Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Castle is unfinished. It breaks off after the twentieth chapter, with alternative versions in the manuscript indicating that the plot could have continued in two different directions. Critics have tended to be led by Max Brod’s report of how Kafka once told him the novel was to end: The Land-Surveyor was to find only partial satisfaction and die exhausted by his struggle. If this is taken as a foregone conclusion, the interpretation is necessarily partial to the dark and depressing aspects of the novel. From an impartial reading of the story, though, it seems equally possible that K., the outsider, could usher in the triumph of reason over the hopelessly entangled and inefficient bureaucracy of the Castle.
The first reading, which ends with K.’s defeat, is consistent with many of Kafka’s earlier works and seems to echo the short parable “Vor dem Gesetz” (1915; “Before the Law,” 1930) included in The Trial, in which the man from the country exhausts all of his resources and eventually dies in the futile attempt to gain admittance to the Law. An essential difference between the characters in the earlier works and the protagonist in the last novel, though, is that K. neither reveres nor is intimidated by the Castle and its agents, and he has a refreshing tendency to speak his mind. Kafka wrote The Castle during the last two years of his life, during which he overcame many inhibitions. It is this new spirit and confidence that seems to speak through K. in the second reading, which emphasizes his chances of success.
It is difficult for the objective reader to take the Castle seriously. Desirable apparently only because it is inaccessible to the common individual, it is a disappointment from the start, to K.’s eyes not a castle at all but “only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses, whose sole merit, if any, lay in being built of stone; but the plaster had long since flaked off and the stone seemed to be crumbling away.” Furthermore, there is little evidence of the Castle’s having actually done anything for the people in the village. Its “gentlemen” are unprincipled and adept only at keeping the best...
(The entire section is 894 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is late in the evening when K. arrives in the town that lies before the castle of Count Westwest. After his long walk through deep snow, K. wants to do nothing so much as to go to sleep. He goes to an inn and falls asleep by the fire, only to be awakened by a man wanting to see his permit to stay in the town. K. explains that he just arrived and comes at the count’s request to be the new land surveyor. A telephone call to the castle establishes the fact that a land surveyor is expected, and K. is allowed to rest.
The next morning, K. decides to go to the castle to report for duty, although his assistants have not yet arrived. He sets off through the snowy streets toward the castle, which as he walks seems farther and farther away. He becomes tired and stops in a house for refreshment and directions. As he leaves, he sees two men coming from the castle. He tries to speak to them, but they refuse to stop. As evening approaches, K. gets a ride back to the inn in a sleigh.
At the inn, he meets the two men he saw, and they introduce themselves as Arthur and Jeremias and say they are his old assistants. They are not, but K. accepts them because he knows they came from the castle and therefore were sent to help him. Because the two men closely resemble each other, K. cannot tell them apart; therefore he calls both of them Arthur. He orders them to take him to the castle the next morning by sleigh. When they refuse, he telephones the castle. A voice tells him that he can never come to the castle. Shortly afterward, a messenger named Barnabas arrives with a letter from Klamm, a chief at the castle. K. is ordered to report to the mayor of the town.
K. arranges for a room at the inn. He asks to accompany Barnabas on a walk, to which Barnabas, a kind young man, agrees. He takes K. to his home to meet his two sisters, Olga and Amalia, and his sickly old mother and father. K. is ill at ease, however; it is Barnabas, not he, who comes home. When Olga leaves to get beer from a nearby inn, K. goes with her. At the inn, it is made clear to him that he will be welcome only in the bar, as the other rooms are reserved for the gentlemen from the castle.
In the bar, K. quickly makes friends with the barmaid, Frieda, who seems to wish to save him from Olga and her family. She hides K. under the counter. K. does not understand what is happening. He learns that Frieda is Klamm’s mistress.
(The entire section is 993 words.)