Lost in a File-cabinet: Kafka’s ‘The Castle’
The specter of bureaucracy was not only looming on the horizon of Europe when Franz Kafka wrote his unfinished novel The Castle, its nightmares had already begun to manifest themselves in everyday life. The Russian authors Dostoevskii and Gogol, two authors Kafka had been influenced by, had already explored the dark side of bureaucracy. Kafka did not merely follow this tradition, he created a masterpiece that defies anachronism. In a literary world where bureaucracy was taken for granted, Kafka looked beyond frustration into its yet unexplored realms- particularly, to the phenomenon of insinuating oneself in the system. How can one purposefully entangle oneself with a bureaucracy and make it beneficial? Kafka seems to be looking at precisely that.
K., the protagonist of the novel, is deceitful from the very beginning. He wanders in to a village one night, and even admits originally that he has no idea where he is: “’What village is this I have wandered into? Is there a castle here? (4)’” Of course, if he was supposed to be there, he would not need to ask where he was. Only after being informed that he was to be ejected from the place does he concoct the story of being the awaited Land-surveyor. The blatant lie serves the purpose of getting him out of immediate trouble and buying him time, for it would take some effort to completely disprove his claim.
The Land-surveyor is supposed to have two servants. K. claims that they are his old assistants, even going so far as to claim that they have an apparatus which he gave them with them. When he meets them for the first time, he admits that he does not know them, and then asks them if they are indeed his old servants. They claim that they are, but admit that they have no apparatus. Later in the book, however, one of the servants acknowledges to K. that he was sent by the Castle to cheer him up. The Castle must have known already that K. was lying then, and took advantage of this by insinuating two spies into K.’s everyday life. If K. had truly come as the Land-surveyor, he would not have accepted the two as servants as his old servants.
At one point, K. even admits that everything has been a big con. K. recalls how if it weren’t for Schwarzer, the man he first lied to in the inn upon arriving, there would be no question of him being a Land-surveyor, and he would be involved with the bureaucratic process, but not on his own terms: “The authorities would have pursued the matter further, but calmly, in the ordinary course of business, unhorsed by what they probably hated most, the impatience of a waiting applicant (217).” The fact that it was K. who first engaged the bureaucracy, with a case that couldn’t be settled either way by a miserably dysfunctional government, gave K. all the power. If it was the bureaucracy who came to K., this book would be The Trial all over again.
The sham is even recognized by K.’s fiancee, Frieda. K. tries to enlist a child in a deceitful game against his mother, the deceit of which Frieda recognizes instantly. The deceit of K. in that particular situation is then extended by Frieda into their entire affair: “’To me, you looked just as you did that night when you came into the taproom… and I saw how he had fallen under your influence so completely already, well, what great difference was there between him, the poor boy, being exploited here by you, and myself that time in the taproom? (206)’” K.’s response is that what Frieda has said is not untrue. For K., being with Frieda was just another way to gain connection to the Castle, on account of her relationship with Klamm.
The fact that the real object for K. is not to gain access to the Castle is made apparent early on: “’My assistants should be arriving soon. Will you be able to put them up here?’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ he said, ‘but won’t they be staying with you up at the Castle?’… ‘That’s not at all certain yet,’ said K.; ‘I must first find out what work I have to do… I’m afraid, too, that life in the Castle wouldn’t suit me. I like to be my won master (9).’” At this point, it was not difficult for K. to create a fake purpose, so why not make an attempt at this point to gain access to the Castle? Not long thereafter he doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity to accompany Barnabas to the Castle. Though there is no apparent risk involved, he creates one in his mind to make it easier to decline.
The objective is to involve himself in a protracted engagement with the power structure of the society he’d wandered into. Though he is told that he won’t be admitted to the Castle, he has no real reason to believe that it is really that risky to at least attempt. If it were simply a matter of getting behind the walls, there’s no reason to believe that the goal is unobtainable. He is even told later by the sister of Barnabas, Olga, that there are people who simply wander into the Castle and ask for a job. As K. claims himself, “he had not come here simply to lead an honored and comfortable life (200).” If he mad a claim on a job that could actually be obtained, the matter might eventually be settled, ending K.’s game.
Learning quickly how deeply ineffectual the local system is, K.’s insistence that he has a right to be in the village only increases. First setting his sights on a visit with the mayor, he then insists on meeting Klamm, an official of the Castle, himself. The meeting with the mayor tells a great deal about the system under which the village operates. A convoluted story is told by the mayor about the Land-surveyor situation. A search ensues for the documents about the Land-surveyor problem, the result of which is the revelation that the documents are completely lost. The scene is like a metaphor for the entire novel: just as K.’s case as the non-Land-surveyor becomes lost in endless bureaucracy, documents- which may or may not have ever existed- are lost in the “filing system,” and all action is doomed to postponement. All of this is to K.’s advantage, for as long as he has a case nominally existing in the system, he has a connection to the system.
One reason that being entrenched in bureaucratic processes is beneficial to K. is that it is the only way anything ever happens in the village/Castle society. Olga tells K. of how her father tried to circumvent the bureaucracy, and reach the officials directly: he sat on the Castle hill road and waited for the officials to pass by, so that he could petition them directly. The officials drive very fast, never stop, and have no time for him, however. She also tells K. that her father was the only one trying such a futile way to get to the Castle, and that everyone with common sense would banish the thought of doing so. The point of the story is that no one ever circumvents bureaucracy, and no one ever reaches the officials.
Olga’s own attempts at connection to the Castle are less dignified, but perhaps more reasonable considering the circumstances of village life: “’For more than two years, at least twice a week, I’ve spent the night with the servants in the stables (285).’” She admits that her actions are almost hopeless and undeniably ineffectual,but insists to K. that she is making at least some connection to the Castle. The “crime” of the family that has reduced t˝hem to desperate measures to gain connection to the Castle was that the family declined the greater connection (through Sortini) to the Castle that was freely given. This is not to say that Castle connections are good or worthwhile: observe the case of the Landlady. Nonetheless, in a world dominated by bureaucracy, those who shun it are punished.
In conclusion, though K.’s case is never settled, can’t it be said that things ended well for K.? He managed to drag out his struggle with the Castle over his petty case, and thus maintained his coveted connection to the Castle. In all likeliness, that might be the best that can be achieved, for there is no real reason to believe that direct interaction with the officials can even happen. In the meantime, he got to run free through the village, involving himself in all kinds of intrigue- the pastime of society ruled by impersonal and deeply entrenched bureaucracy.
Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1974.