For those unfamiliar with his works, they might feel daunting, intentionally vague, or even confusing. These things can all be true, but once you understand Kafka better, what he valued and didn’t value in writing, there is a lot to be gained from spending time with his work. Below you will find ten of his best quotes, taken from his short novels, letters, and stories. They are a brief introduction to the topics, themes, and motifs that run throughout Kafka’s writing.
Franz Kafka’s Top 10 Quotes
I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.
These three sentences come from Kafka’s best-known novel, ‘The Metamorphosis’. Here, Gregor is considering his plight, that of being transformed into a giant insect. He knows there is no way that his condition, that of being inhuman and human at the same time, can possibly be conveyed to any other person. He still feels the pangs of human emotions, the desire to take care of his family, a passion for his sister’s music, and the guilt of not being able to provide for them, but there’s nothing he can do about it. On top of that is the pointlessness of the entire situation. There is no reason or explanation behind his transformation, just a new and unusual kind of suffering.
For he alone, and no other initiate, knew how easy it was to starve. It was the easiest thing in the world. He did not keep this fact a secret, but no one believed him.
This quote, which comes from Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist,’ describes from the artist’s perspective how easy it is to starve oneself. No one knows what it is like to be a hunger artist, to succeed at one’s art, and to do so easily. The crowd nor those entering into the profession understand it. To them, it is horribly difficult. This quote, which is one of the light parts of ‘The Hunger Artist’ depicts the isolated nature of the artist. One of Kafka’s major themes.
But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.” “That is true” said the priest “but that is how the guilty speak.
This exchange of dialogue comes from ‘The Trial’, an unfinished novel that was published after Kafka’s death (against the direction of his will). ‘The Trial’, like all of his other unfinished manuscripts, was supposed to be burned. But, lucky for modern readers, it was not. The novel describes the arrest of a man, Josef K., for an unstated crime. In this scene of the novel, a very Orwellian explanation is given. Without reason, the priest tells K that he can interpret his suit in the way he speaks. There is nothing he could’ve done or said to convince them that he had done nothing wrong.
Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.
These moving lines from ‘The Metamorphosis’ get to the heart of the human condition and Gregor’s fight for and against it. He is trying to come to terms with who he is and what he is. It’s a battle that he’s doomed to lose as no one else, much less himself, can understand what’s going on inside him. he is moved by his sister’s music and is trying to take that as a sign that he’s not as inhuman as he appears to be. He is entirely alienated from his family and every other element of his previous life.
One has either to take people as they are, or leave them as they are. One cannot change them, one can merely disturb their balance. A human being, after all, is not made up of single pieces, from which a single piece can be taken out and replaced by something else.
After his death, a book of letters that Franz Kafka wrote to one of his fiancés, Felice Bauer, was published. Although none of her letters survive, he provides insight into his relationship with her and his broader relationship with himself. In this quote, Kafka is expressing his beliefs about the complexity of the human mind, personality, and habit. It is easy to relate this quote to the tenants of existentialism and the belief that we are responsible for creating meaning in our own lives.
You will get to know me better; there are still a number of horrible recesses in me that you don’t know.
This line comes from another letter to Felice. Out of context, this quote plays into the standard view of Kafka, that he was a complex individual with many mental obstacles to overcome. Those who knew him during his life believed this to be true as well. He has been described as sometimes difficult, sometimes humorous, and athletic. Others believe he had schizophrenia and others still depict him as a womanizer and as terrible self-conscious about sex, his body, and relationships. The following quote is another that plays into the later image of Kafka.
There are times when I am convinced I am unfit for any human relationship.
This was a belief that others knew that Kafka held as well, that he saw himself as less than others, as somehow incapable of maintaining or undeserving of human relationships. This is likely part of the reason why he got engaged several times, twice to Felice Bauer, but never married.
He doesn’t know the sentence that has been passed on him?” “No,” said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question, and then said: “there would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.
This disturbing quote comes from Kafka’s ‘The Penal Colony‘. The last lines refer to the prisoner who has no idea that he is scheduled for execution. Unfortunately for him, it’s not going to be an easy death. The story is based on the use of a machine that carves the prisoner’s sentence into his skin before letting him die. The idea of the apparatus is based on the notion that the prisoner is going to learn something before facing his death. The wounds will teach him the truth of his misdeeds in a way that words cannot. Simply put, the real learning comes from suffering.
No one, not even the starvation artist himself knew how great his achievement really was, and his heart grew heavy.
‘The Hunger Artist’, also commonly translated as ‘The Starvation Artist,’ is the source of the above quote. It refers to the artist, his skill at starving himself, and what happens when he reaches the peak of his art form. It raises questions about the purpose of an audience, in art and in life, and if one can ever truly be happy.
[…] it is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on Earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.
These lines come from Kafka’s ‘Letter to His Father‘, the name given to the letter that he wrote Hermann Kafka in November of 1919. In it, he expresses his experience of childhood, something that he had not, to anyone’s knowledge, done before. He hoped the letter would mend the gap between the two and allow them to grow closer. Hermann never received the letter. Instead, Kafka’s mother returned it to her son without his ever seeing it.