By Franz Kafka.
New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1998
From the German, DAS SCHLOSS, 1926
In the translation of Mark Harman from the restored text
ISBN # 0-8052-1106-3

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2010

Franz Kafka began The Castle in 1922 when he had a nervous breakdown and went away from Prague to recuperate. These bare facts might lead some to think that Kafka’s writing, especially of The Trial and The Castle, may have been the writings of a disturbed author. I think such a view would be quite unjust to Kafka and cause the reader to miss the genius of his conception of both books.

Surveyor, Joseph K, arrives in a small village after a long and arduous walk to get there, coming from afar in the city. He had been summoned there by the village elders to do a land surveyor.

Actually he has stepped into a completely surreal world in which life has some superficial similarities to everyday life as we would normally understand it, yet it clearly isn’t that.

There is the village itself, apparently in the flat part of a valley beneath a large hill, if not quite a mountain. At the top of the hill is the castle, not simply a fortress building, but more like Kafka’s hometown Prague, a small village-like enclave with the residences of the rulers and the major church. Obviously this raises the immediate suspicion that Kafka is not just attacking modern bourgeois society in general, but that he has called special attention to Prague.

The surreal part is the relationship between the castle, a sort of shorthand for the entire bureaucracy of the whole village, and the people.

Nothing can be pinned down. There are only very vague rules or laws, nothing seems written. The castle communicates with the people through fairly low level intermediaries at a tavern-hotel which is located at a junction in the road leading to the castle, but just a bit above the village. The physical location seems relevant to the message.

These emissaries from the castle communicate with the people, almost always summoning them at night, and almost never is any communication direct or clear. Yet the villagers intuit whatever it is the castle has ordered. There is no process of appeal, nor does anyone seem to expect it, nor do they complain about it.

It is into this craziness that Joseph K enters. In the first day he comes to understand that the “summons” he got to come and do surveying work was an error. He isn’t needed or wanted. This aggravates him tremendously and he sets out to secure a meeting with a ministerial power of the castle, Klamm.

The story that follows is the tale of K’s affair with Klamm’s mistress, and his astonishing tenacity and risk in seeking what he believes is rightfully his.

It seems quite clear that the story is a satire on modern bureaucracy and the mode of social governance. Most readers will know that Joseph K is also the name of the main character in an earlier Kafka novel, The Trial.

That novel is much like The Castle in that Joseph K is thrust into a surreal world of mad bureaucracy in which Joseph K, a simple menial clerk, is arrested one morning while shaving and accused . . . accused of what? K can never find out. Like K of The Castle, he takes the bureaucracy as it exists and tries to extricate himself. He seems being charged with being guilty. But guilty of what? He never really finds out. Perhaps just BEING is to be guilty.

The K of The Trial is a mousy, shy guy who just accepts his case and plods along according to “their” insane non-rules.

The K of The Castle is a sort of rebel. He takes on the castle, tries to follow their rules and hopefully to defeat them. I say he is “sort of” a rebel. I think that’s as far as I can go. Were he a stronger rebel I think he would have come to understand his situation (as he did) within a couple of days and said – To hell with you all – and headed on back home. His response is bold and courageous resistance, but not likely to succeed.

I say “not likely to succeed . . .” not because I didn’t finish the novel, but because Kafka didn’t live long enough to finish it, and we never really find out what happened to Joseph K.

The author explains the challenge which K faces:

“Dealing directly with the authorities wasn’t all that difficult, for no matter how well organized they were, they only had to defend distant and invisible causes on behalf of remote and invisible gentlemen, whereas he, K, was fighting for something vitally close, for himself, and what’s more of his own free will, initially at least, for he was the assailant, and he was not struggling for himself on his own, there were also other forces, which he knew nothing of, but could believe in because of the measures adopted by the authorities.”

K laughs at the chairman’s position. He reacts that it shouldn’t amuse him. K tells him:

“It amuses me,” said, K, “only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person’s life.”

Because of K’s boldness and courage in confronting “the Castle” other people are afraid of him.

Like K, I've tried to live my life, knowing about the trial and castle (small t and small c, not Kafka's world, but ours) and tried to live my live in a way as much of it as possible was within my control, not theirs. But THEY are there and THEY do have PHENOMENAL power.

Joseph K of The Trial is sort of like the know-nothing person just astonished at all this. Joseph K of The Castle seems more sophisticated. He is wary of "THEM" and knows about them, but resists and is less afraid than just wary and respectful of their power, but disgusted with them, and willing to resist and fight them.

What is so inspiring about the novel is that precisely because of it irreality we readers get frustrated with K for not just giving up and getting the hell out of that crazy place, and we are just astonished at the residents who live as though this world is just nature itself.

I think this is one of Kafka’s central points. It is because the overwhelming bulk of humanity internalizes his or her own status quo as “the natural” or “the real” or “the way it’s going to be, so make the best of it”!

K just can’t. He’s not afraid. He’s frustrated, discouraged, but determined. I’m not in the slightest convinced he is wise. However, I do think that in Kafka’s hands he’s illustrative of our modern time, perhaps of all times. It is indeed The Castle against the rest of us and history suggests strongly they are likely to win, so what to do?

Above I suggest he should or could just get out, go back from whence he came. That’s tough in our world, but possible. One can escape at least to the edges and create some space. But why fight? What is one fighting for?

If the answer is – for one’s own self – then it seems quite trivial. However, if one is trying to create a resistance to The Castle, that I can understand. It gives hope to a larger world solution.

I see myself in that light for much of my life, at least 40-45 years I was in struggle – with others – against The Castle and at a time when there were many to join with, making some gains.

Now I’m more in the mood to do what K never considers – move to the fringe and create a livable space. To do so is to give up the struggle, but perhaps live nicely on the fringe, albeit, tolerating the oppression of others.

That strategy seems to work well for me now in my senior years. I think, that like K, I was unable not to fight The Castle in my younger days.

In any case, Kafka presents a serious challenge to all people who take life seriously and have some interest in justice and/or fairness. In that sense it seems to be a marvelous accident that Kafka never finished the novel. We never really know how K ends up.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett