Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 2, 1981

Kafka and Dostoevsky as "Blood Relatives"

Roman S. Struc, The University of Calgary

The romance of German literature with the giants of Russian letters is an affair of long standing. Its inception reaches back to the mid-eighteenth century, though the most intensive involvement of German writers has been with Russian authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unlike the other countries of the West, Germany's interest in Russian letters had not been limited to the "classics" of Russian literature. The German reading public is conversant with all the major figures of Russian literature from Pushkin to Leskov, Merezhkovskij, Bunin, Gorkij, Majakovskij, Pasternak, and Bulgakov, as well as contemporary Soviet writers. This interest has at no time decreased; the romance still goes on. (1)

If in passing only, it should be pointed out that the affair had not been one-sided: the influence of German Idealism, especially in its Hegelian forms, and of German Romanticism (Schelling, Herder-Belinskij, Schiller-Dostoevsky, Goethe-Bulgakov must suffice as random examples) is a well-documented chapter in the intellectual history of Russia. (2) Thomas Mann claimed that it was Germany's central position in Europe which made her a natural and eager recipient, mediator and disseminator between East and West in all matters of spiritual culture. This speculative view is surely not without considerable merit.

The broad span of German interests in Russian matters notwithstanding, it can be safely claimed that Dostoevsky has been the focal point of that curiosity and fascination. Such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Rilke, Döblin, Werfel, Bergengrün, and the somewhat unjustly forgotten Jakob Wassermann stood under the spell of the Russian writer. The preceptor of modern German thought, Nietzsche, acknowledged his affinity with Dostoevsky's analysis of the modern predicament which he found in his "Notes from Underground", as have many others who concerned themselves with the crisis of European consciousness.

Franz Kafka has been considered in all respects an exception. He entered the consciousness of both the European and North American reading public as a great loner, a man thoroughly alienated from his environment and tradition, the original inimitable genius. (3) Even in his own assessement of his situation, Kafka thought of himself as either the beginning or the end. Still, even early in his posthumous career Kafka's name had been linked with men such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky as thinkers and hоmines religiоsi. In those early studies Kafka had been


viewed as one of their company. Notwithstanding some virtue of this perception, these studies had been ahistorical and often impressionistic, seeing Kafka primarily if not exclusively as a purveyor of ideas, a prophet of doom rather than a man of letters; their tone was one of homage rather than of historically accurate assessments. Only in the late fifties and especially quite recently Kafka scholarship began shaking off certain hasty and unwarranted claims on behalf of its hero and, as an example, his affinity with Kierkegaard has been subjected to close critical scrutiny resulting in a more sober and objective view of the Dane's influence on Kafka's thought. The same has occurred with other figures frequently linked with Kafka. In this process of discriminating reassessment, however, Kafka's affinity with Dostoevsky gained in currency. In the last decade some very creditable ground work has been accomplished, and one can now safely speak of more than either very general or incidental connection between those two, at least at first glance, diverse figures.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to summarize these foci of affinity or even influence, as the case may be, in a systematic fashion.

1. Kafka's private library, unfortunately recorded a decade after his death, contained Dostoevsky's "Letters", "The Brothers Karamazov", "Crime and Punishment", and a one volume collection of shorter works with the title "The Gambler". (4) In 1914 a German translation of Dostoevsky's "Complete Works" had become available. On the basis of Kafka's Letters and Diaries we know that he read many other works besides those in his library, including Nina Hoffmann's Dostoevsky biography and Strachov's introductory essay to Dostoevsky's "Collected Works". Further it will become obvious that, although unmentioned, Kafka was familiar with "The Double". As early as 1913, in a letter to his fiance Kafka wrote: "the four men, Grillparzer, Dostoevsky, Kleist and Flaubert, I consider to be my true blood-relations". (5) This statement expresses not only his affinity with those men as writers, but also an identification with their existential complexion. In the one case, Kafka might have had in mind Dostoevsky's epilepsy, paralleled in his own life by tuberculosis and, perhaps even more so, the complex and ambiguous relationship with their respective fathers. In their writings this culminated for Dostoevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov", for Kafka in "The Judgment" and the notorious "Letter to His Father". As for their illness, both viewed it as release and punishment, both were aware of the complex and secret workings of mind and body, both cursing and blessing it at the same time.

2. For the sake of this discussion only, I will deal separately with ideas, themes and motifs on the one hand, and on the other, with the more formal aspects of their respective works.

