The Czech writer died nearly a century ago, but is enjoying a renaissance on TikTok and Twitter
Even if you haven’t read the story, you’ll have seen the illustration: a beetle in a bed, sprawled on its back, its spindly legs pointlessly flailing in the air.
Of course, the original drawing is inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. If you’re unfamiliar: the short story, published in 1915, follows protagonist Gregor Samsa after his inexplicable overnight transformation into a massive insect. The story soon cemented itself in the western canon, but now it seems as though swathes of young people are discovering the work and Kafka’s oeuvre.
Over on TikTok, #kafka has over 130 million views, with his fans yearning to be loved like he loved Milena. There are Kafka fancams too, of course. Meanwhile, on Tumblr (which is, famously, back in), posts quoting Kafka’s morbid diary entries – “impossible to sleep, impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life”, one reads – rack up thousands of notes. Likewise, it’s hard not to scroll through Twitter without seeing a memeified iteration of the beetle illustration, whether it’s been reposted and tagged “uni life”, or had DD tits superimposed over its little arthropodic body with the caption “male authors writing about mentally ill women”. Most recently, a picture of FKA Twigs made up as a cockroach sparked a debate about blackface – but also prompted a number of people to make a connection with The Metamorphosis. “She’s in her Kafka era,” one person commented.
Dr Dan Hall is a teaching fellow in German history and culture at the University of Warwick, with an interest in Kafka. “He captures in an extraordinarily accessible way the way in which many people – not just young people, but perhaps especially young people – feel about modern life, where authorities have their own incomprehensible and arbitrary rules and the individual is excluded, alienated, isolated, alone,” he explains.
There’s a sort of distinctly Gen Z type of humour – cynical, absurd, dry – which underpins much of Kafka’s work, too. “We have experienced the rise of extremist terrorism, right-wing populism, various wars, the Arab Spring, a global financial crisis, a pandemic killing six million people, and climate breakdown, amongst other things,” one of Dr Hall’s students explains over email. “And we make sense of this – dare I say it – Kafkaesque nightmare through jokes, so our humour in turn becomes more and more nihilistic [...] As such, a writer like Kafka is godlike to [young people] – particularly given the absurdity of Gregor’s situation in The Metamorphosis. It’s both comfortingly familiar and ludicrously farfetched.” Because while few of us have ever woken up as a beetle, many of us have doubtless felt misunderstood, trapped, and alienated before.
Another part of the appeal is doubtless the strong socialist current running through much of Kafka’s work too. Gregor doesn’t really dwell on the fact he is a bug at all – instead, his primary concern is being so late for work, angering his boss, and the prospect of losing his job as a travelling salesman (which he hates, but financially depends on). His parents and sister stop caring for him after his transformation, too, as he is no longer able to fulfil his role as the family’s main breadwinner – a clear indictment of the way capitalism ‘values’ people in terms of their economic output. Some critics would argue that Gregor’s transformation itself is meant to represent how menial work degrades and dehumanises people. Doubtless these sentiments – critical of unfulfilling, excessively hierarchical work and the capitalist system which causes the proliferation of such work – strike a chord with the growing numbers of young people adopting more socialist attitudes.
“Young people are reframing the idea of a job from an identity to an economic necessity,” Dr Hall’s student adds. “With inflation getting higher and wages stagnating, underpaid and overworked youths are burnt out and alienated. Gregor’s metamorphosis leaves him unable to work, and as such, he is rendered useless to his family, to his employers, and to the world. And this breaks him. Kills him.”
Additionally, it’s unsurprising that Kafka’s accounts of social isolation resonate with Gen Z – the loneliest living generation. “We only have to take a look at The Metamorphosis to see a heavy parallel to the 2020 lockdowns, too,” 20-year-old Leia, another Kafka fan, adds. “Kafka is incredible at writing about feeling estranged from the world.” There’s the obvious parallel: Gregor is literally confined to his bedroom for the majority of the story. But Gregor was also alienated before he was even a bug, with no social life or close friends: his mother complains that he “never goes out in the evenings” while Gregor himself rails against the way his work precludes any chance of him making “intimate friends”.
@bookpain Reading his work in german and analyzing it <3 #franzkafka #kafkaesque #philosophy #fyp #fürdich ♬ original sound - lvcrgirl
“More often than not, the way Kafka writes about the strangeness and alienation of modern life gets to me,” Leia says. “A lot of the big issues around the world right now seem Kafkaesque — [everything] feels inescapable, nightmarish. I think the younger gen feels similarly: as though we can do nothing but watch as the world turns its back on us.”
The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is arguably in danger of being overused to describe any sort of bleak situation, in the same way ‘Orwellian’ is now used to refer to literally any situation where there is any sort of censorship or surveillance, or how ‘Shakespearean’ is used to describe anything old-sounding. But Leia has a point – there’s a lot about life as a young person which does genuinely seem Kafkaesque.
As Kafka biographer Frederick Karl explained in The New York Times back in 1991: “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 [behaviour], begins to fall to pieces [...] You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. 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.” With younger generations worse off than their parents’ generations, it’s plainer than ever that hard work doesn’t pay. Turning up day after day to work at a pointless, thankless job, without any hope of progressing in the world or being able to afford basic necessities? Buying oat milk and forgoing red meat while oil and gas companies record record profits? What could possibly be more Kafkaesque?
“We’re hopelessly against the odds,” surmises another of Dr Hall’s students. “But the very fact we can relate to [someone like Gregor] is funny and, to me at least, brings about an odd sense of something like fellow-feeling. Solidarity. Or at least, understanding.”