LESSONS FROM FRANZ KAFKA’S THE CASTLE Franz Kafka’s The Castle is an unfinished novel.

The Wikipedia reveals that Kafka began writing the novel on the evening of January 22, 1922. Kafka however had no intention of publishing all his works. In fact, shortly before he died, he instructed his friend, Max Brod, to destroy all his works on his death. Max Brod however did otherwise and decided to publish Kafka’s writings, hence the first publication of this novel. The original title of the novel is Das Schloß, which can variably be translated as “the castle” or “the lock.” The English title The Castle could have referred to the castle which the protagonist, K, had earnestly desired to go but which he also failed to reach. However, the second translation (the lock) could also be significant because it could have meant the inaccessibility of the castle. K and the villagers, despite their desire to visit the castle, never actually saw it. The castle remains to be a mystery. It is revered and is obviously known by the people because nobody would dare not to recognize it. However, the people’s knowledge about it is very limited. The castle is practically locked from them. A glimpse at the novel The story revolves around the experiences of K. It started with K’s arrival in a village that is governed by a castle. In fact, K initially thought that the village is already part of the castle. He entered the place because of an alleged demand for a Land Surveyor. However, when K set out to see his employer, he got lost and was unable to find his way. With this, K was forced to stay in an inn, the Bridge Inn. This was differentiated from another inn named as Herrenhof. The first inn was for the lower class – the peasants of the village, while the second was for the Gentlemen from the castle. The Gentlemen were supposed to be coming to the village for some business, although the novel also revealed that these Gentlemen do not actually handle any business at all. When they visit the village, they simply stay at Herrenhof to rest, where they also required the company of beautiful women from the village. When K failed to find his way to the castle, he was forced to stay in the village. This allowed him to encounter many people. Among the most noted ones is Frieda, who became her fiancée and who was also a former mistress of a Gentleman named Klamm, the one who actually requested for the services of K as a Land Surveyor. K also met his two assistants, Jeremiah and Arthur. But these two assistants had no real knowledge about surveying. They were only sent to K to spy on him. There was also the landlady of the Bridge Inn, who had openly shown contempt on K’s either indifference or objections against the customs of the village. There was the Superintendent from whom K was supposed to seek for instruction about his work, but who also ironically informed K that the village and the castle had no need for a Land Surveyor. The Superintendent tried to explain to K that the clamor for a Land Surveyor was only a mistake and was a product of a semi-political struggle. In reality, the Land Surveyor would have nothing to do in the village. The Superintendent had also read and examined Klamm’s letter or order for K. This letter was K’s basis for saying that he was to be employed as a Land Surveyor. But when the Superintendent read it, he told K that the letter did not actually mean to employ him for work. The letter simply said that should there be a need for a Land Surveyor, K may be employed. But, there was no mention of actual hiring for work. If this were the case, K’s journey to the village would be useless because, as the Superintendent had already informed him, the village was not in need of a Land Surveyor. Then, there was also the Barnabas family whose members were hated and despised by the other villagers. K was drawn to them because of the young Barnabas who serves as the messenger who brought correspondences between K in the village and the Gentleman Klamm in the castle. K’s association with the Barnabas family would later damage his relations with his fiancée Frieda, although, K also discovered many things about the Barnabas family, who seems to be mere victims of the customs and traditions of the village.


