The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
1864 Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground is published; it is later celebrated as early existentialist writing.
1880 Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov focuses on the father–son relationship.
1883–85 Contempt for human pity and compassion, a typical existentialist theme, is a major focus in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
1938 Jean-Paul Sartre publishes Nausea, considered a great existentialist novel.
1942 The Outsider by Albert Camus explores people’s futile search for meaning in life’s disordered events.
1953 Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett depicts the absurd lives of two tramps.
The main proposition of existentialism is that anxiety forms the foundation of human feeling and thinking; this condition is triggered when we recognize the absurdity and meaninglessness of our existence. Existentialism has roots in 19th-century northern European philosophy – with key terms such as “angst”, or anxiety, coined by Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish thinker whose works influenced Franz Kafka.
Confusion and anxiety are represented by an extreme metaphor in Kafka’s disturbing story Metamorphosis, and staged in front of a cast of unsympathetic characters. While there are clearly literal discomforts associated with Gregor Samsa’s waking form as a verminous, beetling insect, at the core of Kafka’s tragic novella is the response of his family and acquaintances to his absurd predicament, as opposed to the impositions of changed physicality.
"For the first few days especially, there was no conversation that was not about him in one way or another, if only in private."
Hell is other people
Gregor is rendered utterly dysfunctional and can no longer work as a salesman or support his vulnerable family. Rather than offer compassion, his family appear hugely inconvenienced and disgusted. So Gregor as a beetle is treated as abject and alien, and Kafka deftly exposes the barbaric and inhumane response of the so-called civilized, rational world that they represent. In the words of the existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people”. His phrase perfectly describes Kafka’s absurd depiction of a family in crisis.
Gregor is reduced to scuttling over the walls and ceiling of his room in the family apartment – or retreating under the sofa – to pass the hours. Although he ultimately abandons any attempt at dignity, and refuses to appeal to his family or assert his inner humanity, he is momentarily moved by his sister’s violin playing and lured from his room to listen. With this episode, Gregor briefly refutes his outward “beastliness” and attempts to assert his authentic self, but this becomes another opportunity for the family (and their lodgers) to revile and abuse him – the hostile audience contributing further to his sense of shame and alienation.
Surrender to the absurd
Kafka’s heroes do not usually conquer angst; instead, they continually seek empirical solutions to outlandish puzzles, often under extraordinary conditions. His longer works, such as The Trial and The Castle, describe unresolved quests, defined by paradox and instability of meaning and interpretation. Metamorphosis, although illogical and nightmarish, is a departure (arguably in a more “existential” direction) because even the drive to solve the puzzle and finish the quest is abandoned. Gregor experiences a kind of revelation through surrender in the denouement of the novella.
Interestingly, Kafka is not known to have declared himself an existentialist, although he acknowledged the influence of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, two key figures in existentialism. It was Sartre and Camus who appropriated Kafka into the movement after his death.
Franz Kafka was the eldest of six children of Ashkenazi Jewish parents in Prague. Born in 1883, he was educated in a German elementary school followed by the state gymnasium (selective school). He studied law at university in Prague, where he met Max Brod, who posthumously edited and published most of Kafka’s works.
By 1908 Kafka was working in an insurance company but focusing on his writing. His work was interrupted by ill health and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917.
Kafka’s personal life was troubled: his Letter to His Father portrayed an authoritarian father who alienates his son; and he had a series of unsuccessful relationships with women. In 1923 he moved from Prague to Berlin to live with a lover, but worsening ill health meant a return to his family in Prague, where he died in 1924.
Other key works
1913 The Judgement
1922 A Hunger Artist
1925 The Trial
1926 The Castle
1966 Letter to His Father
See also: The Waste Land • The Trial • The Book of Disquiet • The Outsider • Waiting for Godot