In Amerika by Franz Kafka, the character Karl Rossman is shipped away to America by his parents following a scandal with a servant girl. From hotel employee to bum to servant, young Karl experiences a panoply of adventures and emotions as he tries to find his way through life. Superficially, it’s a straightforward tale, a Huckleberry Finn-esque Bildungsroman. Since Kafka rarely wrote superficial tales, however, it is possible that Karl’s adventures mean something else–for Karl and for Kafka.
Interestingly, the title “Amerika” comes to us from Max Brod, who changed Kafka’s original title. Kafka’s title Der Verschollene, however, translates to “The Missing Person” or “The Man Who Disappeared.” Why would he give the novel a title that expresses the point of view of Karl’s family while the narration itself follows Karl, giving only passing mention to his family?
Is it possible that Karl’s adventures in America don’t reflect an actual series of events; instead, do they reflect the escape fantasies of a seventeen year old boy humiliated by an affair with a servant girl? If it’s possible, then it might explain why the title is told from the point of view of someone other than Karl–i.e., the title, “The Man Who Disappeared” reflects the fantasy of what the humiliated Karl would like to do.
The image of the Statue of Liberty gives us our first indication that the America of this novel is not the America of Kafka’s time. Instead, it’s an imagined America, a fantasy world. In our world, the Statue of Liberty holds a torch, but in Karl’s world, the Statue is noticeably different: “The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.” (Kafka: 3)
Here, Kafka–or possibly Karl himself, in his imagined world–replaces the torch with a sword.
Arriving in America, and before he even leaves the ship, Karl encounters a stoker who helps him navigate the ship. The stoker is a miserable sort, complaining about his treatment on the ship. Like Karl, he’s treated poorly by his superiors, and he feels helpless and unfairly punished.
Leaving the stoker, Karl moves in with his uncle, an affluent immigrant who treats him kindly–possibly mirroring Karl’s treatment by his parents before the scandal. His uncle buys him a piano, pays for lessons, pays for an English tutor, and gives him the security of a home. His uncle acts as both nurturing mother and stern father–perhaps he’s a symbol of both mother and father.
During this time, Karl’s only perception of America does not come from direct experience; instead, it comes from immigrants, the stoker, Irishmen, his uncle, books. When someone is visiting a new place, they absorb the sights, the sounds, the cultures. Karl, however, relies solely on things he’s learned from either books or people to inform his perception of America. Is it possible that books and hearsay don’t augment his experience, but instead they inform his fantasies, fantasies meant to help him overcome the humiliation of the affair with the servant girl?
“[…]the first days of a European in America could certainly be likened to a birth,” his uncle tells him (Kafka: 36).
Through his uncle, Karl meets Mr. Pollunder, who invites Karl to his house. Karl accepts the invitation, setting off an exchange between his uncle and him, an exchange that would lead to his uncle abandoning Karl and forbidding him from reentering his home. Again, Karl has been cast adrift by family, humiliated and sent out into a strange land. “[…] nothing good ever comes from your family,” his uncle tells him (Kafka: 81-82), possibly reiterating a sort of learned helplessness or articulating a self-loathing Karl has learned throughout his life.
Interestingly, Karl accepts his punishment, which seems excessive, and goes out by himself, but before he leaves, he’s advised to travel to San Francisco because he’ll “have better employment prospects in the East.” (Kafka: 82) Here, we’re given another indication that Karl’s possibly imagined America does not correspond to the real America: San Francisco is not east of Karl’s current location, which is somewhere on the East Coast.
On the road Karl encounters an Irishmen and a Frenchmen, Robinson and Delamarche. He travels with them shortly, but then he abandons them to work in a hotel. His job is cushy, and he seems to enjoy himself, but then Robinson and Delamarche enter his life again, and the rest of his adventures go steadily downhill, until he’s living with Robinson, Delamarche, and Brunelda, an overweight, hysterical singer.
His situation with them deteriorates, and he’s forced to live as a servant. Bullied and beat up, he can’t escape, so he concedes and accepts his role as servant.
