The fragmentary work The Castle was published posthumously, against Franz Kafka’s instructions, by his friend Max Brod. Critics ever since have debated all aspects of it, from the textual problems to the interpretation of the highly suggestive symbolic structure. It is typical of Kafka’s works that a final definition of his symbols is impossible; like dreams, they combine references to the everyday world with absurd fantasies and seemingly coherent mythic structure with a discontinuity that frustrates attempts to develop a rational interpretation. The images Kafka conjures are compelling, but they seem ultimately to stand for themselves and not for any symbolic message.
A knowledge of Kafka’s circumstances in 1922 is germane to an understanding of The Castle. The author’s tuberculosis was so advanced that he knew he had not long to live and also the manner of his death. Placed by disease in the position of an outsider, Kafka could for the first time view personal and professional concerns with detachment. His imminent death gave him the freedom to rise above manner and restraint and, through his novel’s main character, K., to indulge his sense of humor with outrageous observations. K., who calls himself a land surveyor, takes a sharp look at his surroundings. Like Kafka himself, K., too, suffers from those paradoxical effects of advanced disease that leave a patient at once exhausted and impatient.
K.’s main counterpart in the novel is Frieda. Her name connotes Frieden, or peace, an irony because the couple has hardly a quiet moment together. Critics have seen in Frieda the fictional representation of Milena Jesenka-Polak, one of Kafka’s translators, who professed to love Kafka but ultimately would not leave her husband. The affair in the novel also reflects Kafka’s lifelong attitude toward marriage: Although conditioned by society to feel that he should marry, he repeatedly broke off relationships when it became evident that they would interfere with his writing.
In The Castle, Kafka criticizes the roles imposed on men and women by the society of his time. Too often, women were perceived mainly as sexual objects and expected to be subservient to and dependent on men. Kafka chose to make his strongest female character in his novel a liberated woman. Set up by her parents (in a frilly blouse and garnet necklace) to attract a husband, Amalia instead repudiates the direct sexual advance of a “gentleman” from the castle. Amalia is portrayed as a capable and talented individual, a person who does not need affiliation with a man to realize her potential.
Just as Kafka criticizes the societal reduction of women to a secondary role, so, too, does he criticize the expectation that men automatically fulfill a dominant role. Using the device of satire, he represents all figures of male authority and the bureaucracies in which they operate as hopelessly and ludicrously inept, thus exposing the reverence in which they are held as all the more ridiculous. His first example is the most memorable: The mayor, who lets unorganized files accumulate, increases the disorder with every new and frantic search for information. Yet this is the man who solemnly assures K. that there is no possibility of error in the system. K. is not impressed and to the mayor’s face calls it “ludicrous bungling.”
While no such direct confrontation occurs with the more distant and respected “gentlemen” of the castle—mainly because K. during his one chance interview is overcome by sleep—these officials, too, are portrayed as being completely out of touch with the affairs of the village they purportedly control and influence. This is no idle criticism. Kafka, who held...
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a doctorate in law and was a valued employee of an insurance company, knew what bureaucracies were like. By keeping the exact nature of the castle unspecific, Kafka uses that image to demystify arbitrary and illusory authority in all its forms. By having K. continually try to meet Klamm face to face, he shows that it is in the interests of the citizen to pierce the façade of authority.
K. in fact never does reach the castle. Perhaps it is enough that he has his say on important issues and thereby points the way for others to take. Kafka indicated to his friend and later executor of his estate, Brod, that had he finished the novel he would have had K. die of exhaustion without reaching the castle. Exhaustion is, in fact, a strong factor in the book. The entire four-hundred-page novel takes place in a winter landscape. The days are short, and the people are exhausted by the cold and spend much of their time sleeping indoors. In choosing this setting, Kafka draws on the literary convention of using winter as a metaphor for death.
The spiritual message of The Castle gains in impact by being merely suggested and allowed to continue independently of K.’s physical limitations. Where the mind is free, as it most certainly is in this dreamlike novel, a survey of the land yields new truths. Kafka shows that the castle is a jumble created by people themselves and in need of rearrangement.
Thomas Mann defined Kafka as a religious humorist. While Kafka’s meaning perhaps eludes the attempts of critics to define it, his portrayal of the experiences of individual isolation and frustration and of the ambivalence toward the community and the vague forces that dominate the individual and human society remains compelling.
A critical reading of The Castle requires an evaluation of its various textual editions. As noted, when Kafka died in 1924, he left The Castle as an unfinished, handwritten manuscript. His executor, Max Brod, published an edition of The Castle in 1926 based on his editing of Kafka’s manuscript and notes. This edition was beautifully translated into English by Edwin and Willa Muir in 1930. In 1982 a new critical edition of The Castle was published in German, edited by Sir Malcolm Pasley and based on the meticulous critical work of a team of international Kafka scholars. In contrast, Stroemfeld publishers aspired to publish a facsimile edition of Kafka’s handwritten manuscripts for The Castle, as it already had for Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), to allow a more direct interface with Kafka’s writings. In 1998, Schocken Books published a new English translation of The Castle by Mark Harmon, based on Pasley’s German critical edition. In his translator’s introduction, Harmon explains that he sought a more faithful rendering of Kafka’s unique and often abrupt prose than the polished translation of the Muirs. Harmon’s translation retains the sparse use of punctuation in Kafka’s extraordinarily long sentences and paragraphs. It also retains Kafka’s occasionally odd and startling word choice, tense, and grammatical structure. Most important, the German critical edition that Harmon translated numbers the chapters of The Castle differently, evoking an alternative flow to the narrative. Shocken’s critical edition of The Castle, however, does not include the equivalent of volume two of the German Pasley edition, which annotated the choices and variations in Kafka’s manuscripts.