In a letter to a friend, Kafka once wrote: “I believe that we should only read those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it? What we need are books that affect us like some really grievous misfortune, like the death of one whom we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished to distant forests, away from everybody, like a suicide; a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us” (qtd. in Koelb 72).
This quote is but one reason that I love teaching Kafka—no other author confounds, frustrates, and dazzles my students the way he does, whether it is with a tattoo machine that takes on a life of its own or a bucket that one can fly in desperate times, or a salesman that suddenly wakes up one day a “monstrous vermin.” And hidden within these fantastic tales are deeper issues about justice, faith, power dynamics, use value, and yes, even about writing itself. Take the tortuous machine in In the Penal Colony, which is rendered with such meticulous description while still defying reality. My students know the machine looks like, sort of. Same with the giant bug poor Gregor Samsa finds himself morphed into—my students have a hazy idea of what it looks like, but get them to draw it, and they find themselves at a loss (some just go for a standard cockroach to make it easy). This, to me, is the fantastic at its most powerful—it feels real on some level that we cannot rationalize.
Another author that I teach, Flannery O’Connor, writes that she was “never been able to finish” one of Kafka’s novels (The Habit of Being 99). Yes, she was influenced greatly by his shorter work such as The Metamorphosis. She argues that Gregor’s “situation is accepted by the reader because the concrete detail of the story is absolutely convincing. The fact is that this story describes the dual nature of man in such a realistic fashion that it is almost unbearable...” (Mystery and Manners 97-98). Gregor is so tragic because he is caught between worlds—yes, he now has the body of a loathsome creature, but he can still understand human speech even though he can no longer form words. Kafka then shows us how Gregor has seen himself in only economic terms all his life—what he makes, what he does, what position in the company he holds. And of course, then I ask my students how many of them see themselves as such—their majors, what they hope to do some day, what they dream their life will be like. So often their answers run dangerously close to the life we see Gregor has succumbed to.
In the Penal Colony is, similarly, mostly rendered in realistic detail—if you leave out the fact that one never quite understands just how that damn machine operates. The script that is beautifully tattooed onto the criminal for twelve consecutive hours, thereby letting him know “on his body” just what wrongs he did can only be experienced, not read. Such an interesting dilemma Kafka brings us to about the beauty and pitfalls of language. And what a pedagogical crisis I encounter when I think about ways I need to make writing (and reading) a more engaging exercise to my kinetic learners, who must experience language, not merely register it on a verbal/visual/auditory level. Towards the end of the tale, when the officer at last places himself within this instrument of torture, the machine refuses to give him the “enlightenment” he has seen so many times on his prisoners’ faces. Instead, in a moment of the fantastic, it rises and grows, frothing with all its wheels even as it falls apart and, for all intents and purposes, murders the very man who controlled it for so many years.
But my favorite short stories to teach are ones that students (and most others) have rarely read. “A Country Doctor” relates the tale about doctor who is called out into a nearby village. His horse is dead, and so he cannot fulfill his duty—that is, until a groom suddenly crawls out of the doctor’s pigsty, followed by two horses. Once the doctor gets in the gig, he is transported into a nightmare landscape, which includes a boy with a most extraordinary wound, crazy villagers who no longer believe in the gods but expect the doctor to do the impossible, and unearthly horses that take the doctor the long way home. The doctor is also constantly haunted by the memory of his servant girl Rose, whom he has left behind with the animalistic groom. The fantastic here propels the reader again into issues about science versus faith (with no clear winner), use value, and the dangers of not acknowledging our own desires. Could this story have worked without the fantastic? Sure. Would it have been as powerful? I highly doubt it, for it is the moment of intellectual uncertainty which keeps students from knowing—even assuming—what will happen next.
Last but not least, “The Bucket Rider” and “An Imperial Message” are two of the shortest Kafka tales, but their economy of words makes the wondrous journey both protagonists make even more gut wrenching. One of Kafka’s strengths is placing just a lone element of fantasy within a tale. For instance, when a bucket is able to fly. But the circumstances of poverty and desperation surrounding such a magical quality (the bucket has no coal, and is therefore so light it can fly) far outweigh any “make believe” element the reader may want to dismiss. Likewise, in “An Imperial Message,” the most insignificant of subjects waits for a message from the emperor. Kafka morphs the landscape with each new sentence so that the “indefatigable” courier is forever imprisoned within the city while the individual waits and “dream[s] it all true” (159). I admire Kafka for the ambiguity he incorporates into his work through the use of the fantastic. It offers a unique rhetorical space for my class to discuss the problems of bureaucracy, injustice, economic divisions—issues our American students are grappling with right now. But also, it allows my students to see how stories, by denying the rules of “reality,” can break through false societal narratives to reach a deeper, more redemptive truth.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1975.
Koelb, Clayton. Kafka’s Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
---. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.