Throughout the novel, Karl experiences lofty heights and crushing lows, and the lows sustain themselves and consume Karl by the end of his adventures, which raises an important question: If this is an escape fantasy, then why does Karl’s escapes turn into a nightmare in which he’s forced to act as servant to a violent and cruel group of people? While at the same time he longs for his parents forgiveness and, for a period, he even wishes to win the approval of his uncle, a man who might symbolize both mother and father?
In “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899), Sigmund Freud posited the notion that not all dreams are concerned with wish-fulfillment; instead, some dreams are concerned with the non-fulfillment of wishes.
Freud distinguished between latent and manifest content of dreams, where the appearance of a thing might symbolize something deeper, akin to the tip of an iceberg concealing the massive berg beneath the surface.
Is it possible that the events told in “Amerika” are examples of the non-fulfillment of wishes, where Karl fantasizes about alternating adventures culminating in reward and punishment, as a means of punishing himself emotionally? If his wish is for the forgiveness of his family, and he never fulfills this wish, then it’s possible that the fantasies played out in his adventures entail the conclusion that the guilt of his affair with the servant girl precludes the fulfillment of his wish, therefore trapping him in a permanent intellectual and emotional limbo.
This line of reasoning, however, leads to a further thought, one that seems more plausible. It is without question that Karl’s adventures are imagined. Even Karl himself is imagined–by Franz Kafka.
Is it possible that the title, “The Man Who Disappeared,” is a fantasy expressing Kafka’s own desire to disappear. Written when Kafka still lived with his family, under the oppressive gaze of his tyrannical father, the novel might express Kafka’s desire to escape the family and his guilt for wanting to escape.
In the novel, Karl is exiled by his family as a form of punishment, a punishment that Karl regrets. He dreams of one day making his father proud, and his most prized possession is a portrait of his parents. This desire to impress his parents in spite of their harsh judgment mirrors Kafka’s own desire to impress his father, despite his father’s harsh judgments–and despite Kafka’s judgments of his father.
It’s also possible that Karl’s Uncle Jakob, and even the tyrannical Brunelda, are stand-ins for Kafka’s father, both of whom Karl wants to impress, despite their tyrannical streaks. While fantasizing about his relations with his uncle, Karl dreams of improving relations: “Perhaps he would have his first breakfast with his uncle; his uncle would still be in bed and he would sit on a chair, with the breakfast set out between them on a little table, and then their first breakfast together might become a regular event, and such breakfasts could lead to their getting together more often than once a day as they were accustomed to doing–indeed this was only inevitable–and then they could naturally talk more frankly.” (Kafka: 57)
Throughout the famous letter to his father, written 7 years after the start of the writing of “The Man Who Disappeared,” Kafka vacillates between anger and frustration, resentment of his father and a longing to be close to his father; he discusses his desire to be close to his father and explains the widening gap in his relation with his father. Yet that longing for his father, that nostalgia, appears throughout his letter.
“You have a particularly beautiful, very rare way of, quietly, contentedly, approvingly smiling, a way of smiling that can make the person for whom it is meant entirely happy. I can’t recall its ever having expressly been my lot in my childhood, but I dare say it may have happened, for why should you have refused it to me at a time when I still seemed blameless to you and was your great hope? Yet in the long run even such friendly impressions brought about nothing but an increased sense of guilt, making the world still more incomprehensible to me.” (Kafka: handout: 4)
In Karl’s adventures, we see a young man exiled by parents and by relatives; he vacillates between anger, resentment, and longing. It’s possible that the adventures he experiences are Freudian fantasies, mechanisms to help him cope with the shame and humiliation of the scandal with the servant. At the same time, the novel itself might be read as a longing by Kafka to escape his tyrannical father, despite misgivings he might have. It’s also possible that the punishments that Kafka inflicts on Karl are representative of the psychic punishments Kafka inflicts on himself when he contemplates his relationship with his father.
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Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.