Franz Kafka was born in 1924 to a middle-class Jewish family. After his two brothers died in infancy, he became the oldest child in the family. Kafka's father was short-tempered and abusive. In his unpublished, unfinished autobiography, Kafka blamed his father for Kafka's inability to break free from his family and truly live. Kafka's family life had a great influence on his small body of work, which often depicts a singular man's struggle against an overwhelming power, representative of his father. As a child, Kafka excelled in school, but felt the curriculum was dehumanizing in the sense that it had no focus on the individual. Kafka rebelled against the established society by declaring himself a socialist and atheist. As a Jewish man, Kafka was an outcast from the German community in Prague, but as a radical, he was distanced from the Jewish community. Kafka felt completely separate from any form of real communication or connection, as he was trapped within the confines of his family. This isolation made him a deeply depressed figure, but also gave him the ability to express the alienation many Europeans felt as a result of World War I. Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924 with few works published. In a letter to his friend Max Brod, he implored Brod, "Everything I leave behind me...in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches and so on, to be burned unread" (Batuman). Brod betrayed his friend and published The Trial, and the unfinished The Castle and Amerika, some of Kafka's most influential work. Had Brod not done this, it is highly unlikely that Kafka's name and work would have survived until today.
The statue of Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna in Prague. It takes inspiration from a scene in Kafka's novel Amerika.
Kafka's writing is characterized by incoherent structure and characters that subvert traditional logic, as well as extreme violence. Kafka regularly combined the fantastic and the everyday in his work, often making it inscrutable. Undoubtedly Kafka's most well-known work, The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning transformed into a giant cockroach. In keeping with the influences on Kafka's life, Samsa's father locks him in his room, where he dies slowly of a combination of neglect and despair. The Metamorphosis shows again Kafka's view of the world as alienating and cold. In The Trial and in The Castle, Kafka paints the image of helpless individuals up against relentlessly hostile forces, with The Trial telling the story of one man sentenced to death for reasons he does not know, with no way to defend himself. Kafka's heroes are always looking inward for meaning and a sense of purpose, reflecting the attitude of post-WWI as citizens struggled to look for meaning in life.
David Černý's Metalmorphosis
Kafka's relevance in society
During his lifetime, Kafka had a very small following. However, his ideas were no less relevant. The near totalitarian bureaucracy depicted in The Trial is an eerie mirror of similar governments that rose to power in 20th century Europe. Kafka died before Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and did not view the horror and isolation wrought by WWII and the Holocaust, in which his sisters died. In current society, Kafka's ideas of isolation are more relevant than ever. As in Kafka's writings, it is near impossible to discern genuine communication and connection in a world where politics, technology, and violence seek to isolate. Kafka's view of the modern world leaves the individual nowhere to look but within for answers.
Banville, John. "A Different Kafka." The New York Review of Books. N.p., 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
Batuman, Elif. "Kafka’s Last Trial." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
"Franz Kafka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.