In this article:
- Many people use famous authors’ names, like Shakespeare or Orwell, as adjectives to describe events, experiences, or even other authors’ work.
- Whether or not you’ve read anything from those authors, it’s not always clear exactly when and how to use the adjective version of their names.
- Take your sophisticated musings to the next level by learning when to use terms like Shakespearean, Proustian, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian.
On January 9, 2021, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.” He added, “This is absolute insanity!” What triggered the impassioned rant was Twitter’s decision to suspend former president Donald Trump’s account on the platform.
That same week, Senator Josh Hawley’s book deal with Simon & Schuster fell through. The publisher cited Hawley’s role in the U.S. Capitol insurrection as the reason behind the decision — he was seen welcoming the rioters with a fist pump. The Republican senator described the canceled book deal as “Orwellian,” condemning the left for cancel culture and suppressing free speech.
Shortly after the tweets were made, sales of George Orwell’s seminal novel 1984 topped Amazon’s bestselling books. Perhaps this is a good sign, as it means people are making an effort to learn what influential figures like Senator Hawley mean when they describe something as Orwellian.
Chances are, you’ve also come across this term and others based on authors, but you’re not exactly sure how to use them and in what context. If you have no plans of close reading the works of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, or other writers, fret not — here’s a quick guide to help you understand adjectives based on these famous authors.
William Shakespeare: Shakespearean
A compelling storyteller, William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. He is most known for his romantic poems, which earned him the title of England’s national poet, and dramatic plays like Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.
To say that something is Shakespearean can simply mean that it is a work of the celebrated Elizabethan writer. His literary and theatrical works span nearly three decades, and there are many titles that are literally of Shakespeare, or Shakespearean.
However, another common usage of the word is to describe something that has elements of Shakespeare’s body of work. Many of his plays depict tragedies on a grand scale (think: kingdoms and noblemen), and heroes or anti-heroes with flaws that lead to their major, often fatal, downfalls.
For instance, the titular character in Macbeth hears a prophecy that he is Scotland’s future king. Ambition soon blinds him and he fast-tracks the rise to power by murdering the current king. The once honorable and valiant Macbeth devolves into a power-hungry tyrant, a character arc that eventually gets him killed.
Works that portray tragic events and flawed characters can be described as Shakespearean. Gizmodo likened Marvel’s Black Panther to Shakespeare’s work due, in part, to the family squabble that put an entire nation at risk. Loki has also been described as Shakespearean because of the character’s ongoing struggle to do the right thing when he is literally the God of Mischief.
Of course, not everything that ends in death — or not every story or character that Marvel gives birth to — is necessarily Shakespearean. A few elements that might give you a clue are the conflict between good and evil, a fatal character flaw, tales of epic proportions, supernatural elements, and some comic relief.
Marcel Proust: Proustian
Reading the writings of French novelist Marcel Proust is a gargantuan task. The 20th-century author’s most influential work is the seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time. All told, it’s a mountain of 4,125 pages.
Proust’s tale isn’t driven by a tight plot but by the retelling of the narrator’s life experiences. Sitting down with some madeleines, a light French sponge cake, unlocks memories of his childhood to his adulthood. As his lived experiences come flooding back, he reflects on how they have shaped his life and philosophizes on the meaning of life itself.
In Search of Lost Time explored memory so well that scientists attributed a sub-component of it to the French author. We now call an involuntary memory a Proustian memory, especially when it’s triggered by the senses.
In the novel, it was the particular fragrance and flavor of the pastry that provoked a stream of memories to resurface, but anything could be a trigger. Classic songs playing on the radio, the feel of carpet against the soles of your feet, colors reminiscent of your old bedroom — all of these can create a rush of Proustian memories.
A Proustian memory isn’t something you voluntarily retrieve from the depths of your mind. It comes unannounced and, if you’re anything like Proust, you can fill thousands of pages meditating over it.
Franz Kafka: Kafkaesque
Kafkaesque is one of the most overused of the authors-turned-adjectives. Many claim that the term has “lost all meaning,” but it might be more accurate to say that our common usage has diluted it.
