Franz Kafka: pain and punishment

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Franz Kafka: pain and punishment

Franz Kafka


Mark Harman’s excellent translation with introduction to Franz Kafka’s Selected Stories (Harvard UP) appears at the 100th anniversary of his death, aged 40, on June 3, 1924.  In his greatest story “The Metamorphosis” (1915), Gregor Samsa represents Kafka’s own struggle to overcome his sense of guilt and conviction that he was irremediably filthy.  Kafka could not bear his own feelings and declared, “the merest nothing shatters me.”  But he was able to transcend his self-torment, transform suffering into art, communicate his vision to the world and make his personal emotions represent the universal anguish of modern man.  As he told his publisher in a letter of October 11, 1916: “The painfulness is not peculiar to the story alone but rather that our times in general and my own time in particular have also been and still are painful.”

He greatly admired the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who emphasized the punitive element in Kafka’s religion, and stated “Art, like the Jewish God, wallows in sacrifice.”   Kafka was also influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that artistic greatness could only be achieved by physical suffering.  In The Will to Power he wrote, “To make oneself sick, mad, to provoke symptoms of derangement and ruin, that makes one stronger, more superhuman, more terrible, wiser.”

Kafka aspired to live this intense kind of life, and in a famous passage in his letters he followed his two Masters and exclaimed: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us, that wake us up with a blow to the head. . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

“The Metamorphosis” follows this severe command, expresses powerful emotions and disturbs his readers.  If it were not for Kafka’s acute sense of humour and affinity for the grotesque aspects of ordinary life, his story would be unbearable.

“The Metamorphosis” is written in a  clear, precise and formal prose that contrasts with Kafka’s  nightmarish subject.  As in his unfinished posthumous novel The Trial (1925), he puts the punishment before the crime and begins: “One morning when Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect.”  There is no explanation of why he has suddenly changed into a repulsive bug or what he did to deserve this humiliating punishment, except that he had always felt like a bug.  (The heroine of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, 1963, “felt very tiny, like an insect.”  And in a Kafkaesque recollection, Plath told a friend that when her unattractive lover “holds me in his arms, I feel like mother earth with a small brown bug crawling on me.”)  The Trial similarly begins one morning with an inexplicable and horrific change in the life of the antihero: “Someone must have traduced Josef K., because without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”  Part of his punishment is not knowing the reason for his arrest and being tormented by the need to find out what caused the disaster.

Kafka knew and even translated part of Ovid’s Latin Metamorphoses, which begins “Of bodies changed to other forms I tell.”  But such changes are often lucky escapes and Ovid’s people become beautiful natural objects, instead of being trapped and tortured like Kafka’s Gregor.  The mortal Daphne, for example, sexually pursued by the god Apollo, turns into a laurel.  Other figures change into birds, trees or water.  Another source of Kafka’s story (not mentioned by Harman) is Hartmann von Aue’s medieval German epic Gregorius, which also describes severe punishment and humiliating degradation.  Hartmann’s hero, who has the same first name as Kafka’s Gregor, expiates the guilt of his incestuous parents, lives a hermetic existence chained to a rock in a lake, and becomes emaciated and shrunken.  Thomas Mann fictionalised this legend in his novel The Holy Sinner (1951) and had the starving Gregorius shrink to the size of a hedgehog.

In his perceptive chapter on Kafka’s story in Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov notes Gregor’s dual nature.  Externally, he looks like an insect, exploited and finally rejected by his family and forced to accept his essential bugness.  Internally, he’s consumed by self-loathing and the need to suffer.  But, Nabokov adds, Gregor thinks he’s only temporarily incapacitated.  Though disguised as an insect, he retains his admirable human qualities: politeness, humility, sensitivity and decency, as well as his shame, guilt, disgust and uncleanness.  A real insect cannot understand being human but Gregor, a noble soul trapped in a hideous body, remembers his human existence.  He feels as if a foreign form has taken possession of his body and has become alienated from himself.

Gregor resembles one of the disabled industrial workers that Kafka helped when he worked in Prague as a lawyer for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute.  Gregor has also been slaving away at an exhausting job to pay off his parents’ debts when their business collapsed.  Like Kafka, Gregor is a suffering artist: alienated, isolated, deformed, sick, rejected.  Unable to exist in his family, he cannot live and love, marry and have children.

Kafka compared writing to “a real birth, covered with filth and slime”, and one critic noted his “suicidal battle for cleanliness”.  Kafka’s antihero feels ashamed and unclean.  The instinctive fear of filth originates in the Bible and recurs in modern literature.  Leviticus (13:45-46) states, “And the leper in whom the plague is . . . shall cry, Unclean, unclean” to warn people of his repulsive disease.  “All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone.”

