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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 for themselves. First the Mayor’s house, then the Herrenhof are shown to be awash in paperwork, with files hopelessly outdated and no order to the system.

How, then, does the crumbling Castle manage to retain its control over the villagers, indeed command their respect, devotion, and services? First, it maintains a cloak of secrecy around its activities, if any, and tolerates no outsiders. It is a closed system whose preeminence goes unchallenged. Second, it terrorizes those who refuse to be exploited, as evidenced by Amalia’s case. Third, it moves quickly to try to bring any active newcomers alongside. K. is told that no surveying will be necessary and is presented with two ridiculous assistants whose purpose is to keep him distracted. Then he is sent a letter congratulating him on the fine land surveying he and his assistants are doing, thereby tempting him to do nothing but maintain appearances, like the rest of the Castle’s employees.

From the start, though, K. does not seem like the sort to surrender. In the second chapter, in a significant flashback to his childhood, K. remembers how he was one of the few boys who managed to climb the high wall around the graveyard. “The sense of that triumph had seemed to him then a victory for life.” This scene establishes his personality.

(The entire section is 1,887 words.)