Trying to describe 'Kafkaesque'

How many people have a whole new adjective created in their name?

And for many of those who do, it’s often just a way of expressing old ideas with a new word.

But you can’t say that about Franz Kafka.

Google the word ‘Kafkaesque’ to see what it means.

The first result:

Kafkaesque: ‘characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world’.

That doesn’t tell you much, beyond the fact that it’s derived from Kafka’s fiction, and it’s oppressive or nightmarish.

The second result:

Kafkaesque is used to describe situations that are disorientingly and illogically complex in a surreal or nightmarish way.

This is much better, and I don’t think I could improve upon it.

Complex is probably the best starting point.

But ‘illogical’ does injustice to Kafka because throughout his illogicality you’ll find the most beautiful logic at every step.

Kafkaesque is also surreal and nightmarish.

But it’s not the forced surreality or nightmarishness of a horror story; this is drawn out slowly and evolves, stage by stage, from complexity rather than from terror.


I don’t write essays about people, and this one isn’t about a person either.

It’s about the word ‘Kafkaesque’, and not the person Kafka.

But it’s worth asking – why did Kafka merit an entirely new word?

It might be because he’s incomparable; the vocabulary that already existed couldn’t describe his writings.

You can’t find anyone who writes like Kafka; those who come somewhat near are those who try to seem like Kafka.

Perhaps that’s because you can see that Kafka wrote only for himself; his writings aren’t tainted by the thought of what his audience would think about them. And maybe that’s why he wanted them burnt after he died.

Rarely will you read a book and sense that the author isn’t trying to sell a plot or weave a tale. With Kafka it is as though someone simply sat down to write whatever came to his mind; whether it makes sense to you or fits into a story is besides the point.

More than this, you won’t find anyone who could think like Kafka.

Originality is rare, and originality is new, and probably that’s why old words can’t do justice to it.

When I first wrote this essay, it started looking like a list of some of Kafka’s stories and shorter essays, with a short description of each.

But that’s just like describing a human being by describing each organ; it’s correct, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the creature as a whole, and ends up taking ages both to write and to read.

Instead, it’s easier to describe the word Kafkaesque without going into its individual manifestations, even at the risk of compromising on specifics.

Illogical Logic

Every single time I deal with a large organization I remember Kafka.

Kafkaesque is in many ways about bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is not ‘government’; you could use it to describe any large, impersonal anonymous organization.

More than even that, Kafkaesque brings to mind a labyrinth of arcane rules, unknown to those on the outside, rules that make and will make no sense to those who are outside ‘the system’ because they defy all logic, and yet rules that are perfectly intelligible to people on the inside.

It is a world where you can be arrested, yet not be behind bars, you can be tried before a system of courts you may not know existed, by judges you can never meet and lawyers you cannot choose. For what crime you may never discover, and thus you must provide an account of your entire life.

Your guilt is presumed because the court does not try those innocent, and because guilt is always beyond doubt, but guilt of what you will never know.

Kafkaesque epitomizes the labyrinth of bureaucracy, of the overwhelming strength of a giant apparatus brought to bear on a single, isolated individual.

‘In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world’

Franz Kafka

It’s a more unequal version of David vs Goliath, akin to using a machine gun to destroy a small toy – excessive, disproportionate force against a heavily outmatched victim.

You can see a micro, almost trivial example of Kafka’s world anytime you deal with big organizations.

Any person, an almost voiceless individual, who tries in vain to contact a huge corporation for a grievance, will understand the struggle needed to make himself heard.

You can never connect to a real living individual; it’s always one customer service agent, who will fend you off with a smooth platitude.

Call again and you are invariably connected to another agent, this one unaware of your story, and so you begin again from scratch.

The asymmetry is self-evident, in power and in emotion.

You can do nothing to shake this behemoth from its stupor; with little effort, however, it can make your life miserable.

For you it may be a big deal, a huge amount, to the agent it is usually just another complaint to be dealt with.

If luck is on your side your issue is resolved (or you just give up if it’s not worth it) and you can move on, forgetting everything.

But if ever you are not so fortunate, you will might remember Kafka as you struggle to make this vast, impersonal organization take notice of you, a voiceless human.

Every attempt to change things seems to meet the same end. In Kafka’s words, ‘every revolution evaporates, leaving only the slime of bureaucracy’.

Complexity and Indifference

Kafkaesque is Kafkaesque because of Kafka’s description and analysis.

