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Creator / Franz Kafka

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A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

"Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive, needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate... But with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins."

Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was one of the major German-language fiction writers of the 20th century.

He was born in Prague, Kingdom of Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (nowadays' Czech Republic). His unique body of writing—much of which is incomplete and was mainly published posthumously—is among the most influential in Western literature. His stories, such as The Metamorphosis (1915), and novels, including The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), concern troubled individuals in a nightmarishly impersonal, modern, and bureaucratic world.

Kafka is based on his works, albeit loosely.

Works by Franz Kafka with their own pages include:

Other works by Franz Kafka include examples of:

  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-work in The Trial when the prison chaplain tells Josef the story "Before the Law." Is the gatekeeper an Obstructive Bureaucrat who misled the man into keeping him out until he was too old to enter, or is he a tragic hero beholden to the Law while the man is free to enter, but chooses not to?invoked
  • Author Avatar: A lot of his characters at least share some traits with him, such as a domineering father and a creative desire stifled by the doldrums of everyday life. A couple of them are named “K.”
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Kafka's works are among the Trope Codifiers. Virtually any given protagonist of his will either be one or meet one. One particularly comical example is the title character of the story "Poseidon": rather than an all-powerful god of the sea, he's depicted as an exasperated middle-manager type saddled with responsibilities he's not equipped to handle.
  • Bewildering Punishment: The arbitrary and disproportionate nature of punishment is a common Kafka theme:
    • The Trial is all about a man being subjected to a bewilderingly labyrinthine legal process for a supposed crime which is never even explained to him.
    • "In the Penal Colony" is about a prison colony administrator who has an almost worshipful attitude towards his favorite torture/execution device. It becomes clear that the joy of punishment is far more important than whatever crime is supposedly being addressed.
  • Big Labyrinthine Building: His very short story "An Imperial Message" is all about one.
    "[The messenger] would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years."
  • Biography à Clef: Steven Soderbergh’s film Kafka uses the author's fiction as a key to tell his life story.
  • Body Horror: Some of his characters are physically marred by the traumas they undergo.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Almost. Letter to His Father is a surprisingly clear-sighted analysis of Kafka's relationship with his volatile and verbally abusive father, but, true to form, Kafka could never bring himself to ever actually send it.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': He was a Trope Codifier. Most prevalent in America where the protagonist's hard earned scraps of good fortune are repeatedly taken from him because of diminutive slights. One of the most revealing exchanges in all of Kafka's work is towards the end of The Trial, when Josef K goes to the cathedral and talks to a priest:
    'But I'm not guilty,' said K. 'It's a mistake. How can a person be guilty at all? Surely we are all human beings here, one like the other.'
    'That is right,' said the priest, 'but that is the way the guilty are wont to talk.'
  • Chew Toy: The protagonists of his books hardly ever seem able to catch a break.
    • Karl Rossman, protagonist of Amerika, unwillingly gets the family maid pregnant, gets sent off to America by his father without any practical skills he could make a decent living with, finds a long-lost uncle, only to be thrown out after he visits an acquaintance against his uncle's will, gets an alright job as a lift boy, is dismissed due to the Head Porter who has it in for Karl because he does't greet the Porter politely and regularly, falls in with rogues (not the lovable kind), etc. It's averted in the end, when Karl is accepted into the rather utopian Theatre of Oklahoma.
  • Civilized Animal: Kafka's story "A Report to an Academy" is narrated by an ape who has taught himself to imitate people and even take part in human society. Other Kafka stories, such as "Josephine the Singer" (whose title character is a mouse), also feature animals which speak or exhibit human characteristics.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: His more detailed protagonists, almost without exception. They are, to a man, timid, neurotic, self-loathing, and overwhelmed by forces and systems that they try and fail to understand. If they receive an ending at all, it's usually an unhappy one. Expect them to have tedious bureaucratic jobs and strained relationships with their families as well.
  • Crapsack World: The late 19th-early 20th Century landscape of his stories. A time of economic stagnation, political upheaval, and ethnoreligious strife in which the common man's life is one of meaningless toil and confusion.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: "In the Penal Colony" features a torture/execution machine that takes 12 hours to kill its victims, using a bed of needles to inscribe on their skin the rule they've broken. The officer in charge of it eventually goes mad and puts himself through it, but it malfunctions and stabs him to death — including one big needle through his forehead.
  • Dead Artists Are Better:
    • Kafka himself is a famous real-life example. He was almost totally unknown in life and requested that all his work be destroyed shortly before his death. Only after his friend, Max Brod, collected and published the fragments he could salvage did Kafka become a household name.
    • Actually Subverted by the titular character from "The Hunger Artist", who is totally forgotten after he dies during his longest fast to date.
