17 March 2017

Patriarchy and the Traumatised Protagonist in Franz Kafka

"There is an acute sense of the fragmentation of patriarchy in the fin de siècle fictions of Kafka, and the accompanying sense of trauma in his protagonists. If Metamorphosis may be counted as fantasy literature, then it seems that Kafka had to leave the world of the real and enter the fictional world of the eroded man, the liquid boundary, that place where things are not what they seem, of the fractured self, in order to express his unease."

There is an acute sense of the fragmentation of patriarchy in the fin de siècle fictions of Kafka, and the accompanying sense of trauma in his protagonists. If Metamorphosis may be counted as fantasy literature, then it seems that Kafka had to leave the world of the real and enter the fictional world of the eroded man, the liquid boundary, that place where things are not what they seem, of the fractured self, in order to express his unease. I say it is a piece of fantasy literature because fantasy disturbs rules of artistic representation and literature’s reproduction of the real. At the heart of the crises and traumas I am looking at is the sense of dissolution. Etymologically, the Greek meaning of the word trauma is relevant, as Kafka is writing about wounded men whose cultural inheritance offers little support for their attempts to make sense of a changing world. And I think that is at the core of much of the literature at the turn of the century, an attempt at hermeneutics, an attempt to interpret when the old cultural meanings began to become eroded. Kafka explores the fracture of identity, and he writes about alienation. In Metamorphosis (1912), he writes of Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect:

Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background?1

The story gives a sense of both individual and familial alienation, and it uses the family structure to reflect a wider social arena of dehumanising tendencies. Kafka’s struggle and the attendant themes of his fictions hint at the politicisation of man and the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century and all its shattered heroism. I believe that his key works explore the challenge to a traditional morality at the turn of the century, for reasons that are partly cultural and partly economic, expressed through fiction, that absorbent sponge of the social unconscious. Kafka’s relationship with his father is a salutary place to start, it exemplifies a deeply embedded sense of authoritarian control and the author’s artistic rebellion from and interpretation of it, and it exemplifies his views on patriarchy. In his “Letter to His Father” (1919), the author tellingly writes:

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you … you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me… You have not expected any gratitude for this, … but have expected at least some sort of obligingness… I have never taken any interest in the business of your other concerns; I left the factory in your hands and walked off…2


The authoritarian father, inheritance and its burdens, the theme of sacrifice, gratitude and guilt, are key themes in Kafka’s fictions. While the reasons for Kafka’s personal alienation may lie in his relationship with his father, it is interesting to reflect on Jonathan Swift’s observation that men are grateful in the same degree as they are vengeful. Gratitude may attest to the authority of the benefactor, it is also part of a familial prison in Kafka. Ideas of legacy, be they familial or colonial, are at the heart of early twentieth-century fiction that explores the erosion of the structures that uphold these values, and how they predate the ongoing crisis of the twentieth century. Kafka refers elsewhere in his letter to his father as, “my father, the ultimate authority”. That is a key part of what he is writing about and not just here but in Metamorphosis, in The Trial, The Castle, In the Penal Colony and numerous other fictions, he is dramatising the breakdown of a historical certainty, of the securities of patriarchy as a provider of economic and social continuity, interestingly, at the start of a century which saw the rise of totalitarianism. The word was coined in May 1923 by Giovanni Amendola as a condemnation of Fascist ambitions to monopolise power. And there is much of the totalitarian in Kafka’s works. His fictions glimpse the roots of a cultural shift, of the genesis of a new paradigm and they hint at what was to come.

It is clear what kind of father Kafka had. He writes: “Your self-confidence was indeed so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right.” And Kafka describes it quite explicitly when he writes: “For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not their reason.”3

In Metamorphosis as Gregor Samsa struggles to come to understand what has happened to him, his family watch as his isolation and alienation are complete:

If he only had a chance to turn round he could get back to his room at once, but he was afraid of exasperating his father by the slowness of such a rotation and at any moment the stick in his father’s hand might hit him a fatal blow on the back or on the head. … keeping an anxious eye on his father all the same over his shoulder, he began to turn round as quickly as he could.4

The story is in many ways about family alienation and patriarchal authoritarianism. Gregor’s situation is an illustration of the utter dehumanisation of a
human being:

