No Spoons Allowed: Kafka's 'The Trial', Lynch's 'Eraserhead' & Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore'

An unlikely everyday man becomes a superhero. A workaholic decides to travel the world. Two very different teenagers become prom dates. In today’s media, it is very frequent to see one-dimensional characters with simple motives. Despite their popularity, these characters are far cries from reality. In one of his interviews, David Lynch has said that “life is absurd, so movies should be too”; his views touch on what all surrealists fundamentally believe in. Surrealism is an 18th century artistic movement that opposes the narrow boundaries of logic and rationalism in order to dive deeper into the human consciousness. David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Franz Kafka’s The Trial all use surrealistic narrative devices such as dreams, extraordinary locations, paradoxes and absurd secondary characters to convey deeper messages about their stories and characters. This can go as deep as a dark side that a character possesses, or an informative note on a character’s view on technology. 

Dreams are perhaps the most common devices in the Surrealist art form. They can reveal deep thoughts about a character’s view, show an uncensored never before seen version of a character, or present the metamorphosis of an everyday person in a large town. In Lynch’s Eraserhead, Henry is haunted in his dreams ad nauseaum by a girl with bulk cheeks in a radiator who dances and repeatedly sings “In heaven, everything is fine.” Despite the cold weather, Henry never turns on his radiator; he is an old fashioned screenwriter and he does not intend on allowing new technology into his life. The dance and the song represent Henry’s temptation to sell out and accept new technology. Lynch’s addition of the girl in the radiator with fake cheeks is an exaggerated way of representing plastic surgery and how Henry finds new technology to be repulsive and fake. This analogy thereby exposes a new side to Henry, the screenwriter with an unwanted baby.

In Kafka on the Shore, Kafka is constantly fighting a bad side within him that tests him, similar to Henry in Eraserhead. On page 368, Kafka dreams of raping a friend whom he suspects might be his sister. His dreams reveal the mirrored side of him that he does not let out. During the rape, his imaginary guide called Crow “cries out” (Murakami 369) to try and stop him. Kafka describes his feelings as if “in a hollow inside,  something struggles to break out of its shell” (Murakami 369). After the dream, Crow tells Kafka: “The thing inside you has revealed itself. A dark shadow is resting” (Murakami 371). In his dreams, Kafka faces the uncivilized darkness that he keeps closed. This dream lets the reader dive deeper into the core of Kafka that is struggling to get free. Previously, Kafka has told his friend Oshima that he has a dark side, but showing this dream to the reader is a much more effective way of revealing his personality. Most surrealist dreams are a lot more absurd than the one Kafka experienced.

In The Trial, K.’s close friend, Samsa who is very much alike K., has a dream in which he becomes a bug. “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him wave helplessly” (Kafka 247). In Kafkian humour, the first thought that comes to Samsa’s head is how “he could go to work on spindly legs” (Kafka 248). This dream shows the mindset of the working class in the story and how they purely focus on their jobs, even in absurd situations. This resembles the lawyers later on in the story, who sleep in their offices and never see the outside. Samsa had no control over turning into a bug similar to how K. had no control over being accused of a crime but they both chose to work. Surrealists deny accepting that a person is just a screenwriter,  just a troubled teenager or just a banker; they believe that in order to fully immerse in the experience, the viewer must enter the contradictory and irrational brain of their characters. This method may not progress the story forward, but it makes it in a strange way, more realistic.

What good is a surrealist piece without a location removed from reality? The details that are packed into a special setting can uncover such things as a resurgence of a character. When authorities suspect the character Kafka for killing his father, Oshima takes him to a cabin far away. Oshima tells Kafka not to go inside the forest that is near the cabin. Kafka dismisses Oshima’s warning and enters the forest with a backpack of equipment. In the forest, Kafka meets his inner dark self that has been mentioned before in the essay, to which he refers to as an “optical illusion picture” (Murakami 434). As he goes deeper into the forest, Kafka throws away his survival gear. He is essentially leaving all things that make up who he is; up to this point, Kafka’s been working towards surviving and him throwing away his survival gear is in effect committing suicide. The forest serves as a conduit between dimensions and as a sort of ‘changing room’ where the inner self may leap from one physical vessel to another. Therefore the importance of including the forest serve as a change in personality creates for a much more profound and dramatic way of showing the change. The reader, although it’s ambiguous what sort of change Kafka is experiencing, feels the same power of faith that Kafka feels. The story would have been a lot more bland if he simply talked to someone about how he changed.

Paradoxes are events that contradict each other. A paradox in Eraserhead represents the death of the humanity of a character, whilst two paradoxes in The Trial represent the futility of K.’s trial and how it haunts him in his everyday life. At the end of the movie, Henry kills his alien baby and liberates himself from the responsibilities. Before he does this, he is shown lying dead, but he continues to be alive in the next scene. Lynch exhibits that a person who kills becomes a different person. Henry’s last bits of humanity fade away with his metaphorical death. This interesting metaphor also applies to Kafka in Kafka on the Shore as well. After Kafka rapes his friend in a dream, he hears a voice that says “The thing inside you has revealed itself” (Murakami 371).

