His mother Julie Kafka belonged to one of the leading families in the German-speaking, German-cultured Jewish circles of Prague. (Franz Kafka 1883-1924) His relationship with this father was not good and "...Hermann Kafka was a domestic tyrant, who directed his anger against his son." (Franz Kafka 1883-1924) There are many of his stories which can be related to the antagonism and conflict between father and son. This conflict is often translated into scenes where there is a "...scorned individual's pleading innocence in front of remote figures of authority."
Franz Kafka 1883-1924) Kafka's home life was therefore filled with tension and this was also compounded by the fact that he a member of the Jewish minority. " Kafka grew up in an atmosphere of familial tensions and social rejection that he experienced as a member of Prague's Jewish minority." (Franz Kafka 1883-1924)
Kafka was also alienated in many other ways in his personal life. He was extremely sensitive and also suffered from ill-health. There was a conflict between his daily profession and his desire to write. He received his doctorate of Law in 1906 from the Ferdinand-Karls University, and worked in the insurance business until his retirement. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924. (Franz Kafka 1883-1924)
As has already been referred to, Kafka's work has also been linked to the philosophy of Existentialism. Existentialism is a philosophy that became popular during the modernist period due to the fact that that it interrogated the conventional views of reality and sought answers to the human predicament.
It was concerned with doubt and the problems of human existence. Although existentialism is difficult to define, the following is a common view of this mode of thought. "A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts." (Existentialism)
Possibly one of Kafka's most well-known works and a work that illustrates the modernist focus on the human crisis of existence is the Metamorphosis.
In this short story the main character or protagonist wakes to find that he has been transformed into an insect. The entire short story is a metaphor for the alienation and dehumanization of people in society. The first line of the story provides insight into Kafka's style in the straightforward and almost unemotional reaction of the main character to his predicament.
AS GREGOR SAMSA awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.
The story suggests that modern man is in an existential crisis and that he is trapped with very little chance of escape for the dehumanized and alienating environment in which he lives. The image and metaphor of the clumsy insect into which the protagonist in the story has changed, is a perfect and terrifying metaphor for existential anxiety and the sense of futile entrapment.
The story can also be related to Kafka's personal life. As one critic notes, there is a clear correspondence between the story of a man transformed suddenly into an insect and the confining and the claustrophobic situation of Kafka's own life.
When pondering whether escape is possible from the nightmarish world that is Kafka's creation, one must wonder where one may escape to. Kafka himself was trapped by circumstances beyond his control, he was living as a Jew in Austria, an unstable prospect at best. He was terrorized by his father, in reality and in his dreams. He was single, never marrying, and having only sporadic love and affection. How can one in this situation escape?
Franz Kafka as Modernist)
The sense of horror in the story is largely conveyed through the writing style. The terrifying transformation is described in detail and in a bland, factual and matter-of-fact way.
He thought that he might get out of bed with the lower part of his body first, but this lower part, which he had not yet seen and of which he could form no clear conception, proved too difficult to move; it shifted so slowly; and when finally, almost wild with annoyance, he gathered his forces together and thrust out recklessly, he had miscalculated the direction and bumped heavily against the lower end of the bed, and the stinging pain he felt informed him that precisely this lower part of his body was at the moment probably the most sensitive.
The description of the transformation into an insect is also the description of the dehumanization of the individual. This is possibly the true horror of the story, in that it is a metaphor for the modern human condition. This reduction of natural humanity and the sense of horror at this change are expressed in the main character's inability to speak normally.
Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but with a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, that left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then rose up reverberating round them to destroy their sense, so that one could not be sure one had heard them rightly.
This passage echoes the points mentioned above and refers to the sense of loss of identify and meaning and the sense of despair that was emphasized by Modernism and Existentialism.
In conclusion, the works of Franz Kafka are representative of the central ethos and tents of the Modernist movement in literature. His works expresses "... The angst and spiritual and emotional alienation that has become part of the Western experience with the relentless process known as modernism." (Franz Kafka and his Metamorphosis) His central themes, which emanate from a critique of his contemporary world, are the dislocation of identity and meaning and modern despair and confusion. "Kafka expressed in a deeply moving way how the hugeness and absurdity of the modern world, drifting on a relativistic sea, effects the deeply personal core of individuals." (Franz Kafka and his Metamorphosis)
Existentialism. 10 March 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/existentialism
Existentialism and Franz Kafka. 10 March 2007. http://www.dividingline.com/private/Philosophy/Philosophers/Kafka/kafka.shtml
Franz Kafka. 10 March 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/franz-kafka
Franz Kafka and his Metamorphosis. 10 March 2007. http://wotan.liu.edu/~sanderson/kafka/page2.html
Franz Kafka as Modernist. 10 March 2007. http://jeremychapman.info/cms/franz-kafka-modernist
Franz Kafka 1883-1924. 10 March 2007. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/kafka.htm
Kafka, Franz. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. New York: Modern Library, 1952.
Kafkaesque. 10 March 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/kafkaesque
Modernism. 10 March 2007. http://www.english.uga.edu/~232/voc/modernism.voc.html
Modernism and the Modern Novel. 10 March 2007. http://elab.eserver.org/hfl0255.html