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. 30-40.
I have abbreviated the text very slightly to promote readability.



Marta Marcé, Mikado 21, 2006

The protagonist has come a long way from the moment of his birth; he has lived through crises without being able to act in accord with the situation. He has discovered, he has thought, he has been overwhelmed, and now his moment has come, or, more correctly, his hour has come. In the fourth part of this life cycle, the protagonist is at last about to act; he has been prodded sufficiently. But Kafka’s characters cannot react normally, for they are still blinded by the pain of the blow with which they were struck when the unified external world intruded into their own. Assertive motions may therefore appear forced and distorted, although the distortion is not apparent to each protagonist, who still believes himself to be acting within the context of his old world. At last, however, the protagonist feels the absence of context in a world void of related objects and beings. He senses the need to legitimize his existence, to justify his mediated self-image, but to do so is impossible. Only by lying to himself can he possibly achieve what he believes to be legitimacy—whereupon legitimacy itself becomes the lie. He struggles to assert himself, not by saying ‘I am right,’ for accusation makes him uncertain, but by insisting, ‘I must do something’—it makes no difference what. He may even be able to fool himself into thinking he has in fact redeemed himself. Or he may, in a state of naïveté, never realize the seriousness of his situation. Therefore, because all the protagonists are able to understand their conditions at least preconsciously, they realize their need for, and carry out, the drive toward self-assertion.

Tomma Abts, Schwero, 2005

Karl Rossmann of Amerika is still trying to assert himself as his story ends. Rossmann is the American dreamer. The whole novel illustrates the principle of assertion; here is the story of a young man who must prove himself after he has been forced to leave his home because he has made a servant girl pregnant. Even through his pre-America ordeal (the realization that his life must change, the pondering over the choice of the method for changing it, the arrival in New York), he has for a number of reasons been able to retain his naïveté. The most important of these has been the double shift in his landscapes. He has left not only the Old World, but also his own old world in the usual Kafka sense. This change of both physical and psychological contexts has obscured to him the real impact of his new world situation. There is another difference between Karl and the other Kafka protagonists, that of age. Gregor Samsa is prepared to become a bug, for he has been in the uninvolved pupa stage for many years. Much the same is true for K., Josef K., and the others. But Karl is only sixteen, and his crime, the accident of making a servant girl pregnant, was not an act caused either by his will or by his lack of it. Karl was seduced, for Karl was not in control of the situation. Certainly his misdeed was not as great as Josef K’s or Gregor Samsa’s. Karl comes to America to assert himself. America is the naïve world where all is possible, where the least sophisticated self-image can be justified. When justification can be found, it is salvation, since it makes the mediated image real. Whether that image is one of a land whose streets are paved with gold, or a land in which the most naïve ideals are blessed with success, the image implies an actualization of hope, an American dream. An unreal place in Kafka’s mind, America is a country where self-assertion will be justified.

Tomma Abts, Teite, 2008

In the same vein, but for a different reason, the ape before the academy is able to achieve his own dream, to retain his own naïveté (‘A Report to an Academy’). The ape is lucky; the process that breaks men and makes them into dung beetles gives him human identity and innocence. The ape is born into the world of men; he experiences the moment of awakening and the onslaught of totality. But because his apehood caused him to lag behind by two stages in the development toward human form, the process leaves him in the same state of naïveté as that which Karl never left. The ape begins to assert himself, as a human might if he were born full grown, but in the beginning the ape possesses the mentality of a two-year-old child. His first lesson is to learn to spit; his second, to smoke. These abilities, for the ape, are the two highest human achievements. The only real differences between the ape and the men who surround him are: (a) that he licks the spit off his face, whereas the men evidently let the ape-expectoration stay on their faces, and (b) that the ape cannot tell when his pipe is full. The ape’s greatest problem arises later when he tries to imitate men as they drink; he cannot stand the smell of liquor. But he is able to overcome even this deficiency, as are most men in order not to be different from others.

