The Cares of a Family Man

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"The Cares of a Family Man" (German: "Die Sorge des Hausvaters") is a short story by Franz Kafka about a creature called Odradek. The creature has drawn the attention of many philosophers and literary critics, who have all attempted to interpret its meaning. The story was written between 1914 and 1917. In 1919 it appeared in Ein Landarzt. Kleine Erzählungen (A Country Doctor), a collection of Kafka's short stories published by Kurt Wolff (Munich and Leipzig).[1]

Plot[edit]

The story begins with a discussion of the unclear linguistic origin of the name Odradek, followed by a detailed description of the creature:

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle.[2]

The narrator goes on to describe the creature's other characteristics, including its habits, environment, and manner of conversation, and in the end wonders about the Odradek's future, and the painful notion that it might outlive him.[3]

Interpretations[edit]

This creature and its description can be read from different points of view, since the text deliberately obscures the nature of Odradek and its purpose.[1]

Useless object[edit]

Odradek appears to represent an object with no clear purpose or apparent use. It appears not unlike an exhausted spool for thread, wound about by "old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors". However, the text makes it explicit that there is no apparent use for the object. As such, scholars such as Samuel Rammelmeier have argued that the obscurity and uselessness of the object serves to create a foil for the narrator.[4] He argues that the object's apparent uselessness, when seen in light of the existential dread pervading the last paragraph, can be understood as underlining the narrator's lack of purpose. This is an opinion shared by Heinz Politzer when he states that Kafka's absurdist writing emphasizes the meaninglessness of its subjects' lives.[5] Such an interpretation can be compared to the nihilist tone of Kafka's better-known work, The Metamorphosis.

Critique of capitalism[edit]

Willi Goetschel analyzes "The Cares of a Family Man" from several perspectives. From the perspective of Marxist literary criticism the story might be a critique of Capitalism in its last stage. Odradek represents commodities, it is "what is left of life once everything is reduced to materialism".[6]

Anya Meksin agrees that this interpretation is possible from a Marxist perspective. Odradek, being made of thread for mending, represents the world of manmade practical objects separated from the human work that produced them, and the relation between the house father and Odradek represent the alienated relation between worker and commodities he has produced. The idea that Odradek will survive the narrator and the anguish this situation causes to him can also be interpreted as the idea of commodities being inherited and transcend the worker that made them, but in such a way that the worker himself would be completely ignored.[7]

Objectification of memory[edit]

According to Goetschel, from a Freudian approach Odradek can be seen as "the psychological return of the repressed". In Freud's theory of repression, an unacknowledged trauma surfaces as unconscious associations and neuroses, which affect thought, memory and dreams.[8] Such an interpretation is supported by Kafka's letters and biography: in approximately 1921, he wrote a letter to Milena Jesenka in which he explains his mental disturbances in a distinctly Freudian light.[9] Furthermore, Kafka's Letter to His Father indicates that Kafka had suffered from emotional trauma due to his childhood, which lends biographical weight to this argument.

Religious interpretation[edit]

A religious perspective opens up another interpretation of the text. Goetschel indicates that the star-shaped form of the creature might represent tradition (specifically Jewish tradition), which is passed on from generation to generation and accumulates some more bits of "thread" in each generation.

According to Meksin, Odradek represents a rupture between the world of the family man and some other transcendent realm. It is immortal, and hides in shadows carrying a message from generation to generation, and witnessing it all. Meksin goes on to indicate that the physical description of Odradek with its wooden crossbar sticks joined to that at a right angle can also remind us of crucifixion.

While Rammelmeier argues against clean-cut metaphorical interpretations of the story, he acknowledges that Odradek possesses some supernatural qualities, such as disappearance and reappearance.[4] He states that these supernatural qualities are made all the more prominent by the text's otherwise objective or sachlich style. He adds that, due to the text's stylistic dryness, a reader who reads the story through an ideological lens may find evidence for any interpretation they may wish to hold. Nevertheless, the story's last passage and its concern with "my children's children", the object's apparent lack of purpose, the ephemeral qualities of Odradek, the religious symbolism of the transverse rod and the star shape, and the mention of death in the last line of the story provide textual evidence for associations of Odradek to religion, or at least cultural traditions.[4]

Odradek as antagonist[edit]

Slavoj Žižek emphasizes in his analysis that Odradek "once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant," and as such it should be part of a whole. The relation between the narrator (a family man, a father) and the creature could be this whole: Odradek might be the complement of the narrator, who would also be broken down, with part of him transferred into Odradek. That is why Odradek is something a family man has to care for.[10]

Etymology[edit]

In the first paragraph of "The Cares of a Family Man", the narrator speculates on the etymology of the word "odradek," which might be of Slavic or German origin, neither of which yields any clear meaning. Meksin points out that this first paragraph is both a joke played on future scholarly efforts at understanding the story, and a clue to the meaning of the word. Odradek could be a way of naming something that is meaningless, a kind of semantic paradox.

Jean-Claude Milner notes in "Odradek, la bobine de scandale" that "odradek" is also part of an anagram for the Greek word dodekaedron. This interpretation of the word is also consistent with the fact that Odradek seems to be a broken-down remnant of something.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York City: Schocken Books, 1995. 473.
  2. ^ Kafka, 428.
  3. ^ Kafka, 427-429.
  4. ^ a b c Rammelmeier, Samuel (Fall 1987). "Notizen auf den Zweck Odradeks in Kafkas "Die Sorge des Hausvaters"". Monatshefte. 79 (2): 247–269. 
  5. ^ Politzer, Heinz (October 1950). "Problematik und Probleme der Kafka-Forschung". Monatshefte. 42 (6): 273–274. 
  6. ^ Goetschel, Willi. Columbia University, Kafka's Dis/Enchanted World
  7. ^ Meksin, Anya. The Kafka Project, Ragged Bits of Meaning, Wound on a Star-Shaped Spool for Thread
  8. ^ Kihlstrom, John F. (8 April 2010). "Suffering from Reminiscences: Exhumed Memory, Implicit Memory, and the Return of the Repressed". UC Berkley. Retrieved 7 May 2017. 
  9. ^ Eric Marson & Keith Leopold (March 1964). "Kafka, Freud, and "Ein Landarzt"". The German Quarterly. 37 (2): 149. 
  10. ^ Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View, published by MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0-262-24051-3, ISBN 978-0-262-24051-2