Franz Kafka as Modernist

An essay on Kafkaesque modernism and the (im)possibility of escape.

In order to understand the complex meanings of Franz Kafka's writing, one must examine many different factors that influenced the thought and action of his life. This essay will explore diverse elements that are part of Kafka's intellectual growth. His family and personal situation will be discussed first; followed by an evaluation of the modernist movement active in Kafka's time; also, a further discussion of modes of escape. The statement that Kafkaesque modernity is a nightmare from which awakening is impossible will be employed as a working hypothesis, and will be further developed. We will now start from the beginning.

Kafka's Life

Franz Kafka was born July 3rd 1883 in Prague, at that time part of Austria-Hungary. He was named in honor of then Emperor Franz Joseph who we will see played a strange role in young Kafka's development by way of the Emperor's son, Crown Prince Rudolf. Kafka died 44 years later in the same town, having spent almost his entire life within the walls of the same city.

His father, Hermann was to Kafka an incredibly overpowering authoritarian figure. He was definitely the major influence on Kafka's early life, and also the shadowy reason behind many of Kafka's paranoid fears and depressions. His father was either perpetually absent or else aggressive and aloof. Kafka wrote a fifty page "letter" to his father when he was thirty-six. A segment of this letter, quoted by Pawel1 speaks of his relationship with his father, and how it affected him emotionally. He tells of a time when he was a child, and one night asking repeatedly for water, his father locked him out on the balcony for a time, Kafka says "...I subsequently became a rather obedient child, but I suffered inner damage as a result."; furthermore "For years thereafter, I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night, and for almost no reason at all dragging me out of bed onto the [balcony] - in other words, that as far as he was concerned, I was an absolute Nothing." (page 18). This and other similar situations can be seen reverberating throughout Kafka's work, an impersonal persecution, as in The Trial; a general inability to live up to the standards set for him; a feeling of low self-worth, characterized by Gregor's transformation into a bug in The Metamorphosis.

The rest of Kafka's family had an effect on his life, but none to the extent that his father did. Kafka's mother was born Julie Löwy, described by Kafka as having modest expectations, and rarely complaining. She essentially accepted her husbands edicts and did not stand up for Franz when he needed her most. He also had siblings, two brothers Georg and Heinrich both of whom died as infants; four other sisters lived near him but were never particularly close to him. For company he mostly relied on his good friend Max Brod, and on lengthy written relationships with various acquaintances.

Kafka was employed for his entire professional life as an insurance official in The Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague. He found this job mind-numbingly boring, but it did provide him with a framework for the impersonal beauraucracy that is present within his writings like The Trial and The Castle.

Modernist Movement

The modernist movement in Prague influenced Kafka in many ways. The movement got started in 1897, prompted by the "Vienna Secession"; literally the "going apart". Art, architecture and literature made a radical break from convention, and the movement spread quickly. Kafka himself was influenced in this mode of thought from a young age by his science teacher at high school, Herr Gottwald. Gottwald was a Darwinist, a Positivist, and an Atheist, and no doubt planted subversive thoughts in fertile minds.

In order to understand the influence of modernist thought on Kafka's work, one must be acquainted with some of the conventions of this movement. Modernism was an attempt to break with the realist movement, which portrayed art as reality, lacking a subconscious or spiritual side. The avant-garde leaders of the modernist movement were the intellectuals, artists, philosophers and scientists. A goal of modernism was to allow for a personalization of the arts, to constantly reform and reshape everything according to each person's vantage point or mindset. Modernism is also associated with an egocentric sense of one's self- a preoccupation that all of Kafka's characters share. Most important, however, are the conventions of using the theme of death or suicide in one's work and having a strong Oedipal conflict as a motivating factor to the piece.

