Book Review: The Castle by Franz Kafka

There’s no rhyme or reason for the complicated bureaucracy the main character in The Castle tries to penetrate. At every turn, he deals with obstacles or receives explanations that make little sense.

If you’ve ever read anything by Franz Kafka, this description of The Castle will sound very familiar. Many of Kafka’s books and short stories deal with similar themes – alienation and the quest to obtain the unobtainable.

I recently finished The Trial and moved on to The Castle quickly afterward. Like Kafka’s other novels, The Castle was published posthumously by Max Brod, who was Kafka’s literary executor. Kafka never finished The Castle in his lifetime, and the book ends in mid-sentence. Kafka probably gave up on the book and didn’t plan on finishing it.

I’ll be honest: The Castle is what you could call an artsy-fartsy book. For some, the absurdity of the plot and the dialogue will be a turnoff. Indeed, the book is odd – paragraphs continue for several pages, characters go off on long monologues, and the sentences can be unwieldy.

But I think what makes Kafka’s works – including The Castle – so unique and fascinating is they open a window into the author’s tortured and anxious mind. The Castle is heavy on theme and, over the years, reviewers have studied the text like one trying to break a code. They’ve come up with different ideas for the theme and meaning.

A search for God?

The Castle was published in German in 1926 and then first published in English four years later. The story centers around a character known only as “K.,” a supposed land surveyor who arrives in a snowy village that’s governed by an unaccountable bureaucracy. K. spends the entirety of the book trying to gain entry to the Castle in the village, but he’s continually rebuffed.

Many of the residents K. meets hold the Castle and the officials who work there in high regard. Yet, none of the villagers can quite describe what the officials do or why they do it. They tell K. the work is essential, and everything is flawless, but this never seems so. Everything is shrouded in layers of arbitrary rules, and K. never gets to the bottom of it.

Max Brod thought The Castle had a substantial religious significance. Brod and the book’s first English translators saw the main character’s quest to gain entry to the Castle as a man’s search for God and salvation. K. never gains entrance to the Castle – this is like a man who searches his whole life for a spiritual experience, yet never has one.

Another theory is The Castle is about a man’s solitude and his yearning for companionship. This also makes sense, and it’s seen in the book more directly as K. mingles with various ladies in the village, including a barmaid named Freida, who he almost marries.

I don’t think there’s one correct way to decipher the meaning behind The Castle. What interests me most about this novel and Kafka’s other stories is when reading them, I get the feeling I’m reading something very private. It is said that Kafka burned about ninety percent of his works before he died and told Max Brod to burn the rest.

Very little of what Kafka wrote was published during his lifetime, and of the works that were released, they received little attention. He was the ultimate mystery of a man. His stories and novels have a surreal feel to them – he describes ordinary events, but there’s the feeling that something’s not quite right.

The Castle may bore you. It may be a book you start and put down, thinking all the praise is the pretentious talk of English teachers, professors, and academics. However, if you want a glimpse into the mind of a man filled with existential anxiety and dread, I recommend you read the book.

(Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons – Kafka, Franz: The Castle. Novel. Munich: K. Wolff 1926, 502 pages. Original paperback of the first edition (Wilptert / Gührig ² 9, Raabe 9)).

Leave a Reply