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What makes something "Kafkaesque"? - Noah Tavlin


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The term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular to describe unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, especially with bureaucracy. But does standing in a long line to fill out confusing paperwork really capture the richness of Kafka’s vision? Beyond the word’s casual use, what makes something "Kafkaesque"? Noah Tavlin explains.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

Kafka is an enigmatic writer, and almost everyone you ask will have a slightly different definition of the word Kafkaesque. In this New York Times interview with Frederick Karl, a biographer of Kafka, Karl describes his definition of ‘Kafkaesque’. In what ways is his definition different from the definition offered by this lesson? In what ways is it similar? The interview also provides some more context about Kafka’s life and background.

For a lighter Kafka experience, watch this news parody by The Onion, entitled “Prague’s Kafka International Named Most Alienating Airport”. Even though it’s just a short comedy video, in what way is this Kafkaesque? Do the jokes reference the casual, vernacular conception of the Kafkaesque? Or does it touch the essence of Kafka’s worldview? What about this recent story by the New York Times, about a Muslim community and its attempts to obtain permits to construct a mosque? While it is certainly a difficult and frustrating situation, is it accurate to describe the process as Kafkaesque? Why or why not?

It is often difficult to connect with Kafka’s sense of humor. In this short, eloquent essay (originally a speech), the late David Foster Wallace explains why and how Kafka’s stories are humorous. If you weren’t understanding why Kafka is supposed to be funny, this essay might illuminate his humor, and why it’s such an important part of his work.

Kafka Online has most of Kafka’s best known writings available for free online. Here is another piece (of what we now call) flash fiction by Kafka, entitled An Imperial Message. How does this story relate to the themes of Kafka’s work discussed in this lesson? Does it relate to other themes that were not covered in this lesson?

In this essay for the Atlantic, author Ben Marcus discusses “An Imperial Message.” He says that one can interpret the story as a story about reading. Do you agree or disagree? At the same time, Marcus says that Kafka’s writing often eludes our understanding, and that this is precisely what makes his writing beautiful. Do you also find that Kafka’s writing seems to slip away whenever you’ve almost pinned it down to one meaning or interpretation? If so, that’s okay! Being confused is part of the experience of reading Kafka. For many, it’s an acquired taste.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Noah Tavlin
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Director Jeremiah Dickey
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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