Karel Čapek

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Karel Čapek
Born (1890-01-09)9 January 1890
Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austrian-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic)
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Prague, Czechoslovak Republic (now the Czech Republic)
Occupation writer
Spouse(s) Olga Scheinpflugová

Karel Čapek (Czech: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk]; 9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a Czech writer of the early 20th century. He had multiple roles throughout his career such as playwright, dramatist, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer, and art critic. Nonetheless, he is best known for his science fiction, including his novel War with the Newts and the play R.U.R., (Rossum's Universal Robots) which introduced the word robot.[1]

Arthur Miller wrote in 1990:

"I read Karel Čapek for the first time when I was a college student long ago in the Thirties. There was no writer like him...prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination...he is a joy to read."[2]

Although primarily known for his work in science fiction, Čapek also wrote several politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Having helped create the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a key part of the International PEN Club, he campaigned in favor of free expression and utterly despised the rise of fascism in Europe. Were it not for his untimely death (of natural causes) taking place as Nazi Germany began its takeover of Czechoslovakia, he would likely have been found and executed by the Gestapo.[3] In the aftermath of World War II, his legacy as a literary figure has been well established.[4]

Life and career

Čapek was born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice, to an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father. He was the youngest of three siblings. Čapek would maintain a close relationship with his brother Josef, living and writing with him throughout his adult life.[5]

Čapek became enamored with the visual arts in his teenage years, especially Cubism. He studied in Prague at Charles University and at the Sorbonne in Paris.[6] Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism, totalitarianism[7] and consumerism. Through social circles, the young writer developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovak state. This included Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his son Jan, who would later become foreign secretary.

His early attempts at fiction were mostly plays written with brother Josef.[citation needed] Čapek's first international success was Rossum's Universal Robots, a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist.[7] In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships; by the mid-1930s, Čapek had become "an outspoken anti-fascist".[7] His most productive years were during the The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). He wrote Talks with T. G. Masaryk[8] – Masaryk was a Czechoslovak patriot, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and a regular guest at Čapek's "Friday Men" garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. This extraordinary relationship between the writer and the political leader may be unique. He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was first president of, the Czechoslovak Pen Club.[9]

Soon after 1938 it became clear that the Western allies (France, Great Britain) had failed to fulfill the agreements (see Western betrayal), and failed to defend Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler. Karel Čapek refused to leave his country – despite the fact that the Nazi Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number two".[citation needed] Although he suffered all his life from the condition spondyloarthritis, Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia, on 25 December 1938, shortly after part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the Munich Agreement. Čapek is buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and writer, died in the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.[10]


Karel Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise description of reality.[citation needed] Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language.[citation needed] He is known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre.

House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady

Čapek began his writing career as a journalist. With his brother Josef, he worked as an editor for the Czech paper Národní listy (The National Newspaper) from October 1917 to April 1921. Upon leaving, he and Josef joined the staff of Lidové noviny (The People's Paper) in April 1921.[11] Many of his works discuss ethical aspects of industrial inventions and processes already anticipated in the first half of the 20th century. These include mass production, nuclear weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders.

Čapek also expressed fear of social disasters, dictatorship, violence, human stupidity, the unlimited power of corporations, and greed. Čapek tried to find hope, and the way out.

From the 1930s onward, Čapek's work became increasingly anti-fascist, anti-militarist, and critical of what he saw as "irrationalism".[12]

Ivan Klíma, in his biography of Čapek, notes his influence on modern Czech literature, as well as on the development of Czech as a written language. Čapek, along with contemporaries like Jaroslav Hašek, spawned part of the early 20th century revival in written Czech thanks to their decision to use the vernacular. Klíma writes, "It is thanks to Čapek that the written Czech language grew closer to the language people actually spoke".[5] Čapek was also a translator, and his translations of French poetry into the language inspired a new generation of Czech poets.[5]

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening.[13] His most important works attempt to resolve problems of epistemology, to answer the question: "What is knowledge?" Examples include Tales from Two Pockets, and the first book of the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.

The grave of Karel Čapek and his spouse Olga Scheinpflugová in Vyšehrad cemetery

After World War II, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the communist government of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept communism as a viable alternative. He was the first in a series of influential non-Marxist intellectuals who wrote a newspaper essay in a series called "Why I am not a Communist".[14]

In 2009 (70 years after his death), a book was published containing extensive correspondence by Karel Čapek, in which the writer discusses the subjects of pacifism and his conscientious objection to military service with lawyer Jindřich Groag from Brno. Until then, only a portion of these letters were known.[15]

Etymology of robot

Karel Čapek introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. in 1920. While it is frequently thought that he was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor.[16] In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested roboti (robots in English).

