Although we know Franz Kafka’s novel under the English title The Castle, it’s worth pointing out that we might also make a case for calling it ‘The Lock’: Schloss, in the novel’s original German title, means both ‘castle’ and ‘lock’. Kafka’s The Castle is about both a castle and about deadlock. To unpick (or unlock) this enigmatic text, let’s take a closer look at it, starting with a brief summary of its plot.
The Castle: plot summary
A young man, a land surveyor known only as ‘K.’, arrives in a village in Europe, intending to call upon the Count who lives in the castle above the village. Going to a local inn, K. requests a room but is told there are none available, but is offered a bed of straw in the building’s taproom, where he spends the night. The locals stare mistrustfully at him.
He is awakened by a man who tells him that the village belongs to Castle Westwest, and if he wishes to sleep here for the night he must seek the permission of the Count up at the castle. When K. tells the man that he has been summoned to the village by the castle, he is given a bed in the landlord’s own bedroom.
K. next attempts to visit the castle so he can obtain permission to stay in the village, as directed by the man who woke him. On his way, he stops at a tanner’s shop, where he is once again made to feel unwelcome. Returning to the inn from the night before, he meets two assistants who work at the castle.
A boy gives K. a note from the castle. It is written by a man, Klamm, who requests that K. speak to the mayor of the village. When K. follows the boy, back to what he thinks is the castle, hoping to sneak inside under cover of darkness, he instead ends up in the boy’s home, and the boy’s sister takes K. to a new inn. There, he meets Frieda, who turns out to be Klamm’s mistress. K. and Frieda make love, but this lands K. in hot water back at the inn where he is staying, for it turns out that the landlady is Frieda’s mother.
The mayor tells K. that he was summoned to the village by mistake, but he offers K. the job of janitor in the village school instead. K. reluctantly accepts, before marrying Frieda. K. receives a note from the castle addressed to ‘the land surveyor’, and assumes it is for him. The letter congratulates him on his work and tells him to keep it up. Later, however, K. will discover that the note was almost certainly an old one meant for someone else.
K. moves into the school, which comprises just two classrooms: he and Frieda, along with his two assistants, have to live in one classroom while the other is used, swapping rooms as the syllabus dictates. Distrustful of the assistants, K. locks them out of the school and tries to reach Klamm at the castle. When he returns, he discovers that Frieda has begun an affair with one of the assistants.
Although the villagers hold the castle in awe and believe it runs smoothly and efficiently, this is obviously not the case, since an administrative cock-up led to K. being invited to work as surveyor there even though no surveyor was needed. A meeting with a secretary of the castle yields nothing.
K. meets the son of a man named Otto Brunswick, whose wife claims that she is from the castle. K. believes that getting close to the young man, Hans, will help him to gain entry to the castle. The novel finishes mid-sentence (Kafka died before he could complete it), with K. having become well-regarded by the castle; he is offered a new place to stay, in one of the inns.
The Castle: analysis
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been called everything from a modernist to an existentialist, a fantasy writer to a realist. His work almost stands alone as its own subgenre, and the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – whose meaning, like the meaning of Kafka’s work, is hard to pin down – has become well-known even to people who have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. Perhaps inevitably, he is often misinterpreted as being a gloomy and humourless writer about nightmarish scenarios, when this at best conveys only part of what he is about.
As the critic John Sutherland observes in his hugely readable How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, the opening of Kafka’s The Castle recalls a very different novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which also opens in central Europe where a young man is in search of the Count (Count Dracula, of course) who lives in a castle. But unlike Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel, Kafka’s ‘K.’ (the initial suggesting the author himself) will never reach the castle and Kafka’s novel will not go anywhere. As the above ‘plot summary’ shows, the novel doesn’t even have a ‘plot’ as such – in keeping with many modernist texts, which are more concerned with moments, characters, psychological states, and fleeting impressions than with telling a clear story with a solid plot. If The Castle is a quest narrative, it is utterly unlike any previous quest in fiction, because K. never makes it to the castle, even though the castle is right there next to the village.
So, what Kafka is doing in The Castle – or part of what he is doing – is hollowing out the traditional novel, removing those elements which we might consider essential (a plot, a teleological objective possessed by the protagonist, a clear chain of cause-and-effect) in order to present it to us anew. The Castle is, then, not so much a novel as an anti-novel, when viewed this way.
As we remarked in our analysis of Kafka’s short fable ‘Before the Law’, one of the ways to ‘get’ Kafka and understand what his work means is to view it as one vast metaphor for the struggle of life itself. So The Trial, the novel in which ‘Before the Law’ appears, is not about one man’s specific trial for some specific crime, but is instead about the ‘trials’ of living, the ‘process’ (to use the original German word for the novel’s title) of dealing with a nagging sense of guilt for some vague and unspecified sin or wrongdoing, just as it is about the ‘process’ or ‘trial’ of negotiating innumerable bureaucratic obstacles that dominate our adult life.
One critic, Mark Spilka, produced a study in the 1960s, Dickens and Kafka: A mutal interpretation, which argued that Kafka, like Dickens, was essentially childlike in his understanding of the world. And children both fail to understand the need for tortuous administrative and legal process (where necessary) and immediately see through such processes when they are clearly unneeded, or even actively harmful. Viewed this way, Kafka is essentially the authorial version, writ large, of the little boy at the end of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ who calls out the delusion that all the adults are blindly (or, in many cases, willingly) following.
But how would such an interpretation work for The Castle? K., we might say, is another Kafkan everyman, seeking employment and a home. The castle and surrounding village represent both. The various obstacles he faces as he tries to carry out his job and fit in with the community of villagers represent the various trials and challenges we all face as we, similarly, attempt to find our place in a society from which we feel increasingly isolated – and especially if, like Kafka, we are ethnically or religiously part of a minority (Kafka’s Jewishness) or isolated from society because of illness (it’s worth remembering that Kafka was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote The Castle).
However, virtually all of Kafka’s work can also be analysed from a religious perspective, and The Castle is a prime example. For Edwin Muir, one of Kafka’s finest English translators, in an informative reading of The Castle in Kafka. A Collection of Critical Essays., Kafka’s novel is about a man’s attempt to live his life according to the divine will (represented by the castle), among ‘the community of the faithful’ (the village). The castle is there above the village, as God is above man; but although K. feels its presence there and meets its representatives (priests?), he never actually gets inside the castle himself.
As in ‘Before the Law’, the secular world of the here-and-now, where men ferociously guard ‘the law’ and determine what is the ‘right’ way to get to God and heaven, is all man on earth can know and see for sure. So if ‘Before the Law’ is a parable for religious faith, it is one which ends, not with revelation and epiphany, but simply with death. The man who devoted his life to attempting to gain admittance to God has died and still not gained admittance. The same might be said of K.’s quest to understand the workings of the castle and his ultimately fruitless attempt to be accepted by the community of believers.