Although Franz Kafka is a well-known novelist and short-story writer today, he never gained recognition until after he died. Kafka blamed his failure on his father, who Franz believed to have broken his will and caused tremendous anxiety in his life. Beyond the problematic ties with his own family, he constantly sensed a disconnect between himself and all humans, including his friends, his lover, and society as a whole. This lack of connection is one of the elements of existentialism, which is a philosophy that underlies much of Kafka’s written works. Here is an outline of his formative years, the overarching themes of his books, and how his written stories tie into existentialism.
Franz Kafka: Socially Alienated from the Start
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. He came from a wealthy middle-class Jewish family. Two of his brothers died in infancy, so he was the elder brother of three sisters. He was influenced by his maternal ancestors, who were distinguished by their intellect, piety, and melancholy. He lacked this connection with his mother, who didn’t support his “unprofitable” literary dreams. His father disapproved of him even more harshly and was an intensively overbearing presence in Kafka’s life. Hermann Kafka was a shopkeeper who was solely focused on financial success and social advancement.
In addition to a lack of attachment he felt toward humans, he also felt distant from God. Growing up in a Jewish family, he didn’t carry the religious practices beyond his upbringing and only respected the social formalities of his community when necessary. As an adolescent, he labeled himself an atheist as well as a socialist, which was apparent in his rebellion toward the authoritarian institution of his school (which he ironically thrived in).
As an adult, he attended meetings of Czech anarchists before WWI and became interested in socialized Zionism. He was isolated from the German community in Prague because he was a Jew, but his intellectual beliefs isolated him from the Jewish community. Social alienation and loneliness were major themes in Kafka’s life and his work.
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Kafka studied law at the University of Prague, receiving his doctorate in 1906. The next year, he began working at an insurance company; however, he quit due to a lack of time for writing on the side. He found work in the semi-nationalized Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1908.
He retired in 1922 when his tuberculosis became too debilitating, passing away two years later because of it. He would spend the last several years of life in and out of sanatoriums. He despised the routine office job life and didn’t find any happiness in his romantic relationships either. In 1923, he went to Berlin to dedicate himself to writing but died the next year in Vienna.
Much of Kafka’s Work Was Published Without His Consent
During his lifetime, Kafka was approached by established avant-garde publishers and somewhat unwillingly had several writings published. His first published book was Betrachtung (Contemplation, or Meditation), a collection of 18 stories released at the end of 1912. Kafka wanted his unpublished works to be destroyed before he passed. This request was ignored by literary artist and executor Max Brod, who was a friend as well as a fellow writer who wrote Kafka’s biography. Many of his famous works were published posthumously without his consent, including The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).
From his earliest works, the characters in his stories struggle with communing with others and understanding the world and their identities. He tended to combine reality and fantasy and would sometimes create physical manifestations of delusions or metaphors. Another common motif is the terror of being bound to a menial task, reflecting his constant unhappiness with his day job. His work reflects the darkness that consumed him; he believed evil existed everywhere and this inevitable truth was unchangeable, with any attempt to fix this reality perceived as futile by him.
The Philosophy of Existentialism
Existentialism is a broad category of philosophy that emphasizes contemplating the nature of the human condition. The term was first associated with continental Europe starting in the 19th century. Existentialism has greatly influenced psychological theory and the arts, maybe even more significantly than philosophy itself. Many iconic figures considered existentialists aren’t the ones who claim that name; it’s a classification that they have been grouped into by others.
Instead of viewing philosophy as a niche subject only studied by those who call themselves “philosophers,” the belief of existentialists is that this philosophy is a way of life. Technically, how Socrates lived his life in Ancient Greece could be an example of existentialism, even though he wasn’t a professional and didn’t follow the (not yet) developed philosophy. The German Idealists in the 19th century believed that philosophy doesn’t stop at knowledge, it’s about living out fundamental truths and enacting change through existing, not purely through conjecture.
