The Cares of a Family Man

"The Cares of a Family Man" ("Die Sorge des Hausvaters") is a short story by Franz Kafka which deals mostly with a small 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].

Contents

Plot

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

Odradek depiction from [4]

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 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 to Capitalism

Willi Goetschel 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"[5].

Anya Meksin 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[4].

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 Žižek, 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[6].

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 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 the 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 and allusions in Literature

  • The Odradek is featured in the modern bestiary The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, which simply quotes the complete story, along with two other creatures imagined by Kafka - the half-cat, half-lamb Crossbreed and the kangaroo-like creature described in Wedding Preparations in the Country.
  • The Odradek is also referenced in the title and index of Harry Mathews's novel The Sinking of The Odradek Stadium.
  • The Odradek also served as inspiration for the "Kedardo" which appears in S. K. Azoulay's short story "Park on the Street." The object is given to the narrator by his father and is described as "a small white disc, no bigger than a Half Dollar, made of what seemed to be plastic, with three nails stuck out of one side, bent inwards, towards the center of the plastic disc, and a single straight nail stuck out of the other side, right through the middle." [7]
  • Odradeks also make an appearance in Enrique Vila-Matas' work, Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (1985).
  • The short story is also explicitly quoted in a work called 'Odradek, Táboritská 8, Prague, 18 July 1994' (1994), by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall.
  • Is used for the title of an album by Daniel Menche, 2009, which depicts a rendering of Odradek in the cover art, illustrated by Markus Wolff. The back cover has the entire short story printed on it.
  • In the novel Blameless in Abaddon by James Morrow, the protagonist Martin Candle, who likes to see himself described as a passionate student of life's deepest mysteries, is urged by his doctors to take a drug called Odradex to fight prostate cancer. The side effects of Odradex, however, are greatly hampering the thought process of Candle (who is preparing to put God on trial for crimes against humanity), and therefore he refuses to take the drug.

Odradek (play)

Odradek is a play by Brett Neveu which premiered at The House Theatre of Chicago on January 8, 2011. The play tells the story of a single father from a small Iowa town concerned with his son’s declining mental heath. After a visit with a new doctor, the boy returns home and develops a friendship with an “Odradek,” a creature of twine and rags that lives under the stairs[8]. The play was met with mixed reviews.[9]

Odradek (music)

Odradek is an improvising trio of multi-instrumentalists operating in Toronto, Canada, since 2003. Their practice focuses on the subtle blend of disparate sound sources, dissolving the hierarchy between traditional instruments, electronics, found objects and invented and homemade sound sources.

References

  1. ^ Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. 473.
  2. ^ Kafka, 428.
  3. ^ Kafka, 427-429.
  4. ^ a b Meksin, Anya. The Kafka Project, Ragged Bits of Meaning, Wound on a Star-Shaped Spool for Thread
  5. ^ Goetschel, Willi. Columbia University, Kafka's Dis/Enchanted World
  6. ^ Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View, published by MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0-262-24051-3, 9780262240512
  7. ^ Azoulay, S. K. Park on the street
  8. ^ Odradek - show's page at The House Theatre of Chicago website.
  9. ^ Review of Odradek at New City Stage, January 17, 2011.
    Odradek - review by John Beer, Time Out Chicago.

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