My Dear Son Franz

My Dear Son Franz, Your detailed letter outlining my influence on your personal development shows that you are indeed a writer. I doubt if any other parent has ever received such a letter. But, as you might expect, I am … Read More

By / March 1, 2006

My Dear Son Franz,

Your detailed letter outlining my influence on your personal development shows that you are indeed a writer. I doubt if any other parent has ever received such a letter. But, as you might expect, I am not very happy about its tone and contents. Blaming parents for one’s own deficiencies is scarcely a new sport, although I believe that the philosophy of your infamous Professor Freud has recently given it added legitimacy. Perhaps out of cowardice, you passed your letter to your mother instead of handing it directly to me. You may have thought that she would not show it to me for fear of angering me. But there you were mistaken. After some hesitation, she did in fact put it into my hands. This is my response. You claim that my overpowering presence and allegedly tyrannical nature have robbed you of your physical and mental confidence and have led you to a persistent feeling of insecurity and guilt. Have you considered that your feelings may not reflect the true situation, but only your own distorted view of it? You may be surprised to learn that I have read some of Professor Freud’s writings to see what interests you so much in them. For all I know, your emotions may well be caused by what he describes as an “Oedipus complex.” For instance, you write that you felt inadequately small as a child compared to my adult size and strength. You claim that you were, therefore, embarrassed when going to the beach with me. This, according to you, left a permanent mark on your psyche that you have not been able to overcome, even with a regimen of intense physical exercises. If you had spoken to me about these feelings, I could have shown you how baseless they were. No one watched us at the beach, and certainly no one noticed for a moment how small you were compared to me. (And even if they had noticed, who would have cared about this at all?) Now you are a strong, handsome man, and there is no objective reason for you to believe yourself otherwise, your recent ill health aside. Moreover, it was my duty as a father to teach you to swim. This is a role that the Talmud itself says every father must perform for his son. If you think hard, you’ll remember that you enjoyed your times at the beach very much, and were always begging to go back again. No doubt, your very active imagination and morbid sensitivity are to blame for your strange memories. However, I am sure that you have it within your power to correct your distorted self-perception, if you wish to do so. As for your claim that I do not appreciate your writing, I appreciate it all too well, especially your story “Metamorphosis.” I may not understand fully what your bug, Gregor Samsa, is meant to symbolize (do you?), but I can clearly recognize you in Gregor, myself in Gregor’s tyrannical father, and other members of our family in that story as well. (Also, “Samsa” and “Kafka” are so closely related that the connection between Gregor’s family and ours must be obvious to any reader.) I thought that you at least loved your sister, Ottla. According to your letter she was supposedly your comrade in arms against my alleged tyranny. But your portrait of her as Grete in “Metamorphosis” is anything but flattering. She, like Gregor’s mother and father in the story, ultimately abandons Gregor and rejoices in his death. I wonder what your reason for depicting us as so uncaring can possibly be, when you know very well that we have rejoiced over your successes, and have strongly supported you during every illness and mishap. Did you simply decide one day for no reason to embarrass us before all the world? I wish that “Metamorphosis” were the only story in which you portrayed your own family in such a distorted, hateful way. In “Judgement,” though, a father sentences his son to death, and I cannot help but think that this wicked patriarch is yet another representative of me. Do you really believe me capable of handing down such a sentence? You also make your character Georg obey his father’s monstrous command–and Georg, I’m afraid, seems (like Gregor Samsa) to be some version of your idea of yourself. But as your behavior at home reveals, you are far from submissive to me. So once again you have painted us both in a perverse manner that bears no relation to reality. In view of just these two stories, you can understand, I think, why I am not eager to read new tales from you. I need to give myself time to summon up the courage to read them! And even when I do so, I can’t figure out exactly what it is that you seem to be struggling to say. Instead of inventing obscure symbols that no one can decipher, I suggest that you write a realistic novel about a man like me, who rose from an obscure provincial ghetto to the heights of retail commerce on a major shopping street in Prague. Now, that would be a straightforward story about a real man who makes good, rather than another of your vague, weird tales of indecisive idiots whose lives go nowhere! Such a realistic novel would inspire people rather than leaving them confused or depressed. I admit I have little hope that you will ever write an exciting novel like that. Instead, only God knows what crazy, confusing stories you will continue to dream up. The mention of God brings me to another of your favorite complaints against me. You claim that I hypocritically forced you as a child to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur although I myself was not devout. Let us be clear about this: I wanted you to attend synagogue, if only once or twice a year, primarily to give you a feeling of Jewish solidarity, so you would have the strength to face the anti-Semitism that is very strong here in Prague. I wanted you to go to synagogue so you would proudly identify yourself as a Jew and even eventually take part in defending us against anti-Semitism. But I’m not sure my efforts did any good. Let me give you an example of what I mean. As you know, I am a member of B’nai B’rith, which defends us against such scurrilous antisemitic charges as that of using the blood of Christian children to make our matzot. You seem to be attacking the charge of the blood murder ritual in your novel The Trial; at least, you show someone accused for no reason of a vague but heinous crime of which he has no knowledge, and who is ultimately sentenced to death for that nonexistent crime. So far, fine. But you refuse, Franz, to make clear in the novel that its true subject is this senseless charge against the Jews. You leave readers to figure that out for themselves, if they can. Only you can understand your own motivation for obscuring your attack on the ritual murder libel in The Trial with vague language and slippery, meaningless symbols. But in view of your own evasions, please don’t criticize me for supposed indifference to Jews and Judaism!