Citing all these associations, the novel was basically a chronicle of the ventures of K in the village from where he tried to penetrate the castle in order to prove that he was indeed employed by somebody powerful/influential, and that his coming to the village was not useless. This inkling to prove his worth was prompted more by the seeming reluctance of the village people to accept him. The people seemed to have been expecting and even anticipating his coming, but they were unhappy that he had already come. As K gambled his way to the castle and tried to find means to contact his yet unseen employer, he began to know more of the life of the village. The day to day events in the life of K had also unfolded the village to the reader. It showed for example how the village people revered the Gentlemen from the castle. The former would want to do anything that the Gentlemen from the castle would wish, even the granting of daughters to become the Gentlemen’s mistresses. In fact, Frieda, the fiancée of K, once had the distinguished honor of being the mistress of the Gentleman Klamm. From an outsider’s point of view, to become a mistress would not bring much honor, but the village customs attached great distinctions to women who had the privilege of providing sexual pleasures to the Gentlemen. An outsider could also hardly explain why should the abuses of the castle’s Gentlemen be tolerated and even appreciated by these village people. K resented the fact that the villagers were contented with their lot of not having the right of even speaking to or confronting the powerful Gentlemen from the castle, even in cases when the latter were clearly at fault. K had particularly begrudged against the fact that the villagers were always at the mercy of the whims and caprices of these Gentlemen. But K’s reaction was precisely the root of the villager’s contempt against strangers like him. Every stranger was perceived to be ignorant and unmindful of the customs of the village. Strangers were prone to complain against customs, not because they knew better but because they were ignorant. K’s further associations with the other villagers brought more light about the kind of culture that the village had. The story of the Barnabas family was particularly striking. The family was once respected in the village. The father was a well-known shoe-maker and a trusted member of the village Fire Brigade. Even financially, the family was very much capable. But an unfortunate event turned the family’s fortune upside down. It began with their encounter with one Gentleman from the Castle, Sortini. One member of the family, Amalia, had a distinctive beauty that caught the attention of Sortini, who claimed that Amalia’s good looks were offensive because they bothered him even from his sleep. So, the morning after their meeting, Sortini summoned Amalia through a letter brought by the messenger. The letter ordered Amalia to go to the Herrenhof Inn where Sortini was waiting. Of course, this was not just any invitation. This was a command for Amalia to see Sortini for a sexual union. Amalia took the letter as an insult against her person. In her anger, she tore the letter in front of the messenger. Soon the news spread that there was a woman who was insane enough to refuse an invitation of a Gentleman. When the villagers had known that it was Amalia who did it, they cut all their associations with the family. The father lost his shoe-making business and was even terminated from the Fire Brigade. But what truly puzzled K about this story was the way the people, including Olga, Amalia’s sister, viewed the quality of Amalia’s act. The people seemed to have unanimously agreed that it was wrong for Amalia to resent the summons of Sortini. Olga even claimed that, though she admired the bravery of Amalia, should that incident fall on her, she would have gone to the Gentleman, or at least should have looked for other excuses that would at least delay her going to Sortini. But almost everybody, even the family, seemed to agree that Sortini’s invitation for Amalia was not really insulting. In fact, Sortini even did Amalia the favor of inviting her to him. K found these incidents difficult to grasp, yet at the same time, it allowed him to understand the people better. He may not have approved of their ways but he began to understand why the people valued things in the way they did. It was the people’s reverence to the castle that dictated their values, so much so that whatever the people from the Castle decided to be right, they had to be regarded by the villagers also as right. The story progressed with K’s discoveries of many other things about the village. K has begun to realize the disparity of the values of the village and that of his own. Yet, recognizing the differences, he seemed to have understood better the villagers. His encounters with them had slowly erased his prejudices against their judgments. On one occasion, for example, towards the end of the story, K found himself in a corridor in the


