"Conversation With the Supplicant" - A Short Story by Franz Kafka

Conversation With the Supplicant

The short story begins in a church as there's a young man there who goes to church every day in order to watch a girl pray who he has a crush on. One day she was not there, but he did happen to see another young man who spent a lot of time in obnoxious pious devotions, prostrating himself on the ground, sighing loudly, and even banging his head against the stones around him. Frustrated that his girl was not there and this obnoxious display, he decided to confront the man as he was leaving and ask him why he was doing this. As the man was walking out he began to sprint and ran out of the Church before there could be a confrontation. As the narrator goes out of the Church he losses his target in the hustle and bustle of the street. 

For several days he sees this man again doing his pious outbursts, but is distracted with the girl he likes. The man continues to evade him, moving quickly and turning his face away as he passed. One day the narrator's girl is not there but the man is there prostrated again. He decides to hide in order to catch the man on the way out. So he squeezes behind a door and sit next to a beggar for three hours waiting. Finally, the man is coming and he jumps out and grabs him. 

Outside the church they begin to converse. The pious man tries to leave but the narrator threatens to scream and draw attention to them if he doesn't answer his questions. The man agrees but asks to move to a side street. There they sit down and he agrees to answer the narrator's questions. 

"You’re an utter lunatic, that’s what you are! Look at the way you carry on in the church! How irritating it is and how unpleasant for onlookers! How can anyone compose himself to worship if he has to look at you."

The pious man admits that he does do those things to get attention. The narrator accuses the man of having a serious problem of forgetfulness or idiocy, or maybe that he is projecting his ill state of mind onto others. The pious man rejects this analysis though, and counters with this explanation: 

"There has never been a time in which I have been convinced from within myself that I am alive. You see, I have only such a fugitive awareness of things around me that I always feel they were once real and are now fleeting away. I have a constant longing, my dear sir, to catch a glimpse of things as they may have been before they show themselves to me. I feel that then they were calm and beautiful. It must be so, for I often hear people talking about them as though they were."

He then recounts a story from his childhood where he was half asleep and heard a dialogue between his mother and a woman which made him question if it was real of not, eventually concluding that he was being tricked, before falling back asleep. He then thanks the narrator for pointing out his oddness, and continues on lamenting sudden tragedies that take place every day yet no on seems to every be affected by them. He feels relieved that he's not crazy and that life is dreadful. "No is afraid but me."

“And people often fall down in the street and lie there dead. Then all the tradesmen open their doors that are hung with a litter of goods, come trotting out, carry the dead man into a house, and then appear again, with smiling eyes and lips, saying: ‘Good morning—the sky is overcast—I’m selling a lot of kerchiefs—yes, the war.’ I go slinking into the house and after timidly raising my hand several times with the fingers ready crooked knock at last on the porter’s little glass window. ‘My dear fellow,’ I say to him in a friendly way, ‘a dead man was just brought in here. Do let me see him, please.’ And when he shakes his head as if undecided, I say positively: ‘My dear chap. I’m from the secret police. Show me that dead man at once.’ ‘A dead man,’ he asks, almost in an injured voice. ‘No, there’s no dead man here. This is a respectable house.’ And I take my leave and go. “And then if I have to cross a large open space I forget everything. The difficulty of this enterprise confuses me, and I can’t help thinking: ‘If people must build such large squares out of pure wantonness why don’t they add a stone balustrade to help one across. There’s a gale from the southwest today. The air in the square is swirling about. The tip of the Town Hall is teetering in small circles. All this agitation should be controlled. Every window pane is rattling and the lamp posts are bending like bamboos. The very robe of the Virgin Mary on her column is fluttering and the stormy wind is snatching at it. Is no one aware of this? The ladies and gentlemen who should be walking on the paving stones are driven along. When the wind slackens they come to a stop, exchange a few words and bow to each other, but when the wind blows again they can’t help themselves, all their feet leave the ground at the same moment. They have to hold on to their hats, of course, but their eyes twinkle merrily as if there were only a gentle breeze."

The story concludes with the narrator saying that the incident with the garden was nothing unique and happens to other as well. The pious man is relieved and concludes the conversation, seemingly oblivious and distracted. 


I'm not fully sure I understand it, but I will say that there's an aspect to it that reminds me of Dostoyevsky's exploration of the psychological in his novels, that is those who are suffering from some kind of psychosis. Clearly this man from the story is a bit off. He senses that he is not in touch with reality, that there are bad things happening all around that people are hiding from him. He is trying to do things in order to assure himself that what is around him is real. Though, since this is a short story, we don't really get much of an explanation or resolution. I guess it is something for us all to reflect on, though. How in touch with reality are we? Are there evil things that go on all around us that get swept under the carpet of society, so to speak? My guess is that we have more in common with this pious man than we realize. 

What do you think that this story means? Comment below with your interpretation.


Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis (The Schocken Kafka Library). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.