The Castle is the last novel written by Czech author Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Kafka began to write the book in 1922 in a village and not, as it is tempting to imagine, in the shadow of Prague’s legendary castle. A customarily Kafkaesque yoking of the absurd and the sinister, The Castle depicts an individual’s fruitless efforts to achieve his objective within an incomprehensible authoritative structure.
The story of The Castle is roughly as follows: Joseph K. arrives at a village and claims to be the officially appointed land surveyor to the Castle, a mysterious domain that rules over the village: “The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that the castle was there.” The novel proceeds in a manner that falls somewhere between bewilderment and burlesque. K. wants to meet Klamm, the castle superior. His assistants, Arthur and Jeremiah, are not helpful. K. makes love to the barmaid Frieda, a former mistress of Klamm. Frieda leaves K. when she discovers that he is merely using her.
As is the case with all of Kafka’s major works, The Castle was never finished, but in this instance it would seem that death itself forced the truncation. An ailing Kafka wrote to Max Brod (1884–1968), editor of his major works published after Kafka’s death: “I have not spent this week very cheerfully because I have had to give up the Castle story, evidently for good.” The novel ends in mid-sentence.
The first two chapters of The Castle were originally written in the first person; Kafka’s decision to change the “I” to a “K” (for “Kafka”) invites speculation. In a letter to Oskar Pollak, Kafka opines, “Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” As with much of the author’s other fiction, several elements of The Castle correspond to events and conditions of Kafka’s own life. Living as a Jew during the waning years of the Hapsburgs, Kafka grew conscious and critical of the systematic exclusion effected by hierarchical governing regimes; his employment at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague immersed him in a wearisome and ineffivcient bureaucratic world. These experiences may be read into the novel’s omnipotent yet ever-remote castle and the prohibitive protocols of its faceless tenants. Kafka’s residence in the countryside at the time of writing The Castle probably informed the rural environment in which the novel is set. The deterioration of the author’s health and the reality of his worsening tuberculosis likely catalyzed the issues of mortality that are prominent in The Castle. Kafka died in 1924 at the age of 41.
The castle’s focal image is resonant on several levels. In terms of its place in the literary tradition, the castle— as both domicile and forbidding domain—evokes late 19th-century Gothicism and its propensity for menacing architecture. As a polysemous figure with multiple meanings in the narrative, the castle reflects the aesthetic practice of ascribing arbitrary and iconic representation to an object corresponding to the symbolist movement, which exerted a huge influence on the German- language writers in Prague around Kafka’s time.
The imperious and unapproachable castle also alludes to the impenetrable and self-perpetuating nature of political power, a theme Kafka also explores in The Trial—the story of a man who is condemned to death without knowing the nature of his crime. Following a more abstract interpretation, the castle described in the novel may be seen as a representation for that which is sought or required but remains ever-elusive—a goal (social, religious, or personal) that looms visible but is ultimately unattainable.
The theme of futile enterprise runs throughout Kafka’s work, as Walter Benjamin noted: “To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty, one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure.” Thus is there a beautiful universality in Kafka’s short but enigmatic parable “Before the Law,” where a man spends fruitless decades waiting for permission to pass through the gates of justice, and in the writer’s novel Amerika, where a young immigrant searching for “the promised land” endures a string of oppressive situations. Given Kafka’s study of Hebrew, his increasing interest in the Zionist movement, and his (unrealized) plans to move to Tel Aviv, the scenario depicted in The Castle may reflect his own stymied and unfulfilled search for a homeland.
There has been, as with most of Kafka’s work, a tendency to overinterpret The Castle—whether through the lens of religion, politics, psychoanalysis, history, or some version of literary theory. The oblique character of Kafka’s writing renders it particularly conducive to interpretation but, ultimately, resistant to resolution. Most analysis of Kafka’s work is as easily refuted as it is supported by his writing. If Kafka is a modernist, he is, arguably, an accidental one: Although he is one of the most revolutionary authors of the 20th century, there is nothing of the literary manifesto in his work. If K. of The Castle is a pilgrim, he is certainly an awkward one, more Chaplin than chaplain; if he is a revolutionary, he is a sadly ineffectual one; and if the journey K. makes is an allegorical one, then there would appear to be no end in sight.
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Pawel Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.