born July 3, 1883, Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary [now in Czech
died June 3, 1924, Kierling, near Vienna, Austria
German-language writer of visionary fiction, whose posthumously
published novels—especially Der Prozess (1925; The Trial) and Das
Schloss (1926; The Castle)—express the anxieties and alienation of
Franz Kafka, the son of Julie Löwy and Hermann Kafka, a merchant, was
born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. After two brothers
died in infancy, he became the oldest child, remaining forever conscious
of his role as older brother; Ottla, the youngest of his three sisters,
became the family member closest to him. Kafka strongly identified with
his maternal ancestors because of their spirituality, intellectual
distinction, piety, rabbinical learning, eccentricity, melancholy
disposition, and delicate physical and mental constitution. He was not,
however, particularly close to his mother, a simple woman devoted to her
children. Subservient to her overwhelming, ill-tempered husband and his
exacting business, she shared with her spouse a lack of comprehension of
their son’s unprofitable and possibly unhealthy dedication to the
literary “recording of [his]…dreamlike inner life.”
The figure of Kafka’s father overshadowed his work as well as his
existence; the figure is, in fact, one of his most impressive creations.
For, in his imagination, this coarse, practical, and domineering
shopkeeper and patriarch, who worshiped nothing but material success and
social advancement, belonged to a race of giants and was an awesome,
admirable, but repulsive tyrant. In Kafka’s most important attempt at
autobiography, Brief an den Vater (written 1919; Letter to Father), a
letter that never reached the addressee, Kafka attributed his failure to
live—to cut loose from parental ties and establish himself in marriage
and fatherhood—as well as his escape into literature, to the prohibitive
father figure, which instilled in him the sense of his own impotence. He
felt his will had been broken by his father. The conflict with the
father is reflected directly in Kafka’s story Das Urteil (1913; The
Judgment). It is projected on a grander scale in Kafka’s novels, which
portray in lucid, deceptively simple prose a man’s desperate struggle
with an overwhelming power, one that may persecute its victim (as in The
Trial) or one that may be sought after and begged in vain for approval
(as in The Castle). Yet the roots of Kafka’s anxiety and despair go
deeper than his relationship to his father and family, with whom he
chose to live in close and cramped proximity for the major part of his
adult life. The source of Kafka’s despair lies in a sense of ultimate
isolation from true communion with all human beings—the friends he
cherished, the women he loved, the job he detested, the society he lived
in—and with God, or, as he put it, with true indestructible Being.
The son of an assimilated Jew who held only perfunctorily to the
religious practices and social formalities of the Jewish community,
Kafka was German both in language and culture. He was a timid,
guilt-ridden, and obedient child who did well in elementary school and
in the Altstädter Staatsgymnasium, an exacting high school for the
academic elite. He was respected and liked by his teachers. Inwardly,
however, he rebelled against the authoritarian institution and the
dehumanized humanistic curriculum, with its emphasis on rote learning
and classical languages. Kafka’s opposition to established society
became apparent when, as an adolescent, he declared himself a socialist
as well as an atheist. Throughout his adult life he expressed qualified
sympathies for the socialists, he attended meetings of the Czech
Anarchists (before World War I), and in his later years he showed marked
interest and sympathy for a socialized Zionism. Even then he was
essentially passive and politically unengaged. As a Jew, Kafka was
isolated from the German community in Prague, but, as a modern
intellectual, he was also alienated from his own Jewish heritage. He was
sympathetic to Czech political and cultural aspirations, but his
identification with German culture kept even these sympathies subdued.
Thus, social isolation and rootlessness contributed to Kafka’s lifelong
personal unhappiness. Kafka did, however, become friendly with some
German-Jewish intellectuals and literati in Prague, and in 1902 he met
Max Brod; this minor literary artist became the most intimate and
solicitous of Kafka’s friends, and eventually he emerged as the
promoter, saviour, and interpreter of Kafka’s writings and as his most
The two men became acquainted while Kafka was studying law at the
University of Prague. He received his doctorate in 1906, and in 1907 he
took up regular employment with an insurance company. The long hours and
exacting requirements of the Assicurazioni Generali, however, did not
permit Kafka to devote himself to writing. In 1908 he found in Prague a
job in the seminationalized Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for
the Kingdom of Bohemia. There he remained until 1917, when tuberculosis
forced him to take intermittent sick leaves and, finally, to retire
(with a pension) in 1922, about two years before he died. In his job he
was considered tireless and ambitious; he soon became the right hand of
his boss, and he was esteemed and liked by all who worked with him.
In fact, generally speaking, Kafka was a charming, intelligent, and
humorous individual, but he found his routine office job and the
exhausting double life into which it forced him (for his nights were
frequently consumed in writing) to be excruciating torture, and his
deeper personal relationships were neurotically disturbed. The
conflicting inclinations of his complex and ambivalent personality found
expression in his sexual relationships. Inhibition painfully disturbed
his relations with Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged before
their final rupture in 1917. Later his love for Milena Jesenská Pollak
was also thwarted. His health was poor and office work exhausted him. In
1917 he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and from then onward he
spent frequent periods in sanatoriums.
In 1923 Kafka went to Berlin to devote himself to writing. During a
vacation on the Baltic coast later that year, he met Dora Dymant (Diamant),
a young Jewish socialist. The couple lived in Berlin until Kafka’s
health significantly worsened during the spring of 1924. After a brief
final stay in Prague, where Dymant joined him, he died of tuberculosis
in a clinic near Vienna.
