05 April, 00
Despite the intentional ambiguity in his work, Franz Kafka?s stories do contain a few common thematic threads. Kafka?s search for truth, be it about relationships, justice, religion, or human nature is the one interpretation that most critics agree upon.
Wilhelm Emrich, a highly acclaimed professor in Berlin, states that Kafka?s writings can only be interpreted by accepting the full truth: ?An assistive and willing readiness for the full truth means the ability to renounce all personal, limited ideas, wishes, and efforts of will and to enter into the fullness of all of that-which-is? (50). What he is suggesting is that in order to truly hear what Kafka has to say, one is required to completely disregard the conventional.
For example, if one were to read ?The Metamorphosis,? and merely regurgitate the surface details of the story, they would entirely miss the truth behind it. On the level of relationships, the average reader might be touched by the family?s tolerance for the creature, noting that they may not have been able to do the same in a similar situation. He or she may overlook the truth of this story as ?the realization that even the most beautiful, most tender relations among people are founded on illusions? (Emrich, 142). Where was the beloved sister after his presence became burdensome? Did his family not remember his contributions to pay off the debts owed by his father? Of course not, because they became comfortable in their situation and took Gregor for granted. When his family was convinced that no hope remained for his recovery, they moved on with their lives as if Gregor no longer existed.
It is difficult to draw from ?The Metamorphosis,? any particular divine theme without first knowing that religion was the whole world to Kafka and that ?he viewed the total sum of possible experience in terms of religion? (Muir, 36). There is a subtle religious inference within Gregor?s beetle existence where he seeks the ?way to the unknown nourishment he had been longing for? (Emrich, 145). Is he longing for God, or looking for comfort in His absence? The first meal that Gregor was given consisted of bread and milk. Bread symbolizes that which is sacred in some religions. Catholicism, for example, blesses bread as the body of Christ. In biblical parables, seven loaves were broken to feed a large crowd. When Gregor refused the bread and milk, one might infer that he was rejecting God for putting him in his unthinkable condition. Emrich emphasizes Gregor?s possible rejection of faith:
?A modern man in his alienated condition, treated as an insect by his fellows who think only of appearances, frustrated in his longings which he is unable to communicate, swept away?and all the while, an unacknowledged religious victim?(36).
Human nature is difficult to describe, especially when one is expected to think outside of ?that-which-appears-to-be? instead of ?that-which-is.? After Gregor realized his metamorphosis, he still attempted to carry out his life as usual, perturbed not because he was a beetle, but because his daily work routine was disrupted. He was ?in a state of unresolved conflict between work and ego? (Emrich, 136), meaning that although he acknowledged his changed condition, though barely, Gregor still believed that it would not hinder his ability to perform his work duties. It seems odd that Gregor, who disliked his job, would not view his metamorphosis as a clear reason to abandon it. Gregor thought to himself on that morning, ?If I didn?t have to hold my hand because of my parents I?d have given notice long ago, I?d have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him? (Kafka, 1123). It is when this point arises that Kafka illustrated true human nature: man works out of obligation or duty, not because he enjoys it. Gregor is trapped in his insect form, just like he was trapped in his job.
Self-realization and fear of death are other issues Kafka deals with in ?Metamorphosis.? Gregor ?takes a long, deep look at himself and discovers his fearsome counterpart? (Fickert, 47). The moment that he accepted being a beetle and started living like one, symbolizes the moment Man first realizes who he really is and the lifestyle he has been living up to that point has been meaningless. It is at this time that one can stop fearing death. ?His death is a ?liberating realization. Gregor says, ?Yes,? to his own death and dies reconciled with himself and with the New World? (Emrich, 145).
Critics agree that Kafka is ?imply[ing] that man is hopelessly and inappropriately situated in the world as a beetle would be in a human family? (Thorlby, 40). In reference to man?s position in life Kafka says, though it is imperative for us to attempt to follow the true way, it is impossible for us to succeed in doing so (Winkler, 46).
Kafka wrote ?Before the Law? in December of 1914. It was one of the few works that he considered ready for print (Emrich, 515). Each element of the story represents an aspect of the truth Kafka wishes us to see about justice and about man. The Law, in the man?s eyes, is truth, perception, grace, and happiness. The Man is persistent yet powerless in attaining the benefit of The Law. The Gate is the path to the truth, and The Guard is the obstacle in that path (Zatonsky, 223).
According to Kafka?s writing, The Law is not a desirable institution that one can turn to for protection of their rights. ?The Law is no longer a living being, but a petrified institution, no longer timely, only still intimidating? (Fischer, 91). ?Before the Law? demonstrates a lack of timeliness in the justice system when the Man grows old waiting to be permitted to enter into it. The Man ?has come to know and find Justice [and] is left with nothing, and the Law, for which he has thirsted, is inaccessible to him?but at no time during the parable does the Guard actually say that the Man can not enter (Suchkov, 165). ?The doorkeeper stands ?before? the Law and not in the Law (Emrich, 325). True to human nature, The Man stopped at the first sign of resistance, and opted to wait for a path of lesser resistance. Perhaps Kafka is suggesting that if The Man wanted to access The Law, he should have been more aggressive. He should have pushed through the barrier, demanding his rights instead of waiting for them to be handed to him. He also suggests by his ending of the parable: ?No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.? (Kafka, 128), that if one does not take the initiative to go through the door, then the opportunity will pass and that door will be closed.