Bernd Ribbeck, Untitled, 2007

The American dream, in Kafka’s terms, is self-assertion with the appearance of success. During a character’s attempted assertion Kafka’s writing most often appears humorous, for assertion is attempted where no real assertion is possible, in a void, without a defined context. Even when apparently successful in its American-dream sense, the attempt seems grotesque to the reader, who cannot be wholly integrated into the structure of Kafka’s story. The action, the struggle to assert oneself, is incongruous with the situation; one sees the protagonist acting in a confused, Chaplinesque fashion. By putting the highest courts in back alleys, or by allowing the first acts of man learned and copied by an ape to be spitting, drinking, and smoking, Kafka controls both social situation and metaphysical universe and allows humor to penetrate the objective world of his characters. He thereby also leaves himself open to interpretation by social critics when in reality he has not transcended his own principle of viewing through the eyes of his characters.

Mamie Holst, Landscape Before Dying (Ghost # 4), 2004

If Amerika is to be considered a comic novel, it is because all the action relates to Karl’s attempts at self-assertion in an America as naïve as himself, naïve even in its evil and its decadence. If The Castle and The Trial are also to be seen as novels with large elements of humor, it is because the greatest part of the action lies in the vain and irrelevant attempts of K. and Josef K. to assert themselves in worlds from which they have been disconnected. Yet the simultaneous terror, which is constantly apparent and which alone remains visible to most Kafka readers, hides the humor and emphasizes the disconnection. The reader, having lived with the protagonist through the first three steps of his life cycle, often cannot adjust to the humorous struggle for assertion.

Mamie Holst, Landscape Before Dying (Possibility # 3), 2007

After having re-enacted the arrest scene for Fräulein Bürstner, Josef K. leans over and greedily kisses her, then violently kisses her throat. His animal-like action and the passivity of Fräulein Bürstner are completely out of context, especially in their unexpected immediacy; they appear ridiculous. Yet his sexual advances were altogether unlike his earlier sex life, in which he paid scheduled weekly visits to Elsa, the prostitute. His life thereafter follows the same abrupt contextless pattern.

Mamie Holst, Landscape Before Dying (Toward Exiting # 8), 2008

Much like his counterpart in The Castle, Josef K. learns of a part of his fate on the telephone. It is then that he consciously decides to fight out his case in court. He wants to end the foolish proceedings as quickly as possible; he wants to be certain that they are completed, so that his case will not be brought up again. When he arrives at court, he of course makes a fool of himself in the eyes of the spectators and the judges. The reader who sees the incongruity of Josef K.’s actions laughs also (albeit, since he is sympathetically disposed to Josef K., somewhat uncomfortably), not only when others laugh but also when hearing Josef K.’s felt need to mention the trivial: ‘I have no wish to shine as an orator,’ said K., having come to this conclusion, ‘nor could I if I wished. The Examining Magistrate, no doubt, is much the better speaker, it is part of his vocation. All I desire is the public ventilation of a public grievance. Listen to me: Some ten days ago I was arrested, in a manner that seems ridiculous even to myself, though that is immaterial at the moment’. A few moments earlier someone in the audience had applauded and yelled out, ‘Bravo.’ Despite his unnecessary pointed denial, Josef K. is orating and continues to do so for the next several pages. Whenever he comes to a point he does not understand, but which is nevertheless critical to his case, he calls it ‘immaterial’ and thinks he has thereby dismissed it. Later he argues against the counsel of other characters from whom he has sought advice; he also rejects the words of the prison chaplain, who tells him, in effect, that it is too late for him to do anything more.

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2008

K. also encounters other characters, but in a much more passive manner than had Josef K.—necessarily, for the demands K. makes are much greater, and so come much closer to the impossible. Josef K. demands only justification in a world of mediated values; K. insists on speaking with the highest authorities themselves, with the men who control the castle. Such a demand approaches hubris. K. speaks to Frieda, the mistress of one of the men who work for the castle (Klamm), to Barnabas, to the Mayor, and to Barnabas’s sister, but no one can help him. In order to justify himself he must speak to the direct representative of the castle itself, but, as the story progresses, he gradually lowers his demands and will accept an interview with one of the minor employees, Klamm. Even this, however, in the words of the landlady, is to ask for the impossible. Frieda says to her: ‘You see what he’s asking for.’ ‘You’re a strange person,’ said the landlady, and she was an awe-inspiring figure as she sat more upright, her legs spread out and her enormous knees projecting under her thin skirt. ‘You ask for the impossible’. While she is speaking, K. reaches out and pulls Frieda onto his lap.

