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Charles Taylor (Advisor)

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Master of Humanities (MHum)


Søren Kierkegaard and Franz Kafka are admired by a wide spectrum of literary critics and philosophers for their common emphasis on subjectivity and the importance of the individual as opposed to the group. However, because the lives, attitudes, and writings of the two authors were very different, it is of interest to continue to examine their possible interrelationship. Both Kierkegaard and Kafka wrote about the biblical Abraham, and the resulting texts provide material for such an examination, organized around the idea of absurdity. “The absurd” is Kierkegaard’s synonym for the religious level of existence, described in detail in Fear and Trembling, his analysis of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. There, the word refers to the incompatibility of rationality with religious belief. The religious level of existence that Abraham entered by obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son while believing the absurdity that Isaac would not be lost to him, is characterized by a necessity for silence that leads to Abraham’s isolation from the world. Kafka was attracted by similarities he perceived between his own life and Kierkegaard’s, and greatly esteemed Kierkegaard’s intellect and the quality of his prose. He never explicitly condemned Kierkegaard’s use of “the absurd” to signify the religious. However, as shown in his letters and notebooks, he did not agree with Kierkegaard’s views on the various levels of existence that human life could assume and the nature of the transitions between them. Often, his arguments can also be interpreted as criticisms of Kierkegaard himself rather than of Kierkegaard’s ideas. Kafka illustrated his disagreement with Kierkegaard in sketches of four alternative Abrahams, whose lives, unlike that of Kierkegaard’s Abraham, remain firmly in the world. For various reasons, they are unable or unwilling to abandon rationality and enter into the religious level of existence. One of Kafka’s Abrahams, an antihero totally unrecognizable as a patriarch, has a counterpart in a figure Kierkegaard drew of a “bourgeois philistine,” also unrecognizable as a person of faith. Because the philistine has resigned himself to losing the world, he regains it in all its bourgeois detail on the strength of “the absurd,” just as Abraham regained Isaac. In contrast, because Kafka’s antihero accepts the world’s judgment that he is unworthy, he finds it absurd to imagine himself as Abraham. The two sketches encapsulate Kierkegaard’s personal ideal of a faith he knew could seldom be achieved and Kafka’s dismissal of any such ideal by insisting that the only reality is the confrontation between the world and the individual.

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