Herrenhof Inn, with the Gentlemen staying in the rooms crying in panic, and in fact, ringing their bells to ask for help. At first, he was curious about what was going on, for this happened at around five o’clock in the morning. K was very tired then because he too had not slept the night before. Then he saw the landlord and the landlady rushing toward him and pulled him out of the corridor. He began to realize that the turmoil was because of him. K somehow understood that the panic was created by the presence of an outsider like him. He was a taboo in the corridor. K had then recognized the impropriety of his seemingly innocent act of simply having passed through that corridor which belongs to the Gentlemen. The Novel’s Conclusion It is hard to say how Kafka did intend to finish the novel. It was said that Kafka had once written to his friend, Max Brod, that the story would end with K’s death after his stay in the village, and on his death, the castle would notify him that “his legal claim to stay in the village was not valid although, taking auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there.” However, in another letter, Kafka was also said to have written to Brod to inform the latter that he no longer has any plan of finishing the novel, and he would already abandon working on it. As such, the story has no end. In the translation of the original German version, the story’s end was about K’s quarrel with Frieda, who was once his fiancée but is now determined to leave K in favor of Jeremiah, who was also once K’s assistant. But in the extended version, the story ended with K’s agreement with another woman, Pepi, who has invited K to join her and her girl friends in their house. K has accepted the offer because such seemed to be the only viable option left for him. Themes of the Novel There could have been several themes that may be gathered from this unfinished novel. Commentators have even pointed out a theological significance of the story. Some claimed that Kafka was writing about a particular man’s search for an unnamed God. The “castle” can be compared to God who governs the life of the villagers (the people), and yet at the same time remains to be highly transcendent and somehow inaccessible to the people. But among the more obvious themes of the story are the issues of power and bureaucracy. The way the Gentlemen brag about their many undertakings, and yet little is seen on them as they come to the village, is a testimony of how inefficient these people in power are. These Gentlemen always claim that they are in a hurry because they have many concerns to attend to, but whenever they are seen by the people in the Herrenhof Inn, they are oftentimes sleeping rather than working. Even if they summoned people for interrogations, the people are always at the mercy of their availability, and the people have to wait while the Gentlemen calmly sleep in their wellprepared rooms. The people are even made to believe that the carriage of the horses, in which a Gentleman rides, would have its windows closed because the Gentleman is busy doing paper works while traveling. But when K had the chance to enter the carriage of a Gentleman, Momus, the only things he found are the comfortable pillows and the flasks of wine. The novel highlighted the shortcomings of several bureaucratic requirements. It showed how elaborate the affairs of the castle are, and yet at the same time, the reader would get the impression that no work is properly/correctly carried out. K’s sad predicament was already a strong testimony of how inefficient that bureaucracy was. This has remained to be relevant even nowadays. This in fact is even prophetic of what we perhaps encounter now. The imageries of the Gentlemen can be a good source of reflection as we think about the kind of services, vis-à-vis their power, that our government leaders now give. Not all their professions about love, concern and hard work for the people may be well-meant. Oftentimes, these are but empty words and hopeless promises. This is the kind of dissimulation which Baudrillard talks about: the conscious faking of images in order to win the support and sympathy of people. These are not foreign in our time when people wanting to stay in power busy themselves with creating or dissimulating their good images. They utilize the available means of the media and


advertisement in order to project an aura of concern, efficiency and even intelligence, regardless of whether they actually possess them or not. The novel also showed the process of knowing the truth as aletheia. The journey of K was a process of unfolding. Every new experience was a new discovery of a truth about the village. The novel showed that toleration could happen only when we allow the other to unfold to us. When we do not allow this disclosure to occur, we would forever be deprived of knowing the other as an “other.” It may not be possible to fully grasp the Being of others, but when we allow them to manifest themselves to us, we open ourselves to a possible path for dialogue and communion. This, I believe, was one value that K had learned when he allowed the other characters of the story to reveal who they were. K was peculiarly fond of the Barnabas family despite the prejudices of the entire village. K’s capacity to allow the family to reveal themselves to him had also equipped him to understand them better. In contrast, the villagers “closure” towards the predicament of the same family had also shut them down from sympathizing with and understanding them. Furthermore, the novel also highlighted several postmodernist themes. At the start of the story, it seemed that the village was a traditional