The “America” Novel: Learning How to Get Lost



Critics of Kafka’s “America” novel have repeatedly pointed out the ways in which it revises and even contradicts the Bildungsroman tradition.1 Written with David Copperfield in mind, Kafka’s novel seems to directly oppose the Bildungsroman’s structure of progressive knowledge-acquisition and learning-through-experience. Karl not only does not learn, he also seems to be amnesiac—in direct contrast to David Copperfield, whose memory accumulates endlessly, accommodating even the most picayune details from childhood.2 Since Karl seems to have forgotten (or repressed) most of his past, he seldom reflects on his actions in order to learn something and make wiser decisions in the future: Karl thus repeats the same basic mistake throughout the novel, naively trusting stranger after stranger (his uncle, Mr. Pollunder, Robinson, Delamarche) as if he had never before been led astray. The non-progressive, amnesiac structure of Karl’s character comes to the fore when, midway through the novel, he claims that he is fifteen years old—thus, two years younger than he was in the novel’s first sentence (A 136; V 175).3


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© John Zilcosky 2003

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