The word robot comes from the word robota. The word robota means literally "corvée", "serf labor", and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work" in Czech and also (more general) "work", "labor" in Slovak, archaic Czech, and many other Slavic languages (e.g.: Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Macedonian, Ukrainian, etc.), from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic word *orbota, meaning "(slave) work". This is cognate with the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *arbaidiz for "(slave) work", compare its descendant in German, Arbeit.

An outline of Čapek's works


  • 1920 – R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti) – play with one of the first examples of artificial human-like beings in art and literature.
  • 1921 – Pictures from the Insects' Life (Ze života hmyzu), also known as The Insect Play or The Life of the Insects, with Josef Čapek, a satire in which insects stand in for various human characteristics: the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self-serving dung beetle.
  • 1922 – The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos) – play about human immortality, not really from a science-fiction point of view. The celebrated opera by Leoš Janáček is based on it.
  • 1927 – Adam the Creator (Adam stvořitel) (1927) – The titular hero tries to destroy the world and replace it with a better one.[12]
  • 1937 – The White Disease (Bílá nemoc) – earlier translated as Power and Glory. About the conflict between a pacifist doctor and the fascistic Marshal.[12]
  • 1938 – The Mother (Matka)


  • 1922 – The Absolute at Large (Továrna na absolutno) – novel which can be interpreted as a vision of consumer society.
  • 1922 – Krakatit – novel, the plot of which includes a prediction of a nuclear-weapon-like explosive.
  • 1933 – Hordubal – First part of the "Noetic Trilogy".
  • 1934 – Meteor (Povětroň) – Second part of the "Noetic Trilogy".
  • 1934 – An Ordinary Life (Obyčejný život) – Third part of the "Noetic Trilogy".
  • 1936 – War with the Newts (Válka s mloky) – satirical dystopian novel.
  • 1939 – Life and Work of the Composer Foltýn (Život a dílo skladatele Foltýna) – unfinished, published posthumously

Other works

  • Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket (Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy) – a common name for a cycle of short detective stories (5–10 pages long) that shared common attitude and characters, including The Last Judgement.
  • How it is Made (Jak se co dělá) – satiric novels on the life of theatre, newspaper and film studio.
  • The Gardener's Year (Zahradníkův rok, 1929) is exactly what it says it is: a year-round guide to gardening, charmingly written, with illustrations by his brother Josef Čapek.[17]
  • Apocryphal Tales (Kniha apokryfů, 1932, 2nd edition 1945)[18] – short stories about literary and historical characters, such as Hamlet, a struggling playwright, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan, Alexander arguing with his teacher Aristotle, and Sarah and Abraham attempting to name ten good people so Sodom can be saved: "What do you have against Namuel? He's stupid but he's pious."
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure (Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek, 1932) – a collection of fairy tales, aimed at children.
  • Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy (Dášeňka čili Život štěněte, 1933)[19]
  • The Shirts (short story)

Travel books

  • Letters from Italy (Italské listy, 1923)[20]
  • Letters from England (Anglické listy, 1924)[21]
  • Letters from Spain (Výlet do Španěl, 1930)[22]
  • Letters from Holland (Obrázky z Holandska, 1932)[23]
  • Travels in the North (Cesta na Sever, 1936)[24]

