Cycle of a non-person: The Castle by Kafka

Kafka’s final novel describes a land surveyor, simply known as “K.” arriving in an unnamed village, over which looms a castle and its mysterious bureaucracy. Through K.’s attempt to find out why he has been sent and what he is supposed to do in the village, Kafka captures the feelings of alienation, anxiety, loneliness, pain and existential angst that are universal to the human condition. Conversations with the village mayor, the schoolteacher, the landlady of the inn and a woman to whom he becomes engaged never help K. feel settled or at home in this strange place which he refuses to leave.

As I was reading The Castle, a passage from an essay entitled, “Answers and Questions” written by the exiled  Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante kept coming to mind. Initially a supporter of Fidel Castro and the revolution in his country, Cabrera Infante becomes disillusioned with the suppressive Communist regime that launches his people into poverty. The author decides that if he is to continue his career as a writer then his only option is to leave Cuba and go into exile. He describes the horrifying and sad fate of those who are trapped in Cuba and have become what he calls a non-person:

Cycle of a non-person: request for exit from the country, automatic loss of job and eventual inventory of house and household goods; without work there is no work card, without a work card there is no ration book; the permission for exit can take months, a year, two, following the rules more of political lottery than of socialist chess; meanwhile, the non-person finds himself obliged to live by using the money he has saved in the bank: to leave he must restore even the last cent that he had in the bank at the moment of requesting the exit visa; if the bank account is not in order the exit visa is automatically cancelled: new request for exit visa, etc., etc.

The Castle illustrates that there are many ways in which a man or woman can be made to feel like a “non-person”: politically, socially, emotionally, economically, etc. We oftentimes feel in life, despite our best efforts to settle down, like we don’t belong in a home, a country, a relationship, a job, etc.

Kafka’s female characters and his descriptions of various romantic relationships in The Castle also fascinated me.  Women seem to hold a certain amount of power and influence in the village.  The Landlady, for instance, is the reason for the success of The Inn and the mayor’s wife Mizzi has more influence over decisions that are made in the village than the mayor himself.  When K. arrives in town he meets Freida the barmaid and after a single night of passionate sex on the Castle Inn floor, he becomes engaged to her.  But women can also become a burden as relationships grow more and more complicated and the passion dissolves.  K. takes a menial job as a school janitor so that he and Freida will have a home and a source of income.  How many sacrifices and compromises can a man or woman make in a relationship before one loses his or her identity?  How often to we feel like a non-person, a shadow of our true selves, because of obligations to family, friends, spouses, etc.?  I’m not surprised that Kafka was engaged several times and never had the desire to make a final commitment to one woman.

I am interested to see what others have thought about The Castle.  Let me know your impressions in the comments!

9 Comments

Filed under Classics, German Literature

9 responses to “Cycle of a non-person: The Castle by Kafka

  1. It’s a long time since I read The Castle, What always strikes me about Kafka is how real it feels and this is no exception. Did you choose this version with based on the translator? (I know there’s at least four different translations in print).

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    • Someone recommended the Mark Harmon translation so I bought that one first. But then I saw that Oxford Classics had an edition translated by Anthea Bell so that’s the one I went with.

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  2. Like Grant I haven’t read The Castle for ages – decades I think. I remember loving the book and being fascinated by the fact he was being smothered by circumstance. It’s obviously something I need to read again! 🙂

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  3. It is many years since I read The Castle but Kafka is always fascinating. And I agree with your assessment of his female characters!

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  4. It’s a very long time since I read The Castle; I remember finding it a little unsatisfying, perhaps the unfinished aspect was a little too apparent but then Kafka can be a little frustrating anyway (I think, generally, that’s the point). I remember very little about it now, which perhaps is a sign I should read it again or, perhaps, that it’s not as powerful a book as The Trial or some of his short stories which are extremely memorable. Always an interesting read nonetheless. Great review.

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  5. Jonathan

    I also read ‘The Castle’ years ago but I keep meaning to re-read it. I didn’t like it as much as ‘The Trial’, which I’ve read a few times, and so wonder how much I’d like it now.

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  6. I have long regretted that the Marx Brothers did not make a film adaptation of this novel.

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