The adjective comes from Czech literary figure Franz Kafka, who wrote short stories and novels such as The Metamorphosis and The Trial. His works, though rooted in realism, are interspersed with elements of the absurd and the fantastic. Often, Kafka doesn’t provide an explanation to major events that happen in his tales — the characters are merely left to navigate their effects.
For instance, The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa who inexplicably finds he has transformed into an insect overnight. This lack of explanation is also present in The Trial, whose protagonist, Joseph K., faces prosecution for a crime that is never revealed to us or to the character himself.
Even the enforcers are unaware of why he deserves arrest, only that they must bring him to justice. Joseph K. is forced to navigate the complexities of the legal system just to find out what wrongdoing he has committed.
Absurd is one way Kafkaesque is commonly used in daily language. Waking up in the body of an insect is indeed a ridiculous situation to find yourself in. Another is to refer to an inconvenience, such as, “The long lines at the bank are very Kafkaesque.” However, these usages don’t quite capture the entirety of what Kafka meant to convey in his writings.
A small inconvenience — such as a long line — is not necessarily Kafkaesque.
The bureaucratic hoops that Joseph K. had to go through were complex, arbitrary, and baffling. But because the risk is imprisonment, he had no choice but to navigate this system regardless of how nonsensical or unnecessary it was.
As Kafka feared, we have all been victims to similar convoluted administrative procedures in any system. For instance, Belgium is struggling with a Kafkaesque nightmare in vaccinating undocumented residents.
No one can seem to provide an answer as to how those without the right documents can obtain the vaccine against COVID-19.
This is one example of what Kafka wanted to say in his work: society blindly follows rules that don’t seem to make sense simply because the rules are in place. But rules and bureaucratic systems don’t appear out of thin air. We create them so why can’t we reshape them to fit our needs?
Kafka also wanted to deliver a warning against becoming entrenched in the workplace. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa is more concerned about the punishment he might face at work than the fact that he metamorphosed into an insect and how he might transform back into a human.
It’s not all bleak, however, as there are scholars who argue that what’s Kafkaesque is our ability to persevere through oppressive situations. But note that context here is important. Describing a system as Kafkaesque is completely different from describing someone as having Kafkaesque qualities.
George Orwell: Orwellian
While Kafkaesque is often used in the context of bureaucracy, we often hear Orwellian thrown around in politics. Trump Jr.’s and Senator Hawley’s rants are examples, but their usage is not entirely correct. In fact, making those statements is more Orwellian than the events either figures were referring to.
The political figures are likely relating their experiences to that of being censored by a totalitarian government, as seen in the plot of Orwell’s 1984. Mass surveillance, censorship, and tyranny are some of the central themes of the dystopian novel. The government of the fictional Oceania watches and polices everything their citizens do. Even their thoughts are controlled and subversive thinking can lead to punishment.
You don’t need to look at a totalitarian regime to declare something Orwellian, however. What the author wanted us to pay close attention to is how politicians and the media use language to shape our perception of reality and morality. At the heart of the novel, Oceania’s goal is to manipulate their citizens into submission — something you can do now with how you use language.
Here’s a relevant example: Russia has instructed the media to stop using the words “war,” “invasion,” or “attack” in their reports. Any site that uses those terms to describe the country’s “special operation” in Ukraine (their preferred term for it) will be blocked on the internet.
This deceptive use of language can influence how Russians perceive the invasion of Ukraine as something benevolent instead of violent. It can prompt their participation in the war, how they interact with their neighbors, and how they retell the story later. This manipulation of ideas by Putin is exactly what Orwell warned against in his work.
One can look at Trump Jr.’s criticism of Twitter as a similar kind of deception. Being banned from a social media platform is not the same as manipulating language to coerce obedience from the masses. What’s Orwellian is someone exaggerating and distorting views to incite a strong reaction from others that will hopefully favor his ultimate goals.
Shakespearean, Proustian, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian are words you can add to your everyday language. Shakespearean is typically used to describe literary or media content, while Proustian has become a term in psychology. Meanwhile, Kafkaesque and Orwellian are words you can sparingly use to describe your brush with bureaucratic and political systems.
To honor the authors from whom the adjectives come, try to understand the context and its magnitude first. As George Orwell believed, words are important and have the power to influence the way we think.