    • Also subverted in "Josephine the Singer". After she, representing culture in general, dies, nobody will remember her.
  • Determinator: K in The Castle. Deconstructed: all his efforts are seemingly in vain. He might have been happier if he just gave up, although the book ends in mid-sentence and we only have hints as to how it would probably have ended.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: "The Judgement" among others, in which the protagonist's father comdemns him so harshly for taking over the family business while he's indisposed that the protagonist leaps off a bridge to his death.
  • Downer Ending: Much of his work, if it has a finished ending at all, concludes with the protagonist either dead, imprisoned, or simply no closer to finding the answers they seek. The Trial, in which Josef K is sentenced for a crime he is never made aware of before being unceremoniously killed, and The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa dies and his family reacts with unanimous relief, are the most famous examples.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: His first published collection, Meditation (also translated as Contemplation), is much less dark and fantastical than the work he's best known for. True to the title, most of the pieces are short, reflective, semi-fictional musings on everyday life (though Kafka's trademark sardonic wit does still show through in more subtle ways).
  • Existential Horror: A speciality of his, filtered his trademark brand of Black Comedy of course. In most of Kafka's works the world was out to get you, no matter how good you tried to be, and any efforts you would make to clear your name or even understand what the hell was going on would just make things worse.
  • Fish out of Water: Amerika is about the exploits of Karl Rossman, an immigrant who—in standard Kafka fashion—meets with one bewildering episode after another as he tries to navigate life in his new country.
  • Hope Spot: Josef K in The Trial has one, on the last page of the book, when he sees a window open and a person leans out and stretches out his/her arms.
  • I Work Alone: In his short prose Poseidon, the sea god hates his work and very well could rely on staff to lessen his workload, but he chooses to work alone and sees no other alternative to this, making his suffering self-inflicted.
  • Jumped at the Call: One possible reading of K. in The Castle who throws himself into the bureaucratic nightmare of the eponymous castle eagerly - as opposed to K. in The Trial who did not have any choice in the matter.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: In the universe of Kafka's stories morality is arbitrary, the rules are enforced but never explained, and attempts to do the right thing will almost always be punished. The Trial is probably the most obvious example, with its labyrinthine criminal justice system which seems to be totally disconnected from any actual notion of justice or ethics.
  • Kafka Komedy: Franz Kafka is the Trope Namer. When read the right way by a person with a very dark sense of humor, his books can be genuinely funny. According to his friends, Kafka himself would sometimes laugh out loud while reading his own work.
    • Similarly, Orson Welles always considered his film adaptation of The Trial to be a black comedy, and considered it wildly funny himself.
  • Kangaroo Court: The Trial, in which the prisoner, Josef K, is never told what the charge is and cannot defend himself. Therefore, he is convicted and then sentenced to death without evidence of anything.
  • Koan: "Before the Law, there stands a guard..."
  • Magic Realism: For example, strange, unexplained transformations.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Most people today who think of Kafka think of The Metamorphosis or The Trial. Kafka never thought much of The Metamorphosis and died wanting the incomplete manuscript for The Trial destroyed. Instead, the only one of his works he had a kind word for was The Verdict, which only the enthusiasts have heard of today.
  • Mind Screw: What is really his works' meaning?
    • The Trial contains a sentence in its first page which, in that it represents Kafka's uniquely elusive syntax, is a Mind Screw in itself. Josef K wakes up to find himself under arrest. He says to the man who's arresting him, "Anna is supposed to bring me my breakfast," referring to his landlady's daughter. The man says to somebody just outside the room, "He wants Anna to bring him his breakfast." The next sentence goes like this, in the original German: Ein kleines Gelächter im Nebenzimmer folgte, es war nach dem Klang nicht sicher, ob nicht mehrere Personen daran beteiligt waren. The most accurate published translation of this sentence's pileup of multiple negatives goes like this: "There was a brief burst of laughter from the next room, but it was not clear from the sound whether there might not be more than one person there." Good luck figuring that out.
  • Mundane Fantastic: The fantastic is usually seen as completely mundane by almost everyone who is not the protagonist.
  • No Ending: Kafka never managed to finish any of his three novels before his death. The Castle and Amerika especially reflect this in their very abrupt resolutions. The Trial also ends abruptly, but since the protagonist dies at the end of the version we have it works a little better as a completed narrative. (Many of Kafka's short stories also exist only in partial form.)
"The critics deplore that in the three Kafka novels many intermediate chapters are missing, but recognizes that those chapters are not essential. I have for me that this complaint indicates an essential ignorance of Kafka's art. The path of these "unfinished" novels is born specifically of The Infinite number of obstacles that stop and return to stop their identical heroes. Franz Kafka does not finish them, because the main thing was that they were endless. Do you remember the first and clearest of Zeno's paradoxes? The movement is impossible, because before reaching B we must cross the intermediate point C, but before reaching C, we must cross the intermediate point D, but before reaching D ... The Greek does not list all the points; Franz Kafka does not have to list all the vicissitudes. It is enough to understand that they are infinite like Hell".
