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A Hunger Artist | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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Franz Kafka | Biography


Early Life and Education

Born July 3, 1883, Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague became the capital of the Czech Republic in 1993. Kafka's family spoke German at home, and his father, a successful businessman, worked as a retailer of men's and women's clothing. Although Kafka was born into a Jewish family, he declared himself an atheist by the time he was a teenager. Still, given the cultural context dominating Western Europe, Kafka was likely aware of the wrathful God of the Old Testament. This angry, punishing, and seemingly capriciously cruel God who demands strict obedience to His laws no doubt influenced Kafka's view of authority and law as arbitrary and irrational.

Kafka had an extremely troubled relationship with both of his parents. His mother was narrow-minded and could not comprehend his fascination with literature and the arts, nor could his materialistic and domineering—some might say tyrannical—father. In his posthumously published "Letter to His Father," Kafka described feeling persecuted and belittled by his "overwhelmingly powerful" father. Kafka had to struggle against this fearsome authoritarian, though he often felt that his struggle was futile. Kafka blames his overbearing and disapproving father for many things in his life, such as his perceived failures and his deep sense of unworthiness and uselessness. For example, Kafka's father pressured him to abandon his interest in literature and writing—pursuits at which he scoffed—and instead to focus on a lucrative legal or business career. Kafka's father was, in the author's mind, an unforgiving and cruel authority figure despite his own decision to live near his parents and remain in close contact with them. Kafka's deep resentment and anger at his father is woven into many of his writings, especially in the cruel and arbitrary authority of the law as described in The Trial.

A good student, Kafka attended a German school, Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague. He started out pursuing chemistry but switched to law, giving himself some latitude to take courses more to his liking while keeping his family happy. He joined the university's literary club and thrived because of his participation in it. After graduating in 1906, he worked as an unpaid law clerk and then as a lawyer with an Italian insurance company.

Struggling with Anxiety and Emerging as a Writer

Kafka's legal work left him with no time or energy to cultivate his own writing. Kafka's unhappiness with this job and the fact that he was unable to pursue his own interests because of the hectic work schedule is reminiscent of the character Gregor Samsa in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis (1915). Also much like Gregor, Kafka suffered for years from depression and anxiety. He found a more manageable position with a government insurance institute, receiving several promotions over the years and finding time for writing in the off-hours, usually late at night. As often as he could, Kafka met with other writers to share and discuss their works. Through these meetings, he developed close friendships with Max Brod (1884–1968), a Jewish writer who became his biographer, and Felix Weltsch (1884–1964), a Jewish philosopher, writer, and editor.

While his legal career paid the bills, Kafka's real passion was writing. His familiarity with the law gave him deeper insight into its frequent injustices. It also gave him first-hand experience of how an ordinary person might get snared in its intricate, incomprehensible procedures. Kafka started publishing short stories and stuck to a rigorous writing routine that enabled him to amass an impressive body of work. While he never married, he spent time in brothels and fell in love with a Jewish woman, Felice Bauer. The two were engaged twice, but Kafka broke off the engagement each time, believing marriage was not the right path for him.

A Life Cut Short

In 1917 Kafka became sick with tuberculosis and took leave from his insurance position. He spent a great deal of time resting, under the care of his sister Ottla. Meanwhile, he had a brief but fervent relationship with journalist Milena Jesenská (1896–1944). Later he met and fell in love with a Jewish kindergarten teacher, Dora Dymant (sometimes spelled Diamant) (1898–1952), who had socialist leanings—believing in government ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods—much like his own. The two moved to Berlin, where Kafka concentrated on his health and writing—and for the first time, lived away from his family.

When his condition worsened, Kafka returned home to a sanatorium (facility for long-term medical care) in Prague, where he died at age 40 on June 3, 1924. Many of Kafka's short stories and novels had not yet been published and were incomplete at the time of his death. The Metamorphosis, his only completed novella, was written in 1912 and published in 1915. Kafka did not become a well-known author until after his death. The Trial was published posthumously in 1925.

Kafka left explicit instructions with friend and fellow author Max Brod for his work "to be burned unread." Brod went against Kafka's wishes, publishing several of his friend's novels and stories over the next decade, including The Castle (1925) and Amerika (1927).

Brod's move created a legacy for his friend; little known before his death, Kafka is now considered a master of 20th-century German literature.

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