Dream, Nightmare, Fairy Tale and Gothic




Patrick Bridgwater

From Patrick Bridgwater, Kafka, Gothic and Fairytale (Amsterdam-New York: Editions Rodopi, 2003) pp. 56-70.
I have abbreviated the text very slightly to promote readability.

Leon Spilliaert, Hofstraat à Ostende, 1908


No matter how Gothic his work may seem in terms of its surface content, Kafka is at the same time a high modernist who renewed the romantic novel by inventing a new form of symbolical novel incorporating autobiography and fairytale; indeed, his novels, in which the various characters are aspects of a single being, as Jung believed the characters of fairytale to be, are strictly speaking romances. As such they join all those other instances that go to prove that the best novels are more than and other than novels. His mode of narration, which reflects the basic contradiction between persona and shadow, is marked by a tension between (1) simplicity and complexity, (2) surface meaning and sub-surface meaning, (3) modes of narration proper to the fairytale (which has a crystal-clear narrative technique, but a fantastic or mysterious content) and the novel, and (4) different kinds of logic. On the level of words and phrases what counts is the logic of verbal association, this being the engine that drives the text, but within the narrative as a whole there is a contrary process in operation, so that there is also a logical development from episode to episode. As in the fairytale, then, there is a tension between transparency and non-transparency, lucidity and inexplicability. Above all there is a tension between text and subtext.

Léon Spilliaert, Vertige, 1902

Notwithstanding the deadly seriousness of his whole literary endeavour, Kafka retains, as narrator, an ironic, often shyly and slyly humorous distance from his work. He, unlike his reader, is always in total control of his narrative and its linguistic registers. Very few other writers have paid so much attention to the secondary and tertiary meanings of words and therefore been able to keep so many fictions going simultaneously. To do justice to his work in translation is absolutely impossible, to do justice to it in critical terms well-nigh impossible, for we are few of us such skilled jugglers with words, and it is a strange fact that these totally open texts often have the effect of causing critics to close their minds to every meaning except one, that one, because single, inevitably wrong. A partial truth is no truth at all.

Léon Spilliaert, Clair de lune et lumières, 1909

That every Kafka text has a subtext is indisputable, but while each of his texts says precisely what it means, it does not follow that it means what it seems to say, or that it means only what it says or seems to say. On the contrary, it means not only what he consciously and subconsciously intended it to say, but also what he intended it to conceal, for, like the dreams and fairytales they so closely resemble, his texts have both a manifest (surface) and a latent (masked) meaning, these reflecting his dual intention at any given time of simultaneously revealing and concealing his meaning. Text and dream alike are the tip of an iceberg. As in a dream, the inner, intensely personal meaning of his text is displaced and thereby concealed beneath the surface of the text, which masks its ‘unsayable’ deeper meaning(s) by offering the reader a beguilingly simple (and of course misleading) surface reading that steers clear of the issues which Kafka, for all his devastating honesty, does not wish to be seen washing in public.

Léon Spilliaert, La Nuit, 1908

Since the issues he conceals in the subtext are precisely those censored in dreams at the behest of the moral censor or super-ego (that internal monitor, represented in Freud’s Introductory Lectures of 1916-17, as a ‘door-keeper’ who vets unconscious thoughts before deciding whether to let them through to consciousness), it follows that most of the meaning of a Kafka text is to be found beneath the surface, where ambiguity and displacement of emphasis hide it from view. The subversion of the apparent meaning, achieved by a masterly use of ambiguity which takes full advantage of the unstable and contradictory nature of language as such, and more especially of the web of secondary meanings that his chosen words so often possess (the critic’s job is to expose these, not pretend they are not there), is made necessary by the psychological imperative to hide his meaning. The real, underlying meanings of his work are conditioned by his psychic, psycho-linguistic and psycho-sexual compulsions, and thus by the power-relationship of domination by his father that obtained when it was written, although the element of sheer verbal play, the play and interplay of meanings, is also exceptionally strong. Verbal play should never be overlooked, but neither should it be taken at face value; when Kafka puns, as he frequently does, he does so in order to sustain secondary levels of meaning and thereby reinforce the maze of the text.

