Franz Kafka’s innovation, imagery and symbolism

Coining the term “Kafkaesque”, his innovation

Doodles drawn by Franz Kafka. According to Max Brod, a close colleague of his, Kafka would sketch drawings alongside his scripts during college.

To begin understanding Kafka’s form and style of writing, one must prepare for a voyage through a whirlpool of ambiguity. The first struggle in comprehending Kafka is translating his German writing into English and other languages. His elaborate sentences that sometime progress into an entire page comes from a unique trait of the German language. He utilizes this style and delivers a build-up to the very end of the sentence, finalizing his meaning and focus. This is accomplished by a German style where the verb — or action — is placed towards the end of the sentence.  This craft makes it difficult for translators to provide the reader with the same meaning Kafka intended, which is a reason why so many critics have different interpretations of his work.

But this is mere trivial language translation. Kafka’s greatest innovation comes from his ability to twist the meaning of his sentences with his use imagery, symbolism and parabolic morals. His fiction examines a universe in literature that has yet to be explored by any preceding him, a world crowded with implications that enters the remote regions of the human psychology. Kafka’s universe has different rules, ones unfamiliar to the rules that govern our reality.

Yet, reading a parable created by Kafka resonates with who we are, and who we’ve become. It is here where he coins the term “Kafkaesque” and has puzzled readers around the world regardless if read in German or English.

One of Kafka’s greatest innovations was his belief that bourgeois labor destroys the soul. In his fable “Poseidon”, the god of the sea is consumed with tedious, endless paperwork. Kafka’s literature predicted the trajectory of bureaucracy and painted the corporate world we live in today.



The daunt imagery of Kafka


Kafka reflected his view of man’s anxiety in a dehumanized world with constant dark imagery in narrative, setting and character development. Whether it is an artist who starves himself, a man being transformed into a big, or a giant machine used for a military tortuous capital punishment device, Kafka’s plots are surrounded by the absurd. He immediately sets the alienated stark mood in the opening to “The Metamorphosis”:



Image taken from a scene in a short animated film by Caroline Leaf in 1978 called "The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa".

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning out of restless dreams, he found himself in bed, transformed into a gargantuan pest. He lay on his hard, armored back and saw, as he raised his head a little, his domed, brown belly, divided into arched segments; he could hardly keep the bed sheets from sliding from his stomach’s height completely to the floor. His numerous legs, lamentably thin in comparison to his new girth, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”


Here he sets the mood of the story within one paragraph with the imagery of Gregor’s transformation into a pest. An image that most people would find repulsive, the reader will begin to understand through this imagery, the alienation Gregor will receive from this first paragraph.


“In the Penal Colony”, Kafka describes a mysterious machine in vivid detail, yet he still manages to make this machine seem incomprehensible. This machine is a torture device used to execute soldiers and in the story a traveler is invited to watch how the machine works as a soldier is chained to the apparatus. This again, promotes a dark atmosphere of suspense and absurdness. He writes:


“In any event, the only persons present besides the officer and the traveler in this small but deep and sandy valley, surrounded by barren slopes on all sides, were the condemned man — a dull, thick-lipped creature with a disheveled appearance — and a soldier, who held the heavy chagrin that controlled the smaller chains attached to the condemned man’s ankles, wrists, and neck, chains that were also linked together. But the condemned man looked so submissively doglike that it seemed as if he might have been allowed to run free on the slopes and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”


The imagery captured in this scene, which plays throughout the story, has a consistent sense of lurid mystery. This place seems to be an odd setting for an execution. Why is there only a few people attending this execution? Why doesn’t anyone have names? What has this condemned man done? These types of questions trigger anticipation, suspense and mystery. These three elements make the reader want to read on.


Kafka’s ambiguous symbolism


Kafka’s stories are filled with symbolism making yet another reason why so many readers re-read his stories multiple times and have various interpretations.

Symbolism in particular is a great strength for Kafka.

In the “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa’s transformation not only creates dark imagery, but also symbolizes the main theme of the story — alienation — and more importantly, Kafka himself.  Throughout the story lies symbolism in many material objects placed in the narrative.

A great example of Kafka’s use of symbolism is the picture of the woman in furs that reappears in the story. In the beginning, just after he finds himself turned into a bug Kafka writes:


“Above the desk, on which a collection of fabric samples was unpacked and spread out — Samsa was a traveling salesman — hung the picture that he recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put in a pretty frame. It showed a lady, sitting upright, dressed in a fur hat and fur boa; her entire forearm had vanished into a thick fur muff which she held out to the viewer.”


This picture symbols Gregor’s former humanity, before turning into a bug. The picture resonates Gregor’s desire of an attractive woman living in wealth.  Later in the story, we see him cling to this picture when Grete and the mother start clearing out his bedroom representing the importance the picture is to him.

In Kafka’s short story, “A Hunger Artist” — about a professional hunger artist, a performer who starves himself for many day— it has great use of symbolism. The cage, which is where the hunger artist performs in, is symbolic of the artist’s alienation from society. Being inside the cage, the spectators can never go in themselves and understand what he is doing. This suggests the separation between spectacle and spectators and the barrier that prevents the true understanding of an artist. In the story he writes:


Painting of a hunger artist — someone who doesn't eat for a long period of time — by Shawn Yu.

“At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist; from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his small barred cage; even in the nighttime there were visiting hours, when the whole effect was heightened by torch flares; on fine days the cage was set out in the open air, and then it was the children’s special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but the children stood openmouthed, holding each other’s hands for greater security, marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions with a constrained smile, or perhaps stretching an arm through the bars so that one might feel how thin it was, and then again withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything, not even to the all-important striking of the clock that was the only piece of furniture in his cage, but merely staring into vacancy with half-shut eyes, now and then taking a sip from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.”


Works cited:

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

“In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka

“The Metamorphosis and Other Stories Franz Kafka” from Barnes and Nobles Classics with an introduction and notes by Jason Baker


2 thoughts on “Franz Kafka’s innovation, imagery and symbolism

  1. Ryan — This is an outstanding description of Kafka’s style. The examples are excellent. On the second subhead, I think you mean “daunting imagery.” Great job!

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