Notes and Review - The Castle (Kafka)

This novel is humorous. The characters and their interactions, the presumptions that they make about each other based on trivial details, the protagonist’s (His name is K.) strange obsession over every single alphabet in the letters that he receives, characters that have a job which they do only when they want to. Everything in the novel is humorous. On the surface. Just underneath the surface, lurks the boundless struggle and omnipresent hopelessness of a life in the world that K. inhabits. (The world that he is in is eerily, and perhaps intentionally similar to our own.) This is not a dystopia; the bureaucratic hell that K. is subjected to is one that many are familiar with. The nightmare does not stop when you have procured every new document that the government has ever issued to its citizens; it continues, for the government takes great relish in moving the goalposts and confusing people; keeping them inside their Web browser until their citizens are exasperated enough to just close the tab and move on. The only difference between the citizens of our world and K. is that K. does not move on.

Kafkaesque Imagery

As always, Kafka’s imagery remains unchanged. The first room that the protagonist enters is dark and suffocating:

It was a large, dimly lit room. Coming in from outside, he could see nothing at first. K. staggered and nearly fell over a washing-trough; a woman’s hand caught him. He heard a number of children shouting in one corner. Steam billowed out of another, turning the twilight into darkness. K. might have been surrounded by clouds

Officials in Bed During Hearings

This is one of Kafka’s classic images. I believe that his intention with showing officials in bed is to show their lethargy during work and their lack of motivation to really help the petitioner. During the last section of the novel, K. meets an official who hints that he might be partly responsible for K.’s case and that he can grant any of K.’s wishes on the spot. He says that the officials are overwhelmed with work and so sensitive that they can barely sleep at night and thus, they conduct all their hearings in the Castle Inn. But the Castle’s staff thinks that the Officials sleep too much, and in fact, it is because they have so much work during the day/night that they are always tired.

All of this contradiction and absurdity, the midnight hearings, officials in bed, people being asked to wait in the cold to meet officials, official summons that arrive through messengers, assistants who are not assisting, serves to make K.’s situation look more and more hopeless and pathetic.

As the reader, I wanted K. to just give up, on many occasions. But therein lies the rub: When I was stuck in a bureaucratic hell, I did not give up. I would not have even imagined it. To fight your way out of the mess that you are in is the only available option.

Officials Don’t Make Mistakes

An important moment in the novel is when K. finds out that he is in the village by mistake. Kafka’s writing is deliciously absurd. I was giggling throughout this long section in which an official explains how officials never make mistakes, and thus when a document appears in front of them, it doesn’t occur to them that it was due to a mistake, and thus, due to their assumption that they don’t make mistakes they end up making mistakes and what should have been ended in a minute of honest doubt and humiliation drags on for years.

[The official who is speaking explains that the proposal for appointing a land surveyor was sent to his department by department A. Then, the monologue continues.]

For a start, however, I can tell you the story without files. We replied to the decree I was talking about by sending our thanks, but pointing out that we didn’t need a land surveyor. However, that reply doesn’t seem to have reached the original department, let’s call it A, but by mistake went to another department, B

as often and understandably happens, and indeed should happen, in view of the meticulous nature of all the official work done, the head of department was relying on us to send an answer, whereupon he would either appoint the land surveyor or, if necessary, correspond with us on the subject further. As a result, he neglected to look at the preliminary notes and let the whole affair lapse into oblivion.

It is a working principle of the authorities that they do not even consider the possibility of mistakes being made. The excellent organization of the whole thing justifies that principle, which is necessary if tasks are to be performed with the utmost celerity

When asked a simple follow up question by the protagonist about whether the supervisory authorities who are supposed to catch such mistakes did not succeed in their duty this time, the official comes up with this gold:

Only a complete stranger would ask your question. Are there supervisory authorities? There are only supervising authorities. To be sure, they’re not intended to detect mistakes in the vulgar sense of the word, since there are no mistakes, and even if there is a mistake, as in your own case, who’s to say that it’s really a mistake in the long run

The official also describes something that has happened to me once when dealing with the government:

And now I come to a particular feature of our official mechanism. When an affair has been under consideration for a very long time, and even before assessment of it is complete, it can happen that something occurs to settle it, like a sudden flash of lightning at some unforeseeable point, and you can’t pinpoint it later. The case is thus brought to an arbitrary, if usually quite correct, conclusion. It’s as if the official mechanism could no longer stand up to the tension and the years of attrition caused by the same factor, which in itself may be slight, and has made the decision of its own accord with no need for the officials to take a hand.

K.’s summary of all this? Pretty good:

K.: So the outcome is that everything is very confused and nothing can be solved, and I’m being thrown out.

Mayor: Who would venture to throw you out, my dear sir? The very lack of clarity in the earlier questions assures you of the most civil treatment, but you appear to be oversensitive. No one is keeping you here, but that doesn’t amount to being thrown out

So, you are not being thrown out. But everything is very confused and nothing can ever be solved.

Hierarchy is Everything to the Officials

Klamm is a God-like figure to the people in this village. K. is engaged in a tussle to meet with this man. When he tries to do so, he is thwarted. Soon after, Klamm escapes quickly and K. and an official observe him through a keyhole. (Yes, 2 grown men peeping through a keyhole at Klamm.) After this plays out, the official gives a summary that is indicative of the absolute reverence that one must show when they are in a hierarchy:

K. asked: ‘Has Klamm left, then?’ He said it not to have what he already knew confirmed but to anticipate an attack, for he rather feared he was vulnerable now. The landlady walked past him in silence, but the gentleman said, from his little table: ‘Yes, to be sure. Once you had left the place where you were standing guard, Klamm was able to go out. But it’s amazing what a sensitive gentleman he is. Did you notice, ma’am,’ he asked the land- lady, ‘how nervously Klamm looked around?’ The landlady did not seem to have noticed, but the gentleman went on: ‘Well, luckily there was nothing left to be seen. The driver had covered up the tracks in the snow.