Dostoevsky's and Kafka's views of man are predicated on the notion of a basic ineffability of man. As an example I would like to refer to the discussion surrounding Raskolnikov's motives for his crime. To this day, as we know, there is no consensus on this matter. In effect, therefore, Raskolnikov remains in a certain sense a mystery and, in all likelihood,


consciously or not, Dostoevsky wanted it this way. No two studies on "Crime and Punishment" are in agreement on either the motives or the exact nature of Raskolnikov's conversion at the end of the novel. The same holds true for Joseph K. in "The Trial": has K. committed a crime? If he has, does he consider it a crime? If not, why does he voluntarily subject himself to the harassment of the authorities and finally accept his execution as if he deserved it? If, for the present purposes, we leave out the contentious "Epilogue" in "Crime and Punishment", we are left in similar perplexity. Does Raskolnikov consider his deed a crime? If not, why does he play into the hands of the police and with relief accept the judgment? Conventional psychology does not supply unequivocal answers. Yet both writers are acute psychologists - Dostoevsky as a precursor of depth psychology, Kafka well-versed in its Freudian variety; still both recognize its limitations. Dostoevsky ironically calls psychology a stick with two ends - in "The Brothers Karamazov" - and most vociferously denounces it in "Notes from Underground", and Kafka angrily records in his "Meditations" "I am through with psychology!" (6) Nonetheless both go on exploring the mystery of man, frequently delving into the mythic dimensions of the human condition. The curious relationship between Prince Myshkin and Nastasia Filipovna in "The Idiot", for instance, can be seen as a variety of masochistic behaviour but also, as Mochulski ingeniously shows, a re-enactment of the Amor - Psyche myth. Kafka's "The Judgment" is both an exemplary paradigm for the Oedipal complex as well as a retelling Man remains for both authors an irreducible mystery.of Job's struggle with a cruel God. Man remains for both authors an irreducable mystery.

3. The problem of human culpability is shared by both authors. The summa of Dostoevsky's thought on this is set forth in "The Brothers Karamazov": all men are responsible, all are guilty. The acceptance of responsibility and guilt leads to suffering and potentially to redemption. In short, the problem of guilt emerges as a kind of felix culpa.

All protagonists of Kafka's feel guilty. Their guilt feelings are the fountainhead of their actions and suffering, of their meekness as well as their aggressiveness and, ultimately, of their failure as functioning human beings. While Dostoevsky places universal culpability in a comprehensive metaphysical and religious context, Kafka's protagonists reject the notion in seemingly uncompromising terms. K. says in "The Trial": "How can anyone be guilty at all; we are all men here, one as much as the other". (7) Kafka's protagonists act out their destinies denying the reality of guilt, yet they are all guilt-ridden. Martin Buber (8), in a contrastive study on guilt and guilt feelings using Dostoevsky and Kafka as his crown witnesses, perceptively distinguished between guilt and a conscious acceptance of responsibility - a concept so prominent in Dostoevsky - and the predicament of Kafka's characters who exhibit merely the residue of a guilt morality though in entirely negative terms, namely, as crippling guilt feelings. In Dostoevsky the realization of guilt is a first step toward redemption; in Kafka guilt feelings lead only to despair. To be sure, Dostoevsky's gallery of characters contains persons - like the protagonist of "Notes from Underground" - who seem to be beyond rehabilitation; yet


even those are capable of momentary dreams of the genuine "Crystal Palace", holding out hope and relief from the torment of relentless questioning and self-doubt. Kafka denies his characters even the luxury of such dreams. His own situation as well of that of his protagonists is an unrelieved "sea sickness on firm land". (9)

4. Dostoevsky studies man by placing him in extreme situations. Goljadkin is studied through his paranoia and schizophrenia. Raskolnikov takes the search for his identity into his own hands, as it were, by committing a capital crime. In his pursuits "for the man in man" Dostoevsky resorts to the confrontation of the hero with his "double". Thus he proceeds from a relatively simple relationship in "The Double", to infinitely more sophisticated contrastive correspondences: Raskolnikov-Svidrigajlov-Sonja; Myshkin and Rogozhin; Ivan Karamazov and his cheesy understudy, Smerdjakov, as well as the shabby devil. Kafka's uses of the double are not unlike those of the Russian. The emergence of the insect in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" allows him to explore the hidden aspects of Gregor Samsa's personality. To put it simply, through the insect Kafka dramatizes the unknown and secret life of his protagonist. In "The Judgment", for instance, the protagonist's willingness - almost enthusiasm - to carry out his father's death sentence can best be grasped by the role his double, the elusive friend in St. Petersburg, plays in the story. The two cases I am quoting are by no means isolated occurrences.

