In the short story A Little Woman, by Franz Kafka, we are introduced to a man and a woman. As the plot builds, morphing into an undeniably kafkaesque mystery, an unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly puzzled as he frets over the ways in which the woman’s animosity will affect him within society. There are several lenses to read the story through. The one that shows the clearest picture places the woman as a mother figure and the man as an adolescent grappling with insecurities; in search of self-definition. Philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin, observes, “It is as if [Kafka] had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors” (Benjamin, 495). In A Little Woman, the protagonist seems ignorant of mirrors, as well. He is wondering, sometimes with desperation, what he looks like, so he uses the woman as a refractory object, off of which he can bounce himself and, in doing so, improve himself. Their relationship is best characterized as a mother and son relationship because a primary role of the mother is the improvement of her children.
In order to fully realize the maternal relationship between the two, it is necessary to remove the possibility of romance. Kafka does so in the opening paragraph by having the protagonist describe her in a flat, uninterested way.
“She is always in the same dress,” he observes, “she never wears a hat, her dull, fair hair is smooth […] The impression her hand makes on me I can convey only by saying that I have never seen a hand with the separate fingers so sharply differentiated from each other […] an entirely normal hand.” (Kafka, 317)
The protagonist is looking at her objectively — how one might look at an object. His disinterest in her physical appearance removes the possibility of attraction and yet it’s undeniable that there is an attachment between them.
At first glance, it seems the two share a symbiotic attachment. As the protagonist says;
“[…] the sole connection between us is the vexation I cause her, or rather the vexation she lets me cause her.” (Kafka, 318)
But the attachment is not so easily classified. We do not know whether the attachment is symbiotic or if it’s an instance of antibiosis. The benefit gained by the protagonist is that the attachment offers him an opportunity to better himself. And, in return, what benefit is gained by the woman? Why does she spend her energy demonizing the protagonist if she has nothing to gain in doing so? It could be described as an unexplainable moment of kafkaesque mystery, but, if we read her as a mother figure, the puzzle fits together more neatly. Through this reading, the woman is bettered by seeing her “son” improve himself. This is why it is symbiotic: through his betterment, she is also bettered. Or at least her ego is soothed.
This moment of vexation is further complicated by the idea that the little woman’s anger is being allowed, possibly spurred on, by the man. “There is no connection between us that could force her to suffer because of me” (Kafka, 317), the man says, and yet the line of; “the vexation she lets me cause her” (Kafka, 318) suggests connection and symbiosis, once more. He claims there is no connection and yet there is one. It is unspoken but the obsessive animosity that exists between them suggests that, as long as it manifests, she cannot ignore him and live her life; something is pushing her to act in this way and something is connecting them. That “something” is best shown when the text places her in the role of a mother because, consequently, she is attached to him through a maternal bond. This pushes her to improve him. She wants him to do well, act well, and speak well. She has no concern for the toxic measures she must go to in order to achieve conformity, it simply must be done for his own good. As a resistant mother figure, off of which he can bounce fragments of his identity, the mystery is somewhat eased.
This moment of vexation is also an instance of blame and this, also, is parental. The protagonist male, with adolescent arrogance, chooses to blame the woman for her hatred, rather than examine his own shortcomings. To his credit, he does this later on by remarking;
“[…] I have often asked myself if I am so pleased with my present self as to be unwilling to change it, and whether I could not attempt some changes in myself, even though I should be doing so not because I found them needful but merely to propitiate the little woman.” (Kafka, 320)
He acknowledges, here, that he does not need to change, but that he would do so to appease the woman. As far as he is concerned, he does not have any shortcomings! This could be what prompts the woman to spurn him; a parental instinct to drive him to better himself, even when he thinks he has reached perfection. In typical Kafka form, we cannot blame the protagonist because he is a victim, tormented by the feeling that he has done something wrong without knowing what it is. In the end, we do not know who to blame, though it is easiest to blame the woman. She is the toxic family member; advocating for conformity yet never revealing why it is he must conform. Meanwhile, all he knows is that she “is very ill-pleased with me” and that she “always finds something objectionable” (Kafka, 317). This blame is clarified, however, when we look at the woman as a mother figure. She does not have a certain instance or quality in mind when she thinks of her dislike—she only wants him to change: to improve. And, furthermore, it is typical of a rebellious adolescent to blame his or her parent in an effort to escape the grasp of their wishes and plans.