This is the first point at which K. shows some defiance. This gentleman is a secretary of some sort to Klamm. He is working on his report for Klamm, and he wants K. to answer some questions so that he might be able to complete the report. But K. refuses to be questioned. There is no way to know whether this is a turning point in K.’s story. Kafka’s implication is probably that answering his questions/refusing to be questioned will have little impact on the final resolution of K.’s case. (And when will that come? There is no final resolution to expect.)

Defiance and Dejection

On the topic of defiance, the second protagonist of the story is Amalia, one of the messenger’s sisters. The messenger and their family is reviled in the village. People scoff at them, and they treat them quite poorly. K. and the reader find out, when Amalia explains, that this is because Sortini (an official) called Amalia to him and Amalia refused to go. Klamm and Sortini (and other men associated with the Castle) are philanderers who call women to them at periodic intervals. The landlady and even K.’s partner, Frieda, were women who had been called by Klamm. Amalia’s defiance to submit to Sortini’s (by extension, The Castle’s) wishes made her and her family a pariah in the village. It crushes her parents, and they instantly become too old and frail and need Amalia’s constant care.

The curious thing is that the Castle never gets officially involved with punishing Amalia. Indeed, no punishment is warranted because she did not do anything that was against the law anyway. She simply refused to answer a summons from a private individual, who happened to be associated with The Castle. However, there is a general sense that Amalia has done something wrong. The story keeps changing and becomes more and more extreme with every retelling (Chinese whispers).

When the stories have done the round, the Village is ready to forget and simply expects them to return to their earlier way of life. However, they don’t know how to do so. So, the Villagers continue to believe that there is some sort of punishment and avoid them forever. When the family petitions the Castle to help them, the officials in the Castle (understandably) ask them what they must help with? What have they done? What should they be forgiven for?

It is futile to ask for forgiveness for something when you have no idea what happened or what your mistake was. The story of the Barnabas family is one of defiance and dejection. They had done nothing wrong. But The Castle controlled everything. Even the appearance of defiance against such an absolute authority has a high cost. Despite their story, I don’t think that Kafka urges the reader to comply. I think Kafka urges us all to be defiant of the bureaucratic hurdles that we face. But I think he asks us to remember that “The Village” will forget at some point and we must also forget then. We should not let our defiance weigh too heavily on us; so heavily that it prevents us from returning to normalcy when everyone else expects things to “go back to the way they were.”

This special case of apparent external normalcy coexisting with internal turmoil is a favorite of Kafka’s, and he returns to it in both his other novels (The Trial and Amerika.)

Little Tyrannies

Kafka is undoubtedly obsessed with authority. Especially the kind of authority that is conferred upon people who are “big fishes in small ponds.” Throughout the novel, the landlady has her own little tyranny inside her inn, Frieda has a small one when she is barmaid, the secretary has one when Klamm is not around, Klamm has one that is all-encompassing and covers the whole village.

The existence of these tyrannies and the attempts of the tyrants to exhibit their power inside their little tyranny is the root cause of the troubles that K. is facing. Indeed, it is the root cause of the troubles that many of us face when we deal with intractable bureaucracies. How can one deal with these tyrannies? Kafka gives us a clue:

That’s the way it’s organized; all the gentlemen from the castle have their village secretaries.’ Momus, who in fact had been listening much more attentively than K., added, to the landlady: ‘Most of the village secretaries work only for one master, but I work for two, Klamm and Vallabene.’ ‘Yes,’ said the landlady now, also remembering, and turned to K. ‘Mr Momus works for two masters, for Klamm and for Vallabene, so he is village secretary twice over.’ ‘Twice over–fancy that,’ said K., nodding as you might nod to a child whom you have just heard praised and addressing Momus, who now, leaning forward, looked up at him. If there was a certain disdain in that nod, it either went unnoticed or actually seemed requisite. The merits of a man from Klamm’s close circle were being presented at length to K. of all people, deemed unworthy even to have Klamm set eyes on him by chance, and it was done with the unconcealed intention of demanding K.’s recognition and praise.

Kafka indicates that we should ignore the empty boasting of tyrants and be defiant in our demands. Things often resolve themselves, as the mayor explained earlier, and the resolution will have absolutely no connection to your efforts to solve the problem or the tyrant’s efforts to block a resolution anyway.

Chaos, Confusion, Mania

There are 2 particular scenes which are remarkable for the amount of chaos and confusion that is conveyed in them:

  1. K. and crew wake up in the morning in the school building: After having been appointed the school janitor, K. proceeds to sleep in the school building. When he wakes up in the morning, he sees himself surrounded by children waiting to enter the school building and jeering at them. Then, confusion ensues as they rush around to clean the school building and try to get the place in order. There is a huge cat that is bothering them. His assistants are creating their own chaos in parallel. Reading this scene really feels like the author is trying very hard to put us in a trance and convince us of the hopelessness of K.’s situation.
  2. K. meets with Erlanger and the files are subsequently distributed to all the officials who are in the basement rooms at the Castle Inn. Once again, the situation is one of utter chaos and mania. Files are being passed around and kept at the doors of officials. When the files are kept, officials greedily grab them. They ring the bells to call someone. This exercise ends after a long description of the craziness that has ensued during a procedure that one would assume was mundane, especially since it was being done every morning. Nothing is mundane in Kafka’s world.