The three cover illustrations of the 2009 Oxford World’s Classics editions of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and other stories, The Trial and The Castle are taken from Kafka’s own doodles in his lecture notes. They show, respectively, stick figures sitting in a dejected pose, collapsed at a desk, and standing enclosed on three sides by a sort of fence.
These images reflect a running feature of Kafka’s fiction: his protagonists are trapped within an absurd situation which they are unable either to improve or break out of. It is particularly fitting that in the illustration for The Castle the figure is only trapped on three sides – he can escape, just as K could physically leave the town, but K either chooses to or is passively restricted by its inescapable bureaucratic processes.
However, the sense of despair in these images is a little misleading. This is caused not only by the poses of the figures themselves, but also the covers’ brightly coloured backgrounds, which almost overwhelm the simple black lines of Kafka’s doodles. Perhaps Gregor of Metamorphosis is less active, but both K and Joseph K. of The Trial spend the entire novel resisting the sort of existential hopelessness that the reader experiences on their behalf. We continuously expect the strange events and unfamiliar surroundings of these two novels to overcome the characters, and in the case of The Trial this does eventually happen, but their constant striving for meaning and purpose goes directly against the emotions expressed by these defeated stick figures.
The choice of these doodles illustrating the works is laudable. They give an insight into Kafka’s mentality of fear and hopelessness – perhaps emotions provoked by lectures? Fancy that! – which, although often counteracted by the characters in his fiction, nevertheless permeates all his writing.