Odradek

Odradek is an imaginary creature that appears in the short story The Cares of a Family Man by Franz Kafka. Physically Odradek is described to look as a flat star-shaped spool for thread with some other odd attachments.

Later on the story, Kafka gives Odradek some more human-like characteristics, being able to stand on two feet and talk. The narrator even has some short conversations with Odradek, which emphasize on the nomadic and possibly immortal nature of the creature.

Odradek is also featured in the modern bestiary The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges.

Interpretations

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.

Useless object

Odradek seems to represent an object which has no purpose and no use at all. 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 kind of useless objects are sometimes kept indefinitely at someone's house, hoping that one day the bits of thread could be used to sewing something. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the story had been inspired by an actual spool for thread which the author had at his house and kept finding again from time to time. This could explain the characteristic that Odradek 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 why it is kept around and not thrown away is not clear.

Critique to Capitalism

Willi Goetschel [http://www.fathom.com/feature/121837/index.html Kafka's Dis/Enchanted World] , Willi Goetschel, Columbia University] analyses "The Cares of a Family Man" from several points of view. He states that upon the eye of Marxist literary critics this story could be seen as a critique to Capitalism in its ultimate stage. Odradek represents commodities, it is "what is left of life once everything is reduced to materialism".

Anya Meksin [http://www.kafka.org/index.php?id=185,284,0,0,1,0 Ragged Bits of Meaning, Wound on a Star-Shaped Spool for Thread] , Anya Meksin, The Kafka Project] agrees that this is appliable 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.

Religious interpretation

Another interpretation of the text can be seen under the religious optics, Goetschel indicates that taking in account the star-shaped form of the creature, Odradek could represent tradition (specifically Jewish tradition), which is passed from generation to generation and gains 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 the antagonist

In the analysis made by Slavoj ŽižekThe Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek, Published by MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0262240513, 9780262240512] , emphasis is put on the fact 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, and thus Odradek could be the complement of the narrator, who would also be broken-down having part of him put into the form of 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.

Etymology

In the first paragraph of "The Cares of a Family Man", Kafka introduces vague concepts about the etymology of the word "odradek". It says that it could come from slavic or german origin, but neither attempts to find the root of the word could give an intelligent 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 atiquated 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.

Žižek indicates that odradek is also part of an anagram for the Greek word dodekaedron. This interpretation of the word is as well 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 the czech word for "crow", 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.

References


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