Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As a fictional and indeed allegorical work, Franz Kafka’s story is not really concerned with the Great Wall of China or the process of its building but with the relationship between the abstract structures that give human life its meaning and the quality of life that human beings lead as a result. The only absolutes in the story are the absolutes of experiences: that some sections of the wall have been completed; that many stand in isolation from others, defeating the nominal defensive purpose of the project; that workers come and go; that the daily life of villages, although remote from the wall itself, is nevertheless affected by it in the absence of the workers and, more positively, in the brief but happy celebrations of the workers’ return. Against these absolutes of experience, which are the actual shaping forces of the villagers’ (and the speaker’s) lives, stand the great abstracts, which all the subjects can only imagine to exist: the emperor, the empire, the high command, even the wall itself, now officially declared to be complete. The principal theme of the story is thus the dissociation of modern life: that the realities of experience are in fact too little associated with the abstract ideals and forces (whether economic, social, political, or religious) that modern humanity uses as an explanation of its actions, or as a veil for the essential meaninglessness of many modern concerns.

The inset tale of the emperor’s messenger hints that the possibility for meaning still exists, if only connections between abstractions and experiences could be made explicit, but the fate of the message, the emperor, and the receiver shows that such a hope is finally futile. The refusal of the speaker to pursue his inquiry about the wall is thus a representation of a similar modern refusal to question the apparent motives by which actions and circumstances are directed and shaped: For the world, as for the empire, it is better to accept the specious security of illusory ideals than to question their reality and significance.