Léon Spilliaert, Intentions, 1918

The novels can best be compared with the burrow of ‘The Burrow’ with its maze of passages, many of them (including some of the many literary references) blind alleys which lead nowhere, being intended to mislead or to lead round in circles. They are thus ‘ways out’ only for the author/narrator, not for the inquisitive critic, whom Kafka enjoys baiting, and who is as surely trapped in the labyrinth of the text as the burrower is entrapped and prematurely inhumed in his burrow. The ‘dangers of being duped by the deceits of narrative’ that have been said1 to be demonstrated by one of the ‘Northanger horrid novels’, Regina Maria Roche’s Clermont, were built into his narratives by Kafka, who goes further than Gothic in this respect too. If his works seem like puzzles, they are puzzles without a solution, for any ‘solution’ can only be achieved at the expense of the text, by limiting it to one meaning or by restating it in different terms. It is easy to mistake the text’s subjective significance (to the reader/critic) for its objective meaning. Although, as with fairytale, the text is ‘its own best explanation, its meaning contained in the totality of motifs connected by the thread of the story’,2 one of the most significant ways in which Kafka’s texts differ from the fairytale whose motifs they are given to borrowing lies in the multiplicity of meaning of so many of the individual words of which they are constructed.


1 – Fred Botting, Gothic (London & New York: Routledge, 1996) 72
2 – Marie Louise von Franz, Interpretation of Fairytales (New York: Spring Publications, 1970) 1

Léon Spilliaert, Amour, 1901

These texts are in fact the clearest possible illustration of what Dilthey called the hermeneutic circle, that is, the idea that the meaning of the constituent parts of a text can only be understood if one has an intuitive prior sense of the meaning of the text as a whole, while the meaning of the whole can be known only if one has a prior knowledge of the meaning of its constituent parts. The need for a ‘mutually qualifying interplay between our evolving sense of the whole and our retrospective understanding of its constituent parts’1 is fundamental to Kafka criticism, in which the problem has always been how to reconcile the general and the particular, given the self-evident importance of the latter. No one has ever written more lucidly than Kafka, and yet he has been more misunderstood than perhaps any other writer. In the final analysis this is less because of the brilliant way in which he combines multiple layers of meaning in apparently simple, and, it might—wrongly—be thought, unambiguous words, than because his very manner succeeds in tempting critics into interpreting a text of their own construction. It is easy to generalize about Kafka, so long as one does not delude oneself that one is thereby explaining his meaning. When it comes to that, it is true to say that the devil is in the details. That the last few observations have necessarily moved away from Gothic is a reflection of the fact that Kafka’s work has a complexity and a metafictionality that go beyond anything in Gothic, so that the many Gothic or ostensibly Gothic motifs are deployed in texts which are finally non-Gothic. The same goes for fairytale motifs.


1 – M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edn (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 128

Léon Spilliaert, Bête de proie – femme aillée, 1903


Gothic is essentially a dream literature, its hallmark the realized nightmare. While there is no etymological link between Märchen [fairy tale] and nightmare, there is a conceptual one, for ‘Wishes and fantasies may come to life in the fairy tale, but fears and phobias also become full-blooded presences’.1 Ludwig Laistner, writing in 1889, argued that fairytale motifs derive from dreams; the motifs he discussed in trying to prove his point were nightmare ones.2 A tale like ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ is clearly closer to nightmare, and to Gothic, than to dream.


1 – Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), xv
2 – See Marie Louise von Franz, Interpretation of Fairytales (New York: Spring Publications, 1970), 5

Léon Spilliaert, La Mort (Théâtre), 1903

The Inquisition, which features in many Gothic nightmares, was so concerned about the heresies expressed in dreams, that it sought to control them,1 and the literary Gothic Revival was preceded and accompanied by a preoccupation with dreams in general and the nightmare in particular. J. Bond published An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare in 1753, and Adam Friedrich Wilhelm Saalfeld’s A Philosophical Discourse on the Nature of Dreams (1764) came out, appropriately, in the same year as The Castle of Otranto, which was said to be based on ‘the very imperfect recollection of a dream’. Saalfeld’s work prepared the way for Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ (1781, parodied in 1794 in Richard Newton’s ‘A Night Mare’), which in turn opened up the way for further dreams in art, including Fuseli’s own ‘An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Girls’ (c. 1793), in which the iconography of the dream is tinged with eroticism. The rather literary picture of the nightmare painted by R. Macnish in his The Philosophy of Sleep (1834) was clearly influenced by nightmare experiences as described in the Gothic novel with which he grew up, and to which he refers: If we have been engaged in the perusal of such works as The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, and if an attack of nightmare should supervene, it will be exaggerated into sevenfold horror by the spectral phantoms with which our minds have been thereby filled.2 Elsewhere he refers to Hoffmann, De Quincey and Polidori,3 using the term ‘daymare’ to describe the waking nightmare that was to form the basis of Kafka’s work.