It is only Kafka who can take a single story, one simple narration of facts about something as simple as a man waiting outside a door being denied entry by a gatekeeper, and bring out multiple different competing and wonderful interpretations, each putting forth its argument convincingly.

A simple essay about searching in vain for lawyers in a court. Here, in their natural habitat, more than anywhere, you would expect to find them. And yet, it is precisely here where you should not find them, because it is in the court, one expects, where justice will be done, so perhaps they are needed least of all here.

It is only Kafka who can salvage something from the harshest of judgments, and who can make the most lavish praise seem a scathing rebuke.

A son, whose father tells him he is the last person he would trust himself to, can gratefully request him to ‘at least let me be the last’.

Even as Kafka’s characters overthink and over-analyze every little facet of their existence, bringing forth a barrage of speculations, they remain aware of the utter indifference of the world they inhabit.

You can’t rely on anyone else as you seek to untangle yourself from the labyrinth.

You can’t expect people to understand you, let alone believe you. It’s not that they wouldn’t believe you; they simply wouldn’t be interested enough to get as far as belief.

‘If you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being’

Franz Kafka

It’s perhaps surprising, and a little ironic, that a person who crafts the most convoluted sentences and complicated essays would say this.

But maybe this is also because the world appears so complex; if it’s impossible to untangle all these knots, perhaps the best strategy is simply to solve what’s right in front of you, only what’s absolutely essential for existence.

An Alien World

You can read Kafka again and again and find a different way of looking at things, and you can also read some of his works several times and fail to understand anything.

Take the following essay, The Next Village, which you’re free to interpret any way you choose to, I won’t.

“My grandfather used to say: “Life is astoundingly short”. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that – not to mention accidents – even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.”

Franz Kafka, The Next Village (Translation Willa and Edwin Muir)

It takes a special mind to conceive such a thought; something original, something not an imitation of what you’ve read.

Maybe that’s why you can’t define Kafkaesque so easily, because you can draw out different meanings every time you read.

Perhaps that’s because Kafkaesque is about a world where the rules are hidden from you, a world you think you know well but which with every moment you find yourself knowing less and less about and becoming more and more a stranger to; all these years, it seems this world was something completely different from what you had thought it.

The rules themselves are absolute and dominating, imposed on you without your consent and knowledge, rules that seem to apply to no one else but you, rules that encompass your entire life yet make no sense to you, rules that you cannot live up to even if you chose to.

Moreover, you find yourself a stranger not just to these rules but also to those around you, who seem to know the rules well, and you can never get close to anyone for too long because you invariably discover they were always part of this world that is to you completely strange.

Optimistic Pessimism

‘In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world’

Franz Kafka

This is in some ways quintessential Kafka, the feeling that pervades throughout his words and that the word ‘Kafkaesque’ brings to mind.

And yet, there’s more to it than that.

Kafka’s writings simultaneously and paradoxically straddle two opposing extremes.

While clearly and deeply laced with gloom, there is lurking an indomitable optimism, not a weak shadow but a powerful under-current that never fades entirely.

Which is why you still go on.

‘So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, and if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don’t worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards’

Franz Kafka

Kafkaesque is not nihilism or simple pessimism. His characters don’t abandon themselves to fate; there are things to strive toward.

‘I am a cage in search of a bird’

Franz Kafka

There’s a beautiful essay by Kafka, The Imperial Message about a message from a dead man that I think illustrates this paradox.

‘I can love only what I can place so high above me that I cannot reach it.’

Franz Kafka

With typical tortuous Kafkaesque logic, you never stop because there is something above you that you want.

And if ever you were to reach it, which you never will, nothing would have been achieved because you could no longer want it.

The very act of reaching it would forever tarnish it.

Yet you sit at your window and dream of it.

(This brilliant deconstruction of Kafka’s letter to his father will help anyone who’s read him understand what underpins his stories)


Satya sai raj Koruprolu

Sir, what are you currently doing ?
Sir, is there any way to connect with you?


you can message me here, like you just did.


please post more on upsc cse preparation


There is a world beyond kafka’s experience and you can’t reach it by logic, friend. Logic can only reveal the non sense of it all.

Sweta Tripathi

I have never read any work of Kafka but these lines has captured my attention what he actually meant by this “in the struggle between yourself and the world , back the world”

Does he mean that whenever we feel suffocated within because of not withstanding the standards of our present world then the only one remedial to cure this dilemma is the world itself just you have to change your perspective and craft another world for yourself ….. Both problem and solution are within only that means we are our own world where outer world is mere prop which we have to use according to our inner preferences and at anytime we could change it … Do these lines mean this or something else ??

