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Franz Kafka’s Examination Phobia and Its Influence on His Writing

Indeed, the novelist Franz Kafka served as an employee of an insurance company, with literary creation merely serving as his pastime. Despite his limited body of work during his lifetime, his impact on subsequent literature proved profoundly influential. It is this remarkable writer who endured a lifelong affliction of “examination phobia.”

Kafka regarded post-school examinations as recurrent instances of “public or clandestine interrogations,” each successful passage only heralding more rigorous inquiries to follow. Reflecting upon his experiences, he recollected, “I believed I would never pass the primary school entrance exam, yet I triumphed and received an abundant scholarship. Paradoxically, this left me discontented, for it meant I had to face the middle school entrance exam. Convinced of imminent failure, I unexpectedly succeeded once more. Not only did I advance to the first grade of middle school, but I subsequently ascended to the second grade, and then the third. It was truly an astonishing journey.”

In 1893, Kafka gained admission to an illustrious eight-year middle school in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. As a consequence, the entrance examination proved exceedingly rigorous. That year, a mere 83 students, including Kafka, were admitted to this prestigious institution. However, after several years of assessments, only 24 remained upon graduation. Kafka conveyed his sentiments on this matter, stating, “For me, nearly every examination foreshadowed doomsday. Passing an exam does not bring me solace; rather, it signifies a return to the courtroom. I have managed to navigate it thus far, but countless perils await. Contemplating these circumstances suffocates me.” In 1901, Kafka triumphed in the university entrance examination, albeit with a tarnished path: a well-connected classmate bribed the invigilator’s servant before the exam. The servant discovered the draft test paper in the invigilator’s wastebasket and handed it to Kafka’s classmate, granting Kafka prior knowledge of the test’s content. Although Kafka successfully passed the university entrance examination, it left an indelible scar on his conscience, subjecting him to a lifelong torment.

Kafka also underwent two significant tests: the State Examination in Legal History in July 1903 and the State Examination in June 1906. These two exams left a profound impression upon him, and even twenty years later, he brooded over them, remarking, “Just before my twentieth birthday, I was consumed by nerves, pacing restlessly throughout the day. For the national exam, I could only commit seemingly useless textbooks to memory, inundating my mind with trivialities. The study process was truly nerve-wracking. Taking place during the scorching summer, the weather proved unbearable. I muttered to myself about the abhorrent history of Roman law, yet I persevered.”

Kafka endured such immense suffering from examinations, both major and minor, that the word “examination” pervades much of his literary work. Even during sleep, he frequently found himself awakened by nightmares of failing exams. In the autumn of 1920, Kafka penned a short novel titled “Examination,” chronicling his personal ordeal during an examination.

Similar to the majority, Kafka encountered a range of exams throughout his journey, from elementary school to entering society, causing exam-related scenarios to frequently manifest in his dreams. Gradually, this transformed into a persisting “examination phobia.” Nevertheless, Kafka remained profoundly grateful, acknowledging that these exams propelled him forward repeatedly, ultimately establishing him as the master of Western modernist literature and a pioneer of expressionist literature.