Franz Kafka: Books & Biography

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Franz Kafka, perhaps the most famous surrealist novelist of the twentieth century, published very little in his life. If not for the intervention of a dear friend, most of his genius would have been lost forever.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, who wrote both short stories and novels in German, is one of the most important writers of the 1900s. Though he died young and didn't live to see the vast majority of his work published, Kafka's stories of surrealism and absurdity are still read the world over today. This lesson will focus on the life and works of Franz Kafka.

Kafka's Early Life

Kafka as a child
Kafka as a child

Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague. He was the oldest child of Hermann and Julie Kafka, middle-class Jews living in what was then Austria-Hungary. Sadly, all six of their children came to bad ends; the three boys died young (Franz's brothers both in infancy), and the three girls were all killed during the Holocaust in World War II. Hermann ran a successful clothing store.

Franz's relationship with his father was difficult, and his childhood was rather lonely, though he was surrounded by a large family. He finished secondary school and entered the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität in 1901, studying first chemistry and then law.

Kafka's Education and Employment

While in his first year of university, Kafka became friends with Max Brod. They remained friends for Kafka's entire life. Brod encouraged Kafka's love of reading, and introduced him to some of the influences on his later work, including Dostoyevsky, Goethe, and Gogol.

In 1906, Kafka earned his Doctor of Law degree and began his professional career. Though he wanted to be writing, Kafka worked for two different insurance agencies and then an asbestos factory he co-owned with his brother-in-law. Kafka tried to join the military to fight in World War I, but he was denied due to his poor health.

Franz Kafka as a young man
Franz Kafka as a young man

Kafka's Death

Franz Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917 and spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoriums. He died in 1924 in Vienna. Kafka never married, and though he was a prolific writer, he published very little during his lifetime. It's estimated that he burned more than 90% of what he wrote. His best friend and literary agent, Max Brod, promised to burn most of Kafka's unpublished work. Fortunately for the world, Brod published it instead.

Kafka's Writing: Novels

Franz Kafka's three novels, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, were all published shortly after his death.

Amerika, also called The Man who Disappeared, was written in 1912 and published in 1927. It is the story of a teenager named Karl Roßmann, and his trip to and life in New York City. Like much of Kafka's work, this novel is unfinished. The first chapter, called 'The Stoker', was published in 1913.

The Trial, written in 1914, was published in 1925. It tells the bizarre story of a man named Josef K., who works at a bank. He is arrested on his 30th birthday but he is never told what for. He is released and told to wait for his trial. It drags on for two years and Josef never knows what he is charged with. On his 32nd birthday, two men show up at him home and take him away. They stab him in the heart and he dies.

The Castle, which Kafka started in 1922, was unfinished when the author died in 1924. It was published by Max Brod after Kafka's death. It tells the story of a man named only K. who comes to a village. The village is ruled by a castle beside it, though no one is completely sure what the castle does. K.'s right to be in the village is questioned and then revoked when K. is about to die.

A bust stands as tribute to Kafka in Poland.
A bust stands as tribute to Kafka in Poland.

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