What Does 'Kafkaesque' Mean, Anyway?

When a word isn't just a word.

You poor mortal fools -- you thought you already knew what "Kafkaesque" meant, didn't you? How wrong you were.

A recent TED-Ed animated video by Noah Tavlin lays it all out, explaining how we cavalierly misuse the adjective and what it really means. "Beyond the word's casual use," he asks, "what makes something Kafkaesque?" (You can check out the full video below.)

Sure, you might be shouting at your computer or smartphone screen, we know what "Kafkaesque" is. Obviously, it means reminiscent of the themes and events found in the work of Franz Kafka, the Prague-born author whose famous stories (such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis) drew upon the soul-crushing bureaucratic machinery of the aging Austro-Hungarian empire.

We can even get more specific, though. "Kafkaesque" describes, as the Oxford Dictionaries would put it, "oppressive or nightmarish qualities," or as Merriam-Webster suggests, "having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality."

Here's the rub, though: Any time an author's oeuvre becomes the basis for its own descriptor (Orwellian, Dickensian, Proustian), the meaning of that adjective depends completely on the interpretations of the original work. No matter what the dictionary says about "Kafkaesque," the true denotation has nothing to do with dictionary entries and everything to do with what literary critics have to say about Kafka himself.

Tavlin's own definition of "Kafkaesque" derives from reading The Trial, "A Hunger Artist," The Metamorphosis and other Kafka works more closely, and he draws out several trademarks of his fiction beyond the idea of a baffling, illogical bureaucracy.

"It's not the absurdity of bureaucracy alone, but the irony of the characters' circular reasoning in reaction to it, that is emblematic of Kafka's writing," the video argues.

This TED-Ed video is the latest entrant in a long-running battle to define "Kafkaesque," and, in a roundabout way, define Kafka's artistic legacy. In 1991, Kafka biographer Frederick Karl offered a more limited but fairly straightforward definition to The New York Times:

"What I'm against is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that's Kafkaesque," he said. "What's Kafkaesque [...] is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces [...] What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance. That's Kafkaesque."

A 2014 Atlantic "By Heart" column with author Ben Marcus, about Kafka's "A Message From the Emperor," claims that Marcus's "discussion of the piece ultimately included a concise and brilliant argument for what constitutes the Kafkaesque, though he never used that word." Instead, Marcus made arguments about what Kafka's "quintessential qualities" were, including "affecting use of language, a setting that straddles fantasy and reality, and a sense of striving even in the face of bleakness -- hopelessly and full of hope." (If "affecting use of language" becomes one of the qualifiers for appropriately deploying "Kafkaesque," the term will be almost impractically circumscribed.)

As Tavlin argues, "The term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular to describe unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, especially with bureaucracy. But does standing in a long line to fill out confusing paperwork really capture the richness of Kafka’s vision?"

Probably not. What does, aside from Kafka's own brilliant and rightfully well-studied fiction? By this standard, perhaps we should only call Kafka himself Kafkaesque.

Prescriptivists who want to limit how we use terms like "Kafkaesque" are almost certainly fighting a losing battle, but there are some side benefits. For example, a quirky, thoughtful video exploring the common motifs and themes of Kafka's fiction -- that's a worthy end in itself.

De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that Kafka lived in a communist state. The post has been corrected to reflect that he lived in Prague under the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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