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Franz Kafka’s Influences When Writing The Trial

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Nihilism is “the destruction of everything without pity” (Palmieri, 3). A completely different movement that is sometimes lumped together with Nihilism is Existentialism, which is a belief that “the world is without meaning or purpose.” It also states “existence itself – all action, suffering, and feeling – is ultimately senseless and empty” (Pratt, 11). Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) was an Existentialist author, but his work was distinctive enough to create his own style, Kafkaesque. It is used to describe texts that are similar to his (Crew, 1). He was “a relatively unknown author during his lifetime” and “published … few of his works.” His earliest works were destroyed, and his friend Max Brod published his later ones (Crew, 1). One of Kafka’s favorite self-written books was The Trial, which clearly illustrates the main point of the Existentialist movement, that life is meaningless.

The Trial consists solely of a man’s struggle to redeem himself and ends in his death. Throughout nearly the entire novel, Joseph K. is attempting to be pardoned of an unmentioned crime, that neither he nor the reader ever discovers. “The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there – but it was simple madness to think of it – any benefit arising from that would profit clients in the future only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials. Anything rather than that!” (Kafka, 121) The book’s last scene is his sentence being carried out; he is stabbed to death, and all K. can think about is how disgraceful his death is. “‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him” (Kafka, 229). This goes along with Existentialism’s message that everything just results in death anyway, as K. being indignant solely because of the way he dies is preposterous, and Kafka even hints at suicide being an answer. Kafka shows us this by telling us of K.’s thoughts: “K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself, as it traveled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast” (Kafka, 228). Since Existentialism’s claim is that life is meaningless, Kafka illustrates this perfectly by The Trial’s pointless struggle and final conviction.

The German-speaking Jew was born in Prague on July 3, 1883 and various things in his life presumably brought him to follow Existentialist beliefs. When he was young he read works by the poster boy for Nihilism (which is somewhat related to Existentialism) Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, founder of the theory of evolution (which some take to be antitheist, leading to hopelessness) and others. Simultaneously, he wrote what are referred to as his “early works,” that were destroyed (Leni, 1). His education occurred at German schools, instead of the common Czech ones, as “the language of the elites was German.” This “demonstrates his father’s desire for social advancement” (Leni, 1). His father was abusive and their “relationship … dominates all discussions of both his life and his work” (Crew, 1). His father considered Kafka to be “too eccentric, with his vegetarianism and quiet nature.” In The Trial, numerous people take Kafka’s father’s role for K. Anna, his landlady’s cook, could perhaps be an incarnation of Kafka’s father, as she just watches K. be arrested (i.e., Kafka’s real-life decline in health) and does not help, and then perhaps his boss also represents his father, as he is overbearing and apathetic about K.’s welfare. Finally, K.’s uncle plays the ultimate Kafka-father role by being obnoxiously pseudohelpful and forcing him to hire a lawyer against his will. His uncle says things like, “You’re quite changed, you always used to have such a clear brain, and is it going to fail you now?” as a means of attempting to encourage K. (Kafka, 97).

Kafka was very interested in Yiddish theater. He would travel around with Brod to Paris, Italy, and Switzerland, and on these trips, “he had numerous affairs and one-night stands with barmaids, waitresses, and shopgirls, not to mention his visits to the whorehouses” (Leni, 5). The character K. also attempts to have such affairs. Leni, K.’s lawyer’s maid, flirts frequently with him, saying such things as, “I don’t need any thanks, except that I want you to be fond of me” (Kafka, 180). Although he obviously had an active sex life, he also found sex “absolutely repulsive and disgusting,” but at the same time he used girls that “didn’t mean anything to him beyond immediate sexual gratification” (Leni, 6). In The Trial, women K. hardly knows throw themselves at him. “I’ll go with you wherever you like, you can do with me what you please, I’ll be glad if I can only get out of here for a long time, and I wish it could be forever,” says a woman he meets in the Court (Kafka, 56). He would avoid marriage at all costs, because for some reason, he thought sex being required on a regular basis would be intolerable. K., just as Kafka did in life, goes after women when they present themselves: “The woman really attracted him, and after mature reflection he could find no valid reason why he should not yield to that attraction” (Kafka, 56). When Franz broke off his engagement with Felice, in July of 1914, he began writing The Trial (Leni, 5-7). His illness, tuberculosis, would possibly have driven him to Existentialism as it took meaning from his life, and the way he never could commit himself to a girl also shows a lack of purpose.

The Trial could be taken to be anti-government, but more than likely it deals only with life’s futility. Although Nihilism advocates destroying everything – government and faith in god(s) especially – Existentialism is more apathetic about everything. While this strange and unofficial court system abusing K. could be taken as anti-government, it is probably more accurate to assume that it is an allegory for life. The court system that puts an end to K.’s life is above the government in that it’s undetectable and everywhere. The Court is apparently omnipotent as well, as when someone tries to “alter the disposition of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself” (Kafka, 121). The government played no apparent role in Kafka’s writing of The Trial, and Existentialism’s apathy could run under most any government system.

Existentialism’s main philosophical point emphasizes life’s futility. If life has no meaning, what better to do than devote one’s life to a meaningless movement? Franz Kafka was influenced by constantly changing lovers (Felice Bauer, possibly Grete Bloch, Julie Whoryzek, Milena Jesenska, and Dora Diamant, just to name the ones who played the most important roles in his life), war going on around him, an abusive father, and his terminal illness, tuberculosis (Leni, 5-8). His illness killed him, but as pessimism and depression still exist, so does Existentialism and Kafka’s works continue to preach the message. As Franz Kafka was influential enough a writer for philosophers to create a word based on his name – Kafkaesque – he is obviously well respected and a widely appreciated author. Supporters of life as we know it today can be thankful that Kafka wasn’t a Nihilist, as with this kind of influence, he could have done worse crimes than to encourage people’s apathy. If it was not for Max Brod disobeying his dying friend’s instructions to burn Kafka’s texts, the world would have never witnessed his brilliant works. Perhaps if Kafka had not been terminally ill, he would have believed his life had meaning, or perhaps if he had a lifelong female (or perhaps male) companion, that could have lead him to believe that his life mattered. Still, one must wonder where Brod’s motivation came from. When one realizes that one’s life is meaningless, perhaps one is driven to want others to share in one’s meaningless-inspired misery.

Works Cited

“Biography of Franz Kafka.” Constructing

Kafka. By Crew. 1997.

“Biography.” Leni’s Franz Kafka Page. By Leni. NA.

“CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Nihilism.” Catholic Encyclopedia. By A. Palmieri. 1999.

“Kafka Timeline.” The Castle. By C.M. Wisniewski. 1999.

“Nihilism.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. By Alan Pratt, Ph. D. 2001. Hosted by: Humanities Department, Embry-Riddle University.

“The Great War Interactive Timeline.” PBS. By PBS.

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