FRANZ KAFKA: The Irony of Laughter
by Mark A. Seaver


First and foremost I would like to thank my wife Amalie for reading, proofing, re-reading and re-proofing my work this semester. She probably now knows more about Franz Kafka than any other Medieval Literature major on this or any other planet.
I want to thank my classmates for putting up with what I'm sure they thought was an odd and somewhat obscure choice for my papers; especially Jane Emerton who peer reviewed all of them.
Thanks also to my co-workers at Young & Welshans Books and WFBE who put up with my ramblings about Kafka, the gracious folks at the University of Michigan-Flint library and the flight crew of Delta flight #262, who put up with my chuckling and note-taking on my flight from Cincinnati to San Diego on March 20th.
Last and in no way least, I want to thank Jan Worth, not only as our instructor and fearless leader through this semester, but also for putting up with my Kafka obsession and guiding me through this tangled web that is my mind.

Writer Franz Kafka is perhaps best known for his dark and edgy stories filled with fantastic settings and almost unbelievable characters. But what of his sense of humor? Not only do his stories contain passages of ironic situations, but the dialogues engaged in by the peoples of these stories have a certain "gallows humor" about them.
In Kafka's first novel, Amerika, the reader is witness to a most unusual discussion of black coffee as means of maintaining one's job and station in life. It is a conversation, by the way, that takes place at 3:00 in the morning, after the main character, Karl Rossman, was beaten literally senseless by his two former traveling companions.
One of Kafka's best known works, The Metamorphosis, also has its bits and pieces of subtle humor. Where else but in a Kafka story, this paper contends, could you find a man turned cockroach, a strange twist in and of itself, who plays straight- man at times to the "char-woman" brought in to make his family's lives a little easier. A more unlikely comedy team is apt to be found no where in modern literature.


The Irony of Laughter

Franz Kafka, born on July 3, 1883 in Bohemia, in the city of Prague, has been recognized as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His works have been called "cloudy, mysterious, inexplicable" (Oates ix). Most people hear the term Kafkan or Kafkaesque and think of dark, fantastic tales with almost no basis in our known reality. But what of Kafka's sense of humor? I personally laughed out loud several times while reading Kafka's Amerika. Were these snippets of humor part of Kafka's plan or mere accidents?
According to Roy Pascal, author of Kafka's Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches, "There is a good deal of humour in these early stories, as in the novels and later stories, but it is often ambiguous and can be overlooked" (Pascal 40). The humor that Pascal refers to is not the usual vaudeville, slap- stick so common in today's society. "Kafka never laughed so much as he did with [Felix] Weltsch, and it was Weltsch who first stressed the role of humor in Kafka's work - gallows humor spiked with desperation, but liberating for them both (Pawel 131). Kafka was a man who was more subtle than most and preferred his humor in a more deliberate vein. Irony was a flavor that seemed to work better for Kafka. By taking a look at some of Kafka's works we can see this irony more clearly.
In Kafka's short story entitled, "The Judgement," written in 1912, we see one of the unusual uses of irony by Kafka. The central figure, Georg Bendemann, has just gotten into a long and somewhat heated argument with his aging and infirm father. Suddenly Georg's father "threw the blankets off with a strength that sent them all flying in a moment and sprang erect in bed. Only one hand touched the ceiling to steady him" (Kafka 84). The "transformation of the sick father to a grotesque ogre" (Pascal 42) is not only shocking but comically so. Georg's father goes on to kick and yell at Georg extensively. Through this entire barrage and beating from his father the only thought that pops into Georg's head is "he has pockets even in his shirt" (Kafka 86) referring to his father's nightshirt. This left turn from the heat of the moment is quirky enough to give the reader pause and wonder what is going on. Such was Kafka's intent.
Another good example is in the novel Amerika. Here, protagonist Karl Rossman comes to at 3:00 am after a serious fight with two men, Robinson and Delamarche, whom he met shortly after his arrival to the United States from Germany. He wanders out onto the balcony of the apartment he is trapped in and makes the acquaintance of a student studying on the balcony next door. Karl discovers the student works at Montly's department store all day and then studies and goes to school all night. When asked when he sleeps Karl hears, " 'Oh sleep!' said the student. 'I'll get some sleep when I'm finished with my studies. I keep myself going on black coffee. A fine thing black coffee.' 'I don't like black coffee,' said Karl. 'I don't either', said the student laughing. 'But what could I do without it? If it weren't for black coffee Montly wouldn't keep me for a minute. I simply don't know how I would get on in the shop if I didn't have a big bottle like this under the counter, for I've never dared to risk stopping the coffee-drinking...'" (Kafka 267). Why does Karl engage in this almost absurd conversation when he has just come to after being beaten into unconsciousness? Kafka uses this to reinforce the irony of Karl's situation and illustrates the absurdity of the entire predicament. Not only is this a strange conversation to have on one's balcony at 3:00 am, but it is especially incongruous with the seriousness of Karl's current predicament.
Ronald Gray, author of the book Franz Kafka, also refers to Karl Rossman from Amerika. In a scene where Karl is working at the Hotel Occidental as a lift-operator he describes Kafka's depiction of Rossman at work: "The instinct to over-act the part, to placate almost to the point of buffoonery, is finely observed by Kafka" (74-75).
He goes on to compare this passage almost to the point of being "Chaplinesque" (75). While Chaplin was developing his slap-stick style humor at almost the same time that this story was being written, the two were thousands of miles apart. Kafka chose to use the juxtaposition of this apparent "buffoonery" against the development of Karl who had been pretty much portrayed in this story as naive, at worst, and at best, dedicated almost to the point of being obsessed, to whatever task he was currently turned to.
In The Metamorphosis, Kafka uses irony flavored with contradiction to further point out just how far the people involved have fallen out of touch with reality. The char women in The Metamorphosis is straight out of vaudeville; with Gregor Samsa, man turned cockroach, playing straight-man to her boisterous antics . She goes about her duties in the house, slamming every door she goes through as though to announce her presence. She talks to Gregor Samsa as though he is the family cat instead of a giant insect," 'Come along, then, you old dung beetle!' or "Look at the old dung beetle, then!' " (Kafka 127). The contradiction in this scene compared to the outright terror and revulsion felt by his family at the very sight of Gregor is incredible. Then, as Gregor's corpse is discovered it is of course the char woman who announces "into the darkness at the top of her voice: 'Just look at this, it's dead; it's lying here dead and done for!' " (Kafka 136).
Perhaps the best example of Kafka's use of irony is held until the end of his 1922 story "The Hunger Artist." "The Hunger Artist" is the story of a man whose "art" is fasting for forty days, to not only show that it can be done, but that it can be done with style. Greatly admired in his youth, the artist is now aging and interest in his art is waning. As he grows despondent over this lack of interest he decides to break the forty day "rule" and just keep going. As he is about to die from starvation, the artist is roused by the manager of the sideshow he now exhibits at. With his final breath he explains his real reason for being a hunger artist wasn't to be the best hunger artist there was but rather, "Because I couldn't find the food that I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else" (Kafka 277). The crew of Monty Python could not have staged a more twisted or obtuse ending to this strange story.
While looking at even these few scattered references, it should be clear that Kafka not only had a sense of humor, strange as it may have been, he used it with brevity in his writing. Pascal points out, "Yet there is much humor, even if it is humour of a curious and rather black type" (Pascal 40). When he did choose to use it, the humor brought out the absurdity of the situation and thus helped to heighten the tension. It was also used to create even greater contrasts both in scene and story line, to further emphasize the darkness felt in so many of his stories.
In closing, I would like to turn to one of Kafka's fellow writers who first met Kafka at the age of 16, only four years before Kafka's death from tuberculosis. Gustav Janouch had been very impressed by Kafka's work The Metamorphosis and was somewhat taken aback at their first meeting. The two became friends in spite of the almost twenty year difference in their ages. "Franz Kafka and I laughed long and loud together, that is to say, if one could describe Franz Kafka's laughter as loud" (Janouch 33).
During one conversation Kafka responded to Januoch's declaration that the wall of laughter is a "defence against what comes from outside" (Janouch 33). Kafka replies "Is it indeed? Every defence is a retreat, a withdrawal. A blow at the outside world is always a blow at oneself. For that reason every concrete wall is only an illusion, which sooner or later crumbles away. For Inner and Outer belong to each other. Divided, they become two bewildering aspects of a mystery which we endure but can never solve" (33).
Kafka saw humor not only as a defense against the pain and anguish he felt inflicted upon him by the outside world, but also against the pain he rained upon himself. This was a man who chose words carefully and used humor sparingly. But when Kafka used humor, as shown here, he used it to further emphasize the horror of what was going on in his worlds.

Works Cited
Gray, Ronald. Franz Kafka. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975. 74-75.
Janouch, Gustav. Conversations with Kafka. Trans. Goronwy Rees. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1971. 33.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories & Parables. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, n.d.
- - -, Amerika, Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York, Schoken Books, 1974.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Foreword to: The Complete Stories & Parables. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, n.d.
Pascal, Roy. Kafka's Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 189-230.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.

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