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The animal telling the story in The Burrow lives in constant dread of imagined (or real) foes it knows only from the distant sounds of digging.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: In "Before the Law" or "Vor dem Gesetz", the doorkeeper acts as the literal and symbolic obstructive bureaucrat, blocking the man from the country from getting admittance to the Law.
  • Offscreen Inertia: Present in great effect due to most stories being unfinished. There is no suggestion that the protagonist of The Castle will ever get closer to his goal, or indeed any kind of resolution. Similarly, many of the short stories, including for example The Burrow ends exactly as they started. Hilariously, in America this trope manages to end the novel on a positive note, most likely despite the intent of the author, with the protagonist seemingly being rewarded for his troubles with a - finally - just assessment of his skills, the good work opportunity he has craved the entire novel and a heavenly train towards the promised paradise of the Oklahoma Theater.
  • One-Letter Name: K. in The Castle and Josef K in The Trial.
  • Ontological Mystery: The Trial is a cynical, bureaucratic example, where the central "mystery" is "What exactly is the crime I'm being prosecuted for?" Read into that whatever bigger questions about the nature of law, justice, etc. you'd like.
  • Our Monsters Are Weird - Several of his vignettes feature rather bizarre and fantastic creatures, the oddest perhaps being the Odradek in his short story "The Cares of a Family Man."
  • Recut: In adapting The Trial, Orson Welles rearranged the order of Kafka’s chapters. In this version, the chapter line-up read 1, 4, 2, 5, 6, 3, 8, 7, 9, 10. However, the order of Kafka's chapters was arranged by his literary executor, Max Brod, after the writer's death, and this order is not definitive. Source
  • Schizo Tech: The 1994 film version of The Castle is set in a Clock Punk setting, with medieval architecture, early automobiles, and phones.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Even putting aside the many stories which Kafka never finished at all, there is probably not a single work of his in which the character actually achieves something meaningful or accomplishes their desire at the end. "Before the Law" is a typical example, about a man who spends his whole life waiting to be given access to the Law, which is never granted; close to death he works up the strength to ask one final question of the gatekeeper, but the story ends before we hear what it is.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Many Kafka stories qualify, including some of his most famous ones:
    • The Trial: Throughout his whole long, incomprehensible ordeal Josef K never learns what he's being accused of, and is finally stabbed unceremoniously. His final words are, appropriately, "Like a dog!"
    • "The Metamorphosis": No explanation is ever given for Gregor Samsa's transformation, he can never change back, his family grow tired of him and begin actively persecuting him, and they are relieved when he finally dies.
  • Slice of Life: His early collection Meditation consists mostly of one-page stories that don't really have a point to them, apart from describing an interesting scene and observing things about it.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Kafka's work has its foot right on the cynical end.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Karl Rossman, the hero of America, spends most of his travels in the title country wearing the cosmic "Kick Me" sign that you expect from a Kafka protagonist. In the final chapter, however he finds peace and purpose with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. It's notable that while the novel is unfinished, he told his friend and literary executor that he intended to end the novel on "a note of reconciliation," meaning that this trope is actually intentional.
  • Surreal Horror: His protagonists are often utterly (and sometimes fatally) bewildered by circumstances that would be funny if the consequences were less hideous.
  • Torture Technician: The Officer from "In the Penal Colony" who uses an execution device with needles to mark the crime the person is being executed for (the person dies eventually after several hours of pain from either shock or blood loss)
  • Unreliable Narrator: For example in the short story The Judgement, where at first the narrator seems to be pretty much identical with protagonist Georg Bendemann, bragging what a considerate person he is because he doesn't tell his unfortunate friend abroad what a happy, successful life he has. How nice and understandable, thinks the reader - until Bendemann's father calls him out and accuses him of being a liar, so that we have to start questioning Bendemann's motives and if the friend abroad actually exists.
  • Useless Protagonist: Many of his works have protagonists who either willingly or unwillingly have no active role in how the stories progress.
  • Wall of Text: Some of his paragraphs (especially in his unpublished stories) span pages. And that's just the English translations—one imagines they're quite a bit longer in German.
  • Weirdness Censor: Apart from the protagonists, very few people in his stories notice or care when something clearly out of the ordinary has happened.
  • White Collar Worker: Kafka himself and his characters provide an early example of this trope.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Josef K in The Trial thinks he's a plucky everyman fighting against injustice. He's very, very wrong. However — and this is the characteristically Kafkaesque twist — it's never clear why he's wrong.
  • Xenofiction: "Investigations of a Dog" is about the existential vexations of an ordinary dog. Interestingly, the dogs in the story have a sophisticated social structure, but seem to be completely unaware that humans exist.
    • "The Burrow" is another story told from the perspective of a badger-like creature.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: His characters frequently experience a moment of hope or sympathy which is inevitably short-lived and illusory, making their miserable fates all the more miserable. The flash of compassion showed to Gregor Samsa by his sister before she tires of him and leaves him to die is a prime example.