In the matter of oedipal conflict we see the connection Kafka had with Crown Prince Rudolf. Rudolf strives to be ruler but he is unable to kill his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. He therefore kills himself in what Karl2 calls "... a displacement of son-father murder;" he goes on to say that "... Kafka, for his part, repeatedly destroyed a surrogate self in his work, where the father figure is almost always a crushing, authoritarian, physically imposing older man." (page 12). This idea is illustrated clearly in Kafka's story The Metamorphosis; after the transformation to bug is complete and he has been seen by his family, we are told that "Pitilessly Gregor's father drove him back, hissing and crying "Shoo!" like a savage." (page 742)3. Obviously, this father in the story is a representation of Kafka's own father whom he feared so much; there is a similarity between the father's approach in The Metamorphosis to that which was discussed in the previous quote from Kafka's letter to his father. To further this insight into the oedipal conflict in Kafka's life we have a dream recorded in a letter to his lady friend Milena and quoted in Karl's book. In the dream, Kafka has killed someone nameless, he comes running home with his mother chasing him, then "... at last hot with rage I cried out: "If anyone says anything bad about Milena, for instance the father (my father), I'll kill him too or myself."" (page 647-8)4. This confusion in death, the victim dying instead of the agitator is a recurring theme in Kafka's work.


When pondering whether escape is possible from the nightmarish world that is Kafka's creation, one must wonder where one may escape to. Kafka himself was trapped by circumstances beyond his control, he was living as a Jew in Austria, an unstable prospect at best. He was terrorized by his father, in reality and in his dreams. He was single, never marrying, and having only sporadic love and affection. How can one in this situation escape? The reader is aware of these pre-conditions by Kafka's use of a direct assault: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.""(p733)5. The reader knows of no reality when Gregor was not a gigantic insect, therefore precluding any concept of a possible escape from this reality other than within the subconcious mind of Gregor himself. This dramatic use of a modernist convention shows Kafka attempting to adjust to his new shifting realities- he uses "halves" or opposites in order to distance both the reader and his character from the actual story. Gregor is one of these halves, he has the body of an insect, but the intellect of Gregor Samsa.

The escape that Kafka wanted most, perhaps, was from the torment of his father. However, the powerful impressions from his youth would never be effaced; becoming completely entrenched in Kafka's personality. In this way the nightmare of his world became all the more inescapable, for he had assimilated it and made it his history. His terrors became a way of life and he lived with a feeling of futility and rejection all his life.

In conclusion, the modernist conventions in Kafka's work allow one to use the word "kafkaesque" as an adjective. The Encarta encyclopedia defines "kafkaesque" as "grotesque, anxiety-producing social conditions or their treatment in literature."6. This adjective can apply to social conditions in reality; a totalitarian state, conditions could be "kafkaesque": impersonal, beauraucratic and probably inhumane. This shows Kafka's importance to the modern world, and what we may gain from his writing, for he writes of the human condition in all its perverseness and pitifulness. It is perhaps ironic that Kafka never did escape from his nightmare, he was buried in Prague, the city that he knew so well that he called it the "little mother with claws", comforting but able to grasp one and hold them there. He was buried alongside his parents, being unable to escape them even in death. Even more ironic, in his native city his grave is honored but his work was until recently banned. Pawel notes that this was for good reason: "The world for Kafka was "condemned to see with such blinding clarity the he found it unbearable" is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction... ... he gave shape to the anguish of being human." (page 448)7. Kafka was a visionary, a prophet of sorts; yet he died thinking that he would have no effect, and that his worked would be burned; this is the epitome of a "kafkaesque" death.

Texts Consulted

Charters, Ann The Story and Its Writer

Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Boston 1995

Corngold, Stanley The Commentators' Despair

Kennikat Press, London 1973

Karl, Frederick R. Representative Man

Ticknor & Fields, New York 1991

Pascal, Roy Kafka's Narrators

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1982

Pawel, Ernst The Nightmare of Reason

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York 1984

1 As quoted in: Pawel, Ernst The Nightmare of Reason

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York 1984


2 Karl, Frederick R. Representative Man

Ticknor & Fields, New York 1991


3 "The Metamorphosis" from: Charters, Ann The Story and Its Writer

Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Boston 1995


4As quoted in: Karl, Frederick R. Representative Man

Ticknor & Fields, New York 1991


5  "The Metamorphosis" from: Charters, Ann The Story and Its Writer

Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Boston 1995


6 Pawel, Ernst The Nightmare of Reason

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York 1984


7 Ibid.


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