In the late Victorian era, again following biblical prohibitions,  homosexuality was condemned as unclean.  In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was publicly condemned as a sexual deviant, Henry James (like many others) called him “an unclean beast.”  Bram Stoker’s popular Dracula (1897) portrayed perverse sexuality.  Mina calls the bloodsucker “Unclean, unclean!  I must touch him or kiss him no more.”  The monster also denounces himself as “Unclean!  Unclean!  Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh!”

E. Lawrence condemned his own homosexuality and sadism in biblical terms by confessing in a guilt-ridden letter to Mrs. Bernard Shaw: “Consider wandering around the decent ghosts hereafter, crying ‘Unclean, unclean!’ ” He connected being clean with death, not life, and stamped on the cover of his masterpiece, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1), “The sword means cleanness and death.” After Lawrence was raped by a Turkish officer in Deraa, Syria, he confessed in the third-person, “nothing in the world would make him feel clean.  Only death would be a clean escape.”

In a characteristic self-condemnation Kafka told his Czech lover Milena Jesenská, “I am dirty, infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity.”  As Gregor descends into unbearable dehumanisation and crawls around the floor and walls of his room, he loses his cleanness, both excretes and absorbs filth, and leaves an indelibly unclean trail: marks of his adhesive substance, brown spots on the wallpaper, dirt and garbage.  As the ash pan and dustbin are moved out of the kitchen and into his room, he becomes covered in threads, hairs and leftover food.  Spotting the repulsive conditions, one of the lodgers impulsively spits on the floor.  Gregor could say with his filthy ancestor Job (7:21), “Now I shall sleep in the dust.”

But there is also a comic element in the story, as Gregor tries to adjust to his entomological existence and “could not despite all his distress suppress a smile”.  The comedy diminishes Gregor’s threat and enables the family, at least at first, to tolerate him.  His quilt slides off his round brown stomach and his six pitifully thin legs, wriggling in the air and out of control, contrast to his thick girth.  Attempting to get out of bed, he rocks back and forth like an infant in a cradle.  He believes he must get dressed and catch the early train, and thinks his boss will be angrier about his lateness than about the metamorphosis that would discourage his customers.  But the travelling salesman is doomed to travel only inside his locked room.

Gregor still feels human sexual desire and frustration.  He had hung a glass-covered picture clipped from an illustrated magazine on the wall of his room, which portrays a lady decked in a fur hat, fur boa and sexually alluring “heavy fur muff into which her entire forearm has disappeared.”  Later on, to soothe his agony and confirm his manhood, he comically and pathetically tries to possess the woman and sexually penetrate the muff: “he crawled up hastily, and pressed himself against the glass, which held him fast and did his hot belly good.”

But the  comic effect is soon eclipsed by an increasingly severe and finally fatal series of painful episodes.  Gregor feels dizzy and the room spins around him.  He has a dull pain and a slight ache, and an itchy spot covered with white dots that causes cold shivers when he touches it.  He’s three feet high, and after standing up and turning the key in his door lock with his powerful mandibles, a disgusting brown liquid pours out of his mouth and onto the floor.  His flank is rubbed raw when his father kicks him through the narrow door and back into his room, and leaves him bleeding heavily.  That injury causes a scar, forces him to limp, and hurts one of his legs that drags lifelessly behind him.  As if that were not enough tragicomic injuries, a medicine bottle falls on the floor, a splinter cuts his face and the caustic liquid spills onto him.  He has difficulty breathing with unreliable lungs (an allusion to Kafka’s tuberculosis) and suffers a second assault.  His hostile and violent father bombards Gregor with apples (the cause of sin in Eden) until one of them punctures his supposedly armor-like back and causes another severe wound.  His eyesight, not so great from floor level, begins to fail and he starts to lose his voice.  Like the deformed poet Alexander Pope, Gregor could complain of “That long disease, my life!”

Though Gregor is an ugly smelly insect, his family recognises him.  He speaks human words with the squeaky voice of an animal, but the silent family rarely speak to him.  It’s worth noting that the family, unlike Kafka’s, is not Jewish.  His sister invokes the saints and his father crosses himself.  Before his metamorphosis the family had financially depended on him; after his change he depends on them for acknowledgment, protection and food.  Naturally confused and horrified, the family don’t know whether to treat him as an insect or a human, reject or identify with him, be hostile or kind, feel alarmed or sympathetic, consider him alien or still part of the family, escape from or rescue him.  Their frightened maid leaves and their three disgusted lodgers depart.  With Gregor creeping around, they could never invite friends or entertain potential suitors for his sister.