Anxiety is a defining element of existentialism; it’s the result of the realization that human beings exist on their own, relative to other humans and other entities. To live authentically is to acknowledge and embrace this individual existence, which causes anxiety. The struggle of freedom connects to this, since decisions are viewed to be made solely by the individual, separate from a pre-determined plan set by a god. This comes with great responsibility, and this absolute freedom is constantly situated in the context of time and judgment by others.
The absurdity of existence and the world in which we exist is another element of this philosophy. There is a lack of reason that leads to misunderstanding and multitudes of unknowns that humans must be aware of. Even freedom is considered absurd; the decisions that an individual somehow arrives at can’t be fully traced. To exist authentically, one’s free actions must be acknowledged to lose their freedom once enacted.
Although the main elements of existentialism revolve around the individual, a social or political dimension is apparent in the belief system. Relationships with others are valued, but one has to stay aware of the conformist tendencies of “the crowd,” which can lead to mob mentality. Authenticity is the way of avoiding this.
Is Kafka an Existentialist?
Kafka’s worlds that he builds through stories are full of hopelessness and despair. He pours his frustration with bureaucratic societies driven by capitalism into his writings. The perspective he holds is that humans can’t escape experiencing alienation, forcing individualistic civilizations to emerge and leaving no chance for a utopian future.
Idealism is a joke to him; there’s no space for dreaming of connecting with others while simultaneously being one’s authentic self. Most of Kafka’s characters have removed themselves from their communities as they accept the absurdity of existence and attempt to live with this awareness.
Looking through an existentialist lens, guilt is developed due to the ambiguity of mortality and the absence of objective truth. This leads to the impossibility of achieving real satisfaction, which is apparent among Kafka’s characters. They are all left desiring more, searching for a connection that isn’t attainable.
Guilt also manifests through the endless options that humans have to choose from when making decisions. His characters come to see this free will as a curse. Their inability to commit, along with their struggles with distinguishing good from evil, causes them to never be able to settle or feel grounded.
One of the main messages that transpires from The Castle is that failure is inevitable, and every attempt to try to succeed leads to more failure. In The Judgment, The Trial, and In the Penal Colony, the failure to be authentic is a common theme; the result is alienation and a lack of identity. The Hunger Artist and Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk both portray creative individuals who remain true to themselves, which tragically leads to isolation from everyone else.
Existentialism in Metamorphosis
The novella Metamorphosis was published in 1915 and is one of Kafka’s most well-known works. Gregor Samsa is the main character, who awakens one morning to find himself transformed into an insect practically the size of his room. He works as a salesman to financially support his family. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that the only role he fills is simply to make money, specifically to be able to fulfill his sister’s dream of attending music school. The complexities of him as an individual are overlooked by his family, resulting in his isolation from them. This is illustrated by his locked bedroom door that acts as a barrier, which they can’t pass after his transformation.
Because he’s unable to perform the function he assigned himself through his own decisions, he experiences shame and, therefore, an even deeper alienation. Gregor is consumed by existential angst, as he is conscious of the absurdity of life and the constant struggle that drives existence alone. Connection with others was already challenging for him, yet now communicating becomes impossible as his voice changes to chirping and garbling. He retreats further into himself, with no hope on the horizon to return to his human body.
Although taking on the form of an insect appears to be worse than his previous form, Kafka perceives both to be fates measured by a high level of alienation. Although Gregor could leave his room and venture into the world around others before the transformation, he still lived a life of solitude and loneliness. The corruption of capitalism had broken his spirit long ago, and he viewed individuals as tools he would try to persuade for money. His eventual death was caused by the disappearance of his humanity, the rapid downfall of his physicality, and the incapacitated state he couldn’t escape.
The point that Kafka makes in Metamorphosis and his other written works is that decisions are made by individuals alone, and the choices one makes determine their fate. Although some existentialists believe in the power of hope, Kafka is a proponent of accepting a hopeless existence, and that alienation is inevitable if authenticity is prioritized. The term “existentialism” hadn’t been coined yet during his lifetime, but reading his writings reveals how existentialist his beliefs, and his existence, really were.