Sought out by leading avant-garde publishers, Kafka reluctantly
published a few of his writings during his lifetime. These publications
include two sections (1909) from Beschreibung eines Kampfes (1936;
Description of a Struggle); Betrachtung (1913; Meditation), a collection
of short prose pieces; and other works representative of Kafka’s
maturity as an artist—The Judgment, a long story written in 1912; two
further long stories, Die Verwandlung (1915; Metamorphosis) and In der
Strafkolonie (1919; In the Penal Colony); and a collection of short
prose, Ein Landarzt (1919; A Country Doctor). Ein Hungerkünstler (1924;
A Hunger Artist), four stories exhibiting the concision and lucidity
characteristic of Kafka’s late style, had been prepared by the author
but did not appear until after his death.
In fact, misgivings about his work caused Kafka before his death to
request that all of his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed; his
literary executor, Max Brod, disregarded his instructions. Brod
published the novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika in 1925, 1926,
and 1927, respectively, and a collection of shorter pieces, Beim Bau der
chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China), in 1931. Such early works
by Kafka as Description of a Struggle (begun about 1904) and Meditation,
though their style is more concretely imaged and their structure more
incoherent than that of the later works, are already original in a
characteristic way. The characters in these works fail to establish
communication with others; they follow a hidden logic that flouts
normal, everyday logic; their world erupts in grotesque incidents and
violence. Each character is only an anguished voice, vainly questing for
information and understanding of the world and for a way to believe in
his own identity and purpose.
Many of Kafka’s fables contain an inscrutable, baffling mixture of
the normal and the fantastic, though occasionally the strangeness may be
understood as the outcome of a literary or verbal device, as when the
delusions of a pathological state are given the status of reality or
when the metaphor of a common figure of speech is taken literally. Thus
in The Judgment a son unquestioningly commits suicide at the behest of
his aged father. In The Metamorphosis the son wakes up to find himself
transformed into a monstrous and repulsive insect; he slowly dies, not
only because of his family’s shame and its neglect of him but because of
his own guilty despair.
Many of the tales are even more unfathomable. In the Penal Colony
presents an officer who demonstrates his devotion to duty by submitting
himself to the appalling (and clinically described) mutilations of his
own instrument of torture. This theme, the ambiguity of a task’s value
and the horror of devotion to it—one of Kafka’s constant
preoccupations—appears again in A Hunger Artist. The fable Vor dem
Gesetz (1914; Before the Law, later incorporated into The Trial)
presents both the inaccessibility of meaning (the “law”) and man’s
tenacious longing for it. A group of fables written in 1923–24, the last
year of Kafka’s life, all centre on the individual’s vain but undaunted
struggle for understanding and security.
Many of the motifs in the short fables recur in the novels. In
Amerika, for example, the boy Karl Rossmann has been sent by his family
to America. There he seeks shelter with a number of father figures. His
innocence and simplicity are everywhere exploited, and a last chapter
describes his admission to a dreamworld, the “nature-theatre of
Oklahoma”; Kafka made a note that Rossmann was ultimately to perish. In
The Trial, Joseph K., an able and conscientious bank official and a
bachelor, is awakened by bailiffs, who arrest him. The investigation in
the magistrate’s court turns into a squalid farce, the charge against
him is never defined, and from this point the courts take no further
initiative. But Joseph K. consumes himself in a search for inaccessible
courts and for an acquittal from his unknown offense. He appeals to
intermediaries whose advice and explanations produce new bewilderment;
he adopts absurd stratagems; squalor, darkness, and lewdness attend his
search. Resting in a cathedral, he is told by a priest that his
protestations of innocence are themselves a sign of guilt and that the
justice he is forced to seek must forever be barred to him. A last
chapter describes his execution as, still looking around desperately for
help, he protests to the last. This is Kafka’s blackest work: evil is
everywhere, acquittal or redemption is inaccessible, frenzied effort
only indicates man’s real impotence.
In The Castle, one of Kafka’s last works, the setting is a village
dominated by a castle. Time seems to have stopped in this wintry
landscape, and nearly all the scenes occur in the dark. K. arrives at
the village claiming to be a land surveyor appointed by the castle
authorities. His claim is rejected by the village officials, and the
novel recounts K.’s efforts to gain recognition from an authority that
is as elusive as Joseph K.’s courts. But K. is not a victim; he is an
aggressor, challenging both the petty, arrogant officials and the
villagers who accept their authority. All of his stratagems fail. Like
Joseph K., he makes love to a servant, the barmaid Frieda, but she
leaves him when she discovers that he is simply using her. Brod observes
that Kafka intended that K. should die exhausted by his efforts but that
on his deathbed he was to receive a permit to stay. There are new
elements in this novel; it is tragic, not desolate. While the majority
of Kafka’s characters are mere functions, Frieda is a resolute person,
calm and matter-of-fact. K. gains through her personality some insight
into a possible solution of his quest, and, when he speaks of her with
affection, he seems himself to be breaking through his sense of
Kafka’s stories and novels have provoked a wealth of interpretations.