Gregor’s serious wound, from which he suffered for over a month – the apple remained in his flesh as a visible souvenir since no one dared remove it – seemed to have reminded even his father that Gregor was a member of the family, in spite of his present pathetic and repulsive shape, who could not be treated as an enemy; that on the contrary, it was the commandment of family duty to swallow their disgust and endure him, endure him and nothing more.5

Gregor is the traumatised protagonist of a narrative about the alienation within an authoritarian famil
y. His situation is a microcosm of a larger social reality, one that carries with it the burden of a repression by forces that either engineer or break the individual, thus ensuring trauma and crisis within the personality. While Gregor Samsa’s predicament is enacted along fantasy lines, with his alienation so complete he is perceived as less than human, other characters in Kafka are subjected to a far more blatant intrusion by the state. His story In the Penal Colony (1914) tells of a huge state machine that inscribes a prisoner’s crimes on his skin. The story opens like this:


It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus”, said the officer to the explorer and surveyed with a certain air of admiration the apparatus which was after all quite familiar to him. The explorer seemed to have accepted merely out of politeness the Commandant’s invitation to witness the execution of a soldier to death for disobedience and insulting behaviour to a superior.6


The idea represents the ultimate intrusion on the body by state punishment, a totalitarian control that is eerily prescient of the acts that would be carried out by the Third Reich later in the century. The machine assumes a life of its own, tearing apart an officer when he offers himself as sacrifice. The issue of disobedience is key here, especially if you think back to Kafka’s relationship with his father. The idea of sacrifice is something I will return to. It is implicit in much of the work of Kafka and central to a culture in a state of implosion, harnessing energies to its own ideology.

It is interesting to bring in György Lukács here, albeit he is talking about capitalism, the idea is useful to what we are looking at, since ideology is fundamental to the subject. Thinking of Kafka’s portrait of the sacrifice of a human being to a system that demands obedience, it is an example of Lukács’s observation in Capitalism and Class Consciousness (1923), that:

The problem of commodities must not be considered or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity be made to yield to a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.7


It is a structural issue, with the individual being placed inside that structure and subjected to its ideology. Whether you take a Marxist reading or a Freudian one, the result is that it is clear Kafka is dramatising the issue of human identity in a system that attempts to reduce it or clone it to a model that makes it functional to the purposes of that system, no matter how remote its interests are from the individual’s. Issues of obedience and cultural programming are present here. Lukács writes:

Neither objectively nor in relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.8


Conformity, sacrifice, the engineering of the personality, cultural control programmes, all are inherent in these fictions. If we look at them in the wider context of any ideology, it is interesting to note that they were written at the turn of a century in which ideology played such a key role not only in intellectual movements but also in wars that destroyed the economy. The trauma of the protagonists of these fictions is one of repression by an idea, or enforcement to conformity to an idea. Men are reduced to commodities.

If we look again at Kafka’s relationship with his father, it is a reflection of a wider sense of struggle with patriarchy. Metamorphosis is in many ways structured around an Oedipal conflict. Father and son are antagonists. The father’s space, the family home, is threatened by the son’s metamorphosis, and the father drives him to suicide. Destroyed or castrated by the father, Gregor finds it impossible to move through the Oedipal stage and has “to be got rid of”. The story acts as a counterpoint between familial conflict and its place within a social structure that relied on a form of repression that Kafka was actively exploring in his fictions, it is a repression that results in the diminution or annihilation of a protagonist who is battling a system, such as Josef K. in The Trial (1914). There is no hope for Josef K. from the beginning of the novel:

Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.9

So begin his pointless efforts against a bureaucracy that is so large he cannot penetrate it. His sacrifice is embedded in his initial arrest for a crime he is neither guilty of nor even understands the nature of. It is a brilliant and chilling echo of what was to take place during the Second World War, a narrative of persecution by a state machine that needs to give no explanation. Josef K. is the eroded protagonist, traumatised, in a state of constant crisis with no resolution since he is surrounded by a state machine that denies him a voice. At the end of the novel he submits to his fate as an object of sacrifice. There are many other examples of characters who are diminished in Kafka. The character in The Hunger Artist (1922) shrivels into a bundle of straw and is replaced by a panther. The Burrow (1923) is a fantasy of an underground creature, buried beneath “a big hole, that leads nowhere”. In The Judgement (1913) we see a story that closely parallels Kafka’s relationship with his own father. In it a young merchant, Georg Bendemann writes a letter to a friend in Russia informing him that he is about to be married. When he tells his father about the letter his father questions the existence of his friend and accuses him of deceiving him about the business. Georg shrinks away into a corner. His father accuses him of being selfish and sentences him to death by drowning”. Georg runs to a stretch of water and plunges over the railings.