1 – See Caesar Carena, Tractatus de Officio Sanctissimae Inquisitionis (Cremona: Belpier, 1641)
2 – Robert Macnish, The Philosophy of Sleep, 2nd edn (Glasgow: W. R. M’Phun, 1834), 137
3 – Macnish., 94, 95, 155

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait, 1908

Writing of the ‘modern novel’ in 1800, Sade argued that it was necessary to call hell to the rescue and to find in the world of nightmare images adequate to ‘the history of man in this Iron Age of ours’.1 More than adequate nightmare images were subsequently found by Goya, who did indeed ‘call hell to the rescue’ when he produced his terrible Black Paintings at the end of the Gothic period proper, in the early 1820s. Fiedler, quoting Sade, commented that The key words are ‘nightmare’ and ‘hell’, revealing how consciously some Gothic writers turned to the night side of life, the irrational world of sleep, for themes and symbols appropriate to the terrors bred by the Age of Reason,2 and there is a further point, also admirably made by Fiedler: Implicit in the gothic novel from the beginning is a final way of redeeming it that is precisely opposite in its implications to the device of the explained supernatural, a way of proving not that its terror is less true than it seems but more true. There is a place in men’s lives where pictures bleed, ghosts gibber and shriek, maidens run forever through mysterious landscapes from nameless foes; that place is, of course, the world of dreams and the repressed guilts and fears that motivate them. This world the dogmatic optimism and shallow psychology of the Age of Reason had denied; and yet this world it is the final, perhaps the essential, purpose of the gothic romance to assert.3 Fiedler rightly saw symbolic fiction, in which character, setting and incident are true not in their own right, but as they symbolize in outward terms an inward reality4 as coming to a climax in Kafka.


1 – I quote the paraphrase by Leslie A. Fiedler from his Love and Death in the American Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1997) 136 as being more to my point than a literal translation.
2 – Fiedler, 136. The concept of the ‘night-side’ of life entered the English language in 1848 with Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature, which was inspired by Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert’s Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft of 1808.
3 – Fiedler, 140
4 – Fiedler, 141

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait aux masques, 1903

Such fiction originated in the period of literary High Gothic, which saw the appearance, in 1814, of Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert’s Die Symbolik des Traumes, in which it was argued that the dreamer is confronted by certain qualities or actions in the guise of persons and of ideas in the form of pictorial images; that dreams take metaphors literally, work by means of association of ideas, and tend to invert their meaning; and that in ‘Halbschlummer’ (Freud’s ‘hypnagogic state’) the two different, alternative languages of waking and sleep are liable to intermingle. For good measure, there is much talk of the ‘shadow-side of the self, thus anticipating one of Jung’s most important ideas as well as a number of Freud’s. Schubert regarded the symbolic language of dreams as superior in expressivity to the language of waking.1 And then there was Arthur Schopenhauer’s astutely provocative romantic question in 1818: ‘We have dreams; may not our whole life be a dream? Or, more exactly: is there any sure way of distinguishing between dreams and reality, between phantasms and real objects?’2 Schopenhauer, most genial and literary of philosophers, is the philosopher of Gothic3 as Goya is its illustrator. The two come together as background to The Castle. On a linguistic level, Kafka’s starting-point for his third and final novel was Schopenhauer’s remark about ‘a man walking round a castle, looking in vain for an entrance’,4 which belongs together with one of Goya’s Black Paintings, the ‘Fantastic Vision’ (‘Al aquilarre’) of c. 1820 that features a totally inaccessible Gothic edifice. Schopenhauer’s suspicion that life itself may be a kind of dream was shared by one of Kafka’s favourite writers, the Viennese playwright Franz Grillparzer, and, as Through the Looking-Glass shows, by Lewis Carroll.


