Up in the Gallery

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Envisioning a circus act.

"Up in the Gallery" (German: "Auf der Galerie") is a short piece of fiction written by Franz Kafka. It was created between November 1916 and February 1917 and published in the collection Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) in 1919.[1] The story offers two versions of a scene in which a young man watches a circus ringmaster and a woman on horseback.


Up in the Gallery

If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry “Stop!” through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.

But since things are not like that—since a beautiful woman, in white and red, flies in through curtains which proud men in livery open in front of her, since the director, devotedly seeking her eyes, breathes in her direction, behaving like an animal, and, as a precaution, lifts her up on the dapple-gray horse, as if she were his grand daughter, the one he loved more than anything else, as she starts a dangerous journey, but he cannot decide to give the signal with his whip and finally, controlling himself, gives it a crack, runs right beside the horse with his mouth open, follows the rider’s leaps with a sharp gaze, hardly capable of comprehending her skill, tries to warn her by calling out in English, furiously castigating the grooms holding hoops, telling them to pay the most scrupulous attention, and begs the orchestra, with upraised arms, to be quiet before the great jump, finally lifts the small woman down from the trembling horse, kisses her on both cheeks, considers no public tribute adequate, while she herself, leaning on him, high on the tips of her toes, with dust swirling around her, arms outstretched and head thrown back, wants to share her luck with the entire circus—since this is how things are, the visitor to the gallery puts his face on the railing and, sinking into the final march as if into a difficult dream, weeps, without realizing it.

Public domain translation by Ian Johnston (November 2003):[2]


A materialist reading of the story might focus on concrete exploitation of the Kunstreiterin's labor.

The story features three human characters:[1]

  • The Kunstreiterin, a woman performer riding a horse (Pferd) in circles around an arena;
  • The Direktor, a circus ringmaster who supervises the woman's progress; and
  • The Galeriebesucher, a spectator at the circus who watches from the gallery.

The story has two sentences. The first sentence describes a possible (subjunctive) reality, in which the Galeriebesucher witnesses the Kunstreiterin (and her Pferd) suffering because the cruel Direktor forces them to perform. The Galeriebesucher rushes into the arena to intervene. The second sentence describes "how things are": the Direktor seems protective of the Kunstreiterin and orchestrates her performance only reluctantly, while the Galeriebesucher absorbs the scenario—and unconsciously weeps.[1][3]


The first scenario is mechanical and out of focus; the sound of the orchestra blends with the noise of the ventilators and the audience's applauding hands are “really steamhammers”. In the second scenario, details are precise, sequential, and dramatic.[4] The Galeriebesucher identifies heavily with the situation he witnesses, such that these details seem to encompass his worldview (and govern his action).[5] In the first sentence, he seems empowered to change the situation; in the second, he seems helpless.[6] The noise of the story and the tempo of the writing coincide to emphasize this moment of intervention at the end of the first sentence.[7]

Other interpretations of the story focus on the role of the passive spectator—who, in a slightly different world, might have intervened.

Broadly speaking, the story invokes the topsy-turvy relationship between “Sein” and “Schein” (being and appearance), a mainstay of 19th-century German idealism, that Kafka likes to complicate throughout his writing.[8] Both sentences of narration contain elements which suggest a dream state or hallucination.[9][10] Although grammatically the first sentence is presented as counterfactual and the second sentence presented are factual, both describe scenarios mediated by the fallible perception of the Galeriebesucher. The 'truth' of the second version may lie only in the fact that this version reflects the Galeriebesucher's limited conscious responses to the scenario.[6]

A common interpretation of the story posits that the first sentence describes a more truthful version of reality, evoking a noble and appropriate reaction from the young man. The young man of sentence two cries involuntarily from sadness because his body perceives the cruelty implicit in the situation.[11][12] Galeriebesucher1 might represent the true but suppressed feelings of Galeriebesucher2.[6] A fatalist reading would emphasize the actual helplessness of Galeriebesucher2 as a reflection of Kafka's perceived impotence and perhaps emblematic of the futility of the human condition.[13] Peter Heller lists the “gallery” story as an example of Kafka's (failed) “experimentation with the positive".[14]

The Direktor is often understood a coalescence of social evil: perhaps an agent of the system of class oppression, or perhaps a domineering patriarchal father.[15] The Kunstreiterin is generally seen as exploited: for her physical labor and for her value as a sexual commodity within a patriarchal system. The two male characters over how the Kunstreiterin is to be perceived, but her agency is limited in either case, as a victim of the cruel master (who resembles a pimp) or as a damsel in distress to be rescued by another man.[10] Freudian readers would immediately perceive a classic Oedipal situation, in which the younger man experiences shame and frustration when an older, more powerful man (with a whip) obstructs his access to the beautiful woman.[16][9] A twist on this reading proposes to explore the changes in power dynamics between the male ringmaster and the female performer.[9]

According to common interpretations, the story poses the question of how a person's vantage point may affect their ethical choices.[17] The power to intervene, available in the story only to Galeriebesucher1 who sees the circus in a sort of blurry long exposure, comes to those who can pierce the veil of ideology and understand social processes on a deeper level.[18]

