By Brittany Ashley
Although his fame came mostly post-death-by-tuberculosis, Franz Kafka’s reach has spread far enough to warrant the invention of a new word to be overused by lit majors everywhere (Kafkaesque) and to completely infect the connotation of a very old word (metamorphosis). “That’s the book about the bug boy!” any proud stranger will respond if you ask what they think of metamorphosis. But for a man remembered throughout history as the “bug boy,” Kafka suffered quite a few metamorphoses of his own.
Outwardly, his life might seem to be boring or, more generously, demanding. After switching his course of study from chemistry to law two weeks into his university education, Kafka held a steady job in the insurance industry. Working hard at the office during the day, he transitioned into a writer at night, churning out his curious and cleverly funny works sometimes in one sitting.
In his more personal pursuits, Kafka was not free from these constant changes. His home was not a happy one. His mother was never able to understand his artistic desires, and his father was wickedly temperamental. In fact, according to Kafka, his father was to blame for most of his later emotional struggles. The family was struck by tragedy not brought on by themselves as well when both his younger brothers died as infants.
Even his socio-political environment was in flux. A Prague native, his hometown belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire at his birth but had become the capital of independent Czechoslovakia at his death. That’s not even considering the entirety of WW1, which occurred as Kafka was in his thirties, escaping his parents for the first time and developing his first signs of tuberculosis.
In love, Kafka was of the everchanging heart. His most chaotic relationship was certainly with Felice Bauer, a woman he was twice-engaged to, but could never fully commit to marrying. He would later encounter a similar ordeal with Julie Wohryzek, his second fiancee, whom he also called off his engagement to. Perhaps the most romantic (& Romantic) of all his trials of love was his letter-writing affair with Milena Jesenská. She was married, although not happily, to a bank clerk with an affinity for the arts. In an ironic reversal of his previous experiences, Milena was not willing to give her husband up for Kafka, despite Kafka’s desire for her. Their letters were published, as were his letters with Felice, to much acclaim. Finally, Franz met Dora Diamant who cared for him as he succumbed to tuberculosis.
Franz Kafka’s life was as tumultuous as anyone’s, and perhaps this is why his work remains so relatable to modern audiences despite it being nearly a century in age. And I’m willing to bet that when you hear “Metamorphosis,” you think of him.