As the focus of the story subtly shifts from Gregor to the family, his father and sister Grete weep with shame and rage, and move from concern and toleration to revulsion and fear.  The change applies to Grete, whose name matches his own, as well as to Gregor.  The family hope he will reverse his metamorphosis and change back into a man, but must finally reject him in order to save themselves.  His metamorphosis is not complete until he stops clinging to his human experience and memories, and accepts his implacable existential insectness.

In the course of the story the family stop seeing Gregor as human, refer to their son as Him, then to It and Stuff, and finally to Corpse, and have to get rid of their intolerable burden.  The huge bony cleaning woman does not find Gregor altogether repulsive but hits him with a chair, expects him to die and brutally asks, “So that’s it?”  Without instructions, she finishes the job when the unclean impure insect, covered in dust and filth, breathes his last.  She finally informs the grateful family that Gregor has been thrown out with the rubbish: “you needn’t worry about getting rid of the stuff next door.  It’s already back in order.”

The family then suddenly revive, realise they can do without Gregor and all expeditiously get  jobs.  Father becomes a proudly uniformed porter, mother sews fine lingerie for a fashion shop, and the ambitious Grete studies shorthand and French to advance her career.  The story ends when, assured of a more prosperous future, the family take a well-earned day-trip to the country.  Grete, who’d shrieked a horrified “Oh God, oh God!” when she first saw Gregor, now feels liberated.  When they reach their destination, she “rose first and stretched her young body,” ready for marriage and a glorious contrast to his wretched condition.



Like “The Metamorphosis”, the story “In the Penal Colony” (1919) is realistic and fantastic, rational and absurd.  It describes guilt and punishment, cruelty and violence, filth and pain, in the suffering and death of the antihero.  Kafka does not explain the reason for these tortures, which also have a comic element.  The traveller who witnesses the execution has to suppress a smile, the soldier laughs out loud and a senseless grin appears on the face of the condemned man.

The victim in the “Penal Colony” is surprisingly passive, even indifferent.  He is about to be executed for a rather trivial offence: disobeying and insulting his superior officer.  He had failed to stand up at the stroke of each nighttime hour and salute at the captain’s door.  But as Ronald Gray writes, the soldier’s offence is such a peccadillo that Kafka “must have intended the punishment to appear indefensible on moral grounds”.  Though the soldier’s duty seems pointless, it does reflect the rigid hierarchy of Kafka’s Austro-Hungarian society, with its unswerving obedience to the paterfamilias, to the emperor and to God.

The terrible execution machine, described in great detail, has three parts: the lower bed, the middle harrow and the upper writer.  The condemned man is strapped down and gagged, the apparatus rocks back and forth in rapid jerking motions.  His crime, failure to “Honour your Superior!,” is etched deeper and deeper into his naked flesh with an array of small sharp needles:

And thus it continues to inscribe ever more deeply for twelve hours.  During the first six hours the condemned man lives almost as before, suffering only pain.  After two hours the felt [gag] is removed since the man no longer has the strength to scream.  Warm rice gruel is placed at the head of the bed in this electrically heated bowl, from which the man can, if he wishes, take whatever he manages to catch with his tongue.  Nobody fails to seize this chance.

In this cruelly objective account, the officer conducting the procedure seems unaware of the protracted torture and pain, the starvation and weakening of the man, his desperate choice of nourishment and reduction of the victim to the status of a helpless animal.

The condemned man does not know his sentence, but will soon know it, physically and intellectually, when the needles pierce his flesh and inscribe the crime on his body.  The premeditated cruelty of the machine heralds a dark age made more sinister by perverse engineering.  He cannot be questioned or defend himself and — as in “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial — “Guilt is never to be doubted.”  His very existence proclaims his guilt.  Kafka suggests, through the massive punitive typewriter, that writing is a form of torture and that he himself is the victim.

The torture machine has a literary history.  Edgar Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” portrays the threat of torture and near death by the descent of a sharp steel blade.  Kafka’s hero Flaubert declared that pain could inspire the artist: “The human heart becomes deeper through the sharp knife which cuts into it.”  Rudyard Kipling’s epigraph to his poem “Pagett, M.P.” also emphasized the torture of a perceptive but helpless victim: “The Toad beneath the harrow knows /  Exactly where the tooth-point goes.”