Bianca Theisen prefers to focus on the inherent ambiguity of performance, identifying the reader with the Galeriebesucher and arguing: “The ambivalence of the text’s final gesture offers no clear exegesis to the incongruities and contrasts set up by the two paragraphs and reproduces the circular relationship between negation and affirmation that organizes and reorganizes a miserable reality as mere fiction and an illusionary mirage as reality.”[11] Theisen observes: “Weeping is not univocal; tears can also indicate joy.”[11] Ultimately, she argues, the spectator's tears indicate only his uncontrollable body.[19]

Elizabeth Boa contests the 'heroic' aspects of the subjunctive world in sentence one. First, even this scenario envisions only possible action by the Galeriebesucher.[20] Given the structural ambiguity of observation and interpretation, might every witness to atrocity behave just as passively at the weeping spectator in the story?[12] The uncertainty alone is enough to make one weep.[21] Boa denies that Kafka has fully pierced the ideological veil, writing: “The text purports to show how certain social interactions work: given this set of attitudes and self-understanding, that effect may result; but the attitudes and self-understanding have an unstable, experimental quality, like the young man's masculinity.”[22] What the story really shows, Boa argues, is “art-production as the obsessive circlings of sado-masochistic masculinity and of a divided self”—manifested as layers of textual ambiguity organized around the figure of an unknowable woman.[23]


Franz Kafka wrote “Up in the Gallery” while living with his sister Ottla Kafka. He soon after rented his own apartment and moved out.[24]

Kafka not only attended circuses but also read periodicals about them. The circus motif figures prominently in his writing.[25] “Der Galerie” might refer not just to the seating for an audience, but to the cheap seats high up: the bleachers. Segregation by class of a circus audience would have been noticeable and significant to Kafka. [26]