Selected bibliography

  • The Absolute at Large, 1922 (in Czech), 1927, The Macmillan Company, New York, translator uncredited. Also published June 1975, Garland Publishing ISBN 0-8240-1403-0,
  • Apocryphal Tales, 1945 (in Czech), May 1997, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-34-6, Translated by Norma Comrada
  • An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit or simply Krakatit, 1924 (in Czech)
  • Believe in People : the essential Karel Čapek : previously untranslated journalism and letters 2010. Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571231621. Selected and translated with an introduction by Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová ; preface by John Carey.
  • The Cheat. Allen and Unwin, 1941.
  • Cross Roads, 2002, Catbird Press, ISBN 0-945774-55-9 cloth; 0-945774-54-0 trade paperback. Translation by Norma Comrada of "Boží muka" (1917) and "Trapné povídky" (1921).
  • I Had a Dog and a Cat. Allen & Unwin, 1940.
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure, October 1996, Northwestern Univ Press Paperback Reissue Edition, ISBN 0-8101-1464-X. Illustrated by Josef Capek, Translated by Dagmar Herrmann
  • R.U.R, March 1970, Pocket Books ISBN 0-671-46605-4
  • Tales from Two Pockets 1928-9 (in Czech), 1994, Catbird Press Paperback, ISBN 0-945774-25-7. Translation by Norma Comrada.
  • Talks With T. G. Masaryk Non-fiction. Biography of T. G. Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia.
  • Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life, 1933–34, Translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1990, Catbird Press
  • Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Collection of stories, plays and columns. Edited by Peter Kussi, Catbird Press ISBN 0-945774-07-9
  • War with the Newts 1936 (in Czech), May 1967, Berkley Medallion Edition Paperback. Translated by M. & R. Weatherall, March 1990, Catbird Press paperback, ISBN 0-945774-10-9, October 1996, Northwestern University Press paperback ISBN 0-8101-1468-2. Another English translation by Ewald Osers ISBN 978-0-945774-10-5

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary: robot n2
  2. Miller, Arthur. "Foreword" to Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader, edited by Peter Kussi.Catbird Press, 1990, ISBN 0945774079 .
  3. Strašíková, Lucie. "Čapek stihl zemřít dřív, než si pro něj přišlo gestapo". Česká televize. Retrieved June 4, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2010/misterova.html
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Klima, Ivan (2001). Karel Čapek: Life and Work. New Haven, CT: Catbird Press. pp. 191–200. ISBN 0-945774-53-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Tobranova-Kuhnnova, Sarka (1988). Believe in People: The essential Karel Capek. London: Faber and Faber. pp. xvii–xxxvi. ISBN 978-0-571-23162-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 James Sallis, Review of Karel Capek: Life and Work by Ivan Klima. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (pp. 37–40).
  8. Talks with T. G. Masaryk at Google Books
  9. Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton University Press, 2000 ISBN 069105052X, (p.22-3).
  10. "...his brother and artistic collaborator Josef met his death in Bergen-Belsen." Adam Roberts, "Introduction", to RUR & War with the Newts. London, Gollancz, 2011, ISBN 0575099453 (p.vi).
  11. Sarka Tobrmanova-Kuhnova, "Introduction," to Karel Čapek, "Believe in People: the essential Karel Čapek."London, Faber and Faber 2010, 2010, ISBN 9780571231621 (p.xxiv-xxv).
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Darko Suvin, "Capek, Karel" in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers by Curtis C. Smith. St. James Press, 1986, ISBN 0-912289-27-9 (p.842-4).
  13. The Gardener's Year, illustrated by Josef Čapek. First published in Prague, 1929. English edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931
  14. K. Čapek, Why I am not a Communist? Přítomnost December 4, 1924.
  15. „Vojáku Vladimíre...“: Karel Čapek, Jindřich Groag a odpírači vojenské služby, Nakladatelství Zdeněk Bauer, Prague 2009.
  16. Karel Capek – Who did actually invent the word "robot" and what does it mean? at capek.misto.cz
  17. The Gardener's Year at Google Books
  18. Apocryphal Tales at Google Books
  19. Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy at Google Books
  20. Letters from Italy at Google Books
  21. Letters from England at Google Books
  22. Letters from Spain at Google Books
  23. Letters from Holland at Google Books
  24. Travels in the North at Google Books


  • Harkins, William Edward. Karel Čapek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.
  • Gabriel, Jiří, ed. Slovník Českých Filozofů. V Brne: Masarykova univerzita, 1998, 79–82 (in Czech).
  • Swirski, Peter. "Chapter 4 Karel Čapek and the Politics of Memory" From LowBrow to Nobrow. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
  • Milner, Andrew. "Chapter 6 From Rossums Universal Robots to Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Literature, Culture and Society. London, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Further reading

Čapek biographies in English
  • Karel Čapek: An Essay by Alexander Matuška, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964. Translation from the Slovak by Cathryn Alan of Člověk proti zkáze: Pokus o Karla Čapka.
  • Karel Čapek by William E. Harkins, Columbia University Press, 1962.
  • Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance and Trust by Bohuslava R. Bradbrook, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, ISBN 1-898723-85-0.
  • Karel Čapek: Life and Work by Ivan Klíma, Catbird Press, 2002, ISBN 0-945774-53-2. Translation from the Czech by Norma Comrada of Velký věk chce mít též velké mordy: Život a dílo Karla Čapka.

External links