Prachi shankar

I don’t know what was Kafka’s interpretation.

But my interpretation to this line
“In the struggle between yourself and the world , back the world” is similar as yours.🤭

Just a little pessimistic version.

Whenever in dilemma, you need to change “your” perspective ,as the world will go on the way it does.

Curious to know how would you interpret that pratyush sir?

Sweta Tripathi

We both are good at spinning the simple concept to a grand theology 😎😂🥺

Prachi shankar

True that sweta😂!

These days,I’m bursting a lot of bubbles I had been living in. Need to get in touch with reality ASAP.

Thanks for recommendation pratyush sir.


I think it just means what it says, no spin like what you’re giving it.
If you’re interested, read The Trial – it probably epitomizes this.

Sweta Tripathi

Thanks for your recommendation sir .


I’m not interested in that.
I like Catcher in the Rye a lot, and find a lot of truth in what Holden says, but the takeaway now, a long time after reading it, is to not be so invested in other people (especially your opinion of them). Sure, you’ll come across a phoney often, hard not to – but recognize it, get some entertainment out of it if you can (at the very least, don’t let it get you down), act on it (probably avoid the guy) and move on. Don’t marinate in your thoughts about it.


Can you further expand and update your reading list?


it will be good to connect with you to discuss ideas related to what pratyush talks about.

i have written some of my thoughts here

if anyone else interested, contact me at


I don’t include most books I read there, in fact I think I should be reducing it rather than expanding it.

Only if a book ‘adds value’ – by that overused phrase I mean I am in some way changed after reading it from whom I was before – do I think it’s worth including.

Reading is a great thing, but I don’t think it should be the only thing, or even the main thing you do, because you don’t want to only consume. I like to keep it as something you make time for among other things.

I might be mistaken but I get the impression you’re trying to read more and more, I don’t know why, almost as though to check off a list.

Every time I’m asked to add more books I always wonder if the asker has really read all the books there.
Actually read them and thought about them, not just gone through them to add one more ‘productive’ book to the list.

Maybe ask how many, if any, books made your life better – in any way. Not simply ‘productivity’ or ‘self-help’.
In fact, I would put many fiction books far above most modern books, especially the stuff that is churned out in the name of ‘self-help’.

Also, it’s better not to read everything by the same person or what a single person reads, it limits you to only that person – so you should look at other sources, in case you aren’t already.

But to answer your question – you can check out essays by Paul Graham on his website, and another page called Library of Scroll.


I asked for updation of booklist because your already listed books have helped me better understand some of your ideas in your book beyond human.

Also, last year i realised the worthlessness of reading books just to complete it, now i focus on good quality books that contains the answer of the questions i am seeking.

since i got answers of many questions that had concerned me from your book, but I was not able to fully grasp them because of lack of underlying explanation. So your reading list books helped me understanding the underlying ideas.

only when i was able to internalise your ideas i was able to implement them
now i am fitter, smarter and happier than i ever was.

for example, you briefly touched how dopamine plays crucial role and makes other things less interesting but i was not able to understand it but only after hearing Huberman podcast i was able to understand the major major role played by dopamine on our drive, motivation etc.

I read only some of your books that i found interesting and have benefitted from them tremendously as well.

since i follow your blog kind of religiously, many times a new blog opens a new kind of understanding in me but many times it leaves many of underlying things unexplained as is the case with your book.

so i asked for updated booklist because it can help me fill the knowledge gap.

also reading book is joy in itself even I don’t get anything from it.


Cool, probably misunderstood you.
Thanks for the mention of that podcast, it seems decent, I’ll check it out.


Thanks for recommending library of scrolls, looks fantastic

Hitakanshi Ghoshal

Morbid, twisted and familiar.
I feel that anyone who truly understands the world of Kafka has known insanity in some form.
Have you read the Metamorphosis?


Yes, I’ve read all of Kafka’s works.


Sir I’m confused whether to go for MBA or not.
Why you had gone for MBA ?
What was your reason?
Sir since in future there will be lots of job opportunities for corporate sector and government jobs will be decreased.
So if I will do MBA I will have some confidence so that I can get somewhere job I belong to bsc background.


Pretty sure Kafka was a Virgo :p
Jokes apart, this piece is a gem.