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2008

The landlady goes on to tell him that this method of approach is wrong; there may be a way of achieving his goal, but this method is incorrect: ‘I don’t deny that it’s possible once in a while to achieve something in the teeth of every rule and tradition. I’ve never experienced anything of that kind myself, but I believe there are precedents for it. That may well be, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the way you’re trying to do it, simply by saying ‘No, no,’ and sticking to your own opinions and flouting the most well-meant advice.’ To say ‘No, no’ is wrong; K. should instead admit his disconnection from the castle and try to reattain his naïveté. But the only known attempts to do so took place so long ago that they have attained the stature of legends. He cannot, and so should not try to, communicate with the castle people; they are part of the old world with which he can have no further association.

Chris Finley, Giuliani, 2007

In ‘The Judgment,’ Georg Bendemann too tries to justify himself by rejoining the context of the old world; he must at least assert himself against his father. The old man shouts at Georg that his friend from Russia need not come to visit them because the friend already knows everything a hundred times better than does Georg. In his enthusiasm the old man gets carried away. ‘He knows everything a thousand times better.’ Then Georg tries to justify himself by mocking the old man. As might be expected, because this is the wrong way to seek legitimacy, it is Georg who appears the fool. ‘Ten thousand times,’ said Georg, to make fun of his father, but in his very mouth the words turned into deadly earnest. The words are Georg’s own death knell, his final sign of importance before he is condemned to death. They epitomize the unsuccessful attempt at self-assertion.

Chris Finley, The Resigned, 2007

In ‘The Metamorphosis,’ too, Gregor Samsa’s beetle-body makes an attempt: he hears his sister playing the violin and promises himself that she will play only to him, that he will even take advantage of his situation and use his ugly body to ward off anyone who tries to take her from him. He drags his body into the room where his sister is playing and succeeds in disgusting everyone present; the action is his last, the only one of importance in his attempt at self-legitimization; he dies soon thereafter. The huge beetle lumbering about is at once funny, horrifying, and quietly sad. For it, and for the others, real justification is impossible.

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2008

The life cycle of the Kafka protagonist draws to a close once the illusion of possible justification has been dispelled. The realization that nothing remains leaves the reader with the despair for which the work of Kafka is universally acclaimed. Once the impenetrable structure of the external world has been perceived, only death remains. Before death can take place, however, a final process must be recognized and then quietly discarded. Because the protagonist’s attempt at legitimization has been turned aside forcibly by the world’s authority, that is, by the total possibility of things beyond him, he sees his death looming before him and realizes it is too late to continue to act, too late even to avoid acting. Like the moments of birth and impact with totality, this is a phenomenon of the instant; the external impenetrability is recognized by the protagonist for the first time as the element of death that has existed in him from the moment of his physical birth, that has developed as he has grown, invisible to him until his moment of awakening, his moment of existential rebirth.

Charline von Heyl, Dialogue Solitaire, 2008

When that rebirth takes place, the element of death grows into his consciousness much as it matured in his body. His guilt developed out of his failure to act, his failure to exorcise the metaphysical death from within himself. The death expanded like a cancer; by the time it first makes its appearance it is too late for possible future action. The protagonist’s inability to realize that it is too late until after the fact lends the moment its final irony. It is then accepted silently, without fuss. The protagonist returns to his earlier passivity and accepts whatever is to come. Should he appear in motion after this realization, then he is being moved; he is no longer in control of the movement.

Bill Komoski, 1/19/08, 2008

After Josef K. has ended his talk with the prison chaplain, who has told him the parable of the man before the Law who did not act, who himself was dying before he could realize that it was too late, he continues his death-in-life while accepting it to be no more than that, and on the evening of his thirty-first birthday, just one year after his arrest, the two men come for him. He has been waiting for them without having been told of them, without really knowing they were coming. They walk together: ‘It was a unity such as can hardly be formed except by lifeless matter’. Death-in-life has almost completely taken over.

