Karel Čapek

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Karel Čapek
Born(1890-01-09)9 January 1890
Malé Svatoňovice, Austria-Hungary (today Czech Republic)
Died25 December 1938(1938-12-25) (aged 48)
Prague, Czechoslovakia (today Czech Republic)
Pen nameK. Č., B. Č.
OccupationNovelist, dramatist, journalist, theorist
Nationality Czech
Alma mater Charles University in Prague
Genre Science fiction, Political satire
Notable works R.U.R
Válka s mloky(War with the Newts)
Bílá nemoc(The White Disease)
Továrna na absolutno(The Absolute at Large)
Notable awardsTCH Rad T-G-Masaryka 1tr (1990) BAR.svg Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (in memoriam)
Spouse Olga Scheinpflugová
Relatives Josef Čapek (brother)
Helena Čapková (sister)

Signature Karel Capek signature.svg

Karel Čapek (Czech: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ); 9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a Czech writer, playwright and critic. He has become best known for his science fiction, including his novel War with the Newts (1936) and play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920), which introduced the word robot . [1] [2] He also wrote many politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Influenced by American pragmatic liberalism, [3] he campaigned in favor of free expression and strongly opposed the rise of both fascism and communism in Europe. [4] [5]

Science fiction Genre of speculative fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction that has been called the "literature of ideas". It typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, time travel, parallel universes, fictional worlds, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific innovations.

<i>War with the Newts</i> book

War with the Newts, also translated as War with the Salamanders, is a 1936 satirical science fiction novel by Czech author Karel Čapek. It concerns the discovery in the Pacific of a sea-dwelling race, an intelligent breed of newts, who are initially enslaved and exploited. They acquire human knowledge and rebel, leading to a global war for supremacy. There are obvious similarities to Čapek's earlier R.U.R., but also some original themes.

<i>R.U.R.</i> 1920s play introducing the word robot

R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. The English phrase "Rossum's Universal Robots" has been used as a subtitle. It premiered on 25 January 1921 and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole.


Though nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times, [6] Čapek never received it. However, several awards commemorate his name, [7] [8] such as the Karel Čapek Prize, awarded every other year by the Czech PEN Club for literary work that contributes to reinforcing or maintaining democratic and humanist values in society. [9] He also played a key role in establishing the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a part of International PEN. [10]

Nobel Prize in Literature One of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Literature is a Swedish literature prize that is awarded annually, since 1901, to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, the award is based on an author's body of work as a whole. The Swedish Academy decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize. The academy announces the name of the laureate in early October. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. On some occasions the award has been postponed to the following year. It was not awarded in 2018, but two names will be awarded in 2019.

Čapek died on the brink of World War II as the result of a lifelong medical condition, [11] but his legacy as a literary figure became well established after the war. [4]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.


House of Capek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady Capkuv dum.jpg
House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady

Early life and education

Karel Čapek was born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice. However, six months after his birth, the Čapek family moved to their own house in Úpice. [12] His father, Antonín Čapek, worked as a doctor at the local textile factory. [13] Antonín was a very energetic person; apart from his work as a doctor, he also co-funded the local museum and was a member of the town council. [14] Despite opposing his father's materialist and positivist views, Karel Čapek loved and admired his father, later calling him “a good example... of the generation of national awakeners.” [15] Karel's mother, Božena Čapková, was a homemaker. [13] Unlike her husband she did not like life in the country and she suffered from long-term depressions. [14] Despite that, she assiduously collected and recorded local folklore, such as legends, songs or stories. [16] Karel was the youngest of three siblings. He would maintain an especially close relationship with his brother Josef, a highly successful painter, living and working with him throughout his adult life. [17] His sister, Helena, was a talented pianist who later become a writer and published several memoirs about Karel and Josef. [18]

Bohemia Historical region in the Czech Republic

Bohemia is the westernmost and largest historical region of the Czech lands in the present-day Czech Republic. In a broader meaning, Bohemia sometimes refers to the entire Czech territory, including Moravia and Czech Silesia, especially in a historical context, such as the Lands of the Bohemian Crown ruled by Bohemian kings.

Malé Svatoňovice Village in Czech Republic

Malé Svatoňovice is a village and municipality in the Hradec Králové Region of the Czech Republic at the bottom of Jestřebí hory, near the Krkonoše mountain range.

Úpice Town in Czech Republic

Úpice is a town in the Czech Republic. It has population of around 5,600 people.

After finishing elementary school in Úpice, he moved with his grandmother to Hradec Králové, where he attended high school. Two years later, he was expelled for taking part in an illegal students' club. [13] Čapek later described the club as a “very non-murderous anarchist society.” [19] After this incident he moved to Brno with his sister and attempted to finish high school there, but two years later he moved again, to Prague, where he finished high school at the Academic Grammar School in 1909. [13] [20] During his teenage years Čapek became enamored with the visual arts, especially Cubism, which influenced his later writing. [21] After graduating from high school, he studied philosophy and aesthetics in Prague at Charles University, but he also spent some time at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris. [13] [22] While he was still a university student, he wrote some works on contemporary art and literature. [23] He graduated with a doctorate of philosophy in 1915. [24]

Hradec Králové Statutory City in Czech Republic

Hradec Králové is a city of the Czech Republic, in the Hradec Králové Region of Bohemia. The city's economy is based on food-processing technology, photochemical, EMS and IT. Traditional industries include musical instrument manufacturing – the best known being Petrof pianos. The University of Hradec Králové is located in the city, the University of Defense has its only medical faculty in Hradec Králové and Charles University in Prague also has its Faculty of Medicine in Hradec Králové and Faculty of Pharmacy there.

Brno Statutory city in Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno is a city in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic.

Prague Capital city of the Czech Republic

Prague is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, the 14th largest city in the European Union and the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the northwest of the Czech Republic on the Vltava river, Prague is home to about 1.3 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of 2.6 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters.

World War I and Interwar period

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 and consumerism. [25] Through social circles, the young author developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovak state, including Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovak patriot and the first President of Czechoslovakia, and his son Jan, [26] [27] who would later become foreign secretary. T. G. Masaryk was 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. [28] Their frequent conversations on various topics later served as the basis for Čapek's Talks with T. G. Masaryk. [29]

Nationalism is an ideology and movement characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity—based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history—and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation's traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism. Nationalism is often combined with other ideologies, such as conservatism or socialism for example.

Totalitarianism political system in which the state holds total authority

Totalitarianism is a political concept of a mode of government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. Political power in totalitarian states has often been held by rule by one leader which employ all-encompassing propaganda campaigns broadcast by state-controlled mass media. Totalitarian regimes are often marked by political repression, personality cultism, control over the economy, restriction of speech, mass surveillance and widespread use of state terrorism. Historian Robert Conquest describes a "totalitarian" state as one recognizing no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life and which extends that authority to whatever length feasible.

Consumerism social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. With the industrial revolution, but particularly in the 20th century, mass production led to overproduction—the supply of goods would grow beyond consumer demand, and so manufacturers turned to planned obsolescence and advertising to manipulate consumer spending. In 1899, a book on consumerism published by Thorstein Veblen, called The Theory of the Leisure Class, examined the widespread values and economic institutions emerging along with the widespread "leisure time" in the beginning of the 20th century. In it Veblen "views the activities and spending habits of this leisure class in terms of conspicuous and vicarious consumption and waste. Both are related to the display of status and not to functionality or usefulness."

