The Structure of Franz Kafka’s Fiction




George Szanto

From George H. Szanto, Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Fiction of Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972) pp. 17-30.
I have abbreviated the text very slightly to promote readability.

Agnieszka Brzezanska, Thinking Pose, 2007


Clues to the style of a conventional narrative were once discernible through examination of the immediate passage, but when dealing with Kafka one must first grasp the whole, whereafter the particular segment will illuminate itself. Looking at a paragraph of Kafka’s prose, the reader recognizes each moment in the narrative to be so closely integrated into the entirety of the work that he is at a loss without the guide of some context. In works of other writers, orientation is usually established by a verbalized point of view, but in Kafka, no statement, no directing voice guides one into the new fiction. The only context is the whole work—the whole story, the whole novel. There is no philosophy upon which the reader can rely, no previously secured understanding between the author and the reader. It is therefore to the whole work that one must turn, to the largest element of an author’s style, his unifying structure.

Agnieszka Brzezanska, Untitled, 2008

Perhaps the best comprehension of Kafka’s structure was expressed metaphorically by Clemens Heselhaus.1 Working from the pattern of the fairy tale wherein the hero, confronted with a problem, solves its successfully, Heselhaus notes the lack of success displayed by Kafka’s protagonists and categorizes Kafka’s tales as anti-fairy-tales. The pleasant fairy tale is turned about, and its hero, in Kafka’s stories, comes to an unpleasant end. Kurt Weinberg too notes the presence of mythic patterns and their inversion in the tales but he relies heavily on Kafka’s apparent use and modification of classical archetypes.2 Kafka, however, deals only cursorily with the trappings of the Western heritage. He finds archetypes of little interest, since these imply spatial relationships,3 whereas the importance of Kafka’s ritualized life cycle is its temporal nature: ritual is movement in time. Friedrich Beissner explains: ‘The unity of the theme is in pure correlationship with the unity of meaning in the portrayal. It is often said that great writers have in fact only one theme, a “permanent note” running through all the manifold realizations and variations of the theme. Kafka’s recurrent theme is the unsuccessful arrival or the failure to reach the goal.’4


1 – Clemens Heselhaus, ‘Kafkas Erzählformen,’ Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift 26 ( 1952): 376
2 – Kurt Weinberg, Kafkas Dichtungen: Die Travestien des Mythos.
3 – As Weinberg would have it, the stories are attempted dialogues between man and God’s silence.
4 – Friedrich Beissner, ‘Kafka the Artist,’ in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ronald Gray, p. 19

Lisa Beck, To Everything (Study), 2008

One of the clearest statements of the pattern cut by Kafka’s life cycle—the ritual prescribed for each segment of humanity that allows itself even a moment of consciousness in an otherwise apparently placid world—is made by Eliseo Vivas, who calls it ‘Kafka’s conception of existence’: Kafka’s discovery involves an ordered process which we can more or less adequately capture in the following formula: a crisis leads either to a sense of guilt or to a condition of alienation. In either case the crisis generates a struggle which expresses itself, among other ways, in the arrogant demands made by the hero. As he begins to feel the effects of the crisis the hero gradually trims his demands but he never altogether ceases to press them. The reduction of demands results from the hero’s gradual discovery of a transcending organization which seems beyond his power either to look into, control, or understand. His discovery is based not upon unwarranted assumptions or gratuitous hypotheses but on more or less direct empirical evidence, and although what is discovered seems unintelligible to him, the evidence is ambivalent and points not only to the irrationality of the organization but to its rationality as well.’1 Hermann Uyttersprot has also noted the repeated pattern traced by all Kafka’s works—in the beginning suddenness of the narrative, in the consistent turning point, and in the decline of the hero, often his death.2


1 – Eliseo Vivas, ‘Kafka’s Distorted Mask,’ in Creation and Discovery, pp. 40-41
2 – Hermann Uyttersprot, Zur Struktur von Kafkas Der Prozess: Versuch einer Neuordnung, in the Collection Langues Vivantes.

Monika Baer, Untitled, 2007


There are five specific and discernible phases to a Kafka character’s life cycle; all can be found in Kafka’s longer works and in his complete short works. Certain of the fragments illustrate each of the five points separately, as though to emphasize the impossibility of comprehending fragments removed from the context of any whole. Only by seeing such fragments within a structure can they be grasped within the too loosely bantered term, Kafkaesque.

Monika Baer, Untitled, 2008


The ritual of life, according to Kafka, begins with the sudden awakening, with a complete realization that everything is different from what it was in the previous instant. Kafka often identifies waking in the morning with coming to consciousness, as in the case of Gregor Samsa (The Metamorphosis) or Josef K. (The Trial). Once the prime moment has passed, the hero usually takes a step backward in order to examine his surroundings. He finds all the expected landmarks; sometimes they are newly arranged, but this never seems to bother him. When he places himself back within these surroundings and finds (again without it bothering him) that he cannot make contact with other people, he causes the reader to feel a sense of despair. Kafka’s narrative points to a new phase in the development of the European novel, for it allows the narrator to identify himself with the hero, but also with the reader, and even makes of the reader a part of the story. Kafka’s appeal depends to a large extent on this view.1 Nothing appears unusual; everything functions as always. The reader retains his personal objectivity while at the same time, within the novel, seeing from the hero’s point of view.


1 – H. S. Reiss, ‘Recent Kafka Criticism (1944-1955)—A Survey,’ in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ronald Gray, p. 173

Bernd Ribbeck, Untitled, 2008


It is also the reader, never the protagonist himself, who discovers that the protagonist is not furthering his own cause in the strange new situation, that he is disconnected from the rest of the world. This disconnection, felt but not understood by the protagonist, is the second part of Kafka’s life cycle. All around the hero people seem to be talking and reacting as usual, but they have become hostile toward him.

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2008


The third aspect of Kafka’s ritualized structure is the impact of a still recognizable but estranged world on the hero’s consciousness. The world is a totality, he is outside it, and he cannot penetrate its surface. The institutions within which he had previously functioned are still present, but it is as if he has no way of making physical or psychic contact with them. They impose themselves onto his life, they weigh on all his actions, but their functionaries do not respond when he reacts to their presence. He has become incapable of maneuvering himself within what he had previously known as and called ‘realities’.

Nathan Hylden, Untitled, 2007


If the intrusion of external totality into the patterns of daily life can be withstood long enough for the hero to make an attempt at action before death takes place, then his act is expressed as a need to justify himself, to prove to the representatives of those institutions which have always mediated his values that he is capable of asserting himself properly before the world. The protagonist feels this need to demonstrate that he is still in control without ever understanding its implications—the resultant action is never more than a flailing, unsuccessful attempt at living up to a self-image that never existed beyond his own unexamined illusion. The impossibility of self-assertion is the fourth part of Kafka’s life cycle.

Allison Miller, Paper Hat, 2008


In the parable in The Trial, the last words the man before the Law hears are those of the doorkeeper, who tells him that he was the only person who could ever have been able to enter the Law through those gates. This leads to the last part of Kafka’s ritual: the hero’s realization that at a given point it is too late to commit the only act by which he might have saved himself in order not to die as he has lived, passively, like a dog. Yet such action is never possible in life; in Kafka’s world one cannot conceive of it being too late until it is too late in actuality. Each of Kafka’s protagonists has a past, he is responsible for his past, and it is the essence of a Kafka story to show his characters that they are responsible, even though they do not understand the reason for this responsibility. By the time they become aware of it, it is too late. The man before the Law realizes only just before he dies that there had been at least a chance for him to gain admittance to the Law. Since he is about to die, it is too late. The life cycle is then complete.

Monika Baer, Weisses Netz, 2009


The overall effect of the process described is separation. Every man bears a responsibility not so much for acts committed as for acts omitted. It is the responsibility of having wasted a life; the paradox results from an inability to do anything else. At the beginning of The Trial, Josef K. accepts the fact that he is charged. The function of the story is to explain to him the nature of the charge, of his relation to the novel’s world, its landscape. But he will never discover the reason for the charge. There are no alternatives to living through the process of discovery, not for Josef K., not for any of Kafka’s protagonists.

Allison Miller, Green Pink Grey, 2008

When we examine the life cycle more closely, it becomes apparent that, by necessity, the vision of Kafka’s protagonists is partial: each hero’s conscious mind does not perceive, and cannot report, everything before it. Still, if the reader places himself in the footsteps of the narrator/hero in any of the stories or novels, incomplete images fit into their context and illuminate that which is not mentioned. Although the stress remains on what is verbalized, silences and omissions are underscored in the reader’s mind if he does not find objects or actions he expects to find. In a sense, Kafka is allowing the reader to complete from his own knowledge the areas between fragmentary descriptions, but such freedom for the reader has too often resulted in interpretation rather than in completion, since too many readers have based their views in some form of external, often philosophic, sophistication. The reader’s world must not crowd Kafka’s from the page. Rather, he must bring to bear his knowledge of Kafka’s other stories. With them as point of departure the stories fall slowly into position in the life-cycle epic that Kafka sometimes linearly, sometimes disjointedly, relates. The stories fit into the life cycle as units and as such demonstrate their own completeness. Some of the fragments fall rather into categories, into points of the life cycle.

Allison Miller, Block, 2008

The beginning of reality for a Kafka protagonist, the first instant in which such a person catches sight of daylight, the figurative moment of birth, is the essential prerequisite for subsequent action. In this way all Kafka characters resemble each other. Somewhere, at some moment prior to the beginning of the narrative, a wedge of uncertainty crept into the mind of a protagonist-to-be. Somewhere he stepped, however momentarily, out of the prescribed universe of daily activity, and it became possible for him to reach, however briefly, a consciousness of his separation from his environment. The first moment of a story, the figurative birth of the protagonist, is the narrative’s prime requisite. The moments of birth have striking similarities. Perhaps the most obvious is the character’s unawareness before the moment arrives that something is about to happen, that he is about to be born. He is not on his guard, and so, like K. in the fragment ‘A Dream’, he is thrown off balance for just a moment, just long enough to alter the balance of his existence. Gregor Samsa and Josef K. are sleeping when the instant passes that changes their lives forever. Georg Bendemann (The Judgement) walks into his father’s room, a room in which he has not been for months; he finds it unusually dark, and it throws him off his guard. K. (The Castle) arrives in the town for the first time late in the evening when he is tired and willing to settle for any kind of quarters. All of them are unprepared for what they later recognize, or in some instances fail to recognize, as the most important moment of their existence.

Peter Peri, Projection 6, 2004

Although the best way to describe this prime requisite is to liken it to actual birth, the concept of awakening, real or figurative, may also be applied. Josef K. does not believe he can be responsible for any wrongdoing. The country doctor (A Country Doctor) alone reacts and, as we shall see, is consequently destroyed. Bendemann, on the other hand, does nothing. Although he has barely reached the moment of birth, he has also arrived at the time to die; his whole life cycle must be telescoped into a few instants.

Daan van Golden, Pollock (Study), 2006

The ape wakes up, too (‘A Report to an Academy’). Kafka says so in so many words: the ape awakens after the shots had been fired. It makes no difference that the bullets in the final analysis brought the ape to consciousness. When he does awaken, he immediately realizes the dimensions of the cage, but in relative, human terms—too short to lie down in and not high enough to stand up in. The moment one attains consciousness, one is trapped: in a cage, or in the shell of a dung beetle, or in a village to which one has been assigned and which refuses to recognize one officially, or in a caravansary somewhere in the desert (‘In the Caravansary’, Parables and Paradoxes). Anything that is conscious is trapped, trapped by its own consciousness, just as the conscious reader must be within the narrator/hero. Acceptance is the only possible reaction. By accepting, each of Kafka’s characters sets the pattern of all that is to follow. The resolution of the narrative, visible already to the partially objective reader, who himself is in the process of accepting the terms of Kafka’s story, remains invisible to the protagonist. The paradox of consciousness lies in the ability of the reader as separate consciousness to see what must result, and the inability of the reader trapped within the narrator/ hero’s consciousness to see beyond an awareness of the momentary phenomena.

 Daan van Golden, Heerenlux, 2007

At this point in Kafka’s stories the protagonist feels the time has come to establish a course, to try to see something of this new world into which he has been born. So far the protagonist knows only that the change that has taken place has separated him from the life he had been leading. By attempting to look at the world from his new vantage point, he admits and accepts the change, possibly without liking it. He will wage the battle in the new context.

Wihelm Sasnel, S. F. Airport, 2005

The passive avenue of examination lies open to the newly reborn protagonist. At last he has a chance to act, but he is able to muster up no more than a feeble question or two. In vain he attempts to scrutinize a new world that is to him at best erratic, at worst useless and even harmful both to himself and to the people he uses in the attempt. ‘And don’t make such an outcry about your feeling innocent, it spoils the not unfavorable impression you make in other respects’, says the arresting officer to Josef K (The Trial). Georg Bendemann says to his father: ‘A thousand friends wouldn’t make up to me for my father. Do you know what I think? You’re not taking enough care of yourself. But old age must be taken care of’ (‘The Judgement’). A few moments later he tries to cover up his father completely, as if the old man were dead.

Jacqueline Humphries, Mercury’s Moon, 2006

Of the greatest importance to the newborn hero, then, is what he perceives. The questions he asks deal directly with the new world and therefore only indirectly with his own fate, for although the protagonist is in the new world, he is not a part of it in the sense that he can manipulate it as he could his previous context. After he examines his immediate surroundings, his inquiries take him in several directions; a given protagonist may follow any or all of them. Most often he tries to compare his present situation with the life he has known. Or he may try to review the facts of his actual moment of birth, but such an attempt usually proves unrewarding. Or he begins what he believes to be the only correct approach—to look for a way out by demanding to know what will happen next. But by asking that question, he admits the situation has eluded his grasp; he must let the forces work as they will, and he will follow their drives, will allow himself to be acted upon. For the protagonist the new situation remains very unreal. It has no context, because the landscape is unfamiliar. The protagonist does not know what to do, let alone how to do it.

Jacqueline Humphries, Gaslight, 2008

A clear link between birth and actualized disconnection may be found in ‘In the Caravansary.’ Here most of the elements of the new world are present. An unpleasantness dominates the atmosphere. People move about among the camels and the stench, but the ‘I’ cannot make contact with them, even to ask where he is and how he can get out. The people are transients, members of passing caravans; if he were to ask them where to go or how to find his way, they would of course be unable to tell him. He knows only that he has wandered into the maze and now is a part of the oasis without being able to make contact with it. The ‘I’ of ‘The Cell’ (Parables and Paradoxes), caught within the walls of the room, is in much the same situation and realizes his captivity. There are doors, to be sure, but the doors, when tried, when questioned to see if they are real doors to the outside, reveal only blank rock-face. The adjoining room is at best neutral; it puts the narrator off no less than the blank walls. It is not even the ‘I’ who tries opening the doors to see if a way out can be found; one realizes the nature of the world behind them only indirectly: ‘If one opened them’. The passivity of the main character continues, even in so short a fragment. He can do no more than think about his situation. Gregor Samsa, even after his terrifying metamorphosis, cannot conceive of the possibility of being trapped in his shell, and so his desperate thrashing about is reminiscent of the actions of a man trying to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to work. Because of glaring incongruities, in the context of a beetle on a bed, the result is at once hilarious and tragic. One laughs but realizes at the same instant that Gregor Samsa is now literally as well as figuratively trapped. In his new, real context, he is passive. He cannot even pass his time in thinking; to the reader, the disconnection has been completed.

