4 Works by Franz Kafka That You Should Know

Franz Kafka is acclaimed as one of the 20th century's most inventive authors. His distinctive style, which combines expressionism, realism, and surrealism, has influenced innumerable writers and artists.

Sep 17, 2023By Milos Milacic, BSc Literature

franz kafka works you should know


Franz Kafka’s writing is distinguished by a thorough investigation of the human psyche and a dedication to giving the world a sense of grim, unrelenting realism. His writing frequently addresses issues of alienation, loneliness, and the quest for purpose in a setting that seems callous to the suffering of others. But, Kafka also uses a number of surreal and symbolic elements that aim to undermine the realism of his stories and foster an atmosphere of discomfort and ambiguity. Kafka’s work is known for its mix of realism with surrealism, which is what makes his stories so unique and alluring.


1. The Judgment by Franz Kafka 

franz kafka drawing
Illustration of Franz Kafka, via The Atlantic


In this investigation of Kafka’s writing, we will consider how he uses realism to establish the verisimilitude and recognizability of his stories while simultaneously employing surreal and symbolic aspects to subvert our perception of reality. Kafka investigated the complexities of the human experience and produced unforgettable works of art. In The Judgement, Kafka masterfully combined realism and surrealism in order to create a hauntingly intimate world that is both familiar and foreign. The main conflict of the story—between Georg, the protagonist, and his father—is a potent illustration of the conflicts between generations and the difficulties of familial ties.


Kafka’s use of realistic detail in The Judgement helps to set the narrative in a real-world setting. The relationships between Georg and his father are portrayed in a realistic and genuine way, and the backdrop of the novel, the city of Prague, is vividly and evocatively described. The reader is drawn into the world of the novel by the sensation of intimacy and immediateness that this realism provides.


But, Kafka also makes use of a number of surreal and symbolic aspects that aim to undermine the story’s realism and foster disquiet and uncertainty. For instance, the strange and frightening imagery of the bridge and the river alludes to a world in which the line between reality and dream is permeable and flexible. In the end, The Judgement can be interpreted as a meditation on the nature of familial ties and the challenges of intergenerational communication and understanding.

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2. In the Penal Colony 

franz kafka illustration
Illustration of Franz Kafka by Tullio Pericoli, via the New Yorker


In the Penal Colony is a 1919 short tale by Franz Kafka where the strange nature of authority and consequence is explored. Kafka is best known for his existential and surrealist writings, despite the fact that the story has elements of truth that give it its harsh and terrifying tone. Kafka employs realism in In the Prison Colony in a number of ways, including how the scene is presented. On a remote island, a terrifying execution machine serves as the means of enforcing justice. Through his vivid and in-depth descriptions of the island, the machine, and its people, Kafka creates a sense of location and mood that is both believable and scary.


The portrayal of the people and their motivations is another example of realism in In the Penal Colony. Kafka introduces a wide variety of characters, such as the fervent officer in command of the execution, the fearful prisoner who is about to be executed, and the outsider explorer who shows up to see the punishment. He tackles the complicated ideas of power, morality, and justice via their interactions and themes that are rooted in believable motives and behaviors.


franz kafka in the penal colony
In the penal colony illustration, via Sevencut


In addition, Kafka uses realism to depict the actual execution. To underline the severity and ferocity of the conduct, the novella gives a vivid and distressing account of the cruel and inhuman punishment. The writer emphasizes the moral dilemmas that occur when a society uses such punitive measures. The overall effect of the use of realism in this story is disturbing and thought-provoking, with a palpable sense of uneasiness and moral ambiguity. Kafka crafts a work that is both unpleasant and profound by fusing realism and surrealism, forcing readers to examine their own views on justice and power.


3. The Metamorphosis

franz kafka the metamorphosis
Gregor Samsa as a cockroach, via Garagemca


One of Franz Kafka’s best-known works, The Metamorphosis, was released in 1915. As the protagonist Gregor Samsa awakens one day to discover that he has been converted into a gigantic cockroach, the novella investigates the psychological and social ramifications of transformation. The story’s emotional weight and societal commentary are provided by realistic elements that are included in The Metamorphosis, despite its fantastical basis. The description of Gregor’s family and their responses to his metamorphosis is one way Kafka uses realism in the novella. Kafka’s description of the Samsa family’s slow collapse and struggle to deal with Gregor’s change is a realistic representation of the effects of a sudden and unforeseen disaster on a family.


Kafka also used realism to depict Gregor’s own psychological and physical development. He emphasized the anguish and agony of Gregor’s condition by giving a thorough and visceral explanation of his feelings and physical changes. This realism does an especially good job of capturing Gregor’s sense of helplessness and isolation as he grows more and more cut off from human society.