Tomb of Karel Capek and Olga Scheinpflugova at Vysehrad cemetery Vysehrad Nahrobek Karla Capka a Olgy Scheinpflugove.jpg
Tomb of Karel Čapek and Olga Scheinpflugová at Vyšehrad cemetery

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. [30] Upon leaving, he and Josef joined the staff of Lidové noviny (The People's Paper) in April 1921. [31]

Čapek's early attempts at fiction were short stories and plays for the most part written with his brother Josef. [32] [33] Čapek's first international success was R.U.R. , 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. [25] 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". [25] He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was the first president of, the Czechoslovak PEN Club. [10]

Late life and death

In 1935 Karel Čapek married actress Olga Scheinpflugová, after a long acquaintance. [13] [34] In 1938 it became clear that the Western allies, namely France and the United Kingdom, would fail to fulfil the pre-war agreements, and they refused to defend Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, Čapek refused to leave his country – even though the Nazi Gestapo had named him "public enemy number two". [35] While repairing flood damage to his family's summer house in Stará Huť, he contracted a common cold. [30] As he had suffered all his life from spondyloarthritis and was also a heavy smoker, Karel Čapek died of pneumonia, on 25 December 1938. [33]

Surprisingly, the Gestapo was not aware of his death. Several months later, just after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Nazi agents came to the Čapek family house in Prague to arrest him. [11] Upon discovering that he had already been dead for some time, they arrested and interrogated his wife Olga. [36] His brother Josef was arrested in September and eventually died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. [37] Karel Čapek and his wife are buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. The inscription on the tombstone reads: "Here would have been buried Josef Čapek, painter and poet. Grave far away." [35]


Karel Capek's handwriting Karel Capek - rukopis.jpg
Karel Čapek's handwriting

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. [38] Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. [39] [40] He is known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. Many of his works also 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 intelligent artificial beings such as robots or androids. His most productive years were during The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938).

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". [41]

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". [17] Čapek was also a translator, and his translations of French poetry into the language inspired a new generation of Czech poets. [17]

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. [42] 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. He also co-wrote (with his brother Josef) the libretto for Zdeněk Folprecht's opera Lásky hra osudná in 1922. [43]

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". [44]

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. [45]

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. [46]

Etymology of robot

R.U.R. theatrical poster, 1939 R.U.R. by Karel Capek 1939.jpg
R.U.R. theatrical poster, 1939

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. [47] [48] 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. It also means "work", "labor" in Slovak, archaic Czech, and many other Slavic languages (e.g., Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Macedonian, Ukrainian, etc.). It derives from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic word *robota, meaning "(slave) work." (cf. the German word for work, Arbeit.)

Awards and honors

The asteroid 1931 Čapek, discovered by Luboš Kohoutek was named after him. [49]

Čapek received the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, in memoriam, in 1991.

Selected works



Travel books

Other works

Selected bibliography

[ clarification needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

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  41. 1 2 3 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).
  42. The Gardener's Year, illustrated by Josef Čapek. First published in Prague, 1929. English edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931
  43. "Karel Čapek". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . 2nd edition, Oxford, 2001.
  44. K. Čapek, Why I am not a Communist? Archived January 5, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Přítomnost December 4, 1924.
  45. „Vojáku Vladimíre...“: Karel Čapek, Jindřich Groag a odpírači vojenské služby, Nakladatelství Zdeněk Bauer, Prague 2009.
  46. Miller, Arthur. "Foreword" to Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader, edited by Peter Kussi.Catbird Press, 1990, ISBN   0945774079 .
  47. Karel Capek – Who did actually invent the word "robot" and what does it mean? Archived February 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine at capek.misto.cz
  48. Ivan Margolius,'The Robot of Prague', Newsletter, The Friends of Czech Heritage no. 17, Autumn 2017, pp. 3 - 6. https://czechfriends.net/images/RobotsMargoliusJul2017.pdf
  49. Schmadel, Lutz (2007). "(1931) Čapek". Dictionary of Minor Planet Names – (1931) Čapek. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. p. 155. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-29925-7_1932. ISBN   978-3-540-00238-3.
  50. Letters from Italy at Google Books
  51. Letters from England at Google Books, translated by Geoffrey Newsome in 2001
  52. Letters from Spain at Google Books
  53. Letters from Holland at Google Books
  54. Travels in the North at Google Books
  55. The Gardener's Year at Google Books
  56. Apocryphal Tales at Google Books
  57. Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy at Google Books

Further reading

Čapek biographies in English