Kafkaesque: Meaning & Examples

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Franz Kafka's short stories and novels of horrifyingly complex and absurd situations led to the coining of a new term: Kafkaesque. Read further to learn more about its definitions, examples, and misconceptions.

When Authors Become Adjectives

How will your legacy be remembered? Possibly people will remember a great accomplishment you completed or the lives you have touched. One of the stranger means of memorializing and even drawing importance from past authors and thinkers is to change their names into adjectives.

For example, George Orwell and his 1984 gave rise to the term ''Orwellian,'' meaning oppressive government surveillance and limitations of free speech. Lord Byron and his hero Don Juan became the Byronic hero, one known for brooding and being overly romantic.

There is an inherent danger in this practice of turning an author into an adjective in that the definition of that newly minted word is subjectively based on varying interpretations of the author's work. Without a deep reading and understanding of the work, misconceptions may arise.

Let's take a look at how Kafkaesque has been defined and how it relates to the author whose work drew it into the popular lexicon — Franz Kafka.

What Is ''Kafkaesque''?

To begin our exploration of ''Kafkaesque,'' we will begin with the dictionary. The dictionary opens with the tautological statement ''suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings.'' The next line delves a bit deeper stating ''having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.''

Author Franz Kafka

This second definition begins to take us closer toward the essence of the word. To be considered truly ''Kafkaesque,'' a situation or story needs not only to be ''absurdly bureaucratic,'' but there also needs to include ironic circular reasoning in the characters or people involved. In this way, the character is responsible for his or her own torturous experience.

Franz Kafka's stories typically portray individuals in these impossible situations. Often, his nightmarish stories go beyond realism to instill a fantastic, horrifying experience caused by the character's actions.

Misuse of ''Kafkaesque''

It seems nowadays that the term ''Kafkaesque'' is being used with greater and greater regularity. This is not a bad occurrence in and of itself; however, we must make sure to use the term correctly. Some poor uses of the term include someone missing a bus or being confused by a legal system. Both of these situations have been called Kafkaesque because they have to do with bureaucratic misunderstandings.

However, there are problems with each. These both miss the nightmarish desperation necessary to fulfill the depth of the term. Additionally, the individual must also be the creator of his or her own terrible reality bringing the negative experience on himself or herself.

Examples of ''Kafkaesque''

We have seen poor examples of ''Kafkaesque''; now let's turn to some fitting examples.

Kafka's short story ''Poseidon'' tells of the Greek god in charge of the sea being overwhelmed by paperwork. His work is so constant that he is unable to explore his underwater kingdom. He could get help from his subjects; however, he is unwilling to delegate some of the work to them thinking them incapable of adequately completing the task. His reluctance to get help causes him to have work to do constantly.

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