The adjective kafkaesk, derived from the German-speaking author Franz Kafka, describes an unexpectedly threatening but also absurd situation, or the works of Kafka and also those which recall his style. The term can already be considered as Kafka-esque in the middle of the 20th century. This neologism soon made the leap into the Duden. As a synonym can be used eerily, oddly as well as strange and partly menacing.
At first, the term was used primarily to ascribe to Kafka’s works a kind or effect, as they also unfold Kafka’s works. Consequently, the adjective was used primarily to refer to the features that reminded Kafka or was used, among other things, as a description of tributes to the writer. Thus, the term used mainly inter-literary references.
Now, however, the term is also applied to extra-literary matters. In most cases, situations are described that appear inexplicably threatening, sinister, or absurd. Furthermore, events can appear kafkaesque, in which an agent is exposed to a completely incomprehensible as well as inscrutable bureaucracy, which also points to Kafka’s works.
The plot of these works is often diffuse or plays with the alienation of its actors. Recurring themes are, for example, the alienation and impotence of the respective protagonists towards an opaque system that appears to them as an enemy or an opponent (cf. antagonist). These do not recognize themselves, are alien or characterized by fear and uncertainty, which sometimes appears surreal. All these characteristics can be taken under the term kafkaesk.
For example, Josef K. is arrested in the novel Der Process on his 30th birthday and tries to find out what is at his expense at all costs in the course of the narrative, since he can still move freely. However, the court is not accessible to him, and although there is no judgment that he or the reader experiences, he is treated as a dog one day before his 31st birthday.
Similarly, Gregor Samsa, who awakens in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, one morning in the form of a beetle. He also does not know why it came to this transformation or what he could do to escape it. In the narrative, everyday and surreal meet, resulting in a very oppressive, absurd and threatening reality. This is also kafkaesk.
According to Thomas Anz (born 1948), a former professor of modern German literature at the University of Marburg, the term “situations and diffuse experiences of fear, insecurity and alienation”, as in his work Franz Kafka. Life and work. summarizes. The Kafkabiograf Reiner Stach interpreted the term in an interview with the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) as follows:
In most cases people mean something absurd and at the same time uncanny, mostly about any power relations: if those who occupy the center of power remain in the dark, one feels that the situation is “kafkaesk” […]. In his novels, the summit of the pyramid is invisible, and in today’s society – despite the apparent transparency – one does not know exactly how it is in the supreme authorities. We do not know where the power center is, we do not even know if there is such a center at all. […] One would like to know how things are going up there, but you can only get to know the intermediaries. This is exactly the same as in Kafka’s case. (→ to the interview)
Short overview: The most important part of the term at a glance
The term kafkaesk emerged for the first time in the middle of the 20th century as Kafka-esque. Originally, it created references between literary texts and featured works reminiscent of Kafka’s oeuvre. Nowadays, however, it is also used for situations that exist outside the literature as well as for individual situations, moods, impressions or events.
The term thus expresses either that something reminiscent of Kafka’s style or his manner of narrative, or a sinister, absurd, surreal, also depressing or inexplicably menacing situation. Mituner is also referred to as being exposed to a system or the impotence of the protagonists in Kafka’s works.
Note: The meaning of the term is therefore not always very clear. Often it can only be clearly understood when viewed in the context of the further text.