The most striking similarity in the use of the double occurs in "The Metamorphosis" in comparison with Dostoevsky's "The Double". It has been shown that the respective openings of both works are quite similar. (10) Both Goljadkin and Samsa awaken from uneasy dreams, both are reluctant to enter the humdrum reality of their everyday lives, both confuse dream and reality, both are trying to opt out of their pedestrian existence. A study of both texts, (Dostoevsky's in the German translation) leads to an incontrovertible conclusion that Kafka used parts of "The Double" to write his story. Even the structure of the story supports this conclusion. Both narratives come to an end in a tragicomic catastrophe: in "The Double" it is the banquet at Olsufij Ivanovich's, in "The Metamorphosis" a party at which the family entertains the three boarders. These events in both works serve as tragic denouements for the respective protagonists.

5. Moving on to the formal aspects of Kafka's writing, it can be noted that one of the devices used by him is the reification of metaphor. What it amounts to is a kind of retranslation of ordinary circumlocutions containing a simile or metaphor into its original components. (11) For example, the German phrase "We come to learn it with our own body", reappears in the story "In the Penal Colony" when the criminal sentenced to death is not told of his punishment verbally: it is inscribed on his back with needles. "To live in the public eye", is an idiom for lack of privacy: in "The Castle", while K. is making love to Frieda, the villagers stand around them passing comments. The reader of Russian literature will be familiar with a similar technique in Gogol, especially in "Dead Souls". It is not out


of the question that Kafka, who knew Gogol well, modelled his technique on Gogol's grotesque practice. (12) As far as Dostoevsky is concerned it has been noted that he uses insect imagery to emphasize the unsavory, ugly, and morally depraved. Not infrequent are such idioms used as "Am I a man or a louse?" or "Many times I have tried to become an insect". It can be said that Kafka draws his radical consequences by translating the metaphorical insect into a real one. Kafka's "Metamorphosis" as a symbolic statement seems to be saying: "I am an insect". Dostoevsky's metaphor becomes Kafka's reality.

6. Since the republication of Bakhtin's book it has become impossible to speak of Dostoevsky's narrative techniques without referring to it. One of the relatively recent major insights of Kafka scholarship has become the discovery that Kafka's narratives are not genuine third person stories or novels but rather they are told from a single point of view, not that of a fictitious or real narrator, but one totally identical with that of the protagonist. Everything conveyed in those narratives is negotiated exclusively through the protagonist's consciousness, though presented in a conventional third person manner.

Even though I am not always convinced by Bakhtin, I do see that much of what Dostoevsky does is to let his characters engage in a kind of interior monologue, without making it entirely obvious to the reader that this is the case. Thus Dostoevsky creates perceptions of the external world and persons, without being explicit that those are perceptions of one character's consciousness. Nor does he correct such impressions, but allows them to stand as they are. This creates, according to Bakhtin, a kind of open-endedness which by and large remains unresolved. If one accepts this view, Kafka's practice of the so-called "Einsinnigkeit" or "one-sighted-ness" shows some distinct similarity with Dostoevsky's. I would like to pursue this speculation a little further. Although the first part of "Notes from Underground" is technically a monologue, Bakhtin claims that its solitary anti-hero is endowed with an ability to enter into dialogue with other consciousnesses. For this reason and purpose he creates such characters as the man of action or the romantic idealist with whom he conducts his polemic. These self-made characters, or rather mental attitudes, retain their intellectual and psychological independence. The result, as Bakhtin sees it, is not a dialectical resolution but a polyphony of unresolved voices.

"Notes", both as a thematic and technical construct, can be profitably compared with Kafka's last and bleakest story "The Burrow". There, an unidentified animal, who voluntarily banishes himself underground, describes in a monologue of some forty pages his efforts to construct a perfectly secure burrow. His monologue, unlike that of the Underground Man's, remains technically and literally a single voice of a single consciousness. It is a cry of fear and total isolation. He does not enter into an intercourse with even an imaginary world or audience. If the Man from Underground is isolated, Kafka's protagonist's isolation is absolute: there is no dialogue, no other consciousness, no other world but that of


anguish and fear within. The end of the story is neither a symphony nor polyphony but monotony.