Jules de Balincourt, Black Map, 2006

As there are almost no external changes in the actions of Samsa, so are there few changes in the daily life of Joseph K. He is told by the Inspector that he may continue his life just as he was planning to do before his arrest. ‘You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life’. When the police are gone, he does go to work as usual, to the bank where he need not think; when he leaves the bank, he too has his period of pondering. He thinks out loud when alone, and he thinks with others (or at least he wants to), with those two people nearest to him. Since no one is really close to him in his personal life, closeness can be measured only by physical proximity. So he chooses to speak to his landlady, Frau Grubach, and his neighbor, Fräulein Bürstner. He probably would also have gone to speak with Elsa, the waitress and prostitute who was more intimate with him than any other person, but this was not his night to see her; to go would have ruined his well-defined schedule. He thinks out loud to Frau Grubach, who only pities him; his reaction, the easiest way to close the conversation, is to insult her by telling her to throw him out of the boarding house. Next he goes to Fräulein Bürstner, but she is not at home. As he waits for her until late in the evening, he thinks about his case. By staying up so late, he has broken his routine, but his late evening also defines his passivity. He has started to do something, and the thrust of his brief action pushes him forward. He will not turn from his trivial goal until it is reached, for turning from it requires greater energy than does the passive waiting outside her door.

Peter Peri, The Melancholy of Departure, 2006

The fragment ‘The Question [Problem] of Our Laws’ (Parables and Paradoxes) deals in its entirety with the problem of pondering. It contains passivity, reflection, and the knowledge of being caught within the Law, of being separated from the outside world by laws. This is already evident in the opening words: ‘Our laws are not generally known: they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know’. Here total reality has not yet intruded. The inhabitants simply know that there is such a group of laws; the meaning or purpose of these they do not understand. The passage concludes with the realization that the act of reflecting in these circumstances is itself a paradox. The final words present the essence of Kafkaesque pondering: ‘Actually one can express the problem only in a sort of paradox: Any party which can repudiate, not only all belief in the laws, but nobility as well, would have the whole people behind it; yet no such party can come into existence, for nobody would dare to repudiate the nobility. We live on this razor edge. A writer once summed up the matter in this way: The sole visible and indubitable law that is imposed upon us is the nobility, and must we ourselves deprive ourselves of that one law?’. The question cannot be answered, the paradox cannot be resolved. At best, a writer once ( evidently long ago, for now such things are no longer possible) was able to phrase the problem, and it had to be phrased in the form of a question.

Peter Peri, Telephone Talker, 2008

Georg Bendemann’s pondering takes place after he has assured his father that a thousand friends could not replace him. He thinks out loud to the old man, speaking of his friend in Petersburg. The pondering takes the form of a seemingly irrelevant argument over the actual existence of the friend. Georg is challenged by his father, probably for the first time, to prove the reality of his friend; Georg finds that he can give no more solid proof than his father’s remembrance that the friend actually spent some time in the Bendemann home.

Julie Mehretu, Projects, 2008

In the more traditional sense of pondering over one’s birth and the subsequent feeling of disconnection, the ape in ‘A Report to an Academy’ phrases the words succinctly: ‘For the first time in my life I could see no way out. Until then I had had so many ways out of everything, and now I had none. I was pinned down. Had I been nailed down, my right to free movement would not have been lessened’. This is the ape’s realization: he is disconnected from the world of men by his cage, and the cage must serve as his prison. Yet the cage is not a prison by dint of keeping the ape from freedom, for, as he himself asserts, he is free, by his very disconnection. But he does not want this sort of freedom. The ape wants to be united with something, and in his naïveté he settles his wish on man. Through rebirth into the world of man, the ape demonstrates the completeness of disconnection. He has, literally and figuratively, shifted worlds. In his little cage, he does not demand to be let out in the sense of wanting freedom; he demands a way out: ‘Only not to stay motionless with raised arms, crushed against a wooden wall’.

