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...
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