Bill Komoski, 1/28/09, 2009

The ape too realizes his situation; it is also too late for him to return to the life he once knew, the life he has forsaken for human death-in-life. In his rich naïveté he believes himself to be an accomplished being. Despite the apparent triviality of his accomplishment (as he goes on to point out), his achievement has been great because his ability allows him to travel on the paths of humanity. He would never be able to realize the parallel between his newly achieved position and Georg Bendemann’s abnegation of all that he is and was, Bendemann’s neglect of his home and family. The ape is trapped on the middle ground—he will never be human (he sleeps with a half-wild chimp), and he can never be an ape again. He has left his old world but never gained the world of man. He is disconnected from the landscape of his environment and now knows it is too late to do anything. His own eyes must contain a glance comparable to that displayed on the face of the female chimp: ‘the insane look of a half-broken animal in her eye’. Just as the mediocrity of the average citizen is death for Josef K., so it is death-in-life for the ape.

Bill Komoski, 4/22/06, 2006

It was Gregor’s sister, the one whom he had thought would play only for him, who locks him into his room for the last time. For Gregor, too, the time comes. It is too late for him to feel love for his sister, too late to feel even a desire to move. Passively he may think about his tiny legs and wonder how they were ever able to move his huge hulk of a body, but he can do no more. All that is left for him is to lie in his room, on the floor, in degradation, covered with dust, and acknowledge the death awaiting him. The night recedes, the world outside grows light, and Gregor the beetle-man dies. As he was lying there, he thought of the apple lodged in his back. It did not bother him; but the reader is not told that it no longer bothers him, rather that the apple already hardly bothered him. The phrase shows the time even for pain has gone by; it is too late for anything.

Charline von Heyl, Twelve-Thirty, 2005

Georg was once innocent, old Mr. Bendemann says. He was innocent only in that he had never done anything wrong; the man who does not act can never be guilty of a committed misdeed. So too the ‘I’ of ‘The Vulture’ (Parables and Paradoxes) beset by the bird that tears at his feet, will not act now just as he has not acted in the past. As with all of Kafka’s objects, it would of course be possible to call the vulture a symbol of something specific, but to do so is unnecessary. The vulture is nothing more than a vulture, and as such it is a powerful destructive force. It is to be known by the function it performs, which in this case is to rend the flesh from the feet of the protagonist. The protagonist is approached by a strange gentleman, who explains that one shot would kill the bird and so let the tortured man escape. The gentleman says he can return in half an hour with a gun, if the protagonist can wait that long. After some thought, the latter beseeches the gentleman to go home for the weapon. But the half-hour is too long to wait, because ‘during this conversation the vulture had been calmly listening, letting its eye rove between me and the gentleman. Now I realized that it had understood everything.’ It is too late to help the protagonist; the mistake has been to wait so long. Now he must pay. There can be no salvation from passivity, for this is the guilt of non-commission.

Charline von Heyl, Crying Eyes, 2005

Once a Kafka character realizes that it is too late, nothing remains but to die. When the metamorphosis is complete, he has no further control over his life—therefore he cannot himself be expected to emphasize his death. These deaths complete the life cycle; they are essential to it. The final instant is at hand when the protagonist can be content that at last it is too late.

Anja Schwörer, Untitled, 2007

In the end both Gregor Samsa and Georg Bendemann loved their parents, the authorities that in great part had been the cause of their condemnation. Gregor Samsa ‘thought of his family with tenderness and love’. Georg Bendemann says ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you’. In the end, with death, they have achieved a legitimization, although not the one that earlier they had felt they must attain to achieve their self-justification.

