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Emerging From Claustrophobia Essay

3098 words - 12 pages

Emerging From Claustrophobia

The Bible's notion of the "promised land" has had a profound influence on secular literature. Modern authors have reinterpreted this biblical ideal to include any land of redemption or salvation. This is an important concept in both Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Kafka's Amerika. While these novels present very different images of the Promised Land, both focus on the protagonist's sense of claustrophobia until the moment of deliverance. Thus, whether their deliverance is mental or physical, both protagonists' salvations lay ultimately in a sense of spatial freedom.

Amerika begins with a corrupted ideal of America as the land of redemption. Karl goes abroad because he has inadvertently impregnated a servant; he is sent away to escape from paternity charges and his societal sin. Parallels can be drawn between Karl and the biblical Joseph, who also must leave his home because he is similarly blamed for an older woman's sexual advances. When Karl arrives in America, he is greeted by a bright light: "a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light. (3)" This can be likened to the Israelites' exodus, which is guided by a pillar of fire: "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light. (Exodus 13:21)" However, a crucial difference between the biblical guiding light and Kafka's is that, despite its brilliance, the latter illuminates a foreboding entrance---the Statue of Liberty holds a sword instead of a torch. Despite this detail, America, for the moment, remains a landscape of freedom: "The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven." This image suggests that America, the Land of Freedom, may also be Karl's House of Bondage. Joseph has a similar experience---he escapes Potiphar's wife's advances only to be thrown in prison. When he manages to get out of prison, he becomes an important figure in Egypt, the land where his people will eventually become slaves. Thus, Karl too goes unknowingly into a new land which may prove the antithesis of the Promised Land he thought it to be. His alienation is underscored in biblical terminology. He describes himself as "fighting for justice in a strange land (22)" as Moses refers to himself as "a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:22)"

Despite his idealized image of America, no doubt stemming from the European conception of America at the time as the land of opportunity, Karl discovers a country of oppression. At first, under his uncle's tutelage, he feels well received and safe. But even then, he begins to be claustrophobic. In fact, before disembarking from the ship, he finds himself "squeezed uncomfortably (5)" in the stoker's bunk. It is under this physical oppressiveness that Karl makes his first personal connection, with the ship's stoker. This friendship soon...

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