Air is one of the necessities of life, but it is also one of the things that torture K. throughout The Trial. The air around the court is described as a “muggy atmosphere” (Kafka 148). The most intelligent part about this addition to the already absurd city is that the lawyers and court officials are not disturbed by this; only the defendants suffocate. Because the stress of the trial is intangible to K., the ghastly air follows him. The muggy air is very evocative to the dark, gloomy rooms that are frequent settings for many scenes in The Trial. Also, when K. enters a church at night to have a meeting with an Italian banker, all the lights are turned off and K. can barely see what is around him. Whilst he is waiting, he approaches one of the paintings on the walls to analyze it. He turns on a flashlight and when he does so, he can only see what the flashlight projects at; he can’t see his surroundings or anything else. Paradoxically, turning on his light is what blinds him in the first place. Both the light and the air symbolize K.’s futile attempts at finding a solution to his trial. Paradoxes are almost always obvious to the reader, therefore surrealist artists use them to show symbolism and make the viewer think deeper into the characters of the story.

Every Surrealist piece contains absurd secondary characters whose purposes are to show different sides of the main characters, such as their thoughts about parenthood, inner potentials or religious beliefs. The child of Henry is represented in the form of an alien. The reason for this absurd representation of a baby is to show what taking care of a baby is like without the cuteness, warmth and love. To Henry, the baby is a burden; he has to take care of it and he wants to, but it’s a burden more than anything else. The baby screeches numerous times in the night and does not display any gratitude for Henry’s sacrifices. The hideous alien baby is how Henry truly sees the baby.

In Kafka on the Shore, there are characters that are in physical form, but are not a part of reality. A very good example is Colonel Sanders; he describes himself, by saying: “I don’t have a character. Or any feelings. Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither God nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man” (Murakami 284). Colonel Sanders helps another main character by the name of Hoshino, who is on a spiritual journey to find a magical stone. Colonel Sanders gives Hoshino advice on where to go and what to in order to achieve his goal. The abstract being represents Hoshino’s inner gut feelings and the inner wisdom that he is able to tap into. Once Hoshino figures out what to do, the abstract being disappears. Hence, Colonel Sanders is a representation of the true potential of Hoshino that is locked within him.

One of the most frequent setting in The Trial is the court, which K. visits expectantly. In every scene, he is almost always encompassed by ignored street children. These children’s purpose is to set the mood for the scene. In one instance, when K. is discussing his trial with a painter by the name of Toterelli, there are children peeking through the keyhole and talking amongst themselves. Toterelli yells “Quiet!” (Kafka 149) whenever the children make too much noise. Toterelli has a very long monologue about the judicial system in place and the choices that K. has. His explanation of the system is so irrational and absolutely absurd that the reader is unsure whether to find the situation humorous or feel sad for K. The children’s exclamations throughout this long-stretching scene such as “Please don’t paint him; he’s so ugly” (Kafka 149) give a lighter tone and presence. On the contrary, the children do the exact opposite in another scene. One of the most powerful images that stays with the reader after reading this novel is the group of children crying face down on the pavement outside of a courthouse; these children are ignored by the pedestrians. These assumingly orphaned and abandoned children highlight K.’s personal isolation and seclusiveness in his situation. K. does not have anything or anyone to depend on; his routine of going to the bank during the day and then working on his case after work is what gets him through his day. Much like the children, K. does not know whether to feel humorous about the situation he has been delivered to or break down and crash on the pavement. The addition of the children may seem pointless and purely there for humour, however, Franz Kafka exhibits that in such situations of uncertainty, the border between mocking and mourning is often so close that you can’t tell them apart.

Eraserhead, Kafka on the Shore and The Trial all use surrealistic narrative devices such as dreams, extraordinary locations, paradoxes and absurd characters to convey deeper messages about their stories’ characters. We live in a world where we are bombarded by serious issues on the news and exposed to culturally genocidal superhero films in the cinema that have characters with very little depth. With the uptake of one-dimensional characters in books and cinema, people are being spoon-fed everything. Surrealist artworks are the opposite; they are ambiguous, and consequently, they may not spark a meaning right away, but they never fail to ignite feelings that stay with the viewer.  Through these feelings, the viewer enters the consciousness and analyzes the complexity of different identities. Why does this screenwriter see his baby as an alien? How could a kind teenager have dreams of rape? Why is this man being convicted of a crime? Surrealism is criticized heavily for being pretentious and weird. However, people fail to realise that surrealism actually shows people the true reality through absurd and irrational elements.