 Anja Schwörer, Untitled, 2008

Each is ready for death when it comes, because each knows the immediate cause of, if not the more generalized reason for, his guilt. The specific context, the emblem Kafka employs to particularize the cause of a character’s being condemned, may appear trivial in comparison to the punishment demanded. But the particular cause is only a symptom of the general reason; the same guilt underlies them both, they are differentiated only by degree. Bendemann’s father has spelled it out for his son: Georg has forsaken the father, the mother, the friend, even the fiancée. Georg does not know the reason for his guilt, he does not realize his unconsciousness of the needs and hopes of others. In the same way, though Josef K. knows he is guilty, he does not know the reason, the context in which his guilt belongs. The chaplain has explained it to him in the parable of the man before the Law. At first arguing against it, K. at last understands the analogy and awaits his executioners, those who will punish him for his immediate guilt. Even so, at the very end he still considers the possibility of a last-minute reprieve; he still does not understand the deeper, the more general, reason for his impending execution. He realizes only that the shame will outlive him—the memory of his metaphysical life will transcend even his physical death. He can never understand that he was guilty for his death-in-life. With the ape, the paradox of death is embodied in his deification of death-in-life as mediocrity. His story might be considered a prelude to ‘The Metamorphosis’—the pre-life of Gregor Samsa. From ape to man to insect, the metamorphosis completes itself.

Anja Schwörer, Untitled, 2007

At the last moment Josef K. realizes he is supposed to be his own executioner; he finds he cannot kill himself, not from unwillingness but from physical inability. Georg Bendemann will not die until he is condemned to death; passively he lets himself slide into the water under the bridge. The officer in charge of the harrow lets the machine finish him while he lies motionless inside it (‘In the Penal Colony’). The very non-act of fasting allows the Hunger Artist to die of starvation. Passivity, as metaphysical equivalent to inaction, unites with its physical counterpart as either the cause or the correspondent of the protagonist’s death.

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2008

The paradox of death plays possibility against actuality. In several fragments that depict only the end of the life cycle, Kafka demonstrates this paradox with the kind of slick, impenetrable terror that characterizes the surface of his fiction. The Messiah will definitely come, but he will come after the end has passed, ‘not on the last day, but on the very last’ (‘The Coming of the Messiah,’ Parables and Paradoxes). What is to be done in the eternity between the last and the very last day, no one is ever told. The possibility that the Messiah will come remains, and so the protagonist must yearn; but his hopes will never be fulfilled. His own immediate actuality, the new world, he can escape only through death. The other possibility—escape through some uncaused metamorphosis into the easily explainable world of parable (‘On Parables,’ Parables and Paradoxes)—can never occur; it is a leap from one context into another, an unverbalized hope that a protagonist may at best envision, but never realize.

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2008

So the first man tells the second that the former has lost the bet in the one way in which he (the former) could rid himself of his daily cares, rid himself of his mediocrity; he has lost in parable. In reality—that is, within his own mediocrity—he has won. The only way out of the paradox is to incorporate it into actuality, into the integrated impenetrable structure of the external world. This happens in the parable, ‘Leopards in the Temple’ (Parables and Paradoxes), when the repeated destruction of the temple by the leopards is finally incorporated into the ceremony. (The parable, appropriately, has no protagonist.) But none of Kafka’s heroes are capable of controlling circumstances to the extent of organizing the world they live in. The paradox of death is predictable: it achieves significance when it fits into the general external structure, when it becomes part of the world into which no protagonist could penetrate, and of which he has become for all future protagonists an integral if totally passive element.

Jacqueline Humphries, Against Day, 2005

Development within Kafka’s stories can thus be characterized as a structural thrust toward completion: completion of a life cycle, completion of a narrative structure. For Kafka’s protagonist there is no way out. Naïveté means imprisonment within an American dream, within nonconsciousness. Action is nearly impossible, passivity is weakness. Authority condemns but cannot guide. Movement is visible, but it is activity separate from and irrelevant to the landscape against which it takes place. Kafka has described what he has seen; he has not analyzed it. He is aware that his narrating protagonists have not seen clearly, that they have structured their reported view. But there is no one to explain to the reader the completely subjective nature of the Kafkaesque vision to which he has been exposed.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2008


Jacqueline Humphries, Mercury’s Moon, 2006


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