Kafka’s Letters to Milena and the Question of the Body

Shadi Neimneh


This article describes how Franz Kafka's correspondence with the Czech journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, from 1920 to 1923, documents the development of his illness, his  fear of physical intercourse, and his consequent reliance on writing. Writing is exploited in this epistolary affair to replace both physical presence and physical love. Simply stated, writing negates the body in this correspondence. The ensuing erasure of the body leads to a dim mode of bodily presence, a ghostly one. Kafka’s Letters to Milena are read as a rich hunting ground for psychoanalytical and feminist interpretations of the (female) body and female sexuality. It is the mystery of femininity that Kafka tries to solve in the course of this correspondence. Sexuality and the female body are rendered in this epistolary love as a reviled “dark continent” that should be sublimated in favor of the symbolic realm of writing. Of special importance at this stage of Kafka’s life as a tubercular is his conception of the diabolical nature of his writing, an issue that has received very little critical attention. A man living close to death chooses for himself a life of seclusion and introversion from human relations and withdraws into a ghostly existence. The body that deteriorates into a ghostly presence finds its counterpart in "demonic" letter writing that conjures up physical presence in Kafka's relationship with Milena. The first section of this article introduces Letters to Milena in context. Section two presents a reading of the letters informed by psychoanalysis and feminism, and section three focuses on the final letters and presents Kafka as a “ghostly lover.

Keywords: Franz Kafka; Letters to Milena; the Body; Psychoanalysis; Feminism; the Ghostly Lover

Full Text:



Anderson, Mark. “Unsigned Letters to Milena Jesenska.” Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics, and the Fin de Siècle. Ed. Mark Anderson. New York: Schocken Books, 1989. 241-256.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, 1975.

Boa, Elizabeth. Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Milena. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Seaver Books, 1988.

Chodorow, Nancy. Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 1978.

Downing, Christine. Women’s Mysteries: Toward a Poetics of Gender. New York: Crossroads, 1992.

Ellmann, Maud. "Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis." Deconstruction: A User's Guide. Ed. Nicholas Royle. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000. 211-237.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton & Company, 1961.

---. “Female Sexuality.” Freud on Women: A Reader. Ed. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. New York: Norton & Company, 1990. 321-341.

---. “Femininity.” Psychology of Women: Selected Readings. Ed. Juanita Williams. New York: Norton & Company, 1979. 40-52.

---. “Medusa’s Head.” Freud on Women: A Reader. Ed. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. New York: Norton & Company, 1990. 272-273.

---. On Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton & Company, 1952.

---."On Narcissism: An Introduction." General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 56-82.

---. "The Sexual Life of Human Beings." The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton & Company, 1966. 303-319.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Harding, Esther. "The Ghostly Lover." Psychoanalysis and Woman: A Reader. Ed. Shelley Saguaro. Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000. 176-186.

Heller, Erich. Kafka. London: Fontana, 1974.

Horney, Karen. Feminine Psychology. New York: Norton & Company, 1967.

Jung, Carl. The Basic Writings of C. G. Jung. Ed. Violet de Laszlo. New York: The Modern Library, 1959.

---. Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. Trans. R. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1910-1924. Ed. Max Brod. Trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg. London: Vintage, 1999.

---. Letters to Felice. Ed. Erich Heller and Jurgen Born. Trans. James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth. London: Vintage, 1999.

---. Letters to Milena. Trans. Philip Boehm. New York: Schocken Books,1990.

---. Parables and Paradoxes. Bilingual ed. New York: Schocken, 1961.

Karl, Frederick. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

---. “Feud and Love: Treatment and Its Discontents.” Trans. L. S. Roudiez. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia U P, 1986. 240-271.

---. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

---. “The Semiotic and the Symbolic.” The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 32-70.

Lacan, Jacques. Ẻcrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton & Company, 1977.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, 1988.

Suleiman, Susan R. Introduction. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1986. 1-4.

Wehr, Demaris. “Religious and Social Dimensions of Jung’s Concept of the Archetype: A Feminist Perspective.” Feminist Archetypal Theory: Interdisciplinary Re-Visions of Jungian Thought. Ed. E. Lauter and C. Rupprecht. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985. 23-45.

Zilcosky, John. Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing. New York: Palgrave, 2003.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2010-2020 (CC-BY) Australian International Academic Centre PTY.LTD.

Advances in Language and Literary Studies

You may require to add the 'aiac.org.au' domain to your e-mail 'safe list’ If you do not receive e-mail in your 'inbox'. Otherwise, you may check your 'Spam mail' or 'junk mail' folders.