45 pages 1 hour read

Franz Kafka, Transl. Willa Muir

Amerika: The Missing Person

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1927

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Summary and Study Guide


Amerika (or The Man Who Disappeared) was Bohemian writer Franz Kafka’s first novel. Kafka’s publisher and translator, Max Brod, was responsible for adding Amerika to the original title—the incomplete work being published posthumously in 1927. The novel is an expansion of Kafka’s short story “The Stoker” (“The Stoker” being Amerika’s first chapter; 1913) and was written between 1912 and 1914—during which the writer also wrote the famous short stories “The Metamorphosis” and “The Trial.” Through the eyes of immigrant Karl Rossmann, Amerika combines capitalism and isolation into a satirical portrait of America in the early 20th century.

This guide is based on Michael Hofmann’s translation published in 1996 and includes previously unpublished fragments (Chapters 8-9)—including the novel’s original ending.

Plot Summary

Amerika follows the ever-changing fortunes of Bohemian immigrant Karl Rossmann as he encounters people who abuse and exploit him—and in doing so, disabuse him of his preconceptions about America. Karl arrives in America as a shamed man: He was exiled by his parents for impregnating a servant. He crosses paths with his rich uncle and lives a lavish life before falling from grace, forced to seek employment with two unlucky, untrustworthy men, Delamarche and Robinson. Karl later meets a woman from his home country who wants to help him, and he gets a job at a hotel as a lift-boy. He devotes himself to this role—only to be fired due to the reappearance of Delamarche and Robinson, who instigated the firing to bring him back into their orbit. Karl becomes a servant to Delamarche and his girlfriend Brunelda. In the end, Karl escapes Delamarche and finds a place that promises happiness: the Theater of Oklahoma, a home for the unemployed.

The plot is propelled by a triadic pattern of abandonment, adoption, and ejection, which is established in Chapter 1. Karl is lost, taken in by some well- or ill-intentioned party, inevitably deemed too good or not good enough, and then thrust into the world again. Thus, the novel moves between extremes. For example, Karl has the unbelievably good fortune of discovering a wealthy long-lost uncle before he even steps foot in America, only to destroy any good will the uncle has toward him after taking an ill-advised trip to his uncle’s business associate’s home. Following this failure, Karl nevertheless moves forward with the sense that he will redeem himself in the future. The cycle between doom and salvation is the engine that fuels Karl’s growth as he begins to understand who he is by learning from his failures and losses, and finally attains something resembling peace.

There are many other repetitions and echoes in the novel, providing a sense of intentionality that balances the story’s meandering, roughly hewn, and improvisational sensibility. One small instance of this occurs when Karl tells the stoker that he read once about a man who “spent his days working in a business and his nights studying, and in the end he became a doctor” (6). This sounds like a description of the neighbor Karl encounters at Brunelda and Delamarche’s apartment in the last chapters of the novel. Such small, somewhat hidden connections between the novel’s beginning and ending reveal that Kafka likely intended this to be a far more structured novel than one might assume from its rambling nature and unfinished state.