Fischer rests more fault on the shoulders of The Guard, saying that he ?repels the only one who as an individual requests entry, who is looking for his human rights as an individual…individualism has become impotent? (91). Kafka uses the gatekeeper to exaggerate the strength of world evil [in this case, the justice system] and portray it as ?something indestructible and invincible? (Suchkov, 164). In the story, the gatekeeper says, ?from hall to hall there is one door-keeper after another, each more powerful than the last? (Kafka, 128). In reference to Kafka?s search for truth, each successive guard may represent a layer, more obscured and impenetrable than the last, of the inner self that one must come in contact and bypass during an in depth search for true identity.
At last, the Gate symbolizes not only the path to truth, but the threshold which must, in one way or another, be crossed before entering the path. The Gate is never closed during the many years that the Man waits for permission to enter, indicating that the only barrier from the truth is man?s unwillingness to seek it. When the Gate is finally closed, it is not because a man was refused entrance, it was because man refused to enter it. Kafka created a ?rapidly sketched portrait of human condition, man?s frailty, his fallibility, inner conflicts resulting from his comprehension of wholeness, a perfection forever in his sight but beyond his reach? (Fickert, 58). Wholeness is only beyond our reach because we don?t reach for it.
?Up in the Gallery? deals with the ?apparent contradiction or double aspect? (Emrich, 47) of conscience and desire, and touches on Kafka?s personal desire to express his concerns for his life as a contributing artist (Fickert, 62).
The story begins with a hypothetical situation where a young woman is mechanically performing for an ?insatiable audience? in the ?infinite perspective of a drab future? when a visitor goes to the ring and yells ?Stop!? Then the hypothetical ends and the performance continues without interruption and the visitor ?lays his face on the rail before him and?weeps without knowing it? (Kafka, 125). The visitor is faced with two choices. His conscience tells him that there is something wrong with the circus performance and he must decide whether he is willing to stand alone to demand a change or whether his desire to fit in forces him to remain silent. Concerning the visitor?s dilemma, Emrich quoted Kafka by saying, ?Truth cannot be arrived at by an individual but only by the collective whole of all individuals? ( 50). The visitor weeps because he knows that the choice is not really his to make because he cannot make the change alone.
?The circus artist is a ready symbol for the artist? (Fickert, 62). An artist pours him or herself into making art, and all other aspects of life are irrelevant. That could explain why Kafka was never married, or why he had such a poor relationship with his family. Kafka felt he had to ?reconcile his need to write and his need to fit comfortably into a routine existence? (Fickert, 62). It is possible to compare the equestrienne?s desire to successfully complete her trick, with Franz Kafka?s desire to be successful in conveying his message, or man?s need to be recognized for something significant. Emrich suggests that perhaps the ?happiness of the equestrienne is actually the lie, the illusion? (32). The woman, who is ?being chased in a circle for months at a stretch into an ever-widening grey future? (Emrich, 32), symbolizes man being chased in similar circles by the desire to hold on to his illusions about life. Kafka is trying to state that if the ?truth could be seen, rescue would be possible? (Emrich, 32).
In each of the three stories, ?Metamorphosis,? ?Before the Law,? and ?Up in the Gallery?, Kafka displayed a ?recurrent theme, the unsuccessful arrival or the failure to reach the goal? (Beissner, 19). This theme can be applied in a couple of different ways. First, in a broader sense, since Kafka?s goal was to reveal Truth to his readers,
he may feel that he has failed because most readers do not search beyond the surface for the richness and value of the work. He may feel discouraged when readers try to criticize and analyze his work, assigning it concrete meanings and messages, when he is insisting that man cannot possibly fathom the real message because he is so wrapped up in his illusions.
The second way to apply this theme is to go back and take a look at each individual story to discover what the goals were of the characters and to what extent was the failure of reaching those goals. In ?Metamorphosis,? Gregor?s goal was to continue life in the manner he was comfortable with, allow him to pay the debts owed by his parents, and send his sister to a music academy. He failed because he was consumed by the inner turmoil caused by his dissatisfaction with his job, and he was transformed into a beetle. After the metamorphosis, Gregor discovers his inner-self and realizes that the goals he struggled to achieve weren?t his goals at all.
?Before the Law? has a different setting, but the same theme can be extracted. The Man?s goal was to gain access to the Law without encountering opposition. He met the gate-keeper and decided not to try to enter the Gate to the Path of Truth. A significant difference between the Man and Gregor is that the Man made the decision that would inhibit the accomplishment of his goal.
The visitor in ?Up in the Gallery? wanted to save the equestrienne from the ringmaster and the crowds but realized that he could not do it alone. Instead, he sat where he was and cried about his helplessness.
It is evident that above all, Kafka wanted to make his readers realize that there was a greater truth in existence. His ambiguous parables and stories provide exercises for the brain that begin to prepare it for that moment in time when one is faced with the truth, so that he or she will be able to recognize it. But Kafka warns, ?Life is a continual distraction which does not even allow us to reflect on that from which we are distracted? (qtd. In Pheiffer, 58).
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