Brod and Kafka’s foremost English translators, Willa and Edwin Muir,
viewed the novels as allegories of divine grace. Existentialists have
seen Kafka’s environment of guilt and despair as the ground upon which
to construct an authentic existence. Some have seen his neurotic
involvement with his father as the heart of his work; others have
emphasized the social criticism, the inhumanity of the powerful and
their agents, the violence and barbarity that lurk beneath normal
routine. Some have found an imaginative anticipation of totalitarianism
in the random and faceless bureaucratic terror of The Trial. The
Surrealists delighted in the persistent intrusions of the absurd. There
is evidence in both the works and the diaries for each of these
interpretations, but Kafka’s work as a whole transcends them all. One
critic may have put it most accurately when he wrote of the works as
“open parables” whose final meanings can never be rounded off.
But Kafka’s oeuvre is also limited. Each of his works bears the marks
of a man suffering in spirit and body, searching desperately, but always
inwardly, for meaning, security, self-worth, and a sense of purpose.
Kafka himself looked upon his writing and the creative act it signified
as a means of “redemption,” as a “form of prayer” through which he might
be reconciled to the world or might transcend his negative experience of
it. The lucidly described but inexplicable darkness of his works reveal
Kafka’s own frustrated personal struggles, but through his powerless
characters and the strange incidents that befall them the author
achieved a compelling symbolism that more broadly signifies the anxiety
and alienation of the 20th-century world itself.
At the time of his death, Kafka was appreciated only by a small
literary coterie. His name and work would not have survived if Max Brod
had honoured Kafka’s testament—two notes requiring his friend to destroy
all unpublished manuscripts and to refrain from republishing the works
that had already appeared in print. Brod took the opposite course, and
thus the name and work of Kafka gained worldwide posthumous fame. This
development took place first during the regime of Adolf Hitler, in
France and the English-speaking countries—at the very time when Kafka’s
three sisters were deported and killed in concentration camps. After
1945 Kafka was rediscovered in Germany and Austria and began to greatly
influence German literature. By the 1960s this influence extended even
to the intellectual, literary, and political life of communist
At the tender age of sixteen, Karl Rossmann finds himself in
exile, shipped to the New World after shaming his family by
getting a serving girl pregnant. Despite being alone and
vulnerable in a strange land, he has youthful optimism and
irrepressible good humor on his side. Karl sets out to seek his
fortune, and finds work as an elevator boy in a hotel. He gets
fired and drifts on again, meeting a succession of bizarre
characters, and in the final chapter joins a mysterious
This is an unsettling and disorienting vision of America. On
arrival, Karl observes the Statue of Liberty holding a huge
sword aloft. This and other puzzling details—a bridge across the
Hudson conveniently connects New York with Boston—may simply
reveal that Kafka never visited America, but they also create a
paradoxical world that is fascinating and sinister, boundlessly
open and broodingly claustrophobic. Here is a place where
success can bring vast wealth and fine mansions, where failure
can lead to misery and rootlessness.
Familiar Kafkaesque themes are already developing—the implied
threat of nameless authority, the fear of being singled out, the
sense of identity slipping away. Amerika was never finished, but
there is enough to tantalize us into speculating about its
conclusion. The final scene, in which Karl heads west on a train
through spectacular scenery, is a paean to the American Dream.
Was this intended as a Kafka novel with a happy ending?
It stands as testament to the achievements of Franz Kafka that
the unfinished state of The Castle is in no way detrimental to
its effectiveness. Unlike The Trial and The Metamorphosis, the
literal entirety of the story is not contained in the first
line; whether this is due to the unfinished nature of the novel
is impossible to know, but The Castle is certainly a more
miasmic, elusive work than even these. In this respect it seems
somehow right that there is no ending, that the events recounted
seemingly form part of an infinite series of which a small
segment has found its way on to the pages of a novel.
The arrival of the land surveyor K in the village that surrounds
the castle, and the discovery that he Is not wanted, and cannot
stay, constitutes the total narrative, but the progression
through the relatively straightforward points is typically
nightmarish. Kafka's integration of absurdity and realism is at
its most subtle here; events never veer from the apparently
literal, but somehow remain totally alien. Despite the apparent
fixedness of characters on a page, the feeling of detachment,
that everyone is self-consciously playing a part, is
inescapable. More than it tells a story, The Castle evokes an
atmosphere, which is of perpetual unease. There is a suggestion
of fear lurking just out of sight with all else obscured by the
interminable obstacles of bureaucracy. The entirety of the novel
is akin to that final moment in a dream when you try to speak
and find no air to carry yourvoice, time slowed to a crawl.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Type of plot: Philosophical and religious allegory
Time of plot: Anytime
First published: Das Schloss, 1926 (English translation, 1930)
In this unfinished novel, sometimes referred to as a modern
Pilgrim's Progress, K. seeks the grace of God to fulfill his life but
finds his path beset with all the confusion of the modern world. His
straightforward attack on the obstacles surrounding the castle and his
unrelenting singleness of purpose are finally rewarded, but only at the
moment of his death.
K., a young man seeking entrance to the castle. He is both puzzled and
irritated by his inability to get to the castle where he had thought
himself needed as a land surveyor. He never reaches the castle. Kafka
intended, in a chapter planned but never written, to relate that K. was
to be given permission to live and work in the village though not to
enter the castle itself. K.'s efforts to reach the castle resemble
Christian's struggle in The Pilgrim's Progress to reach the celestial
city. Christian succeeded but K. did not.
Frieda, a fair-haired, sad-eyed, hollow-cheeked young barmaid; Klamm's
mistress. She becomes K.'s fiancee and stays with him at the Bridge Inn
and later at the schoolhouse. Jealous of his apparent interest in Olga
and Amalia, she rejects K. for Jeremiah.
