Lu Xun and Franz Kafka
Lu Xun and Franz Kafka
Lu Xun and Franz Kafka
Struggles Beneath the Weight of the
Past and Authority
In spite of their differences, Kafka and Lu Xun share a
common concern on what they saw as the oppressive
nature of the past and the authority drawn from it.
Lu Xun or Lu Hsün
• He originally studied to be a doctor, Lu Hsün
became associated with the nascent Chinese
literary movement in 1918.
• Lu tells of seeing a slide of a Chinese prisoner
about to be decapitated as a Russian spy.
– What shocked the young medical student was the
apathetic crowd of Chinese onlookers, gathered
around to watch the execution. At that moment he
decided that it was their dulled spirits rather than
their bodies that were in need of healing.
• Lu Xun's works exerted a very substantial
influence after the May Fourth Movement to
such a point that he was lionized by the
Communist regime after 1949.
• Mao Zedong himself was a lifelong admirer
of Lu Xun's works.
Though highly sympathetic of the Chinese Communist
movement, Lu Xun himself never joined the Chinese
Communist Party despite being a staunch socialist as he
professed in his works.
Of course that did not stop the Chinese Communist
government from using his reputation.
His wish to discard the past worked perfectly with the
idea of the people’s revolution.
“Diary of a Madman”
• Modeled after Nikolay Gogol's tale of the
same title, the story is a condemnation of
traditional Confucian culture which the madman
narrator sees as a “man-eating” society.
• Friends within the newly formed Chinese literary
movement in 1918 urged him to publish the
short story “A Madman's Diary.”
• It was the first Western-style story written wholly in
Chinese, it was a tour de force that attracted
immediate attention and helped gain acceptance for
the short-story form as an effective literary vehicle.
• “Madman” opens with; a preface in mannered
classical Chinese, giving an account of the
discovery of the diary.
• Such ironic use of classical Chinese to suggest
a falsely polite world of social appearances
was quite common in traditional Chinese
fiction; but its presence usually suggested the
alternative possibility of immediate, direct, and
genuine language, a language of the heart set
against a language of society (Norton 1919).
• Although utterly mad, the writer’s claims when
looked at in a metaphoric manner in face make snese.
• As the diary progresses, it becomes increasingly clear
that the diarist, who sees himself as the potential
victim, is no less the, mirror of the society he
describes, assimilating everyone around him into his
own fixed view of the world. The reading of ancient
texts to discover evidence of cannibalism is a parody
of traditional Confucian scholarship, the distorting
discovery of "secret meanings" that only serve to
confirm beliefs already held.
• His is a world entirely closed in on itself, one that
survives by feeding on itself and its young--a voracity
that gives Lu his famous last line, "Save the children“
Upstairs in a Wineshop
• Your Norton text says that “In contrast to the
tormented, diarist of Diary of a Madman, the
characters in Upstairs in a Wineshop have
already been eaten and fully digested.”
• Thus he is already caught in the meaningless
pressures of a life controlled by family and
• “Upstairs” is a bleak tale of deaths and wasted
lives. The narrator's friend, after grand hopes in
his youth finds himself back in his hometown,
going through the hollow motions of filial
• Caring for the family graves was an act that
had great resonance in Confucian family ritual.
• To put to rest the worries of his mother, who has heard that the
nearby riverbank is encroaching on the grave site, the friend
has come to rebury his younger brother, whom he barely
• On digging up the grave, he finds that there is nothing left of
his brother's body.
• Nevertheless, having bought' a new coffin, he puts some dirt
from the old grave in it, reburying it beside his father in a
different graveyard arid enclosing it in. bricks for a better seal;
As the friend says, ""At least I've done enough to pull the
Wool over Mother's eyes and set her mind at rest."
• Even when the past has lost all meaning, leaving neither
physical remains nor memory, the narrator's friend still finds
himself trapped by its forms, which he carries out
scrupulously, moving a grave site to protect a body that no
• Kafka was born into cultural
alienation: Jewish (though not truly
part of the Jewish community) in
Catholic Bohemia, son: of a
when German was the language of
the imposed Austro-Hungarian
government, and drawn to
literature when his father—a
domineering, self-made man—
pushed him toward success inbusiness.
• His father, Hermann Kafka (1852–
1931), was described as a "huge,
selfish, overbearing businessman"
and by Kafka himself as "a true
Kafka in strength, health, appetite,
loudness of voice, eloquence, selfsatisfaction, worldly dominance,
endurance, presence of mind, [and]
knowledge of human nature.“
• Apparently he resented his father's overbearing nature
and feeling deprived of maternal love, he nonetheless
lived with his parents for most of his life
• In spite of this sense of alienation Kafka was in many
ways historically a very positive figure.
• He impressed others with his boyish, neat, and
austere good looks, a quiet and cool demeanor,
obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor.
• Furthermore while most American students find
especially The Metamorphosis grim reading, Kafka
and his friends thought that portions of The
Metamorphosis were hysterically funny.
• After a vigorous education Kafka took a degree in
law to. qualify himself for a position in a large
accident-insurance corporation, where he worked
until illness forced his retirement in 1922.
Kafka’s Inner life
• Although he took his writing very seriously, it was
achieved while also maintaining this other respected
• Despite the indubitable fact that Franz Kafka became
a respected senior executive handling claims,
litigations, public relations, and his institute's annual
reports and was one of the few top German
executives retained when Czechoslovakia came into
existence in 1918, his image in the modern
imagination is derived from the portraits of inner
languish given in his fiction, diaries, and letters.
• This "Kafka" is a tormented and sensitive soul,
guiltily resentful of his job in a giant bureaucracy,
unable to free himself from his family or to cope with
the demands of love, physically feeble, and constantly
beset by feelings of inferiority and doom in an
existence whose laws he can never quite understand..
• The Law that governs our existence is all-powerful but
irrational; at least it is not to be understood: by its human
suppliants, a lesson that Kafka could have derived equally well
from his readings in, the Danish philosopher Søren
Kierkegaard, in Friedrich Nietzsche, or in the Jewish Talmud.
• The predicament of Franz Kafka's writing is, for many, the
predicament of modern civilization.• As noted earlier he is like Lu
Xun in that he resents the
institutional systems which
make claims upon the
• However, identifying that
system as bureaucracy, family,
religion, language, or the
invisible network of social
habit is less important than
recognizing the protagonists'
bewilderment at being placed
in impossible situations.
• Nowhere is the anxiety
and alienation of
more visible than in his
stories of individuals
struggling to prevail
against a vast,
apparently hostile system.
• Kafka's heroes are driven to find answers in an
unresponsive world, and they are required to act according
to incomprehensible rules administered by an inaccessible
• Thus it is small wonder that they fluctuate between
fear, hope, anger, resignation, and despair. Kafka's
fictional world has long fascinated contemporary
writers, who find in it an extraordinary blend of
prosaic realism and nightmarish, infinitely
• Whether evoking the multilayered bureaucracy of the
modern state, the sense of guilt felt by those facing
the accusations of authority, or the vulnerability of
characters who cannot make themselves understood,
• Kafka's descriptions are believable because of their
scrupulous attention to detail: the flea on a fur collar,
the dust under an unmade bed, the creases and
yellowing of an old newspaper, or the helplessness of
a beetle turned upside down.
• The sheer ordinariness of these details
grounds the entire narrative, giving the
reader a continuing expectation of reality
even when events escape all logic and the
situation is at its most hallucinatory.
• This paradoxical combination has
appealed to a range of contemporary
writers—-each quite different from the
other—who have read and absorbed
Kafka's lesson: Samuel Beckett, Harold
Pinter; Alain Robbe-Grillet* Gabriel
Garcia Marquez. (Norton 1996-1998)
• The story of a traveling salesman,
Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself
transformed into a "monstrous vermin.“
• Scholars have noted the similarity in
structure of Samsa’s name to Kafka’s
(especially note the placement or the “a”
• Also while it is common for us to think
of Gregor as being a cockroach, Kafka
seems to have purposely made that a
vague point—he is an “unclean thing”
an unclean animal (or any entity)
unsuitable for sacrifice. Ungeziefer also
denotes a sense of separation between
him and his environment: he is unclean
and therefore he shall be excluded.
• As some commentators have noted, The
Metamorphosis begins with what should be its
climax. The protagonist's great transformation, often
the pivotal moment in a work of fiction, gets plopped
unceremoniously on our lap in the story's first
• No buildup, no tension, just boom: Gregor Samsa is
now a bug, and we must all deal with the
consequences of this fact. The remainder of the story
marks his ineluctable drift into oblivion, with very
few surprises along the way.
• But no other surprises are necessary. That first
simple, declarative sentence and the clear prose that
follows it have unleashed a truly staggering torrent of
• Metamorphosis has been interpreted in many ways.
Certainly with the way that Herr and Frau Samsa first
use Gregor and then make plans to use his sister
Greta tie in to Lu Xun's works of the other generation
“eating their young.” There is also a strong
connection to how a family deals with the long illness
of a family member including resentment and release
when the “loved one finally dies.”
• As noted in Sparknotes “The interpretations seem
endless, and endlessly possible (if variously
plausible). The psychoanalysts, the Marxists, the
Symbolists, the New Critics, the biographers--all
have thrown their well-worn hats into the ring. The
ability of the story to support so many divergent
formulations of its "meaning" is clearly one of The
Metamorphosis's most salient features.”
This is Funny?
• As noted earlier “When Kafka read the story to
his circle of companions in Prague, they laughed
out loud--as did he.”
• Certainly part of the effect of Gregor's
transformation is that we are for a moment
blinded to the absurdities of the other
characters, such as his manager turning up to
get him out of bed because he is late. And there
is Gergor’s own attempts to continue life as
usual almost trying to ignore the complete
change in his condition.
• As noted on Sparknotes “This is certainly a stark
brand of comedy, but laughter has long been a
way of coping with life's absurd afflictions. ”