Kafka’s Letter To His Father

You struck nearer home with your aversion to my writing and to everything that, unknown to you, was connected with it. Here I had, in fact, got some distance away from you by my own efforts, even if it was slightly reminiscent of the worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside. To a certain extent I was in safety; there was a chance to breathe freely. The aversion you naturally and immediately took to my writing was, for once, welcome to me. My vanity, my ambition did suffer under your soon proverbial way of hailing the arrival of my books: “Put it on my bedside table!” (usually you were playing cards when a book came), but I was really quite glad of it, not only out of rebellious malice, not only out of delight at a new confirmation of my view of our relationship, but quite spontaneously, because to me that formula sounded something like: “Now you are free!” Of course it was a delusion….My writing was all about you…

—Franz Kafka, in a letter written to his father in November, 1919.

The first two-thirds of Kafka’s letter to his father, comprised of complaints and accusations, isn’t particularly remarkable, for its author’s situation is hardly unique, and there would be no reason to tread into this personal territory unless it had something essential to say about Kafka’s fiction. Indeed it does. Two-thirds of the way into the letter, at precisely the point when Kafka mentions his writing, the text becomes a strange creature. Kafka continues the description of his writing in the passage above:

All I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, yet, although it was enforced by you, it did take its course in the direction determined by me.

One need only recall Kafka’s story The Judgment to know we are no longer in common territory. In that story a man condemns his son to death, whereupon the son dutifully kills himself.

Kafka's father, Hermann

The letter came to 45 typewritten pages, with corrections written in Kafka’s hand, along with an additional two and one-half handwritten pages. Kafka wrote it, he states on the second page, in the hope of convincing his father to acknowledge that although they torture each other they are both blameless in their behavior. If Hermann Kafka could recognize this as he, Franz Kafka does, then

what would be possible is—not, I think, a new life, we are both much too old for that—but still, a kind of peace; no cessation, but still, a diminution of your unceasing reproaches.

By the end of the letter, the son hopes for a certain reassurance between the two of them that might “make our living and our dying easier.”

Franz did not give the letter to his father. Instead he entrusted it to his mother, who refused to pass it on to her husband, and returned it instead.

Up to the point when Kafka mentions his writing it is easy to accept his stated intention to procure some sort of truce or peace with his father, even if the two couldn’t change who they, in essence, were. But from the point when the author of The Metamorphosis and The Trial mentions his writing, something changes, and by the end of the letter I find it extremely difficult to accept his stated intention. Was Kafka dishonest? No, I think he was profoundly troubled in mind, and perhaps too confused to see himself clearly.

His mother was right not to give the letter to her husband, if for no other reason than that Franz should have given it to Hermann himself, if he really wanted him to have it, if he really intended it to lead to a kind of truce or peace. It is quite possible that Kafka had one intention when he began and another by the time he finished. The final imaginary answer he gives his father, which concludes, “you are preying on me even with this letter itself”, along with his response to it, which includes the statement “not even your mistrust of others is as great as my self-mistrust”, is a picture of Hell. I see in my mind two demons each gripping the other’s face in its jaws. Can there be peace or reassurance in this? How can such a vision of Hell make anyone’s “living and dying easier”?

One turns to the Diaries for other material from 1919 that may help understand Kafka and the letter. The Diaries are dark books, and many of the entries are tight little knots that are difficult to decode. There are only a few entries for 1919, fragmentary and condensed. But one of the fragments could not be more explicit:

…guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood and bones to part them.

Throughout the letter Kafka insists that they are both innocent—they are who they are, even while he levels one accusation after another on his father. Then, towards the end of the letter, he puts all of the guilt on himself, even speaking as his father to do it. Through his father he calls himself an insincere, obsequious parasite. His reply to this imaginary accusation is that he, Franz Kafka, wrote it, adding: “Naturally things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle.” Kafka fits the pieces of his letter together such that he condemns himself and his father together in an indissoluble dyad; he makes this as explicit as a death sentence.

One finds the same kind of puzzle in The Metamorphosis. As Roland Barthes points out in Kafka’s Answer, “a man treated like a dog is a dog.” Gregor Samsa does not become a gigantic insect merely because he is treated like one, but also because he allows himself to be treated like one. And he continues to be treated like an insect because he has become one. But Samsa dies and Kafka, the artist, lives. Kafka lived for the escape valve—which he admitted was almost nothing—of killing himself in his art.

Yet what right did Kafka have to impose this sentence on his father? It is one thing to feel pain, to let yourself feel it and allow it to take its course and pass. Kafka’s suffering was something else. He wanted it both ways: he and his father were both innocent, being who they were. They couldn’t change their nature, but they were both guilty in that, in being who they were, they caused each other suffering. In Kafka’s case his father caused him to feel guilty and there’s no effective difference between feeling guilt and being guilty. Thus Kafka created the insidious paradox that they were both innocent and both guilty simultaneously. He created a trap for himself in that he couldn’t accuse his father without accusing himself, that to every degree of suffering he attributed to his father’s behavior, he had to implicate his own guilt to the same degree. It’s The Judgment paradigm, in which the father condemns the son to death, except in this fantasy the son would have his father share in the vision. Father and son, indissolubly linked, would jump to their deaths together.

Kafka's mother, Julie

Almost, but not quite. In the end, I don’t think Kafka could really believe his father was capable of sharing in this vision. He did not deliver the letter to him, after all. He gave it to his mother, perhaps in the hope of some understanding or sympathy from her. And therein lies the possibility of an escape into life. The only way out of a trap like this is to let pain be pain, and let father be who he is.

Franz Kafka was beginning to do just that toward the end of his life. With Dora Diamant he was able to envision a relationship other than the model set by his parents, a relationship based on joy and not constrained by convention. But he did not live long enough.

This simple truth, that pain is pain, is extremely difficult to accept. It slips away again and again. One of the reasons for this difficulty is precisely because of its simplicity. We want to use all of the intelligence and energy at our disposal to work the problem. Kafka could not write his father off, but had to write him, and write him, and write him. He admitted that Hermann Kafka was who he was and couldn’t change, yet he distorted that fact by saying Hermann was innocent because of it. He then abused logic by trying to insinuate his way into a different kind of relationship with his father based on the distortion. He hadn’t yet learned to let go and escape into life.

Read Kafka’s Letter To His Father


Mark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Jerry Jazz Musician, Unlikely 2.0, and Evergreen Review. Mark makes art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites and blogs as The Bricoleur.

  • Kathleen Kirk

    Fascinating essay, Mark.  I love the “escape into life” aspect of it.

  • Susan Scheid

    Thoughtful article.  I was particularly struck by this observation:   “He created a trap for himself in that he couldn’t accuse his father without accusing himself, that to every degree of suffering he attributed to his father’s behavior, he had to implicate his own guilt to the same degree.”  I had the sense, as I read, that Kafka was struggling to make an argument his father would accept, so a rapprochement (or at least a separate peace) could be achieved.  After 45 pages, he still hadn’t found the argument, and knew at some level that thereason was it wasn’t there to be found.