Esther Stoker, Untitled, 2008

But then, for each protagonist, something complete, external, and therefore awful, intrudes. Consider K., for example: ‘I am the old assistant. I came today after the Land-Surveyor.’ ‘No,’ was shouted back. ‘Then who am I?’ asked K. as blandly as before. And after a pause the same voice with the same defect answered him, yet with a deeper and more authoritative tone: ‘You are the old assistant.’ K. was listening to the old note and almost missed the question: ‘What is it you want?’ He felt like laying down the receiver. He had ceased to expect anything from this conversation. But being pressed, he replied quickly: ‘When can my Master come to the Castle?’ ‘Never,’ was the answer. ‘Very well,’ said K., and hung up the receiver. At the beginning of the passage, K. is still in his period of pondering; he is experiencing his disconnection. But when the voice on the telephone shouts at him that he will never be able to come to the Castle—that he never again will be connected to the world he had known, the world of land-surveyors, a world where he does as he is told—from that moment on, the world as a unified, impenetrable, and external power has intruded into his own small life; its authority has locked him out, in much the way as the ape has been locked in. K. is thereafter one step further in his life cycle because his separation has been proclaimed by some higher authority, beyond himself, which agrees with his realization that he is apart. The new world reveals itself more completely to K. as the passage continues into the next chapters.

Kelley Walker, Untitled, 2008

Before the intrusion, the protagonist’s little world had been a well-defined subdivision of the much larger one, and he himself, in many instances, a part of some huge hierarchy. K. is a government official, a land-surveyor; Josef K. is a clerk in a huge bank; Gregor Samsa was a traveling salesman for a large concern; the Hunger Artist was part of a circus; the Officer in the penal colony was subservient to the Commandant, and so on. Now his little division loses connection with the greater world, although that other world does not cease to exist, somewhere. He can feel its force, but he cannot reach out to it. And then, with all the force it can muster, with old memories and new inferences, the greater world thrusts down upon the protagonist’s tiny world and forces it, as it were, to burst at the seams, leaving nothing of the protagonist’s old world. The sensation that everything outside him is connected with everything else outside him is omnipresent. He is subjected to the authority of a conspiracy with which he has no contact. But the authority precludes the usual sense of control. Life has not been fated in the sense that the protagonist will be forced to act; instead he is fated to be unable to do anything. The source of control keeps him from acting, rather than forcing him to act in a certain way. The authority separates, reveals, and condemns the protagonist. The authority itself assumes a variety of forms, all of which demonstrate its link in the outside world and its separation from the protagonist.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2007

Perhaps the most complete instance of totality’s intrusion is the story ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.’ It begins with absolute statement: ‘Our singer is called Josephine. Anyone who has not heard her does not know the power of song. There is no one but is carried away by her singing, a tribute all the greater as we are not in general a music loving race’. Here is a songstress apparently so forceful she is able to sway all who hear her; she is much like one of Kafka’s own sirens. She alone is able, through her power of song, to render the inhabitants blissful; she alone can relieve them of daily life’s repetitive doldrums; she is the high priestess of song. But the narrator begins to doubt his own apparently undeniable initial statement when he admits that her song is perhaps more nearly a whistle. As the story develops, even her whistling becomes, for the narrator’s ears, so weak that little of it remains. Since her song was her power, the narrator, now aware that her song was sham, is no longer dominated by her; the rest of the population, the mice-folk, remain under her sway. Able to see—in this case, hear—clearly, the narrator can avoid her blinding power, and the concept of authority becomes farcical.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2007

The fragment ‘The Sirens’ (Parables and Paradoxes) demonstrates the superficiality of authority: ‘These are the seductive voices of the night; the Sirens, too, sang that way. It would be doing them an injustice to think that they wanted to seduce; they knew they had claws and sterile wombs, and they lamented this aloud. They could not help it if their laments sounded beautiful’. This is not to say that authority as seen by Kafka is not a fearful thing. But, valued highly as it is, it attains its power merely from the weakness of the people over whom it is manifested, it cannot exist in its own right. When the maximum potential of a series of external experiences is realized as they sweep into the protagonist’s own little limited world, the actualized concept of authority appears overwhelming. The protagonist is powerless to stop it. Seeing himself helpless and apart, blinded by his own guilt, he cannot see the guilt of others around him, others with whom he could commiserate and thereby avoid feeling alone. But because guilt is individual, much as the lack of action that caused it was individual, so too is the realization of the guilt and its consequences individual and separate.

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2008


Peter Peri, Projection 6, 2004


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