1 – See Eric A. Blackall, The Novels of the German Romantics (Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1983) 148ff. That is why Hoffmann regarded artistic activity as a superior form of dream.
2 – Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, tr. R. B. Haldane & J. Kemp (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., n.d.) I, 20
3 – And, of course, of Kafka (see T. J. Reed, ‘Kafka und Schopenhauer. Philosophisches Denken und dichterisches Bild,’ Euphorion, 1965, 160-72)
4 – Arthur Schopenhauer’s sämmtliche Werke in sechs Bänden, ed. Eduard Grisebach (Leipzig: Reclam, n.d.) I, 150

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait au miroir, 1908

The alternative, virtual reality of the dream is as basic to Gothic as it is to Kafka’s work. Fiedler’s statement that The flight of the Gothic heroine into a dark region of make-believe, along the shadowy corridors of the haunted castle, which is to say, through a world of ancestral and infantile fears projected in dreams1 puts the reader in mind of The Trial and The Castle, but also of Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared], in which Karl Rossmann plays the part of Gothic heroine against a theatrical backdrop and later, as liftboy, plays the gallant in a no less theatrical way (‘Aufzug’, lift, also means act [of a play]). The dreamlike nature of Kafka’s work, especially the novels, is fundamental both in itself and as a link with Gothic and fairytale. All three symbolical forms use the same universal symbolism.


1 – Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1997) 128

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait au chevalet, 1908


Even in early Gothic the emphasis came increasingly to be on psychological forces: In the early nineteenth century, psychological rather than supernatural forces became the prime movers in worlds where individuals could be sure neither of others nor of themselves. Gothic subjects were alienated, divided from themselves. Nature, wild and untameable, was as much within as without.1 There is not a page in Kafka’s novels that does not illustrate the primal Gothic conflict, which is internal, between one’s own selves.2 Gothic, re-emerging (for much of it had been present in the sixteenth century, notably in Webster) from the shadows of the mind as the darker side of Romanticism, became part of an internalized world of guilt, anxiety and despair’, its ultimate concern the uncertain bounds of imaginative freedom and human knowledge.3 Kafka is not exactly a Romantic, but his work is in the tradition of what in German is called schwarze Romantik (Gothic Romanticism), and marks the final phase of the internalization of Gothic forms that began back in the Romantic period. His world being akin to the inner worlds of Hoffmann, Maturin, Brockden Brown, Dana and Poe, it is true to say that The focus in Kafka on disturbed psychological states, on social alienation and inner turmoil, relates to the horrors glimpsed by the Gothic Romantics.4 The most important aspect of the Gothic inner world is the dream.


1 – Fred Botting, Gothic (London & New York: Routledge, 1996) 12
2 – Dorothy Scarborough, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (New York: Lethe Press, 2001) 76
3 – Fred Botting, Gothic (London & New York: Routledge, 1996) 10
4 – Botting, 160

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait, 3 novembre 1908

In his classic study of The Fantastic,1 Todorov observed that Kafka’s entire world obeys an oneiric logic, if not indeed a nightmare one. Kafka’s novels are not ‘about’ a dream or dreams in the literal sense, although Karl Rossmann comes to Pollunder’s country house ‘as in a dream’, the alternative ending of The Trial was entitled ‘A Dream’, and The Castle includes a notable account of a dream. All three novels are, however, literary dreams, the dream in question being, like those in so many nineteenth-century novels, a dream of authority2 reflecting and challenging the position of the Victorian pater familias, the type of which Kafka père was a bizarre Bohemian variant. The dreamer is, of course, Kafka himself, there being, in this respect, a parallel with Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘delivered under the Similitude of a Dream’, begins As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. One would not expect Kafka, writing well over two hundred years later, to be as plain. Nor is he.