The captive equestrienne of “Up in the Gallery” has been compared to Kafka's self-starving “hunger artist”.[27] Kafka may have considered these performers, beleaguered unto sickness by the demands of their audience, as representative of artists in general.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Richard T. Gray, "Auf der Gallerie", A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005; pp. 21–22.
  2. ^ Ian Johnston, "Selected shorter writings, transl. by Ian Johnston (Before the Law, The Hunter Gracchus, Up in the Gallery, An Imperial Message, Jackals and Arabs)", The Kafka Project, November 2003. ("The Kafka texts below are new translations prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada. They are all in the public domain and may be used without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged, released November 2003.")
  3. ^ Spahr, “A Stylistic Analysis” (1960), p. 211.
  4. ^ Theisen, "Kafka's Circus Turns" (2005), p. 174.
  5. ^ Ritter, Art As Spectacle (1989), p. 87.
  6. ^ a b c Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), pp. 487–488. “The first looks like a sequence of cause and possible effect. By the end of the paragraph the narratee is confidently in control of the story, or of a tentative sketch towards a story, just as the young man deiciseively acts to control events in the circus.”
  7. ^ Spahr, “A Stylistic Analysis” (1960), pp. 211–213. “On this high level of tension the action becomes even more rapid, and, while the sound remains defending, the young spectator, 'eilte,' 'stürzte' into the ring, 'rief' his thundering 'Halt' through the fanfares of the blaring orchestra. And, still on the height of the noise and racing tempo, we are slowed, but still sustained by the waves of sound; we learn that this picture is not so, but exists only in a fevered imagination.”
  8. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 491.
  9. ^ a b c Hans Osterwalder, "Dreamscapes: Harold Pinter’s The Room and Franz Kafka’s 'Auf der Galerie'"; Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 52(1), 2004; pp. 57–60.
  10. ^ a b Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), pp. 492–493.
  11. ^ a b c Theisen, "Kafka's Circus Turns" (2005), p. 175. “Can power, exploitation, and inhuman discipline—expressed in images of circus training—be masked so completely that their perception fades into one dim, inarticulate expression of sorrow within the communal feeling of “bliss,” into an expression that ultameimately marks nothing but a textual void (Vogl 109)? The assumption that the spectator’s tears are tears of sorrow, and thus an affective reaction to the hypothetical reality described in paragraph one, relies on an interpretation that takes as reality what Kafka presents in the subjunctive, and takes as lie or illusion what Kafka offers in the indicative.”
  12. ^ a b Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 491. “Perhaps the occasional reader has rushed out from reading a fiction to shout 'Stop!' But can fiction offer knowledge even of what it is that has to be stopped? Does the fictional circus refer to anything? The man perhaps weeps because he recognizes that he is not seeing through the surface to underlying truth, but is himself caught up in a fiction. And even if fiction is das zweite Gesicht, revealing truth behind appearances (as several critics assume of the first paragraph), will it make any difference? To see through the surface makes the man weep rather than act. Either way, it is better, perhaps, to remain a consumer of pretty fictions, like the circus in the second paragaraph, rather than the horror-tales as in the first.”
  13. ^ Spahr, “A Stylistic Analysis” (1960), pp. 214–215. “In Auf der Galerie we see the hesitation, the 'nicht eingreifen können,' the remaining on the sidelines which characterize our lives. Here in a short sketch is all the pathos of ineffectuality, of inability to communicate, to assert oneself which are the core of Kafka's message for our times. This is the image of Kafka the man as well as Kafka the poet as he stands aside, hesistating, doubting, fearing, unwilling to act, yet afraid of and plagued by the sense of failure which arises from his not acting. There is no freedom, only an 'Ausweg.' We may have free will, but we have no choice. This is the paradox of life and again its tragedy […].”
  14. ^ Peter Heller, On Not Understanding Kafka; The German Quarterly 47(3), May 1974; pp. 373–393. “Did not he himself experiment with the seemingly 'positive' in the hope it would hold up, only to find that it did not? In a sense all of his writings report his own hope and his own failure to find the positive, the good life and community, the right kind of nourishment for the poor dog, the protest liberating the circus and the visitor up in the gallery, the meaning of the trial, the meaningful engagement with the castle. And the liberating effect of his work may be due to the fact that one job is to rid the mind of oppressive phantasms, to exorcise them, and thus to clear the grounds, to set the stage for the sane builders.”
  15. ^ Ritter, Art As Spectacle (1989), p. 88.
  16. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), pp. 494– 495.
  17. ^ Stuart Lasine, “The Trials of Job and Kafka's Josef K.”; The German Quarterly 63(2), Spring 1990; p. 194. Accessed via JStor, 3 July 2013. “Kafka also assumes that suffering viewed from the human worm's-eye view urgently calls for moral action by the viewer, while the godlike posture of the detached spectator—a posture adopted by K. whenever possible—removes moral urgency from what is seen, allowing the viewer to withdraw from "the scene of the crime." One cannot act heroically to rectify injustices when these are perceived from 'up in the gallery.'”
  18. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 490. “To change the world requires intervention prompted by a political vision which sees through ideology to underlying oppression, as the young man perhaps does, and conceives of modes of possible action and alternative roles for the actors, as he failes to do, perhaps because it is only in and through action that new roles could emerge. If the division between theory and practice is to be transcended, the reflective spectator must enter the ring, and the man only dreams of doing.”
  19. ^ Theisen, "Kafka's Circus Turns" (2005), pp. 178–179.
  20. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), pp. 489–490. “But worse still, the weeping may also mean that, even if the dream pierced illusion to reach truth, the man still would not act: Reschke and Stamer see the story as uncovering the dilemma of man's inability to act on insight.” The alter ego might only perhaps act.”
  21. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 491. “That is to say, the recognition that we have no simple access to the Real against which to measure the ideological distortion affecting our own vision can drive us to tears.”
  22. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 496.
  23. ^ Boa, “a resistant reading” (1991), p. 499.
  24. ^ Klaus Wagenbach, Kafka (1964/2002), translated by Ewald Osers; London: Haus Publishing, 2003; pp. 112–113.
  25. ^ Theisen, "Kafka's Circus Turns" (2005), p. 171.
  26. ^ Hawes, “Blind Resistance?” (1995), p. 331. “'Der Galerie' means the highest, furthest, cheapest seats (sometimes, as in the Vienna Staatsoper, so cheap as to include the least desirable standing-room as well). Kafka's hero, who, like many of Kafka's heroes, fails to replace the paternal narration with his own, is explicitly not 'ein junger Theaterbesucher' / 'der Theaterbesucher' but 'ein junger Galeriebesucher' / 'der Galeriebesucher'. […] As Erika Fischer-Liche's new history of the German theatre details, the relationship between the architecture of the theatre and the differentiated theatrical experience of audience-groups was not merely recognized in Kafka's day but was, indeed, at the very centre of debates about theatrical modernism. […] Kafka's textual insistence on the precise situation of his hero in the physical space of the theatre is thus enormously potent: Auf der Galerie echoes one of the central concerns of contemporary theatrical debate.”
  27. ^ a b Ritter, Art As Spectacle (1989), p. 85.
  28. ^ Theisen, "Kafka's Circus Turns" (2005), p. 172


  • Boa, Elizabeth. “Kafka's 'Auf der Gallerie': a resistant reading.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 65(3), September 1991. Accessed via ProQuest, 3 July 2013.
  • Hawes, J. M. “Blind Resistance? A reply to Elizabeth Boa's 'Resistant Reading of Kafka's Auf der Galerie'”. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 69(2), June 1995. Accessed via ProQuest, 3 July 2013.
  • Ritter, Naomi. Art As Spectacle: Images of the Entertainer Since Romanticism. University of Missouri Press, 1989. ISBN 9780826207197
  • Spahr, Blake Lee. “'Auf der Galerie': A Stylistic Analysis”. German Quarterly 33(3), May 1960; pp. 211–215. Accessed via JStor, 3 July 2013.
  • Theisen, Bianca. "Kafka’s Circus Turns: 'Auf der Galerie' and 'Erstes Leid'". Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka, ed. James Rolleston. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2006. ISBN 9781571133366

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