Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Was auf den Tisch kam, mußte aufgegessen [...] werden": Food, Gender, and Power in Kafka's Letters and Stories

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Was auf den Tisch kam, mußte aufgegessen [...] werden": Food, Gender, and Power in Kafka's Letters and Stories

Article excerpt

"Nur der Hunger kann das ganz und gar Eigentumliche sein; denn mit jeder Speise wird zugleich das Gesetz der anderen, werden die Spielregeln der im Verbot gesetzten Kulinarik ubernommen."1

-Neumann, "Literatur" 189.

The characters in some of Kafka's most extraordinary short fiction, and the figure of Kafka himself in his letters,2 exhibit a complex relationship to food. For them, the act of eating is invested with meaning and often with power. Food can be the medium through which the authority of the father is exercised (Brief an den Vater), it can represent a philosophical conundrum ("Forschungen eines Hundes") or the unattainable object of a transformed appetite ("Die Verwandlung"J. Eating-or fasting-can be a marker of difference ("Ein Hungerkunstler"), a signifier of social isolation ("Die Verwandlung," "Der Bau") or the ultimate means of self-assertion ("Der Bau"). The significance of food and eating in Kafka has been interpreted as a response to the Enlightenment paradigm and the 19th-century Diatetik,3 and gender critiques have recently attained their rightful prominence in Kafka scholarship.4 Yet so far the intersection of the two approaches has not been explored. This article will show that Kafka's approach to food in his short fiction and letters contains a strong critique of the gender hegemony of his day. It will be argued here that a voracious appetite and the consumption of meat signify masculine privilege in the fiction and letters, and that therefore fasting and vegetarianism represent a rejection of masculinity in those terms. Adopting a marginalized, feminine status, Kafka's male figures employ an oppositional eating practice which challenges hegemonic masculinity. The focus of this article is the novella "Die Verwandlung" (1915), the short stories "Ein Hungerkunstler'' (1924), "Der Bau" (1931), "Forschungen eines Hundes" (1931), and some letters, in particular the Brief an den Vater (1935, written in 1919).5

Kafka will be portrayed here neither as a feminist nor as a proponent of vegetarianism or animal rights. Instead, this reading invokes Kafka's acknowledged status as a critic of hegemony and a literary expert on power.6 Only relatively recently have feminist scholars begun to argue that Kafka's critique of power extends to a critique of hegemonic masculinity. In so doing, critics are reluctant to claim Kafka as a "feminist" author, whilst acknowledging that "Kafka portrays relations between the sexes as power relations."7 This article will build on existing insights into Kafka's critique of masculine power and demonstrate the central role that food and eating (or fasting) play in this critique. Indeed, food is inscribed with gendered power relations and eating (or fasting) is at times a tool for the deployment of gendered power. At times, however, it can become a strategy by which to challenge or undermine that power.

Any discussion of the meanings attributed to food and eating in Kafka's work should acknowledge the privileged position of the fast in Kafka's fiction. When eating or fasting are thematized in Kafka's fiction and letters, their subjection to social protocol and investment with cultural meaning are foregrounded. To eat is, for Kafka's figures, to consume social-and therefore gendered-norms. This point can best be made by considering the consequences for male characters of the refusal to eat, i.e., their rejection of the values ingested in eating behavior. Numerous critics have seen in the story "Ein Hungerkunstler" the prime example of fasting as social isolation.8 In this story, the eponymous protagonist astounds spectators with his prolonged periods of abstinence. However, when the public loses interest in his art, he continues to fast, becoming the only spectator of his enormous achievement, an overlooked sideshow act. Maud Ellmann notes that much of the fasting in Kafka's stories takes place in situations of confinement: in the hunger artist's cage, in Gregor Samsa's room in "Die Verwandlung," in the creature's burrow in "Der Bau," and in the self-imposed exile of the investigating dog of "Forschungen eines Hundes" (93). …

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