You must admit, Franz, that despite your idealized claims that the Orthodox Jews of Poland and Russia are somehow more “genuine” than most of us Western Jews, you yourself are no more observant than I am, and possibly even less of a believer. As proof of your weak or nonexistent belief, I point to the Emperor in “The Great Wall of China,” whose intentions can never be understood, and who seems to symbolize your idea of God as a completely inscrutable being. And I have struggled through the story told by the priest in The Trial, concerning the man who is never allowed to enter the doorway made especially for him. As little as I pretend to understand these strange tales, it is obvious to me that they are somehow meant to represent your idea of man’s relationship (or non-relationship) with the Divine. You were an adult when you wrote this crazy stuff, not a petulant child going to synagogue against his will. Isn’t it much too easy for you to hold me responsible for your own lack of faith? You have somehow dreamed up the idea of going to Palestine, and you attend Zionist meetings. Yet you must admit that in actual fact you can barely bring yourself to leave Prague. At most, you might travel to Berlin or to Vienna. So why keep criticizing me for not being a Zionist? I have no desire to start over in a new country now. It has been hard enough to establish myself here. Granted, our lot here in Prague is a very dangerous one because of the hatred that surrounds us. However, unlike many Jews who wish to avoid that hatred by ascending the social ladder into European society and melting into the Christian crowd, I have never considered conversion. Neither I nor your mother has ever felt that we could betray our identity and make that compromise. Wasn’t it therefore wrong of you to portray us in “Metamorphosis” as a Christian family? Were you trying to say in that story that we are so assimilatory as to be like a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity? And that we therefore despise your substitute Gregor because he had “backslid” into an interest in Orthodox Judaism, including a change of dress and eating habits? Is that the meaning of Gregor’s being a bug? If so, Franz, here is yet another example of your perverse fictional hyperbole and obfuscation. I must remind you again that we have not converted and that you are certainly not Orthodox. And now you are after that Christian woman, Milena, who is married to one of your bohemian friends. Which brings me to your most bitter accusation against me, your idea that I am somehow responsible for your failure to marry. Once again, I beg you to stop blaming me, and to start taking responsibility for your own life! Please realize, finally, that you are only using me as an excuse for your own failures. The truth is that whenever you introduced or mentioned your girlfriends, I felt sorry for them even when I did not like them very much. You deliberately choose women whom you won’t be able to marry, while keeping up the pretense that you are seriously interested in them. Whether it was Felice Bauer, who I could see was boring you during the five long years of your “courtship,” or Julie Wohryzek, who was certainly too uneducated for you, or now Milena, who may be up to your intellectual level but who is already married and a Christian, it all amounts to the same thing. You cannot handle the challenges of marriage and sustained commitment. You are simply too narcissistic, always concentrating on your own needs and feelings first. You have nothing left over to give anyone else, especially now that you are ill. Don’t think that it makes me happy to say this. Your mother and I both hoped for grandchildren from you, and now you are almost forty. But facts are facts. Instead of wanting to marry, all you care to do is to use your girlfriends to satisfy your sexual needs and to serve as recipients of the lengthy, no doubt convoluted letters that I have so often seen you writing. Although I have not read those letters, I will hazard a guess that they are most certainly not about the girls to whom you are writing, but only about yourself–perhaps the only person whom you will ever truly love. Franz, because you have never been married (and have no illegitimate children that I know of), you do not know what it is to be a parent. This is why you can be so critical of your mother and