1 – Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975) 173
2 – See Ronald R. Thomas, Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990) 1

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouette de l’artiste, 1907

The dream of authority, with Kafka, is a dream about paternal-patriarchal control and the experience of losing control over self when faced with such a challenge. When Josef K. goes to call on the artist Titorelli, he sees, in a tinsmith’s workshop, a ‘great sheet of tin’ hanging on the wall that is reminiscent of the ‘sheet of tin’ in Freud’s description of ‘The dream of a young man inhibited by his father-complex’,1 a fact which tends to confirm that Kafka knew The Interpretation of Dreams.2 Habitually writing in a condition akin to dream, he was invariably writing about himself and, metafictionally, about his writing. Like dreams in the nineteenth-century Gothic novel, his novels are sites of a struggle to gain authority over the self through language.3 It was because they ultimately failed to generate any such authority, leaving their author as uncertain as ever, afraid that he had caught himself in a snare of his own making, that Kafka, ever his own severest critic, professed to see them as failures.


1 – Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967) 365
2 – Calvin S. Hall and Richard E. Lind, Dreams, Life and Literature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 9. Hall and Lind refer to The Interpretation of Dreams as ‘a work with which Kafka was familiar’.
3 – Cf. Hall and Lind, 80

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait, 1907

In The Trial and The Castle, K. –like Rossmann before him—loses control of himself, and is thereby reduced to insignificance: ‘You are nothing’, he is told in a throwaway remark that reveals one of the themes of The Trial, and indeed of The Castle, to be that of the experience of nothingness. The idea of the poet as night-watchman or measurer of time is peculiarly applicable to Kafka, who, like Hoffmann and Maturin, wrote mostly at night, his dreamlike inner life transposed in a stream of semi-consciousness into never-ending paragraphs in which time is visibly transformed into space, the domain of the poetic land-surveyor.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait aux yeux bleus, 1903

The protagonist in each of Kafka’s novels is, in Henry James’s terminology, his ‘centre of consciousness’. The other figures are projections of this focus character, their symbolical identity with him or with one another (when they happen to symbolize the same thing) mostly represented, as in dreams, by means of contiguity. These figures merge, overlap and give way to new ones, but all are projections of the ‘dreamer’-protagonist, for dreams are wholly egoistical, dramas in which all the actors are parts of the dreamer.1 The dreamer in question is Franz Kafka, and, through him, Josef K. The Trial, that ‘Pilgrim’s Progress of the sub-conscious’,2 is the account of a dreamlike process going on in Kafka’s mind and projected by him into Josef K.’s mind, and the same is true of The Castle and even of Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared] although this was written before Kafka’s literary dream-method was fully established. As in The Necromancer and Shelley’s dreamlike Gothic Zastrozzi, inner impulses are consistently dramatized as external figures; as in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, Kafka’s narrative, in each of his novels, is a ‘drama of the interior’,3 the interiority of the narrative subject becoming all-important as the outward trappings of Gothic are turned inward.


1 – See The Interpretation of Dreams, 322, and J. A. Hadfield, Dreams and Nightmares (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1954) 146
2 – Quoted from the blurb of the Penguin edition
3 – Robert Miles, Gothic Writing 1750-1820 (London & New York: Routledge, 1993) 142

Léon Spilliaert, Digue la nuit et reflets de lumière, 1908

The Inquisition becomes a symbol of the conscience; the Gothic Castle becomes ‘one’s own castle’, the citadel-cum-prison-cell of the self, for Kafka is concerned, like the more cerebral of the early Gothic novelists, to explore the dark and often frightening interior regions in which we dwell. If, therefore, the Gothic novel involves a mode or code for the representation of fragmented subjectivity,1 Kafka is the Gothic novelist par excellence in the sense that his three novels represent the deepest and most single-minded exploration yet of subjectivity and some of its murky recesses. In showing that subjectivity is the only certainty, his trilogy of self-exploration becomes more (and therefore by definition less) Gothic than Gothic. The way in which Gothic motifs are, in Kafka, transformed and displaced, often to the point where the ‘Gothic’ element is swallowed up by the post-Gothic narrative, is part of the process of displacement underlying the creative process that makes it so dreamlike.


1 –Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno Press, 1980) 11f.