village that was guarded by its customs and traditions. K sounded to be more postmodern in outlook especially because of the fact that K had initially shown several objections against customs. But a deeper look into the story may prove to us that postmodernist tendencies were better illustrated by the villagers. It was the kind of indecisiveness in the people’s choices, despite the established customs, that would show us how postmodern this seemingly traditional village was. Olga’s indecisive assessment about her sister’s reaction to Sortini could somehow remind us about the kind of world that we now have. We at times know that certain things are bad and yet we continue to condone them due to no other reason than the fact that they have been normally and repeatedly done. For example, we wonder about the extent of corruption in our country, and we may even have promised to ourselves to stop it if only we have the means. But at one time, I processed some documents in an office at the Quezon City Hall. When I was asked to photocopy the document that I wanted to get notarized, I was led to a canteen, where several employees were at that time taking their lunch. I have clearly heard the following conversation from two among them: Person 1: Nasaan na ba kasi yong pinapirmahan natin? Kaya ko nga nilakihan yong nilagay dun kasi alam kong talagang manghihingi sila, e. Pero bakit wala pa rin hanggang ngayon? Person 2: Eh, baka gusto pa ng dagdag. Wala pa raw eh. Person 1: Hayop talaga yang mga yan, gusto pa yata talaga ng dagdag. I was not really sure about the exact matter of the conversation but I was suspecting that they were talking about the release of the results of a filed “annulment case.” What made this conversation more disgusting is the fact that this came from two government employees who are even wearing their uniforms. This conversation shows us the kind of tolerance that our culture provides for practices that we traditionally assess as wrong. Tolerating these things have certainly contributed to the moral crisis that sadly cripples our nation. The village culture, in the novel, was a postmodern one because the issue of the right and the wrong was blurred. In fact, there apparently were no laws. The commanding precepts were highly dependent on the wills of the Gentlemen who had direct influence to the village. Even K had transformed or was transformed through his associations with the people from the village. When at the start of the story, he was clear about his stand on the issues and has unequivocally raised his objections against those which he considered to be unjust/improper policies, towards the end of the story we also find K at a loss of which things were really right and which were not. He had also become unsure of himself, confused as to which was right: either to stick to his opinion and in a sense remain prejudicial against the policies of the village, or to become tolerant to the village customs and let go of some of his former beliefs.


This is indeed a dilemma even in our time. The youth of our time are unsure about many things, and even some adults are afraid of making their stand. For example, when in the past, we had a more or less clear notion of what is modest, especially with regard to women clothing, these days, we can hardly call any dress as immodest, even if they hardly cover any part of the body at all. Today, we are unsure of what is right and what is wrong, for who really has the power to say which things are right and which things are wrong? We can be likened to K who had gone confused about his values after his many acquaintances in the village. When he was resistant, he was called ignorant. But when he became approving and more tolerant, he too had seemed to have also departed from who he was once. Moreover, K had lost his sense of direction. He had lost sight of his primary intentions in coming to the village. He had gone to so many side streets. He had his affair with Frieda, he had become a school janitor, and at the end of the extended version, he was about to join another woman, Pepi. K is certainly lost. He no longer knew where he must go. The story began with K’s earnest interest to reach the castle. But until the end of the story, he has not succeeded. Why? Was it really because of the inaccessibility of the castle, or was it simply because K was lost? K had also lost his identity. He could hardly even say who he was. Was he a land surveyor, or a school janitor? The Superintendent, after arguing that there was no need for a land surveyor, has offered K a temporary post as a school janitor. K however is pretty sure that he could do more than what a janitor normally does, and yet he was also certain that he could never exercise his surveying skill in a land that does not need it. So, who was he then? At one time, I described a postmodern man as: “isang taong windang” (somebody who is lost). With the many alternatives, he gets lost on which of those is really the proper choice. Franz Kafka’s novel was prophetic in this sense. It was a warning about the possible dangers of postmodernism, even if postmodernism was not a fad of his time. The novel anticipated the possible dangers of the ultimate erasure of standards: the possibility of getting lost, and of forgetting who we really are.


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