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One of the reasons why Franz Kafka was able to gain the fame of one of 20th century’s most prominent writers is that his literary works contain many motifs/themes, closely associated with a number of people’s subconscious anxieties.
In this paper, I will aim to substantiate the validly of an earlier suggestion in regards to Kafka’s short stories A Hunger Artist, Jackals and Arabs and The Metamorphosis, as literary works that are being concerned with exploring the themes of alienation, surrealism and self-sacrifice, which in turn explains these stories’ an essentially subliminal appeal to the reading audiences.
A Hunger Artist
The most striking characteristic of Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist is that in it, the author had shown that socially alienated introverts might nevertheless pass for being nothing short of extraverts. As it appears from this particular story, the actual reason why the character of a hunger artist was growing ever bitterer is that he sensed that the viewing audiences did not appreciate real motivations behind his public performances.
Whereas; Kafka’s hunger artist strived to be recognized as someone who had a plenty of will power to derive pleasure out of suppressing its own animalistic instincts, spectators never ceased thinking of his performances as having been solely motivated by the artist’s essentially animalistic hunger for fame and money.
The soundness of this suggestion can be well illustrated in relation to the story’s scene in which butchers (hired to observe artist at night, so that he would not have a chance of eating any sneaked out food) preoccupy themselves with playing cards – hence, allowing the hunger artist to have a bite.
Apparently, it never even occurred to them that the artist was a perfectly honest individual, totally incapable of cheating: “During the period of fasting the hunger artist would never, under any circumstances, have eaten the slightest thing, not even if compelled by force. The honour of his art forbade it”. It was namely due to the artist’s continuous exposure to people’s arrogance that he started to yield to depression.
However, being utterly unable to recognize artist’s existential nobleness, as the actual driving force behind his act, spectators could not help worsening the situation with artist’s mental state even further, because they arrogantly thought that the deterioration of his physical condition was brought about by his fasting as ‘thing in itself’.
Yet, this was far from being the case. As it appears from the story, nothing could satisfy the hunger-artist’s longing for self-realization better than being provided with an opportunity to do what he used to do the best – practicing an extreme form of fasting. Therefore, it would only be logical, on our part, to suggest that the artist’s ultimate demise came as a result of him never ceasing to remain strongly alienated from the rest of society.
Jackals and Arabs
The reading of a short story Jackals and Arabs leaves no doubt as to the fact that this story’s foremost thematic element is being of clearly surreal nature.
The reason for this is simple – it is not only that the characters of jackals, featured in the story, are shown as being endowed with perfectly human psychological traits (they experience hate, fear, hope), but they can also speak human language: “I’m the oldest jackal for miles around. I’m happy I’m still able to welcome you here”. Jackals approach the narrator and begin to elaborate on how much they hate Arabs, as utterly filthy people, whose religious practices undermine the cleanliness of a surrounding environment.
This, however, is not only the single aspect to story’s clearly defined surrealist sounding. After all, it is not the encounter with jackals that can speak human voices, which amazes narrator as something rather impossible, but the fact that jackals appear to have been anticipating his arrival.
Such narrator’s reaction, of course, cannot be referred to as anything but strongly surreal, because it only makes logical sense within the framework of a story’s semantic content. The same can be said about story’s setting, which provide a surreal authenticity to plot’s unraveling.
There is also a surreal quality to the image of rusty scissors, which jackals used to carry along with them. Even though, when it comes to slashing people’s throats, one would be so much better off using a knife, the author made a deliberate point in representing scissors, as the intended instrument of Arabs’ punishment. Apparently, Kafka wanted to increase the story’s surreal appeal even further.
Just as it is being the case with the motifs in Salvador Dali’s paintings, which despite their seeming oddness make a perfectly good sense to those aware of the essence of Dali’s worldviews, clearly surreal undertones to Jackals and Arabs also appear fully explainable to those who have been introduced to Kafka’s biography.
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One of the foremost thematic elements in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is self-sacrifice. Even throughout story’s introductory part the theme of self-sacrifice is being featured rather prominently. After having been turned into a bug, the story’s main character Gregor Samsa does not think of his metamorphosis in terms of a personal tragedy, but solely in terms of how it may affect the members of his family.
This alone portrays Gregor as an individual endowed with an acute sense of social responsibleness, who does not think of ensuring of its personal well-being as such that represents his foremost priority. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that, throughout story’s consequential phases, Gregor continues to act in a strongly defined sacrificial manner.
For example, while being perfectly aware of the fact that his family members find his new appearance utterly appalling, Gregor tries not to come out of his room, even though not being to socialize with his loved ones does hurt him rather immensely. Gregor also does not protest when his sister Grete rearranges furniture in his room, simply because he does not want her to be getting upset even more. This again portrays Gregor as an individual with strong self-sacrificial anxieties.
Nevertheless, Gregor’s ultimate sacrificial act was his decision to die – hence, relieving his relatives of a burden of taking care of him: “He remembered his family with deep feelings of love. In this business, his own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s”.
Apparently, despite the fact that, after having been turned into a bug Gregor never ceased being abused by the members of his family, he nevertheless continued to love them with a deep passion. Therefore, Gregor did not resist dying, as he felt that his relatives really did want him to disappear. Such Gregor’s final act, of course, cannot be referred to as anything but highly sacrificial.
Kafka, Franz “The Metamorphosis.” Vancouver Island University. 2009. 3 Oct. 2011 http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/kafka/metamorphosishtml.html
Kafka, Franz “A Hunger Artist.” Vancouver Island University. 2009. 3 Oct. 2011 http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/kafka/hungerartisthtml.html
Kafka, Franz “Jackals and Arabs.” Vancouver Island University. 2009. 3 Oct. 2011 http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/kafka/jackalsandarabshtml.html