myself, cataloguing every error and fault, real or alleged, that we supposedly committed while we were raising you. You are like a lawyer arguing a case (but remember please who financed your legal education!), or a skilled journalist penning a venomous editorial, but we are only ordinary people, untrained as lawyers and polemicists and so unable to defend ourselves well against such a skilled attack. Certainly we made mistakes while raising you children. All parents do; bringing up a child is a constant learning process, and it takes time to comprehend each child’s special sensitivities. I realize that I, probably like all parents, was hypocritical when telling you not to drop food on the floor while dropping it myself, and when forbidding you to curse while occasionally using foul language myself. I apologize for that. But aren’t you now mature enough to realize that I had your good at heart when admonishing you about these things? Let me ask you this: What kind of person lives in his parents’ house when he is thirty-seven years old, and criticizes them endlessly while partaking of their largesse? You are simultaneously displaying the psychology of an adolescent and an adult. To the adolescent’s love of finding examples of his parents’ supposed hypocrisy, you add the mercilessly critical perspective of a mature person. You may never find the strength of character to build a life separate from your mother and myself, Franz, but please direct your energy toward that goal, rather than at us! The part of your letter that I find most puzzling is why you have never come to me directly with your complaints. You live in our house; you eat our food; and you help in our factory. I have known that you are eccentric, but until now I thought that you were fairly happy on the whole (outside of your problems with women, your health problems, your complaints about work, and your bizarre stories). If you had simply told me about the concerns that most upset you, I might have been able to relieve them to some degree. You may be surprised to hear me say this, but I am certain that you will indeed become a famous writer. Your letter, with all of its eccentricities and distortions, convinces me of that. You are like a reverberating instrument, inside of which every touch or disturbance bounces around for days, weeks or months instead of simply fading away. But this very sensitivity of yours, Franz, is yet another reason for you to forgive any perceived slights. You should realize that no parent could raise someone like you without being blamed for a whole world of things, real and imagined. Especially a parent like myself, who suffered great poverty and humiliation before achieving success in business. You are tired of listening to the story of my life, I know, but that story establishes one simple fact: You, Franz, have had the luxury of becoming a writer because I did whatever I had to do to rise from manual work in a little ghetto to the ownership of a respected shop, and to provide for my family. Do you think that it was easy for me to attain this position? An intellectual son with a professional education is not in a good moral position to criticize a hard-working father, especially when that father has paid for his son’s expensive tuition. And if, because of your fine education, you are more discerning of life’s nuances than I am, be grateful for that instead of blaming me for lacking your educational development! This response is growing long, though it is still far shorter than your letter. Franz, please remember that I love you, and that I will unhesitatingly support you when you are in need, as I always have done. You may find it odd that instead of completely resenting your letter, I will now admit that I am to some degree grateful for it. It is the one piece of your writing that I can truly understand. Moreover, your letter makes clear what I have thought for some time: that without me to blame, you would have very little to write about. And since a wicked, dominating father makes a much more exciting subject than a generous, supportive one, in your writings you have simply invented such a wicked father, whether or not such a figure accords with reality. Maybe one day you will be mature and honest enough to admit that, at least to yourself.

Sincerely, your loving father,

Hermann Kafka

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