In: Analysis

Franz Kafka – mixing horror with humor

One of the things that’s always struck me about Franz Kafka is his way of mixing horror with humor.

No, his fiction doesn’t make sense, and his themes of alienation, when combined with lengthy paragraphs and crowded dialogue, can be stifling, but he’s also one of the funniest authors I’ve ever read. Take "The Metamorphosis," for example–being turned, overnight, into a "monstrous vermin" is nothing to laugh about, but it’s the way in which Gregor handles his new situation that makes it so comical. He takes it with a sense of irony, pretending that noting is amiss. He’s well aware of how people perceive him, but the funny thing, aside from how he scares everyone, is that he’s more troubled by how his transformation has thoroughly screwed up his routing than by the transformation itself. He spends almost the entire first chapter trying to figure out how to get out of bed, all while constantly worrying about train schedules and how his tardiness might affect his job. And when he does get out of bed and opens his bedroom door, the results are comic genius: while his boss and his parents are on the verge of panic, Gregor just wants to go to work, and even gives a little speech on how he feels (he’s perfectly fine, though he might have a tiny cold) and reminds his boss to report on his employee’s condition truthfully.

Kafka’s fiction is bizarre and satirical, often featuring characters who are helpless to change anything. But stories like "The Metamorphosis" and his unfinished novel The Trial reveal that Kafka was obsessed with perception. In The Trial, Josef K. takes his situation remarkably well, never wondering about the crime he’s accused of committing, and places himself wholly in the hands of a justice system whose sole function is to keep people waiting in line. In "The Metamorphosis," Gregor is hardly different–like Josef K., he thinks life goes on, and sees no reason for panic or self-pity. But the humor–and yes, The Trial is humorous–derives from the characters’ unexpected reactions. Instead of panicking, as we might expect, and as they would certainly be justified in doing, they handle things with complete calm. Gregor and Josef K. are aware that their respective situations are hopeless, that they’re completely under the influence of circumstances they can’t control, but it’s always a matter of perception. In Gregor’s case, acting normal is no different from being normal. Josef K. is similar: by acting normal, by simply doing what beaurocracy demands of him–wait, wait, wait–he’s controlling his trial in his own way. Gregor and Josef K. are damned if they’re going to let anything screw up their routines.

Yet Kafka’s fiction demands strong characters. If you’re going to navigate the bleak, modern society Kafka depicts, you need someone who’s going to keep his or her head. They don’t know what’s going on either, but in focusing on the mundane–going to work, paying bills–they’re also focusing on their immediate problems. Josef K. is forced to confront the problem of rearranging his life around an endless, farcical trial. In the first chapter of "The Metamorphosis," Gregor is entirely focused on getting to work–he doesn’t give a damn how he turned into a vermin–but he inadvertently points to a more important and compelling question: how is he going to live as a gigantic cockroach?

It all makes for existential reading, but without the angst. More to the point, both characters, in struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy among the most absurd situations, reveal the humor behind most of Kafka’s fiction.

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