Throughout the story, the protagonist is bewildered by the woman’s hatred towards him. The hatred has several functions. It pushes him to question himself and, conversely, it serves to boost his self-confidence. His ego is spurred on and molded by the woman challenging it. For instance, when he says,
“I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them.” (Kafka, 319)
From this moment and more, it is clear that the protagonist is rebelling against an image she has created of him. She sees him as “useless” and this pushes him to rebel against that trait. Her resistance to him creates a metaphorical mirror and it serves the protagonist in that it delineates the self: In discovering who he is not, he discovers who he is.
One point of kafkaesque contradiction is how the woman, apparently, does not want to make improvements out of the protagonist’s character and, yet, she does have requirements for it to be a certain way. The protagonist jumps from deciding that the woman is,
“[…] not concerned to make any real improvement in me, besides whatever she finds objectionable in me is not of a nature to hinder my development.” (Kafka, 318)
“[His] inability, with the best will in the world, to conform to her requirements.” (Kafka, 320)
She has requirements for his change but is not concerned to make any real improvements. So she does not require that he improve himself but simply that he change? It is never explained. Kafka never offers the reason for her disapproval of the protagonist, nor her solution to ease this disapproval.
“I have often wondered why I am such an offense to her;” the protagonist says, “it may be that everything about me outrages her sense of beauty, her feeling for justice, her habits, her traditions, her hopes, there are such incompatible natures, but why does that upset her so much?” (Kafka, 317)
This broad speculation is what Kafka offers as an explanation, and it suggests a maternal feeling; as if the little woman is unsatisfied with her subject but that she herself does not know why. Having hopes for a person is undeniably parental: we want them to succeed and to act in a certain way. It is this desire that generates a maternal feeling within the text.
The story is one also concerned with control. This factors into motherhood as well, as a primary function of a parent is often the control of their young and of its actions. In this story, we see the protagonist at a breaking point; he is trying to gain control over his identity and of the way that it interacts with the world. Near the end, the protagonist concludes,
“[…] from whatever standpoint I consider this small affair, it appears, and this I will stick to, that if I keep my hand over it, even quite lightly, I shall quietly continue to live my own life for a long time to come, untroubled by the world, despite all the outbursts of the woman.” (Kafka, 324)
This passage emphasizes the urgency that is so often felt as we try to gain control over our own destiny and reputation, especially as an adolescent. The character is expressing a desire to live “his own life” and this suggests an unwillingness to conform. He is, in some ways, a revolutionary character. He rejects the social mores, traditions, and status quo that the woman embodies. In rebelling against her, the protagonist is making a statement about the dangers of conformity, as well as the effect that it might have upon identity.
This is what the story is, ultimately, concerned most with: identity and the realization of the self. One way to read the story is through a common subject of intellectual theory: the idea that we are performing our identities. In an essay by Dagmar Lorenz, called “Kafka and Gender,” this idea is discussed. In the essay, Dagmar suggests that, “For Kafka one is not born male or female, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one becomes one or the other or sometimes a mixture of the two” (Preece, 169). A Little Woman is, in so many ways, about conformity and about becoming someone you are not. The protagonist feels the rejection of a mother figure and so he bends and twists his identity in whatever way she requires. In A Little Woman, Kafka is engaged with the fluidity of identity. The woman, described as uninteresting and little — insignificant, almost — manipulates society and the pressures that it wields in order to achieve an identity for her “son” that she most desires. Through ambiguity and subterfuge, we are able to weed out a twisted familial relationship and, with it, the overwhelming toxicity of conformity.
Benjamin, Walter, Michael William. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005. Print. Ser. 2.
Kafka, Franz, and Nahum N. Glatzer. The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken, 1971. Print.
Preece, Julian. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.