In addition, the novella includes realism-based social and economic commentary. Particularly in the description of Gregor’s employment as a traveling salesman and the family’s financial troubles, Kafka addresses issues of alienation and the dehumanizing impacts of contemporary society. Kafka criticizes the capitalist system and the ways in which it might erode human values through the use of these components.


the metarmophosis
Illustration of The Metamorphosis, via Medium


The fantastical notion of The Metamorphosis is grounded in a familiar and identifiable context because of Kafka’s use of reality. The writer draws into enduring concerns about identity, alienation, and mortality in his portrayal of Gregor’s physical and emotional metamorphosis. He instills a feeling of disquiet and discomfort in the reader that persists long after they have finished reading the novella by setting the story down in the realm of the possible.


Furthermore, Kafka uses reality in more ways than just to depict Gregor’s metamorphosis. He uses a multitude of commonplace details and observations throughout the novella to vividly depict the surroundings and individuals. Every detail is meticulously picked to portray a sense of realism and authenticity, from the descriptions of the family’s crowded and chaotic flat to the precise items on Gregor’s desk. This level of detail gives the novel depth and richness while reinforcing its themes of loneliness and the effort to form relationships in a society that is becoming more and more inhumane. By weaving surreal and realistic elements together, Kafka creates a work that is both hauntingly bizarre and deeply affecting.


4. The Trial

franz kafka the trial
Illustration of The Trial, via Clios


Franz Kafka’s The Trial employs realism to critique the modern legal system and the ways in which bureaucracy and power can lead to injustice. The story follows the protagonist, Josef K., as he is arrested for a crime that is never fully revealed. Kafka uses realism to create a detailed and vivid portrayal of the legal system, emphasizing the complexity and arbitrariness of the legal process.


Kafka portrays the legal system as a confusing bureaucracy. Josef K. encounters a number of administrative challenges and what at times seem to be insurmountable difficulties throughout the course of the narrative. For instance, Josef K. must wait hours in a packed, disorderly antechamber when he tries to talk with a court official about his case in one chapter. This scene is a powerful illustration of how bureaucracy can destroy a person’s feeling of agency and autonomy while also demeaning and confusing people.


Furthermore, Kafka uses realism to highlight the ways in which power and influence can influence the legal process. Throughout the story, Josef K. is confronted by a series of mysterious and powerful figures who seem to control the legal proceedings. These figures, such as the court painter and the flogger, represent the arbitrary and capricious nature of power and how it can be used to manipulate and control individuals.


the trial wolfgang letti
The Trial illustration by Wolfgang Letti, via Jstor


Another example of Kafka’s use of realism in The Trial is seen in the detailed portrayal of the legal documents and proceedings. The legal documents in the story are dense and incomprehensible, with endless layers of bureaucracy and complexity. This serves to emphasize the overwhelming nature of the legal system and how it can be used to oppress and intimidate individuals. The Trial offers a potent critique of the ways in which the judicial system today can be used to intimidate and oppress people. Kafka portrays a terrifying vision of a world in which people are at the behest of forces beyond their control through his realistic portrayal of the legal bureaucracy and the figures that dominate it.


Franz Kafka: The Master of Realism

franz kafka portrait
Portrait of Franz Kafka, via ThoughtCo


Franz Kafka’s masterful use of realism in his writing enabled him to create vivid, believable worlds that explored the complexities of the human psyche. Kafka’s characters are often trapped in situations that they cannot control, forced to confront the harsh realities of a world that is often cruel and unforgiving. Whether it’s the protagonist of The Metamorphosis waking up to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect, or the accused man in The Trial grappling with a faceless bureaucracy that seems to exist solely to torment him, Kafka’s stories are full of characters who are struggling to find their place in a world that seems determined to crush them.


One of the ways in which Kafka employs realism in his writing is through his use of vivid, sensory detail. Whether he’s describing the cramped and squalid apartment in The Metamorphosis,” or the dark, labyrinthine streets in The Trial, Kafka’s attention to detail creates a sense of verisimilitude that makes his stories feel all the more immediate and real. Furthermore, Kafka’s commitment to portraying his characters’ emotional states in a frank and honest way allows us to connect with them on a deeply personal level. We feel their pain, their fear, and their sense of confusion and alienation, and this emotional resonance is what makes Kafka’s stories so powerful and enduring.

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By Milos MilacicBSc LiteratureMiloš is a professor of language and literature, but in his free time, he is a writer of short stories and poetry and an author of academic papers. His main interests in the field of literature are related to the theory of literature, literary criticism, and the history of literature, with special reference to the works created in the age of modernism and postmodernism. As a cultural worker and creator, he has a mission to make culture accessible to all members of society.