Short Stories of Franz Kafka

A reporter comes to a prison colony to write an article on a well-run place of rehabilitation. The consequences of this visit are... well...pure Kafka.

In The Penal Colony

Another of his fragmentary works is Before the Law, a strange engrossing tale. Before the Law

The Trial and The Castle are among Franz Kafka's most famous and compelling stories. Below I examine both stories, noting the similarities and common themes underlying both.

The Trial

In The Trial, Joseph K., the protagonist of the work, is the focus of a study in the psychology of Man vs. Society. At the outset, the reader is given an ordinary clerical worker, whom by some a strange twist of fate is arrested at his rooming lodge. He is not told why, nor is he imprisoned. He is allowed to go about his daily business with the caveat that he is the subject of a continuing investigation, and must cooperate with the authorities in every respect. K spends the rest of the novel attempting to discover what crime he's committed and how to extricate himself from legal prosecution and scrutiny. A scrutiny which goes far beyond anything a member of a democratic society would envisage.

From this simple kernel, Kafka builds a story of extraordinary complexity, and mind-boggling frustration. The plot's tension revolves around Joseph K's interaction with a bureaucracy that is inaccessible, yet omnipresent. It is inscrutable, while demanding from K, all manner of explanation. He must explain his life, where he was and why he did this or that. K with his attempts to discover the state of his case in the legal system, encounters surreal characters: an incompetent lawyer, obsequious jailers and a servant girl that becomes his love interest. She provides the sub-plot that gives K the strength to continue struggling against the legal behemoth that oppresses him.

Though most of the novel traces Joseph K's exploration in the jurisprudence of a world that is totalitarian in nature, the real issue Kafka sets before the reader is simple: What is the relationship between the individual and the social society in which he lives?

Why is Joseph K's predicament so intractable? Is he responsible for exonerating himself of a crime he is unaware of ever committing? Or worst, Can he be responsible for defending himself against a charge, the details of which he doesn't even know? Surely, that seems absurd. But, this is just what happens in The Trial. In Joseph K's world, it is not that the individual operatives of the State are evil, but the system itself is configured in a way to deny the rights we would take for granted. Yet, there is hope, K until the end believes in his redemption. This is where Kafka makes his commentary on human nature through K. In the most desperate circumstances, we struggle to express our rights as human beings. Sadly for K the struggle kills him.

The Castle

Joseph K. becomes the Land Surveyor in The Castle. Again the reader is confronted with a translucent, powerful, and authoritative organization: the Castle. The resemblance of this work to The Trial is unmistakable. However, the setting and development of theme and plot are largely different.

It must be said that Kafka left this intriguing work unfinished. A choice that disappointed me greatly. So much so, that I actually considered supplying my own ending upon first reading it.

The tone of The Castle is serious, but not sinister as in The Trial. It might seem that both works are expressing the same idea of individual vis-a-vis state and how misgivings in either can lead to tragic consequences, but The Castle goes further.

The Land Surveyor (who is also named K) is not coerced to do anything in this work. He has been summoned to the village in which the Castle resides for some routine surveying work, or so he thinks. After arriving, he finds that in fact, he has entered a world where his premise for being there does not suffice to gain him employment. Rather than being pursued by the faceless machinery of an impersonal institution, as in The Trial, the Land Surveyor seeks to become part of this very monolith. In both novels the action of the plot is built around the give and take of the ghost-like organization with the protagonist. In The Castle the roles are reversed. The Land Surveyor seeks to scrutinize the Castle in all its manifestations: its underlings, middle managers, and higher ups, like Klamm, the official to whom he was summoned initially. All the characters in the Castle and those connected to it are subject to the Land Surveyor's unquenchable desire to know. With each character his thirst for knowledge is different. His motive is always the same: to associate himself with the Castle, primarily through the Klamm character. He is willing to use any and all to this end. In Barnabas, the impoverished messenger, he sees a pawn, in Frieda, the servant girl and former lover of Klamm, that becomes his mistress and betrothed, he sees an opportunity to actually enter the Castle. As the novel nears its abbreviated end, the reader is struck by the developing obsession the Land Surveyor is having with reaching the Castle. As it ends, he never accomplishes his goal of meeting the official Klamm or even entering the walls of the Castle. He is left undone, and about to embark on another intrigue with a middle-aged woman that owns the beer hall where his adventure began.

In The Castle, Kafka paints the individual as a wretch longing for power. His shameless ambition, though it may not be realized, leading him to use and discard, even those, that care for him (as Frieda did and was). He shows with the skill of a master writer, just how much one can rationalize their naked selfishness also. The similarity with The Trial is stylistic only. There is a supportive, docile woman in both, subservient characters also: the assistants in The Castle and the jailers in The Trial. The mayor in The Castle is strikingly similar to Ks' attorney in The Trial. Yet, the stories diverge in their themes. Both have surreal settings, that invoke images of secret underground worlds but present two different perspectives on the individual and his social world.

Both novels express pessimistic views of human relationships. Yet, Kafka creates unforgettable drama in the process. The almost fairy tale world of each novel made me want to actually visit such fantasized places, if only in a daydream. These novels have a melancholy tone, but deep, thoughtful prose. The protagonist, K, in each novel, carries on extraordinary mental soliloquies that almost surely gives the reader great food for thought. The lack of plot resolution is disconcerting, yet this is a hallmark of Kafka's style. With the growing complexity and labyrinth course of the plot in each story, I suspect Kafka dismissed the idea of resolving each story into one precise denouement.

5/9/97 Robleh Wais

A review of Master and Man, a short story by Leo Tolstoy. This is Tolstoy giving us the best of the realist style.

Master and Man

Philosophies, Science, Math and Music