7. In the early forties, a well-meaning but somewhat naive champion of Kafka's bestowed in his hero the honorific appellation of "Dostoevsky of the West". Notwithstanding a substantial affinity and a number of quite specific similarities that show definite influence, such a claim shows a misunderstanding of both authors. A witty critic once remarked that Kafka's writing could be compared to a violin concerto played by a master, but only on the deep G-string. The view that Kafka's writings offer is a view of the world seen through a key hole, as it were. He shows the reader the adventures of a totally unhinged consciousness, thoroughly isolated from the others, a kind of windowless monad. Even though Dostoevsky has such similar characters in his repertory, they are never as isolated as the characters created by Kafka. Dostoevsky without exception supplies many other dimensions of the human condition. The social, political, historical, metaphysical, and religious dimensions of man's existence are explicit in his anthropology. Dostoevsky's world is infinitely richer than Kafka's. This is not a judgment, this is a statement for which it is easy to adduce historical reasons. Man of the twentieth century is certainly more alienated than his ancestors in the 19th. Dostoevsky's unhinged monomaniacs did not make up the core of the social fabric; they were still hiding out in the basements of the underground. In Kafka the unhinged man has become less of an exception and more of a rule; Kafka's K.'s are our mutual acquaintances.

Can the affinity between Dostoevsky and Kafka be reduced to a single valid formula? Hardly. Most of the points I have tried to make stress certain similarities, in a number of cases Kafka's indebtedness is unmistakable. But, if by implication only, I have tried to point to rather essential differences.

In conclusion, however, I would like to quote from a letter Kafka wrote in reply to a friend.

"If the book we are reading does not wake us like a blow of a fist on the skull, why do we read the book? So that it shall make us happy, as you tell me? My God, we would be happy even if we had no books, and such books that make us happy we could write ourselves if need be. But what we need are books that affect us like ill-fortune causing pain, like the death of someone we loved more that ourselves, like being exiled in a deep forest away from all men, like a suicide; a book must be an axe to break the frozen sea in us. This I believe. (13)

Both Dostoevsky and Kafka have created such books. Both possessed the cruel talent and the ruthlessness of vision necessary to write them. This, I think, is the background against which Kafka's relationship with Dostoevsky must be seen: the similarity of their spiritual complexion.



  1. Alfred Rammelmeyer in his "Die Aufnahme der russischen Literatur in Deutschland", Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte (Merker-Stammler), 4, 1 - 32, offers the best concise survey on this question.
  2. See Dmitrij Tschizewskij, "Russische Geistesgeschichte", 2 vols. (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1959), also his "Hegel bei den Slaven", (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1961).
  3. Peter U. Beicken's "Franz Kafka: Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung", (Frankfurt, Athenäum, 1974), provides an excellent account of the fortunes of Kafka reception.
  4. See Klaus Wagenbach, "Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend", (Bern: Francke, 1958), pp. 251 - 263: "Verzeichnis der Handbibliothek Kafkas". Also very useful, Hartmut Binder, ed. "Kafka Handbuch in zwei Bänden" (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979).
  5. ...meine eigentlichen Blutsverwandten ... Grillparzer, Dostojewskij, Kleist und Flaubert — "Briefe an Felice", ed. E. Heller and J. Born (Frankfurt, S. Fischer, 1967), p. 460.
  6. "Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande und andere Prosa" (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1953), p. 51.
  7. "Der Prozess" (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1960), p. 253.
  8. "Schuld und Schuldgefühle", Merkur, 9 (1957), pp. 705 - 729.
  9. "Beschreibung eines Kampfes" (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, n.d.), p. 41.
  10. See M. Spilka, "Kafka's Source for The Metamorphosis", Comparative Literature, 11 (1959), p. 289; and especially Hartmut Binder, "Kafka Kornmentar zu sämtlichen Erzählungen" (Munich: Winkler, 1975), pp. 156, 160- 162.
  11. Cf. Günther Anders, "Kafka Pro und Contra: Die Prozess-Unterlagen" (Munich: Beck, 3rd ed., 1967), esp. "Nicht Symbole, sondern Metaphern", pp. 39 - 42.
  12. R. S. Struc, "Categories of the Grotesque: Gogol and Dostoevsky", Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium: Franz Kafka: His Place in World Literature (Lubbock, 1971), pp. 135 - 154.
  13. "Briefe 1902 - 1924" (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, n.d.), pp. 27 - 28.
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