Barnabas, a white-clad young messenger who brings K. a letter from Klamm
and introduces him to Barnabas' family. He is a servant at the castle.
Olga, his yellow-haired sister, a strapping girl with a hard-looking
face. She shows kindness to K. and tells him much about the organization
of the castle and about the village people.
Amalia, another sister who closely resembles both Olga and Barnabas.
Arthur, K.'s assistant, a slim, brown-skinned, jolly young man with a
little pointed black beard, He and Jeremiah keep an almost constant
watch on K.
Jeremiah, another assistant who looks so like Arthur that K., who says
they are as alike as two snakes, calls him Arthur also.
Klamm, a chief at the castle who is often seen at the Herrenhof. He is
plump, ponderous, and flabby-cheeked, and wears a pointed black mustache
and a pince-nez.
Schwarzer, a young man who telephones the castle to check on K. He is in
love with Gisa.
The Superintendent, a kindly, stout, clean-shaven man suffering from
gout. He tries to explain to K. the intricacies of the management of the
Gardana, the landlady at the Bridge Inn. She was once, briefly, Klamm's
Momus, the village secretary, a deputy of Klamm.
Gisa, the lady schoolteacher.
Sortini, a great official at the castle who once wrote an obscene letter
It was late in the evening when K. arrived in the town which lay before
the castle of Count West-west. After his long walk through deep snow, K.
wanted to do nothing so much as go to sleep. He went to an inn and fell
asleep by the fire, only to be awakened by a man wanting to see his
permit to stay in the town. K. explained that he had just arrived and
that he had come at the count's request to be the new land surveyor. A
telephone call to the castle established the fact that a land surveyor
was expected. K. was allowed to rest in peace.
The next morning, although his assistant had not yet arrived, K. decided
to go to the castle to report for duty. He set off through the snowy
streets toward the castle, which as he walked seemed farther and farther
away. After a while he became tired, and he stopped in a house for
refreshment and directions. As he left the house, he saw two men coming
from the castle. He tried to speak to them, but they refused to stop. As
evening came on, K. got a ride back to the inn in a sledge.
At the inn, he met the two men he had seen coming from the castle. They
introduced themselves as Arthur and Jeremiah and said that they were his
old assistants. They were not, but K. accepted them, because he knew
that they had come from the castle and therefore must have been sent to
help him. Because the two men so greatly resembled each other, he could
not tell the two men apart and therefore called them both Arthur. He
ordered them to have a sledge to take him to the castle in the morning.
When they refused, K. telephoned the castle. A voice told him that he
could never come to the castle. Shortly afterward, a messenger named
Barnabas arrived with a letter from Klamm, a chief at the castle. K. was
ordered to report to the superintendent of the town.
K. arranged for a room in the inn. He asked Barnabas to let him go for a
walk with him. Barnabas, a kind young man, agreed. He took K. to his
home to meet his two sisters, Olga and Amalia, and his sickly old mother
and father. K., however, was ill at ease; it was Barnabas, not he, who
had come home. When Olga left to get some beer from a nearby inn, K.
went with her. At the inn it was made clear that he would be welcome
only in the bar. The other rooms were reserved for the gentlemen from
In the bar, K. quickly made friends with the barmaid, Frieda, who seemed
to wish to save him from Olga and her family. She hid K. underneath the
counter. K. did not understand what was happening. He learned that
Frieda had been Klamm's mistress.
Frieda was determined to stay with K. from then on, if K. were willing.
K. thought he might as well marry her. Determined to get through to the
castle, he thought his chances would improve if he married a girl who
had been a chief's mistress. Arthur and Jeremiah came into the room and
watched them. K. sent the men away. Frieda decided to go to the inn
where K. was staying.
K. went to call on the village superintendent, whom he found sick in bed
with gout. K. learned from him that a land surveyor had been needed
several years before but that nobody knew why K. had now come to fill
the unnecessary post. When K. showed him Klamm's letter, the
superintendent said that it was of no importance. The superintendent
convinced him that his arrival in the town was a result of confusion. K.
decided to remain and find work so that he could become an accepted
citizen of the town.
By the time K. returned to the inn, Frieda had made his room
comfortable. The schoolmaster came to offer K. the job of janitor at the
school. At Frieda's insistence, K. accepted. That night K., Frieda, and
the two assistants went to the school to live. The next morning, the
assistants tricked K. into so many arguments with the teachers that K.
dismissed both of them. After he had done his day's work, he slipped
away from Frieda and went to Barnabas' house to see if he had received a
message from the castle.
Barnabas was not at home. Olga explained that her family was an outcast
group because of Amelia's refusal to become the mistress of one of the
gentlemen of the castle. He had written her a very crude and obscene
letter, which Amalia destroyed. Afterward the whole town had turned
against them. K. was so interested in this story that he did not realize
how late he had stayed. When he finally got ready to go, he saw that
Jeremiah was outside spying on him.
K. slipped out the back way but came back down the street and asked
Jeremiah why he was there. The man sullenly answered that Frieda had
sent him. She had gone back to her old job at the tavern and never
wanted to see K. again. Barnabas came up with the news that one of the
most important men from the castle was waiting at the tavern to see K.
At the tavern, he learned that the gentleman had gone to sleep. As he
stood in the hall, he saw Frieda going down another corridor. He ran
after her to explain why he had stayed away so long with Olga, and he
asked her to come back to him. Just as she seemed to relent. Jeremiah
came from one of the rooms and persuaded Frieda to go with him. Frieda
left K. forever.
At this point, the novel in its published form ends, and for the rest of
the story we have only the few statements made by Kafka to his friends
in conversation. K. was to continue his fight to live and work in the
town and eventually to reach the castle. On his deathbed, he was to
receive a call from the castle, a message granting him the right to live
in the town in peace.
The reader's efforts to approach Kakfa's last, longest, and most
enigmatic novel prove no more successful than those of its elliptically
named hero, Ê., to reach the castle for which it is named. Critics have
read The Castle as religious allegory, as existential novel, as
modernist text, as autobiography. The novel's dreamlike setting—out of
time and space, distant yet disconcertingly close at hand (with
telephones and electric lights)—invites this multiplicity of
interpretive approaches on the part of both readers and characters.
Against the village's blank snowscape, K. and the villagers seize and
elaborate upon the few facts available to them, adding their own
interpretive explanations in such a way as to make all efforts to
distinguish fact from fiction problematic. Similar to the midrash
practiced by Hebrew scholars who flesh out gaps in the biblical
narrative with commentary that then becomes part of the narrative,
Kafka's technique transforms the novel into less a network of meanings
than a field of interpretive possibilities, in which it becomes as
impossible as it is necessary to determine where the phenom-enological
castle "itself leaves off and where the characters' conceptions and
commentaries about it begin.
The novel poses a large number of unresolvable antinomies-castle and
village, of course, as well as the village and the vague world from
which K. comes. God and man, spirit and flesh, ideal and real, male and
female, father and son, authority and freedom, order and accident—and as
such poses for the reader the question of precisely where to place
interpretive stress in so decen-tered a work and so decentered a world.
Desperate for meaning, characters and readers alike grasp at whatever is
at hand, giving it a meaning it may or may not have and turning it into
the Ptolemaic center around which all else must, at least momentarily,
revolve. This narrative relativism manifests itself in the way in which
everything in the novel, even the simplest description, includes its
opposite or at least the possibility of its opposite. Everything is
qualified so that even the omnipotent castle itself may be nothing more
than "a manner of speaking." Reaching into every corner of The Castle,
the irony turns on itself—at least potentially—causing the reader to
feel about the novel the way one character, Olga, feels about her
sister, Amalia. "It's not easy to follow her, for often one can't tell
whether she's speaking ironically or in earnest. Mostly she's in earnest
but sounds ironical."
Given such a world, K.'s confusion is understandable, yet he too is
ambiguously presented. He is the existential outsider, precursor of
Roquentin in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938) and Meursault in Albert
Camus' The Stranger (1942), but he is also the comic schlemiel of Jewish
fiction, who speaks with great authority despite his ignorance and who
often ends his speeches by running away from his audience. Even his
status as existential outsider proves double; he is ignorant of what the
villagers know, yet privileged in that he is not blinded by the habits
and myths by which they live.
K. questions and asserts, doubts and demands. Meanwhile, the castle
remains remote and impregnable—the fit symbol of all that lies
mysteriously beyond the merely human. Because it has no single,
definable meaning— in fact, it may have no meaning at all—the castle can
mean everything. It can be both peace and pandemonium, origin and
projection, refuge and refusal; it is imperfect, even incompetent, in
the workings of its functionaries, yet ultimately perfect and omnipotent
in "itself." It is the perfect object of desire—the source, or home,
where all is explained, decided, final—but its perfection depends upon
its being forever unattainable. Thus, the castle represents not only the
fulfillment K. desires but its opposite as well; the frustration of a
perfect futility, fueled by K.'s discontent over the bleakness of the
world in which he lives (a bleakness perceived against the contrasting
background of the idealized castle). The circularity of K.'s quest
becomes even more apparent when one considers that K. not only regards
the castle as the source of his own identity; he also demands that the
castle tell him that he is the land surveyor that he says he is.
He demands that it validate his existence and validate, too, the
identity for which he prefers not to have to take responsibility.
If the castle did not exist it would have to be invented, which is to
say imagined, projected, hypothesized. Life without hope of its
existence and its power to validate is unimaginable for the villagers
and, to a slightly lesser extent, for K. as well. They must believe in
its existence in order to believe in their own. Further, they must
believe in its arbitrary system of rewards and punishments in order not
to have to confront their own insignificance— indeed, their
invisibility—and, most disconcerting, their freedom. It is precisely
this meaningless freedom—the very center of Sartre's later
existentialism—which they reject in order to have their existences
certified for them. They long to be named, even as wrongdoer, rather
than see themselves as they are. or at least as they may be:
unnecessary, even superfluous. Dismayingly, this feeling and this fear
cause the characters to enact among themselves the system of inequality
which they experience in all their dealings with the castle: exerting
arbitrary power over an inferior other, whose worth and sometimes even
whose existence they simply deny.
What is terrifying and yet so comical about K. and the others is
precisely their capacity for hope, coupled with their inability to act
in any way other than absurdly. The apparent baselessness of their hope
is, however, the very basis of their faith and. of course, of their
absurdity. The castle toward which, as well as against which, K.
struggles may be a spiritual fact or a psychological delusion. Both
possibilities exist; neither can be eliminated or denied, and it is from
this intolerable coexistence that the novel derives much of its power to
unsettle. "For the extremely ridiculous and the extremely serious are
not far removed from each other." In the ending Kafka projected for this
unfinished, perhaps unfinishable novel, K., worn down by the struggle
and now on his deathbed, learns that although he has no right to stay in
the village, the castle will now permit him to remain. Thus does Kafka's
labyrinthine novel come full circle, leaving K. where he began: without
any rights, without any hope of appeal, without either an identity
(other than that of stranger) or a name (other than his lone initial),
and still at the mercy of the whimsical (or, alternately, benevolent)
castle. K. remains what he has been: inexplicably and existentially just
there, perplexed yet persistent, paradoxically so. "What could have
enticed me to this desolate country except the wish to stay here?" His
wish granted, K. is now free to die, but whether he will die deluded or
redeemed (his persistence rewarded), it is impossible to say. This much,
however, is clear: In the world according to Kafka, belief has grown
increasingly suspect, the prospect of life without faith terrifyingly
bleak, and the individual absurdly, tragicomically free.
"Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K.,
for he was arrested one morning without having done anything
As in Kafka's long story Metamorphosis—which begins with the
line "Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to find
himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"—the
entire narrative of The Trial emerges from the condition that
announces itself in the opening sentence. The protagonist, Josef
K., never discovers what he is being charged with, and is never
able to understand the principles governing the system of
justice in which he finds himself ensnared. Instead, the
narrative follows his exhausting determination to understand and
to protest his innocence in the complete absence of any doctrine
that would explain to him what it would mean to be guilty, or
indeed, of what he actually stands accused. In following Josef
K.'s struggle toward absolution, the novel presents us with an
astonishingly moving account of what it is to be born naked and
defenseless into a completely incomprehensible system, armed
only with a devout conviction of innocence.
Intimacy with this novel has a peculiar effect. If the first
response to K.'s grappling with the authorities is a sense of
familiarity and recognition, there is soon a strange reversal.
It begins to seem that our world merely resembles Kafka's; that
our struggles are a faint likeness of the essential struggle
that is revealed to us in K.'s endless plight. For this reason
The Trial, in all its inconclusion, its impossibility, and its
difficulty, is a wildly exhilarating book, which takes us to the
very empty heart of what it is to be alive in a world of
everyday trials pushed to the extreme.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Type of plot: Fantasy
Time of plot: Twentieth century
First published: Der Prozess, 1925 (English translation, 1937)
Left unfinished at the time of his death, Kafka's disturbing and
vastly influential novel has been interpreted on many levels of
structure and symbol; but most commentators agree that the book explores
the themes of guilt, anxiety, and moral impotency in the face of some
ambiguous external force.
Joseph K., an employee in a bank. He is a man without particular
qualitites or abilities, a fact which makes doubly strange his "arrest"
by the officer of the court in the large city where K. lives. Joseph
K.'s life is purely conventional and resembles the life of any other
person of his class. Consequently, he tries in vain to discover how he
has aroused the suspicion of the court. His honesty is conventional; his
sins, with Elsa the waitress, are conventional; and he has no striking
or dangerous ambitions. He is a man without a face; at the most, he can
only ask questions, and he receives no answers that clarify the strange
world of courts and court functionaries in which he is compelled to
Frau Grubach, K.'s landlady. She has a high opinion of K. and is deeply
shocked by his arrest. She can do nothing to help him.
Fraiilein Burstner, a respectable young woman who also lives in Frau
Grubach's house. She avoids any close entanglement with K.
The Assistant Manager, K.'s superior at the bank. He invites K. to
social occasions which K. cannot attend because of his troubles with the
court. He is also eager to invade K.'s proper area of authority.
The Examining Magistrate, the official who opens the formal
investigation of K.'s offense. He conducts an unruly, arbitrary, and
The Washerwoman, an amiable but loose woman who lives in the court
building. She is at the disposal of all the functionaries.
The Usher, the subservient husband of the washerwoman. His submission to
official authority is, like his wife's, a sign of the absorption of the
individual into the system.
The Clerk of Inquiries, a minor official who reveals court procedures to
newly arrested persons.
Franz and Willem, minor officers of the court, who must endure the
attentions of The Whipper because K. has complained to the court about
Uncle Karl (Albert K.), K's uncle, who is determined that K. shall have
good legal help in his difficulties.
Huld, the lawyer, an ailing and eccentric man, in league with the court.
He keeps his great knowledge of the law half-hidden from Ê. Ê. finally
dismisses the lawyer as a man whose efforts will be useless.
Leni, the notably promiscuous servant at the lawyer's house. Full of
kind instructions to K., she tells him how to get along with the erratic
Block, a tradesman who has been waiting for five and a half years for
Huld to do something for him. He lives at the lawyer's house in order to
be ready for consultations at odd hours.
The Manufacturer, one of K.'s clients. He expresses sympathy for K.'s
plight and sends K. to an artist acquaintance, Titorelli, as a means of
influencing the court in K.'s favor.
Titorelli, an impoverished painter who lives in an attic just off the
courts of justice. He paints many a magistrate in uneasy and yet
traditional poses. He explains in great detail to K. the different kinds
of sentences an accused person can receive. He also reveals the contrast
between what the law is supposed to do and how it actually works.
The Prison Chaplain, whom K. encounters as the preacher at the Cathedral
in the town. The Chaplain tells K. a long story about a door guarded by
a Tartar; it is a door that somehow exists especially for K. Despite his
sympathy, the Chaplain finally reveals himself as merely one more
employee of the court.
Perhaps someone had been telling lies about Joseph K., for one morning
he was arrested. The landlady's cook always brought him his breakfast at
eight o'clock, but this morning she failed to appear. Joseph looked out
of the window and noticed that the old lady across the way was peering
into his room. Feeling uneasy, he rang the bell. At once a man entered
dressed like a tourist. He advised Joseph to stay in his room, but
Joseph failed to obey. In the next room he saw another strange man
reading a book. The missing breakfast was explained by the empty dishes
he saw. The two strangers had eaten it.
The two strangers had come to notify Joseph that he was under arrest.
They were so sure of themselves and yet so considerate that Joseph was
at a loss as to how to respond to them. They tried to take his
underwear, saying it was of too good quality, but when he objected, they
did not press him. They refused to tell him the reason for his arrest,
saying only that he would be interrogated. Finally, after Joseph had
dressed according to their directives, they led him to another room to
be questioned by the Inspector.
To his dismay Joseph saw that the Inspector was occupying Fraiilein
Biirstner's room. The Inspector gave no further hint as to the reason
for the arrest nor did he inquire into Joseph's defense. The latter at
one point said that the whole matter was a mistake; but under pertinent
if vague questioning, Joseph admitted that he knew little of the law.
All he learned, really, was that someone in high authority had ordered
Then Joseph was told that he could go to work as usual. His head fairly
aching from bewilderment, Joseph went to the bank in a taxi. Arriving
half an hour late, he worked all day long as diligently as he could.
Frequently, however, he was interrupted by congratulatory callers, for
this day was his thirtieth birthday.
He went straight home at nine-thirty to apologize for using Fraiilein
Biirstner's room. She was not in, however, and he settled down to
anxious waiting. At eleven-thirty she arrived, tired from an evening at
the theater. In spite of her uninterested attitude, he told her the
whole story very dramatically. At last Fraulein Biirstner sank down
exhausted on her bed. Joseph rushed to her, kissed her passionately many
times, and returned to his room.
A few days later Joseph received a brief note ordering him to appear
before the court for interrogation on the following Sunday. Oddly
enough, although the address was given, no time was set for the hearing.
By some chance Joseph decided to go at nine o'clock. The street was a
rather mean one, and the address proved to be that of a large warehouse.
Joseph did not know where to report, but after trying many doors, he
finally reached the fifth floor. There a bright-eyed washerwoman seemed
to be expecting him and motioned him through her flat into a meeting
hall. Joseph found the room filled with old men, most of them with long
beards. They all wore badges.
When the judge asked Joseph if he were a house painter, he snappishly
rejoined that he was the junior manager of a bank. Then the judge said
he was an hour and ten minutes late. To this charge Joseph replied that
he was present now, his appearance in court being the main thing. The
crowd applauded. Encouraged, Joseph launched into a harangue damning the
court, its methods, the warders who had arrested him, and the meeting
time and place.
The judge seemed abashed. Then an interruption occurred. At the back of
the room, a man clasped the washerwoman in his arms and screamed, all
the while looking at the ceiling. Joseph dashed from the room, loudly
refusing to have any more dealings with the court.
All that week Joseph awaited another summons. When none came, he decided
to revisit the meeting hall. The washerwoman again met him kindly and
expressed her disappointment that the court was not in session. She told
him a little about the court and its methods. It seemed that the court
was only a lower body which rarely interfered with the freedom of the
accused people. If one were acquitted by the court, it meant little,
because a higher court might rearrest the prisoner on the same charge.
She seemed to know little of Joseph's particular case, although she said
she knew as much as the judge. As she was speaking, a law student seized
the washerwoman and carried her up the stairs.
The woman's husband kindly offered to lead Joseph up to the law offices,
the inner sanctum of the court located in the attic. There Joseph found
a number of people waiting for answers to petitions. Some of them had
been waiting for years, and they were becoming a little anxious about
their cases. The hot room under the roof made Joseph dizzy, and he had
to sit down. The hostess tried to soothe him, and the director of public
relations was very pleasant. Finally someone suggested that Joseph ought
to leave and get some fresh air.
On his uncle's advice, Joseph hired an advocate, an old man who stayed
in bed most of the time. His servant, Leni, took a liking to Joseph and
would often kiss him while he was conferring with the advocate. Joseph
liked best to dally with her in the kitchen. After some months, all the
advocate had done was to think about writing a petition. In desperation
Joseph discharged him from the case.
Leni was heartbroken. She was in her nightgown entertaining another
client. This man, a businessman, Leni kept locked up in a small bedroom.
The advocate warned Joseph of his high-handed behavior and pointed to
the businessman as an ideal client. Disgusted, Joseph left the house.
Then Joseph went to see Titorelli, the court painter. Titorelli told him
he could hope for little. He might get definitive acquittal, ostensible
acquittal, or indefinite postponement. No one was ever really acquitted,
but sometimes cases could be prolonged indefinitely. Joseph bought three
identical paintings in return for the advice.
Even the priest at the cathedral, who said he was court chaplain,
offered little encouragement when consulted. He was sure that Joseph
would be convicted of the crime charged against him. Joseph still did
not know what the crime was, nor did the priest.
At last two men in frock coats and top hats came for Joseph at nine
o'clock on the evening before his thirty-first birthday. Somehow they
twined their arms around
his and held his hands tightly. They walked with him to a quarry. There
one held his throat and the other stabbed him in the heart, turning the
knife around twice.
The Trial is one of the most effective and most widely discussed works
to come out of central Europe between the world wars. Although the
complex and ambiguous surface of the novel defies exact interpretation,
the plight of Joseph K., consumed by guilt and condemned for a "crime"
he does not understand by a "court" with which he cannot communicate, is
a profound and disturbing image of man in the modern world. To some the
court is a symbol of the Church as an imperfect bridge between the
individual and God. To others, the symbolism represents rather the
search of a sensitive Jew for a homeland that is always denied him.
Although unfinished, The Trial is a powerful and provocative book.
As one of the pillars upon which Franz Kafka's reputation as a major
twentieth century author rests, The Trial was among the works he ordered
destroyed in his will. It survives only because his friend Max Brod, who
possessed a manuscript of the unfinished novel, disobeyed Kafka and
preserved it, along with The Castle (1926), Amerika (1913), and a host
of fragments and shorter works. The salvaging of this novel from the
manuscript was not an easy task, however, and controversy still exists
as to the proper order of the chapters as well as over the placement and
interpretation of a number of unfinished segments which are not included
in the usual editions. Fortunately, both the beginning and the end of
the novel are extant, and because of the peculiar structure of the work,
minor changes in the order of the sections do not really alter one's
understanding of it.
The novel is structured within an exact time frame: Exactly one year
elapses between the arrest of Joseph K. (the K. clearly refers to Kafka
himself, though the work is hardly autobiographical in the usual sense),
which takes place on his thirtieth birthday, and his execution, which
takes place on the night before his thirty-first birthday. Moreover, the
novel tells almost nothing about Joseph K.'s past; there are no
memories, no flashbacks, no expository passages explaining the
background. As in so many of his works, Kafka begins The Trial with the
incursion of a totally unexpected force into an otherwise uneventful
life, and the situation never again returns to normal. Kafka felt that
the moment of waking was the most dangerous moment of the day, a time
when one was unprotected by the structures of one's life and open to
such an incursion. Joseph K., in his vulnerable state, responds to the
messengers of the court; from this point, there is no turning back. Yet
the court is invisible—a hierarchy in which even the lowest members are
somehow beyond his reach. There are no formal charges, no procedures,
and little information to guide the defendant. Indeed, one of the most
unsettling aspects of the novel is the constant uncertainty, the
continual juxtaposition of alternative hypotheses, the multiple
explanations for events, and the differing interpretations regarding
cause and effect. The whole rational structure of the world is
undermined, as perceived reality becomes the subject of detailed
exegesis such as one might apply to sacred Scripture. Reality itself
becomes a vague concept, since the reader is denied the guiding
commentary of a narrator and sees everything from Joseph's point of
view. The entire work is composed of Joseph's experiences; he is present
in every scene. Secondary characters appear only as they relate to him,
and the reader knows no more than he does. With Joseph, the reader
receives information which may be misinformation, experiences bizarre,
barely credible incidents, and moves from scene to scene as if in a
trance. This narrowness of the point of view becomes oppressive, but it
is highly effective as a technique; the reader, in effect, becomes
The body of the novel consists of Joseph's attempts to approach the
court through a series of "helpers." These helpers, however, offer no
encouragement to his possible defense or acquittal. Since there are no
charges, a defense is virtually impossible. Their advice is simply to
prolong the trial, to avoid a decision, to adjust to the idea of living
on trial without seeking a judgment. It is for this reason that the
order of the central chapters is not crucial: Aside from Joseph's
increasing exhaustion, there is no real development, merely a series of
false starts, leading him no closer to a solution. Whether or not there
is any development in Joseph's position before his death is open to
debate, and critics have disagreed strongly. In the next to last
chapter, "In the Cathedral," Joseph is told the parable of the man who
comes seeking entrance into the Law. His way is blocked by a doorkeeper,
and the man's entire life is spent waiting. As he dies, he learns that
this door, which he could never enter, was nevertheless meant for him
alone. Typically, several possible interpretations are offered, but it
is perhaps significant that the next chapter finds Joseph waiting for
his executioners. Has he come to an acceptance? Does the paradox achieve
meaning for him? However that may be, he does not have the strength to
act, and he dies, as he thinks at the end, "like a dog."
One is left with the question of what it all means. This is perhaps the
wrong question to ask, because it implies that there is a meaning which
can be defined, or a key to understanding which generally involves
assigning some allegorical value to the court, such as authoritarian
society, man's alienation from a sense of wholeness and purpose in life,
or the search for God's grace. Yet it is the genius of Kafka's works
that their meanings are inexhaustible and veiled in an ultimately
impenetrable mystery. His works admit of many interpretations, but the
more specific the definition of the meaning of the work, the more
inadequate it is to encompass the full amplitude of the novel. Kafka's
works are less allegorical than symbolic; their symbolism lies in the
construction of an image or an experience that is analogous to a human
experience that lies far deeper than any of the specific problems
offered as explanations for the work's meaning. In The Trial, Joseph K.
is confronted with the need to justify his life and to justify it at a
metaphysical level deeper than any ex post facto rationalization of his
actions. It is a demand he cannot meet, and yet it is inescapable
because it arises from within him. He is an Everyman, but he is stripped
of his religion and on trial fro his life. For Kafka, the trial becomes
a metaphor for life itself, and every sentence is a sentence of death.