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Written by Mason Tabor, Nikita Khellat
Meaning and vocation
Kafka's Amerika deals not only with the existential question whether or not life is meaningful, but he also studies man's professional life and how that interacts with his search for meaning. The study of an immigrant finding work is a poignant metaphor for someone walking in absurd lands that are difficult to navigate.
But it isn't enough to find meaning in life; one also has to earn a living, usually in ways that don't help provide much meaning to life. Consider for example Brußmann's job at the Hotel Occidental operating the lift. This is not a job that adds value to his life. Another example is the stoker, who is employed in a way that provides mobility to others, but the job of a stoker is done in alone in a room that never changes. Both Brußmann and the stoker earn money giving mobility to others while they themselves struggle along the underbelly of society.
There might be hope though, as Brußmann escapes the literal traps of his employment for Brunelda and pursues a job in the performing arts. Kafka, an artist, portraying his main character as being redeemed by art is meaningful, even though Brußmann is not actually employed as a performer. Perhaps the arts provide some solace for the disenfranchised.
One would be remiss not to follow a thematic discussion about meaning with one about absurdity. The subtle undertone of Kafka's literature is one of frustration. That frustration stems from a lack of meaning in liife. This theme is emphasized by the frustrating, repetitious work that the characters in the novel find in the city.
The great irony of the piece is that the teen does not use his relationship with his wealthy uncle or with the wealthy Brunelda to his advantage. This could be viewed as a type of humility, but it seems more like Brußmann does not even consider the options as viable in his pursuit.
Another interesting irony is that the wayward teen not only eschews good company--he welcomes bad company with an absurd sense of forgiveness and selflessness. These frustrating ironies are employed to highlight the central argument of the book: that meaning is not found in advantage and wealth, and it might not even be found in good company or in family settings. Meaning might be elusive--or else it might not exist.
The American Dream
The American dream is not heralded in Amerika. It's not even really attempted in any serious way. The American Dream is reduced to survival and a search for meaning. When Brußmann accidentally meets a successful man who is a relative of his, neither the relative nor he attempt to make much of this family connection. This does not show the higher man lifting up the youthful wayward teen, as would be classically expected in the story.
Additionally, the teen consistently chooses to vouch for the underdog instead of maintaining his job-security. He chooses to help Robinson although it costs him his job, and even in the beginning of the plot, he seeks to help the stoker who has fallen on bad times. But that doesn't equate to the American Dream. In fact it seems to imply that doing the right thing, being a humble person is exclusive to one's own success.
The plight of the underdog
The poor and needy are often heeded as Brußmann as being especially worthy of help, even though the two main representatives of the class, the wanderers, eat his food in front of him and steal from his belongings. Nevertheless he finds himself in their company, not in the company of his politician uncle, and not hired at a steady job. He picks servitude to the lowly instead of servitude to the lofty.
American Cultural Values
Living for years in America, Delamarche and Robinson have been blended in and assimilated with the customs of the new country, while Karl is still the carrier of his own cultural background that clash with the American ones throughout the novel.
Before going to Batterford to get the job, Karl's companions decided to get rid of his German costume, to his utmost confusion. To get the job at Batterford, they had to look appropriately and up to the level of their social status - so they removed the Karl’s foppish aristocratic clothes to facilitate job searching in the American culture of meritocracy.
Some other scenes point out to another feature pervasive to the meritocracy of American's culture - the "hard work". While working at the hotel, Carl experienced that at it's best - hotel stuff, regardless of their "status" or significance of their service, were working selflessly and tirelessly from the early morning till the late evening, and being punished for loitering in any ways. Also, before ending up in the hotel, after his companions' suggestion to go to the Californian golden mines for work - Karl was overwhelmed with the question "Why did you become locksmiths, if now you want to go to the golden mines?", that exemplifies the cultural value.
The differences between money culture are shown as well. During the lunch with Delamarch and Robinson, Karl was confused how to pay for the meal. In his view, everyone should be paying for their own part, but the guys realized they spent the last money for the previous night lodging. Carl couldn't blame them for profiting from the selling of his costume, but still amazingly for him - no-one cared who pays for the lunch. In German money culture the bill for the group-meal is usually split so that no-one us indebted, whereas in America - those who pay just alternate each time the group of people go for the meal.
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I forgot to say that I have one piece of evidence that chimney sweepers in the 19th century also did window cleaning for an extra small fee or to get a tip. This was in London but I'm looking for medieval or ancient sources. Thank you.