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Written by Mason Tabor
The irony of freedom and servitude
Though Brußmann does not come to America in any sense a servant, his status seems to him to be a frustrating breach of his interests. The cause of this is offered as his infinite freedom. Free from all social binds that come with a complex network of family and friends, he wanders aimlessly, pledging his loyalty to the well-being of people who take advantage of him and cost him money and jobs. This is first the case with the stoker, who Karl has sympathy for and thus attempts to do good for him with the Captain, to no avail. The other, perhaps most pronounced case of this occurs when he binds himself to Robinson and Delamarche to both manipulate and abuse his kindesses, ultimately setting him back substantially.
These details constitute irony because they depend upon an inversion of one's assumptions about freedom. The reader might be inclined to disagree with the idea that freedom is a negative force, because they resent the limitations placed upon them and the expectations the are forced to meet. However, Kafka argues through Amerika that freedom is essentially the lack of affective meaning. Maybe the expectations of loved ones constitute a valuable part of human life (although Kafka seems to disagree even with this notion in his "Metamorphosis"). Regardless, Kafka's position on freedom is ironically opposed to the position offered by classical American literature. Yes, freedom is a major component of the American culture, but to Kafka that is a damaging feature, not a redeeming one.
Loneliness in spite of society
A commonly employed image in Amerika is the plurality of people that surround Karl, in ironic contrast to his sense of meaninglessness and frustration. Something about the potential to meet lots of people and the freedom to pursue any fate is fatal to Karl. His relationships are constantly difficult and disadvantageous to Karl, resulting in his constant frustration, but ironically, not in his abandonment of his frustrating relationships. He still persists in helping those who have hurt him, perhaps alluding to a higher call than to find meaning and money in the American experience.
The difficulty of the work
An early juxtamposition is offered in the narrative when Brußmann meets the stoker and then his uncle, who doesn't end up being any more helpful to Karl than the stoker does, despite his influence and money. This is an essential irony in the work--the American dream doesn't fall together well, even if you know people, even if you can find work, even if you try to find your way. The book is a criticism of our capitolistic tendencies which lead to the belief that success is something anyone can attain. That is clearly not the argument of the narrative. The narrative seems to highlight the randomness and frustration of the American experience.
These things constitute irony in that they invert the natural causality of work ethic and benefit. Those who work hard in the book are seldom met with happy, deserved fates. In fact the city seems negligent of them and their efforts, whether they are hard workers, like the stoker, or con-men like Karl's friends.
A poignant image for this irony is implicit in Karl's job as a lift operater. His job involves raising people up to higher floors, but he himself is forced to stay still in the elevator. He both gives ascendence to many and gains none. Another similar image is that of the stoker, who works to provide mobility to a ship, although he himself never achieves the social mobility that the moving ship image might connote. Kafka's bitter irony contains an argument against the typical American attitude of hard work leading to monetary success.
The irony of goodwill
Goodwill is heralded in the book through Karl's persistent decisions to help those who need him, regardless of how that impedes him. This is an irony in that it involves his own needing help. He is often placed in the position of need because he gave something to someone who needed it. This points to another ironic undertone in the work--that the poor help the poor, which is morally good but nearly inconsequential. The people who are willing to bear the burden of generosity are often incapable to make a difference. Indeed, it's not clear in the narrative whether anyone could really have offered help that led anyone out of poverty.
The viability of the American Dream
The entire narrative can be understood as an ironic criticism of "American Dream" mentality. Whereas most people escape something by travelling to America, Brußmann escapes Germany by way of New York. The unfortunate reality he encounters upon his arrival are contrary to the American ideal. For instance, he can't find meaningful, viable work. When he does, he is immediately pressured to choose between his own well-being and the well-being of the few friends he has acquired. The picture of immigrants working hard to contribute to society and climb the social ladder is shown in the book to be nothing but a bitter myth.
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Amerika is the story of Karl Rossman who at 16, thoughtlessly indulges an embarrassing sexual misadventure with a servant girl. He is banished to America by his parents, and then expected to redeem himself in the magical land of opportunity....