Franz Kafka was a master of depicting the political and existential troubles of the 20th century. His works deal with isolation, hidden desires, and pointless bureaucratic processes that continue to govern our lives. However, in all of their bleakness, Kafka’s works are also incredibly funny, which is another reason to get acquainted with the following 11 titles.
1. The Trial
The Trial is Kafka’s best-known novel which has become synonymous with the anxieties and alienation of the modern age. The story follows Josef K., a young bank officer who is suddenly arrested and must defend himself against a charge he doesn’t know anything about. The nature of his crime isn’t revealed to him nor the reader, and the authorities who prosecute him are unreachable.
The Trial was heavily influenced by Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, whom Kafka even called “a blood relative.” This novel is a shining example of Kafka’s visionary mind–his predictions about totalitarianism may be bizarre, but they’re not so far from the truth, which is why the story continues to resonate with readers.
Regarded by the critics as one of the seminal works of the 20th century, The Metamorphosis is a short story about Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge, monstrous insect. This unexpected transformation affects Samsa and his family, as he tries to adjust to the new condition. The story explores existential issues and the nature of human relationships, offering numerous interpretations.
3. The Castle
The Castle is Kafka’s final novel and one of his most mysterious works. Kafka died before he was able to finish it, and the novel was published two years after his death. The story centers on a land surveyor named K. who was summoned to a village, but then struggles to get access to the secretive authorities who govern the village from the castle. The novel’s protagonist is on a quest, but the reasons for it and the ultimate goal are unclear. Provocative, puzzling, and at times surreal, The Castle explores alienation and the frustration of a man trying to stand against a controlling system.
Like the other two novels written by Kafka, Amerika wasn’t published until after his death. Also known as The Man Who Disappeared, The Missing Person, and Lost in America, the novel follows Karl, a 16-year-old boy from Europe who was forced to emigrate to New York after being seduced by a housemaid, which caused a scandal. Once he arrives, he immediately befriends a stoker on the ship, after which bizarre events ensue. Amerika was inspired by the experiences of Kafka’s relatives who also emigrated to the United States.
Written during the winter of 1916/17, when Kafka was living in Golden Lane in Prague, The Country Doctor tells the story of a doctor who must make an emergency visit to a sick boy on a winter night. During his journey to the boy’s home, the doctor faces a series of surreal, absurd events that impede his arrival. The story is written in first person, which brings a sense of immediacy and draws the reader in, and Kafka’s signature, nightmarish humor makes for another compelling read.
Kafka first met Milena Jesenska in 1920 when she was translating his early short fiction into Chech, and they quickly became very fond of each other. Jesenska was a gifted and charismatic woman who Kafka described as “a living fire, such as I have never seen.” It was she who Kafka confided in and chose to give his diaries to for safekeeping. Jesenska’s passionate nature may have exhausted Kafka in the end, as their relationship came to a close after two years. Nonetheless, Letters to Milena remains a poignant record of their relationship. The expanded edition also contains Jesenska’s four essays, showing her talent for writing.
The Judgement is a short story that is often considered Kafka’s breakthrough work. It deals with a troubled relationship between a young merchant Georg and his dominant father. Georg breaks the news of his engagement, which his father disapproves of. His father is quite ill, yet he doesn’t appreciate Georg’s care for him and he constantly belittles him. This has a devastating influence on his son. The story was inspired by Kafka’s own detached relationship with his father, and it’s dedicated to Felice Bauer, Kafka’s two-time fiancée whom he never married.
Published in a German periodical toward the end of Kafka’s life, A Hunger Artist centers on a man who’s craft is being able to starve. He travels around performing for the curious audiences, sitting in a cage with nothing but a clock in front of him. After a while, the public interest in his performance declines, as the spectators suspect that he’s secretly eating.
The main protagonist, as is the case in many of Kafka’s works, is an isolated man, marginalized and victimized by society. Kafka’s works didn’t receive much acclaim during his lifetime, so the misunderstood artist in the story could be himself, dealing with an audience that’s largely indifferent to his art.
In The Penal Colony is a short story set in an unnamed exile colony (a remote location where prisoners were sent in order to be separated from the general population). It describes the last use of a torture and execution devices on a condemned prisoner. There are four characters in the story, each named based on their role–the Officer, who’s in charge of the device; the Condemned, a man to be executed; the Soldier, who’s responsible for guarding the prisoner; and the Traveler, a visitor from Europe.
The cold and detached way of describing such a horrendous event mirrors the situation in Europe following the outbreak of World War I, when the story was written. The device, just like the weapons used in war, is a result of technological progress, but it only leads to death and destruction.
Following the end of Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer in November 1919, Kafka wrote a letter to his father Hermann, in which he opened up about their troubled relationship. Kafka criticised his father for the emotionally abusive and hypocritical behavior toward him, his father’s constant disapproval of him, and the way it shaped his life. Although the letter is filled with anguish and disappointment, Kafka hoped that it would help them reconcile and find common ground. However, the letter never reached his father–instead of delivering it to her husband, Kafka’s mother returned the letter to her son.
Another incomplete work that was published after his death, Wedding Preparations in the Country is a short story that details the journey of the groom, Eduard, to his bride, Betty. Buried beneath extensive descriptions of the road, the people, and the train station is Eduard’s uncertainty about his impending marriage. Although the narrative is fragmented, its structure is easy to follow and it feels like an anecdote. Kafka planned to turn the story into a novel, but it never came to fruition. You can read an English translation of the story in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka.