Compilation copyright © 1989 by Schocken Books Inc.
Introduction copyright © 1989 by Mark Anderson
“The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment” English translation copyright 1948 by Schocken Books Inc. Copyright renewed 1976 by Schocken Books Inc. “The Stoker” English translation copyright 1938 by Edwin and Willa Muir. “Letter to His Father” English translation copyright 1954 by Schocken Books Inc. Copyright renewed 1982 by Schocken Books Inc. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Schocken Books Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kafka, Franz, 1883–1924.
The sons/by Franz Kafka; introduction by Mark Anderson.
p. cm.—(Schocken Kafka library)
Contents: The metamorphosis—The judgment—
Letter to his father.
1. Kafka, Franz, 1883–1924—Translations,
English. I. Title. II. Series.
PT2621.A26A2 1989 833’.912 89–6379
Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund
The publisher wishes to thank Mark Harman for bringing Franz Kafka’s wishes to our attention.
NOTE ON THE TRANSLATIONS
LETTER TO HIS FATHER
The Shocken Kafka Library
“The Judgment,” “The Stoker,” and “The Metamorphosis”
translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.
“Letter to His Father”
translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins.
All translations revised and updated by Arthur S. Wensinger.
“I HAVE ONLY one request,” Kafka wrote to his publisher Kurt Wolff in 1913. “ ‘The Stoker,’ ‘The Metamorphosis’ … and ‘The Judgment’ belong together, both inwardly and outwardly. There is an obvious connection between the three and, even more important, a secret one, for which reason I would be reluctant to forego the chance of having them published together in a book, which might be called The Sons.” The project was never realized. Kafka was almost completely unknown at the time, his books promised scant literary success or financial return, and, upon reflection, a “secret connection” between the stories must have struck Wolff as little more than a young author’s whim, certainly not sufficient justification for republishing works that were about to be published separately. In any case the proposal disappears from their correspondence, a year later Wolff was sent to the front, and Kafka became embroiled in a personal crisis that threatened to invalidate the very “secret connection” he had wished to make public.
Now, more than seventy-five years later, The Sons have been brought together in newly revised translations under the title Kafka originally intended. Among all his writings, these three stories had for him unusual literary and personal significance. After years of unsuccessful attempts at writing, they came to him in a burst of inspiration in the fall and winter of 1912. He was never quite as happy with anything he ever wrote, for the stories seemed to him all of a piece—dramatic fictional narratives with their own powerful if somewhat bizarre logic. “The Judgment,” which he wrote at a single sitting during the night of September 22, especially struck Kafka as an example of true literary accomplishment. As he wrote to his fiancée, Felice Bauer (to whom the story is dedicated), “The Judgment” had an “inner truth,” an “indubitability” that brought tears to his eyes when he read it aloud to his sisters and a small group of friends. “The Metamorphosis,” of course, has become Kafka’s best-known story, Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a gigantic bug now generally considered one of the most noteworthy if unlikely events in modern fiction. Organized like a three-act play with a controlled narrative rise and fall, the story is perhaps Kafka’s most classical, finished work. While less famous than the other two, “The Stoker” is a masterful short work that Kafka was quite attached to; he called it a “fragment” and had Wolff publish it in 1913 as an independent piece, although it is also the first chapter of his Chaplinesque first novel Amerika.*
The title Kafka proposed emphasizes the “obvious connection” between the stories: the theme of sons singled out for cruel and unusual punishment. But to focus attention on the sons is also to imply the fathers and the problem of generational conflict common to an entire epoch. A note in Kafka’s diary, in reference to “The Judgment,” reads: “Thoughts about Freud, naturally.” And indeed, Freud’s own essay on the primal struggle between fathers and sons, Totem and Taboo, was published the same year. The theme is also basic to the literary movement Kafka is most often associated with: German Expressionism. In 1914 the young Expressionist poet Walter Hasenclever, without any knowledge of Kafka’s project, offered Kurt Wolff a play entitled The Son, which Wolff published in Die Weissen Blätter, the same literary journal in which he would print “The Metamorphosis” a year later. Banned during the war for its “anarchic” assault on patriarchal authority, Hasenclever’s play became a rallying point for the young writers of his generation.
Yet Kafka’s title strangely underscores the juvenile, dependent nature of his protagonists. Unlike Freud’s narratives of Vatermord, these stories are about the banishment and death of children. And unlike the heroes of Expressionist scenarios, Kafka’s literary progeny refuse to take up arms against their fathers. His sons accept their bizarre fate—they die or are banished without polemical fanfare, without resentment for their persecutors, and apparently without regret. Thus the oddest (and funniest) feature of “The Metamorphosis” is not Gregor’s transformation into a monstrous vermin but his straight-faced acceptance of his fate. He never once reflects on the possible cause of his transformation or how he might reverse it, and just before death, while lost in a state of “empty and peaceful meditation,” he thinks of his family “with tenderness and love.” Karl Rossmann in “The Stoker” also remembers his parents fondly although, as his uncle remarks, they shipped him off to America after he had been molested by a family servant, “just as you throw a cat out of the house when it annoys you.” Georg Bendemann in “The Judgment” is the most astonishingly obedient son of all. When his father suddenly and inexplicably sentences him to death by drowning, he rushes from the room without another thought, and jumps off the nearest bridge, proclaiming his undying love for his parents as he drops into the river.
Despite its deadpan humor, this filial devotion has an extreme, even pathological quality that prevents us from reading Kafka’s stories in conventional psychological and realist terms. Whereas a traditional nineteenth-century narrative of familial conflict might have focused on the son’s emotional growth or heightened consciousness, Kafka depicts his protagonists as mentally vacant, enigmatic figures lacking in introspection and self-awareness. The sons remain sons, profoundly unaware of their past mistakes and incapable of being changed by them. Indeed, the trauma of their punishment seems to shock these semi-adults back into an emotional and intellectual state of early childhood. In “The Judgment” the shock comes midway through the story when the father stands up in bed, “radiant” with transcendent insight, while his grown son cowers in the corner like a little boy, his senses confused and his memory dulled. In “The Metamorphosis” the shock comes with the first sentence like a hammer-blow, thrusting Gregor Samsa—and the reader—into a radically new and foreign world. After his transformation Gregor leads
This lack of inner emotional development (or, at least, the lack of any tangible evidence of such development) makes Kafka’s “sons” extremely difficult to interpret. In the classical sense, they lack the critical self-awareness to be truly tragic. But this “lack” is an emblem of their modernity: to remain a son is also to remain this side of transcendence, completion, and unity, a fragment of the full man or traditional, realist character. At the same time this static, “frozen” quality shifts the story’s emphasis away from the realm of individual psychology and places it squarely on the social relations between characters. This claim may seem odd in light of the prevailing tendency to read Kafka as the poet of modern, individual anxiety, divorced from social or historical realities. Yet Kafka’s title The Sons defines his protagonists in terms of their families, as children still largely controlled by familial and social relations. In fact, one might say that the true subject of these stories is not the individual subject at all but the family—that social and even “animal” organism, as Kafka once called it, through which the child first learns to define its own identity.
This is the point where the “secret connection” mentioned in the letter to Wolff begins to emerge. While writing these stories, Kafka was for the first time contemplating leaving his family to marry a woman from Berlin, Felice Bauer, whom he had met in August 1912 and with whom he was conducting a clandestine correspondence. (Then twenty-nine, Kafka was still living with his parents in a room he characterized as a “connecting street” between the living room and the other bedrooms; hence his instructions to Felice to write to him at his office.) The letters and diaries from this period are filled with bitterness toward his family’s intrusion on his free time, which he wanted to devote to his writing. In early October 1912, Hermann Kafka’s insistence that his son help manage the family asbestos factory brought him to the verge of suicide. In November Kafka’s mother found a letter from Felice in one of his coat pockets and secretly enlisted her support in controlling Franz’s eating and sleeping habits. Kafka discovered the theft and, furious at this invasion of his privacy (which occurred while he was busy with “The Metamorphosis”), wrote a “wild” letter to Felice that gives us a revealing portrait of the state of his family relations:
Everything had been so good; I was looking forward to enjoying in peace the happiness you give me … when along comes my mother and wrecks it all. I have always looked upon my parents as persecutors; until about a year ago I was indifferent to them and perhaps to the world at large, as some kind of lifeless thing, but I see now it was only suppressed fear, worry, and unhappiness. All parents want to do is drag one down to them, back to the old days from which one longs to free oneself and escape; they do it out of love, of course, and that’s what makes it so horrible.
Impelled by this antagonism for what he considered the humiliating conditions of his own dependence, Kafka undertook one of the most perceptive, rigorous, and devastating analyses of the modern family that exists in literature. This is the thematic significance of The Sons: the story of children whose parents attempt to “raise” them into adults yet, at the same time, “drag” them back to the “old days” of childhood dependence. Both in his literary and his personal writings, Kafka is a harsh critic of what he saw as the contradictory pedagogy of his period. As Gerhard Neumann has pointed out, this pedagogy (which goes back to the Enlightenment precept of compulsory education as a basis for individual freedom, or what the Germans call Erziehung zur Freiheit) presents the child with an impossible dilemma:
The demand for action, which issues from the father in the form of educational maxims, is inherently contradictory and brings about the child’s total disorientation: “Emancipate yourselves by following my example and become grown-ups” runs the one maxim: “yield through gratitude and remain children” runs the opposite one. The educational discourse coagulates into an order which cannot be obeyed: “I order you not to be so obedient!” (Das Urteil. Text, Materialien, Kommentar. Munich, 1981)
“The Judgment” provides a dramatic example of this dilemma. Georg Bendemann has been a model son, caring for his aging father and running the family business. His impending marriage will complete the generational shift from father to son, allowing him to continue the family name by starting a family of his own. But instead of letting his son replace him, Herr Bendemann rebels, reclaims his paternal authority, and reproaches his son for his “devilish” intentions. The almost-adult Georg is driven back into the submissiveness of childhood, finally flinging himself from the bridge into death “like the accomplished gymnast he had been in his youth, to his parents’ pride.”
“The Metamorphosis” and “The Stoker” also depict the impossibility of becoming an adult. As a grown-up traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa is still the perfect son, living at home, paying off the family’s debts, sacrificing himself in unacknowledged devotion to his dependent parents and sister. Whether self-willed or not, his metamorphosis turns the tables, reversing the parasitic relationship in his favor and forcing his family to find work and support his leisure. Like the early grotesque drawings of Alfred Kubin, a Prague contemporary and acquaintance whose work meant much to Kafka, Gregor’s monstrous form is meant to scandalize and disempower the conformist, petty bourgeois world around him, represented not only by the Samsas and the chief clerk, but especially by the three uncannily indentical boarders. In the quiet second movement of the story, Gregor’s attempt at self-liberation and self-definition acquires some reality: the memory of his prior human enslavement recedes into the distance, his body grows lighter and freer, he hangs from the ceiling in “blissful absorption” while a gentle, musical vibration—the harmony of existence before the Fall—rocks him back and forth. But of course the metamorphosis also increases his childlike dependence and vulnerability: the model son transformed into a happy bug simply becomes the outcast son, is bombarded with apples by the father, and in the end is literally thrown out of the house by the cleaning woman.
In “The Stoker” Karl Rossmann has also been banished from the family, but fails to take any positive steps toward adulthood. The ship’s stoker, a childlike, inarticulate but physically massive figure whose relation to Karl is animated by a strong homoerotic undercurrent, seems to represent a kind of anti-father, at once victim and protector. But Karl’s family returns in the guise of his Uncle Jacob, a wealthy and powerful senator who puts a quick end to the relationship with the stoker. The uncle promises protection, but (as we know from subsequent chapters in the novel) Karl will be repeatedly cast out of any secure, stable environment where he might settle, establish roots, and raise a family. In Kafka’s vision, in fact, America becomes a largely uninterrupted landscape of homeless and dispossessed persons, ersatz families forming and dissolving in an endless and futile process.
And yet, and yet—Kafka’s account of the sons’ destruction within the modern family sounds an unmistakable note of triumph. However terrible the content of these stories, their form remains sublimely self-assured, even jubilant. This discrepancy arises from Kafka’s own ambiguous relation—both indentification and repudiation—to the protagonists of his fictions. Like Georg Bendemann, Gregor Samsa, and Karl Rossmann (whose names are all coded versions of his own), Kafka is still a son living at home, exposed to the whim and caprice of his family. Yet in writing down their stories of suicide, grotesque metamorphosis, and banishment to America, Kafka rises above their fa
As author, Kafka is the father of his literary protagonists. Thus the moment in which he writes the final sentence of “The Judgment” in his diary—the sentence narrating Georg’s death—signals his own birth as a writer. Kafka told his friend Max Brod that the story’s final image of “traffic” (Verkehr, a word with sexual connotations) streaming across the bridge had reminded him of a “giant orgasm.” Similarly, in his diary entry for February 11, 1913, he notes that the story came out of him “like a real birth, covered with filth and slime.” In this sense The Sons are Kafka’s literary offspring, his children, as he frequently points out to Felice. “Today I am sending you ‘The Stoker,’ ” he writes in June 1913 when the story was first published. “Receive the little lad kindly, sit him down beside you and praise him, as he longs for you to do.”
Kafka clearly understood these stories as part of his own effort to liberate himself from his parents’ grip. Marriage to Felice was part of his plan, but more important, indeed vital to the possibility of marriage, was his own literary paternity. Every finished story (every fictional death) marked his growing independence and literary adulthood, and brought him closer to his future fiancée. Without The Sons, he once confided to Felice, he would never have dared to approach her with the idea of marriage. This explains his unusual insistence to Kurt Wolff on having the stories published as quickly and as often as possible: he needed the social legitimation that only a published work would confer, in his parents’ and Felice’s eyes. Stories thus had to be written, given his name, printed, and sent out into the world as his children, his “sons.”
Eventually, however, literary paternity posed an obstacle to an actual marriage and real children. The dilemma is already evident in the long, tormented marriage proposal Kafka wrote in June 1913, a few days after the publication of “The Judgment” and “The Stoker.” A model of ambiguity and counterstatement, the proposal relates directly to the conflict between literary and biological paternity:
Sons by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes