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).
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.
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.
As in all Kafka's work, this creature and its description can be read from different points of view. It is not possible to define exactly what Odradek is, not even what Kafka thought it was when he was writing the story. One possible direct interpretation is that Odradek represents any useless, harmless object which is kept around for no obvious reason. However, many other levels of meaning can be extracted from this story.
Odradek appears to represent an object with no clear purpose or apparent use. It could be an almost exhausted spool for thread, only wounded by "old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors". These sorts of useless objects are sometimes kept indefinitely in someone's home, in the hope that one day the bits of thread might be used to sew something. It could be that the story was inspired by an actual nearly empty spool in Kafka's home, that he ran across from time to time. This could explain the defining characteristic of an Odradek: it lives in crevices, margins and hallways, and has no real fixed abode. The word odradek has been sometimes used since to depict an object which has no purpose and the reason for which it is kept around and not thrown away is unclear. Or perhaps it simply represents the unfinished threads of thought that litter a text, are never finished and sit in the "margins" with no apparent use.
Critique of capitalism
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".
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.
Objectification of memory
According to Goetschel, from a Freudian approach Odradek can be seen as "the psychological return of the repressed". In this case, it is a representation of leftovers of life, things that we would like to forget, but come back again and again. Odradek may hide in dark places just like human fears, or may lay in front of a doorway so as to warn us not to enter. These could be the kind of things that the family man has to care for, the repressed memories that never go away entirely.
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.
Odradek as antagonist
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.
Several characteristics can be found to show Odradek and the narrator as opposites, for example:
- The narrator is particularly concerned with the fact that even when he dies, Odradek will survive doing exactly what it does now. Odradek is immortal while the family man has to die.
- Odradek has no purpose at all while the narrator is a man who is in charge of a family, having a well defined purpose.
- Odradek has no real fixed abode while the narrator lives precisely in the house where he keeps finding Odradek.
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. An antiquated Slavonic verb "odradeti", which means "to counsel against" could be the root of the word. This would indicate that the name odradek itself points at something that tries to dissuade the reader to understand its meaning. Odradek would be, in this case, 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.
Another possible meaning of the word is proposed by Goetschel, based on the fact that Kafka often played with names and used his own name as part of the names of his characters. He indicates that odradek contains[clarification needed] the Czech word for "crow" ("vrána"), which is also a translation of Kafka's name. In this case the Odradek refers to Kafka himself, the same way Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, Josef K. in The Trial and K. in The Castle also refer to him.
- Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. 473.
- Kafka, 428.
- Kafka, 427-429.
- Goetschel, Willi. Columbia University, Kafka's Dis/Enchanted World
- Meksin, Anya. The Kafka Project, Ragged Bits of Meaning, Wound on a Star-Shaped Spool for Thread
- Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View, published by MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0-262-24051-3, ISBN 978-0-262-24051-2