Part of Kafka’s job was to inspect the industrial machinery that had injured the workers insured by his company.  His description of the infernal machine resembles the kind of instructions that would accompany a complex but potentially defective instrument.  The morbid machine suggests all sorts of horrors: a holy man’s bed of nails, medieval torture by rack and thumbscrew, invasive surgery, medical experiments, shock treatments, electrocutions and autopsies when the blood runs through and sometimes overflows the metal channels.

The writing on the condemned man’s body, like the story itself, is unclear.  Neither the modern reader, nor the traveller, nor the soldier, nor the victim can decipher it.  The machine, absurd yet cruel, is expensive to maintain and difficult to operate.  In a series of grotesquely comic disasters, the straps break; the gag is filthy and the victim vomits all over it; the water jets do not work and the blood pours out of control; and the whole apparatus begins to disintegrate.  In supposedly humane gestures, the condemned man is now given sweets and the needles no longer emit a caustic liquid.  Kafka’s instrument combines industrialism and barbarism, satirising advanced technology and the more modern forms of capital punishment.

In the 18th century, a great crowd used to witness the spectacle of public executions, but the traveller is now the only observer.  In an inexplicable but voluntary reversal, the victim and executioner change roles, the officer replaces the condemned man on the machine and is killed: “His lips were compressed and his wide-open eyes bore a life-like expression, his gaze was calm and assured, and through his forehead ran the point of a large iron spike,” a fierce concentration of needles.  The judge is also guilty and the destroyer is destroyed.  Kafka hints at a religious theme when a prophecy says that “after a certain number of years the commandant will arise, and from this house lead his followers to re-conquer the colony”.  But he immediately rejects this interpretation when the traveller states that “there was no sign of the promised deliverance.”  The officer’s sacrifice is meaningless, not redemptive, and there is no Second Coming.  The traveller, opposed to capital punishment, escapes at the end by steamboat, but actively prevents both the soldier and condemned man from leaving with him.

The story takes place in the penal colony, the French speaking tropical island and port.  The officer’s instructions read “Be just!” — but the whole procedure is unjust and the execution is inhumane.  The office is stripped of rank and uniform, and his sword is broken.   All these clues refer to the notorious case that provoked virulent anti-Semitism throughout Europe.  In 1894 the Jewish-French Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing military secrets to the German enemy. Court martialed and found guilty of treason, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, off the French Guiana coast in South America.  After the evidence that had condemned him was revealed to be false, he was released in 1899.  But, to appease the raging mobs that still hated Dreyfus and felt the French Army had been dishonoured, he was sentenced to ten more years in prison.  He always maintained his innocence but, broken by his cruel detention in the tropics, accepted a pardon and was not fully exonerated until 1906.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935)

Kafka naturally identified with the Jewish victim of the most famous trial in his lifetime.  In his penal colony the tropical island suggests Devil’s Island, the condemned man stands for Dreyfus, the theme is judicial murder and his “guilt is never to be doubted”, even when the evidence is absurd.  The deceased Old Commandant represents the condemnation of the French military court; the New Commandant (mentioned but not seen) overturns the old harsh law; the writing machine stands for passing information to the enemy.  The officer orders the innocent man to be set free, then takes his place beneath the harrow that now inscribes “Be just!”  The unjust machine breaks apart to represent the reversal of Dreyfus’ conviction.  The harsh punishment on Devil’s Island is like the grotesquely severe sentence of the innocent French captain.  Dreyfus had been illegally shackled to his bed like the condemned man tied beneath the harrow.  When he was released he declared, “I was finally escaping the torture rack to which I had been nailed for five years.”

Dostoyevsky foresaw Kafka’s theme.  His response in The Idiot to seeing Hans Holbein’s Christ in the Tomb foreshadowed Kafka’s description of the horrors of mechanical modern life that devoured its victims: “Looking at such a picture, one perceives nature in the form of a huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has meaninglessly clutched, crushed and swallowed up a great and priceless Being.”

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Malcolm’s eulogy applies as well to Kafka: “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it.”  Paradoxical, cryptic, ironic and bitterly humorous to the very end, Kafka in agony told his doctor on his deathbed:

FK: Kill me or you are a murderer…

Don’t leave.

Dr: I’m not leaving.

FK: But I am,

and breathed his last.

Jeffrey Meyers visited Devil’s Island when lecturing on a cruise to the Amazon.  He  published James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist in February 2024.  His Parallel Lives: From Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath will appear on July 3, 2024.  His book, 45 Ways to Look at Hemingway, will be out in July 2025, all with Louisiana State University Press.  A Message from TheArticle

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 95%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 91%
6 ratings - view all

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