Léon Spilliaert, L’Attente, 1908

The characters within the dream-fiction are therefore real and unreal in much the same way as the characters in dreams and fairytales. What counts is not just the methodology and iconography of dreams, but their nature, for every dream represents the fulfilment in the imagination of some desire that has been repressed in the waking state because it is unacceptable to the subject’s consciousness. This repressed desire can be allowed to obtain imaginary gratification in the dream only when it is not recognizable by the subject, so that it appears in another form by becoming distorted, perverted and disguised.1 So dreamlike is Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared] that this description applies to it in an exemplary way. The first chapter, like the first part of a dream, reveals the problem and recalls the cause that gave rise to it. The replications of the key event, involving Klara, Theresa and Brunelda, are therefore increasingly ‘distorted, perverted and disguised’ to the point where they are almost—but not quite—unrecognizable, the masking being necessary because Karl also enjoyed the experience more than he is willing to admit, hence all the references to the Devil, notorious for his licentiousness, with whom Karl eventually identifies.


1 – Ernest Jones, Nightmare, Witches and Devils (New York: Norton, n.d.) 42

Léon Spilliaert, Paysage aux arbres élancés, 1902

If works such as ‘The Judgment’, ‘The Metamorphosis’, The Trial and The Castle, among others, are in effect transcripts of linked day-dreams, and in that sense virtual dreams, they can be compared with a work described by its author as ‘the legend of some hideous dream that can return no more’, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which remains important not least for its thematic and formal affinities with the Gothic novel that forms one of the central reference points in De Quincey’s work. If De Quincey’s Confessions, like so much Gothic fiction, strives to ‘speak the unspeakable language of the dream’,1 Kafka’s work as a whole is the most consequential attempt ever made since De Quincey to describe the author’s dreamlike inner world in order to define himself. There are, of course, major differences between the two writers, one of whom was writing under the influence of opium and the other merely in a regular state of exhaustion, and De Quincey also emphasized that his self-accusation did not amount to a confession of guilt; in this it differs from Kafka’s self-accusations, all of them premised on the unshakeable conviction of his guilt. De Quincey claimed to be writing to help others; Kafka was writing to help himself.


1 – Ronald R. Thomas, Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990) 100

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouettes costumées, clair de lune, 1902

Like the Gothic novel, Kafka’s novels stand comparison not merely with the dream as such, but with the combination of dream and anxiety attack known as nightmare, a phenomenon common in Gothic fiction and one which occupies an important place in the mythology of the Gothic imagination.1 Ernest Jones’s Nightmare, Witches and Devils reflects Jones’s concern with the part that Nightmare experiences have played in the production of certain false ideas, the ideas in question—incubus, vampire, werewolf, devil and witch—having much in common. The only one that is not directly relevant to Kafka’s novels is the werewolf, and even that is not far away: one thinks of the victim of the torture-machine, who identifies with the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood in saying Throw that whip away or I will eat you up, of the northern cannibal hordes (cf. the men-hyenas of folklore and the identification of the Devil with the hyena2) in ‘The Great Wall of China’ with their gaping mouths, their jaws furnished with great pointed teeth, their half-shut eyes that already seem to be seeking out the victim that their jaws will rend and devour, and of the jackals (an animal that features in numerous folktales) in ‘Jackals and Arabs’.


1 – Thus Philip W. Martin, in The Handbook to Gothic Literature, ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 164
2 – See Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature, 6 volumes (Copenhagen: Rosenkilder & Bagger, 1955) D313.4 & 5, G303.

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouettes costumées, clair de lune, 1902

Vampirism and cannibalism are related, and Kafka’s ‘cannibal’ also corresponds (at one extreme of meaning) to the werewolf, so that all these extraordinary figures of nightmare, or references to them, feature in the novels and related shorter works. This is appropriate, for not only is it generally recognized that the Nightmare has exercised a greater influence on waking phantasy than any other dream,1 but the nightmare is the expression of Kafka’s deepest anxieties. I am thinking, particularly, of the anxiety associated with the repressed wish for a particular sexual experience. In the dream such things are disguised, often heavily so, and with good reason, for The mere dimly realized possibility of becoming against his will overmastered by a form of desire that the whole strength of the rest of his mind is endeavouring to resist is often sufficient to induce in a given person a state of panic-stricken terror.2 This particular nightmare form of anxiety was clearly experienced by Kafka and displaced by him on to the naive protagonist of his first novel.


1 – Jones, 73
2 – Jones, 43

Léon Spilliaert, Le nuage, 1902


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