legal system that found you innocent. 24
The irony is, although all these ideas may be worthy of consideration in their own right, they have virtually nothing to do with The Trial. It is true that K. is unjustly accused of a nebulous crime, but that is the only similarity between these situations. Nobody ever accuses K. of being a heretic, not even on the sort of trumped-up charges that would-be inquisitors use to ensnare alleged heretics in real life. The entire point of The Trial is that there is no reason for K.’s arrest, and no particular reason for his trial other than, apparently, to make him grovel and suffer. Indeed, the novel itself opens by saying “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning [emphasis added].” The most obvious real-world analogues to The Trial are the situations faced by abuse victims and oppressed minorities, both of which Kafka was.
Kafka’s Continued Relevance
The most striking thing about Kafka, however, may be the way in which his life and writings remain relevant even to this day. In fact, if anything, there are probably a lot more Kafkaesque individuals and situations now than there were during his actual lifetime.
As many people have observed, several of Kafka’s stories seem unusually prescient. The Metamorphosis, as previously noted, provides a fairly accurate description of the attitudes in Nazi Germany, where the Jews were seen by the authorities as vermin to be eradicated. A Country Doctor also contains this fascinating thought:
That is what people are like in my district. Always expecting the impossible from the doctor. They have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand. 25
This quote holds particular resonance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in which many medical professionals and organizations really were elevated to an almost holy status. The confused spiritual quest in The Castle, meanwhile, will seem eminently relatable to many moderns who are searching for God in a world where he seems more remote than ever before.
Still, Kafka’s relevance goes even deeper than this. As previously mentioned, Kafka rarely saw either of his parents because both worked long hours in the family business. At the time this may have been unusual, but nowadays, many more people have parents whose jobs force them to be absent for long periods of time. Moreover, unlike the Kafkas, many of these families can’t afford nannies, and so they send their children to communal day care centers instead. The famous philosopher Ayn Rand describes a child’s experience in a day care center (which she calls a “Progressive nursery school”) in a distinctly Kafkaesque fashion:
He does not know what to do; he is told to do anything he feels like. He picks up a toy; it is snatched away from him by another child; he is told that he must learn to share. Why? No answer is given. He sits alone in a corner; he is told that he must join the others. Why? No answer is given. He approaches a group, reaches for their toys and is punched in the nose. He cries, in angry bewilderment; the teacher throws her arms around him and gushes that she loves him.
A child needs to reach a certain development, a sense of his own identity, before he can enjoy the company of his “peers.” But he is thrown into their midst and told to adjust.
Adjust to what? To anything. To cruelty, to injustice, to blindness, to silliness, to pretentiousness, to snubs, to mockery, to treachery, to lies, to incomprehensible demands, to unwanted favors, to nagging affections, to unprovoked hostilities–and to the overwhelming, overpowering presence of Whim as the ruler of everything. 26
Of course, Rand wrote this essay in the early 1970’s, and may have been exaggerating a little bit. However, in the early 2000’s, the sociologist Brian C. Roberston pointed to evidence suggesting that “the correlation found between behavior problems and the amount of time spent in nonmaternal care […] was just as statistically significant as the correlation between behavior problems and two other risk factors already widely acknowledged: poverty and abusive or uncaring parents [emphasis added].” 27 What all this suggests is that if more modern people took the time to read Kafka, they would actually be able to relate to many of his stories surprisingly well.
Franz Kafka has a reputation for being a crazy or incomprehensible writer, but this is not altogether fair to him. His writings have much to teach a confused modern reader about the workings of the world, particularly if that reader is Jewish. Through reading Kafka’s stories, or studying his deeply tragic life, the audience gains a first-hand look at the perspective of someone who feels powerless.
- Michaelson, Jay. “Golem.” My Jewish Learning, 2021. www.myjewishlearning.com/article/golem/ ↩
- “Parents.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/family/parents/ ↩
- Popova, Maria. “Kafka’s Remarkable Letter to His Abusive and Narcissistic Father.” Brain Pickings, 2015. www.brainpickings.org/03/05/franz-kafka-letter-father ↩
- “Early childhood.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/educational-career/early-childhood ↩
- “University.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/educational-career/university ↩
- “Employment.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/employment/ ↩
- “Sisters.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz-kafka/family/sisters/ ↩
- “Max Brod.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 21 May 2021. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Brod ↩
- “Dora Diamant.” Franz Kafka Museum, 2020. kafkamuseum.cz/en/franz/kafka/women/dora-diamant/ ↩
- Ellis, Bruce J. and W. Thomas Boyce. “Biological Sensitivity to Context.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. vol. 17 (2008): 183-187 ↩
- Crumb, Robert & David Zane Mairowitz. Kafka. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, 2007 ↩
- Kafka, Franz. The Burrow. Selected Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans: Muir, Willa & Edwin Muir. New York: Random House 1952 ↩
- Schwartz, Jeffrey M. & Beverly Beyette. Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior. New York: Harper Perennial ↩
- Martyris, Nina. “For Kafka, Even Beer Came With Baggage.” NPR, 11 April 2016. www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/04/11/473158881/for-kafka-even-beer-came-with-baggage ↩
- Hallowell, Edward M. & John Ratey. Delivered from Distraction. New York: Ballantine Books, 2017 ↩
- Green, Rick. “Hyperfocus and ADHD | Why Can I Focus Some times and Not Others?” Totally ADD. totallyadd.com/adhd-video/he-can-focus-when-he-wants-to/ ↩
- Hallowell & Ratey, 2017 ↩
- Olivardia, Roberto. “Anxiety? Depression? Or ADHD? It Could Be All Three.” ADDitude, 9 July, 2021. www.additudemag.com/adhd-anxiety-depression-the-diagnosis-puzzle-of-related-conditions/ ↩
- Proulx, Travis & Steven J. Heine. “Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar.” Psychological Science, Vol. 20 (2009): 1125-1131 ↩
- Kaiser, Ernst & Eithne Wilkins, translators. Letter To His Father. By Franz Kafka, Schocken Books, 1966 ↩
- Elder of Ziyon. “Leftist Jews fetishizing the Diaspora to justify their hate for Israel.” Elder of Ziyon, 26 September 2019. https://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2019/09/leftist-jews-fetishizing-diaspora-to.html ↩
- Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Selected Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans: Muir, Willa & Edwin Muir. New York: Random House 1952 ↩
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Jews Are Lice: They Cause Typhus.” Courtesy of Archium Panstwowe w Lubline. Copyright of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. perspectives.ushmm.org/item/jews-are-lice-they-cause-typhus ↩
- Frank, Michael. “7 linguistic tricks people use to deceive and manipulate you.” Life Lessons, 2019. lifelessons.co/critical-thinking/kafkatrapping ↩
- Kafka, Franz. A Country Doctor. Selected Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans: Muir, Willa & Edwin Muir. New York: Random House 1952 ↩
- Rand, Ayn. “The Comprachicos.” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. 1970 ↩
- Robertson, Brian C. Day Care Deception: What The Child Care Establishment Isn’t Telling Us. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2003 ↩
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