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As presented by Franz Kafka, Karl Rossmann's life has a pattern of confinement. Kafka takes great pains to show us that Karl's reactions to nearly every instance of confinement neatly stems from one formative incident: Johanna Brummer's seduction of Karl. That one scandal seemingly affects how Karl reacts to every other attempt to confine him, who and what he allows to box him in, and his acceptance and / or rejection of that imprisonment. Johanna is noticeably physical with Karl: she "[leads] him into her room, " takes off his clothes, "[lays] him on her bed, " and nearly chokes him in her frenzied passion. Karl himself in no way advances the action. In fact, he barely seems conscious of what's happening around him: "his eyes [see] nothing, " he can't respond when she asks him to speak, and she can "not bring him to" listen to her breast.
Johanna is in control of Karl in every way, and most notably in the physical realm. Karl is uncooperative, but allows the seduction to happen nonetheless. And Johanna's passionate actions are effective in that she essentially gets what she wants out of Karl. Suddenly, what had been harmless objects and structures turn against Karl and participate in his confinement: Johanna "would shut the kitchen door after Karl entered, and keep hold of the door-handle until he had to beg to be let out. " Thus, his own "kitchen" and "door-handle" have become pawns in Johanna's ploy to cage Karl. On the day of the seduction, Johanna confines Karl to her room by locking her door. What had seemed to Karl nothing more than an inanimate object when he had passed by her door before is now his enemy (Kafka 29).
What should have been a pleasurable experience for Karl-that is, having sex-causes "tears [to run] down his cheeks" (Kafka 30). Kafka juxtaposes the sexual pleasure with the hopeless panic of being trapped, even within the span of four words: "[Karl] was seized with a terrible feeling of yearning"-"terrible" corresponding to his loss of control and "yearning" to the sexual desire that Johanna has imposed upon him (Kafka 29). In the chronology of Karl's life, as per Kafka, the stoker is the next person after Johanna that confines Karl. Confining objects exist here as well: "the wretched cubbyhole in which a bunk, a cupboard, a chair and the [stoker] were packed together. " The "cubbyhole" conjures an image of a restricting space, just as the fact that the items and the stoker were all "packed together" suggests close quarters. Just as Johanna confined Karl to her room, the stoker "suddenly [seizes] the door handle and [pulls] the door shut with a hasty movement [to sweep] Karl into the cabin" (Kafka 4). Again, objects-"the door handle" and "the door"-suddenly turn against Karl to help imprison him.
Even the paragraph structure of the conversation between Karl and the stoker is crammed into a small space; the dialogue spans three full pages without a paragraph break (Kafka 5 - 8). However, we encounter conflicting images. The stoker comments that the door "isn't locked" (Kafka 4). And instead of lying Karl down on the bed like Johanna did, the stoker suggests that Karl "lie down on the bunk" because he " ll "have more room there" (Kafka 5). Thus, enticing Karl with a small amount of freedom and restricting his efforts to verbal entreaties, the stoker receives a more cooperative Karl in his ploy to restrict him.
The stoker's cubbyhole confinement also introduces a new element of imagery to the scenes of confinement throughout the rest of the novel: light versus dark. Kafka notes "a feeble glimmer of daylight" falling into the cubbyhole, reminding us of a glimmer of hope or a hint of freedom. This "glimmer" of light insinuates that the stoker will succeed in confining Karl by teasing him with a small amount of freedom (Kafka 4). In the same vein, another confining episode, between Karl and Clara Pollunder, shows that Karl is in search of that "glimmer" of light. Sitting on the window-ledge, he "[stares] out into the darkness. " He even "[feels] sorry that he had not brought the electric torch which his uncle had given him. " Just as Uncle Jacob gave Karl the freedom to go to the Pollunder's house, he gave him an electric torch; that is, artificial light to use in the darkness of his confinement. Kafka states that "in [that] house an electric torch was absolutely indispensable, " meaning that light-or rather, freedom-would have combated Clara's attempt to box Karl in (Kafka 67).
After Clara wrestles with Karl, it seems that he is free of her grip. However, darkness has helped to impose his incarceration. Karl wants to go back to the dining room to speak to Pollunder, but wastes some time in his cell because the corridor is too dark. "If only there were a ray of light to be seen from some door, " he could escape his cell (Kafka 73). Similar to Johanna's seduction of Karl, Clara physically dominates Karl. Upon Karl's arrival at the Pollunder house, he is quite pleased to be invited to Clara's room to keep her company.
However, "he would have liked to have Mr. Pollunder join them as well" (Kafka 57). Already we see that Johanna has scarred Karl; he seems to have an aversion to being alone with women. However, this aversion strengthens when Clara escalates the physical part of the relationship by catching Karl by the hands (Kafka 60). Thereafter, Karl seems to be afraid of being alone with the girl: "And yet Karl cared nothing for her and would gladly have given up all thought of going to her room" (Kafka 62). However, unlike in Johanna's room, Karl begins to exercise his ability to fight back against the imprisonment when he wrestles himself free of Clara to enter his room.
He still shows signs of passive aggression, though, because he decides not to answer her when she asks him to explain himself (Kafka 67). We see the same juxtaposition of pleasure and pain in Karl's bout with Clara that we saw in the Johanna incident. Karl's scene with Clara is wrought with sexual tension. He twists his hips, follows her close, and Kafka even notes that "it was easy enough to grip her in her tight dress. " In return, she whispers and sighs while he holds her close to him. If Karl were any other young male character, we would expect him to be excited by such sexual innuendoes.
However, the incident with Clara merely leaves Karl in a "confusion of rage" (Kafka 68). Concerning confining objects, Clara's "athletic arms" hold Karl in, as well as her hand upon his throat (Kafka 68, 69). The sofa in the room also becomes a tool in Clara's bullying, so much so that Karl "[does] not even want to go to bed, he merely [wants] to stay where he [is] on the sofa. " Even after Clara leaves the room, her domination has affected Karl so much as to get him to participate in his own imprisonment: "He felt glad when he had shut the door and bolted it" (Kafka 71). Thus, Johanna and Clara are both women who effectively physically dominate Karl in a juxtaposition of pleasure and pain. The scenes of confinement in Kafka's Amerika are related in that they alternately and simultaneously involve verbal and physical pressure, objects participating in the bondage, a relationship between light versus darkness and freedom versus captivity, and the juxtaposition of pleasure and discomfort. For example, both the scenes with the stoker and with Clara employ the imagery of light or the lack thereof to convey Karl's relative freedom at that moment.
These scenes of confinement all seem to build upon the first significant imprisonment in Karl's life: Johanna Brummer's seduction of Karl. Kafka could be suggesting that the reaction we have to a specific situation can be traced back to one influential experience during our formative years. But it seems more likely that Kafka is commenting on the theories that were increasing in popularity before he wrote The Stoker, such as the theories of Freud and Jung. Bibliography:
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