The conflict between father and son runs throughout his work, and Kafka utilises it to explore a much wider social sphere. Artistically he was struggling against the tyranny of the patriarch. And it seems that his protagonist is inevitably an object of sacrifice in a society that needs his energies to survive. As such the society Kafka portrays, and its family structure is one which needs to indoctrinate its sons, and where obedience fails, then punitive measures are brought in, to the point of erasing the self, crushing the personality, and denying an individuality, the ultimate statement of the totalitarian regime, in the name of social integration and a law that offers no explanation and is in a sense its own absolute and moral imperative. These are fictions in which heroism is redundant.

The works I am discussing take place at the turn of the century. Historically they form part of the lead-up to the First World War. They inherit the disease with the past and explore some of the reasons for its implosion. In them Kafka is questioning cultural inheritance, often in a familial sense, as he is a microcosmic writer. The evidences of authoritarian breakdown are there in earlier novels, such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), with Ahab representing the totalitarian ruler knowing no constraint on the Pequod, a microcosm of early America, especially as described in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Ahab is following his own dictates, in his case not economically sound ones. He is using the ship and his crew to pursue his mad vengeance of the white whale.

Kafka’s fictions speak of things that were to take place later in the century. He offers his harrowing glimpses in The Trial of what was to take place in the Third Reich. His fictional resonance can be felt in many later works, as if his axiomatic style of delivery had caught a zeitgeist. It is salutary to bring in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) here. Although outside our historical field, it bears close relation to many of the themes I am discussing. In the novel we have another example of a successful product of patriarchy, in this case capitalist patriarchy. Jay Gatsby, the elusive protagonist and millionaire exudes the air of the kind of success dreamed about by all the aspirational debutantes and party goers of a twenties America. Yet his real story is one of bootlegging and other criminal activities. He is a veneer balanced precariously on a carefully protected lifestyle that embodies the great American dream and his story reveals the hollowness at its core, since like the fictions that surround colonialism, it is built on a series of false propositions that are pure ideology.

It is ideas and ideology that drive the structures that traumatise the protagonists in these works, be they patriarchal or colonial. And Kafka lays bare those ideologies by not only showing what happens to men subjected to their dictates. Gregor Samsa fails his father and is made into an insect. The reasons for patriarchal success are laid bare in these fictions. It requires obedience or it enforces it.

Kafka’s fictions are enduringly relevant because they are archives of the early twentieth- century alienation and the inheritance of Victorian ideals as well as their erosive effects on the individual. These are fictions of crisis that show how that inheritance was losing its hold, a precursor to the more extreme ideologies the century was to see in war and dictatorship. Gregor Samsa represents the alienated man who has been denied his humanity. Metamorphosis and the other works I have discussed show the attempted replication of a male type by a system that needs conformity and what happens when the male fails inside that system, as if the need for totalitarianism and its attendant propaganda was waiting round the corner. Their relevance today is clear. It seems those totalitarian forces are now present in the virtual world we occupy.



1 Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 1952, p. 82.

2 “Letter to His Father.” Ibid., p. 4.

3 “Letter to His Father.” Ibid., p. 4.

4 Ibid., p. 84.

5 Ibid., p. 100.

6 In the Penal Colony, Penguin, 1984, p. 2.

7 Lukács, György. Capitalism and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press, 1967, p. 200.

8 Ibid., p. 202.

9 The Trial, Pan, 1982, p. 14.

HUNGARIAN REVIEW is published by BL Nonprofit Kft.
It is an affiliate of the bi-monthly journal Magyar Szemle, published since 1991
Publisher: György Granasztói
Editor-in-Chief: Gyula Kodolányi
Editorial Manager: Ildikó Geiger
Editorial office: Budapest, 1067, Eötvös u. 24., HUNGARY
E-mail: hungarianreview@hungarianreview.com
Online edition: www.hungarianreview.com

Genereal terms and conditions