I wrote this paper for my Intro to Humanities class over the summer:
With the conclusion of “The Judgment,” a short story by Franz Kafka, the main protagonist, Georg Bendemann, is sentenced to death by drowning. The giver of this sentence is his father, and after it is pronounced, Georg throws himself over a bridge into a river. This seemingly crucial part of the story is followed by an endless flow of traffic across that same bridge (Mairowitz 34-35).As in many of Kafka’s stories, death is made to be insignificant when compared to the continual flow of life surrounding it. The prevalence of deaths in Kafka’s writings allude to the fact that he would rather have been death than alive. However, as he was quite pessimistic, suicide didn’t seem to be an option for Kafka—“You, who aren’t capable of doing anything, you want to do this [suicide], of all things?!?” (36). Kafka’s personal writings are full of his imaginings of his own demise:
To be dragged in through the ground-floor window of a house by a rope tied around my neck and then to be yanked upwards, bloody and mutilated, as if by someone not paying attention, with no consideration, through all the ceilings, furniture, walls and attics, until the last torn-off bits of me drop from the empty noose as it crashes through the tiles and comes to rest on the roof (4).Instead, Franz Kafka committed a different form of suicide, that which could be called literary suicide. Rather than committing the actual act of suicide, Kafka chose to create main characters eerily similar to himself, whether physically or mentally, and to kill them off by the end of each of his stories. This essay will detail three of the best known cases of these literary suicides.
Josef K. awoke one morning to find himself under arrest, for a crime that would not be relayed to him (88). Thus, “The Trial” begins. K., Kafka’s literary persona in this story, is never told of the crime he has committed, though he searches far and wide for the answer. When no answer could be found, Josef K. submits to his persecutors, and is led to a field where he is expected kill himself. Just as Kafka cannot commit suicide, neither can Josef K., who instead glances toward a nearby house (92-93). A “human silhouette” leaned out of a window, opening its arms toward K (94). Finally, as K. watches this mysterious figure, one of his two executioners proceeds to strangle him, while the other sticks him in the heart with a knife, “twist[ing] it twice” (95). Kafka appeared to find this immensely funny; it was said that he “laughed uncontrollably” while reading excerpts of the tale to his close friends (95). This, however, could have been Kafka hiding his true fear of the closeness of his own death.
In perhaps the most well-known of all his writings, Kafka relays to the reader what it would feel like to be treated as though one were dead before they have even descended into their grave. In “The Metamorphosis,” main character Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself “transformed in his bed into an enormous bug” (39). Samsa’s has completely shunned him long before he has died of neglect, but even before his transformation, they took his for granted completely. Samsa supported everyone in his household—his mother, father, and sister—for none of them seemed capable or willing to secure gainful employment. Even as a humungous bug, Samsa was willing to try going to work, but once his family caught sight of him, they were disgusted; Samsa then chose to confine himself to his room, eating the scraps that his sister, Grete, left for him (41-43). Despite his family’s ill treatment, Samsa felt far more shame than they did. In the end, Samsa hid himself away and entered a “state of peaceful meditation,” allowing himself to die in tranquility, knowing that he would burden his family no longer. Upon his discovery, the family began to spend more time together, and was quite happy (53,55). Kafka’s creation of this peaceful death may be wishful thinking on his part. His horribly low self-esteem made him feel as though he were an encumbrance to his own family. Kafka’s philosophy required him to “have at least one piece (of writing) directed against me” (159). “The Metamorphosis” could have been that day’s piece, as it declares that the family would be better off without him.
Satisfaction of life comes into question with Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” Said artist, who remains nameless, has become famous by starving himself for forty days at a time, though it was made certain by the end of the tale that he could have held out for much longer periods of time (145-146). After a time, though, spectators have lost interest in the hunger artist, as have the circus staff, who no longer change the sign indicating how long he has gone without food. After the hunger artist has gone without notice for quite a long period of time, the circus staff comes around to collect his seemingly empty cage. It is then that he enlightens the staff as to why he goes so long without eating. “…I could never find any food I liked… If I had found any …I’d have stuffed myself the same as you or anyone else!” (152) Upon saying this, the hunger artist dies, whereby he is buried and replaced with a panther. Crowds were fascinated by this foreign beast, which was brought all the food it desired, and was full of life, as opposed to its predecessor, who seemed the embodiment of Death itself (152-153). Kafka’s desire for more in life may be what led him to write this story. Just as the hunger artist can never find a food that he will enjoy, Kafka never found a companion that he felt worthy of, and of whom he had no fear.
Kafka finally did die of tuberculosis in 1924. By the time he died, the effects of his illness had destroyed his voice, forcing him to communicate with notes. It must also be noted that Kafka could barely eat; this was the time period in which he wrote “The Hunger Artist.” Through his literary deaths, Kafka may have gained some peace, but hardly enough to placate the demons within him. Instead, Kafka chose to kill himself time and again, reminding readers that death is beckoning them ever closer.