We describe something as Kafkaesque when it is characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world. Very briefly we are going to dip into this nightmare.
Who was Franz Kafka?
Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer. Kafka is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, often feature isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers. These works explore themes such as alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.
I am free and that is why I am lost. ― Franz Kafka
Kafka was unknown during his lifetime with most of his works only being published (to great acclaim) after his death. Kafka finished none of his full-length novels and burned around 90% of his work. As someone who struggles to finish longer works, I find this oddly comforting.
His writings, especially his stories, have had a profound influence on many writers and filmmakers. As such, a budding author might do well to read at least one or two of his shorter works.
I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.
― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
The term “Kafkaesque” describes concepts and situations reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s writing. Typically people will cite either “Der Process” (The Trial) and “Die Verwandlung” (The Metamorphosis).
Kafkaesque examples include instances where bureaucracies overpower people. This is often in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness. Characters usually lack a clear course of action to escape their labyrinthine situation.
The term is often used outside of literature to describe to real-life occurrences and situations that are incomprehensibly complex, bizarre, or illogical. Such as, I suggest, the current benefits system.