Franz Kafka,’Das Schloss’ (‘The Castle’)


Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloẞ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts.  Leider sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder, der ûberzählig und ûberall im Wege ist, einer, wegen dessen man immerfort Scherereien hat.

You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.  Unfortunately, though, you are something – a stranger, superfluous, always in the way, constantly causing trouble.

[The landlady of the village inn to K, in Chapter 4]


The title

The word ‘Schloss’, in the title, can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ or “country house” (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears, however, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.


Kafka left his third novel incomplete (but see below).  It was published only after his death, at the instigation of his friend Max Brod.

The story

K arrives in a village, in winter, to take up an appointment as a land surveyor, for Count Westwest.  The local castle (the Castle) overlooks the village.  The Castle officials (an all-male elite) oversee all the goings-on in the village and record them, in bureaucratic detail.  They are respected and looked up to by the villagers, and indeed obeyed.

The Castle and the village are fundamentally separate.  Castle officials visit the village but villagers are not permitted to enter the Castle. The officials transact much of their business in the village itself, at night.  They conduct interviews with villagers at night too.

The novel largely consists of a record of the series of meetings between K and individuals – both villagers and officials – which give him some insight into how the place works.  (Called to his own first proper interview with an official, at night, K misses his appointment, by falling asleep!)

Some Castle officials abuse their power over the ordinary people by taking local women as their mistresses. They are free too to discard them.  (One man in particular – Herr Klamm – is mentioned.)  The women who are taken up by Castle officials gain rather than lose higher social status in the village!  (Any woman who rejects such a relationship is ostracised by the community)

K himself tries to use his relationship with a young villager (Frieda) as a bargaining tool in order to arrange a man-to-man interview with Klamm – this he fails to achieve.

K is engaged in a struggle for recognition as a professional person – a land surveyor.  He never has the opportunity to practise his profession.  Indeed, one informant tells him that his services are not required and that the job offer resulted from a bureaucratic error.

K remains an outsider.

The language

Kafka’s prose is precise.  It has many long sentences, with subordinate clauses.  Different aspects of a topic are balanced.  Different arguments are weighed against each other.  It reminds the reader of bureaucratic language.  Even the characters’ speeches tend to be formal.  Typically of literary German, reported speech features extensive use of the subjunctive mood.

Kafka’s German is fairly easy to understand, because of its clarity; but it is difficult to translate into fluent English.   For example, the word order sometimes has to be changed – but with this the delicate structure of the original may be impaired.

The story is told, in a way, from K’s perspective, as the reader is given access to his thoughts as well as his statements, as in a first person narrative.  The other characters’ thoughts are revealed in their body language (as reported) and what they say.

K, the protagonist

The reader is entitled to ask questions about K.

Why does he stay in the village, given that he suffers a series of rebuffs?

Is he too proud about his status?  (He does accept a job as a school caretaker as a temporary measure.)

Is he insufficiently flexible in his dealings with both villagers and officials?  Does he expect the system to adapt to him rather than the other way round?

What is more important to K – his proclaimed love for the barmaid Frieda or his wish to use her as way to set up an interview with Klamm (her former lover)?  Does he neglect her, in the pursuit of his struggle for recognition?  Does he, indeed, misuse her?

The officials

The bureaucrats communicate with K through letters and through interviews – solely on their own terms (who, when, where and how are entirely at their discretion).

The fact that the offer of an appointment to K as a land surveyor was a mistake is not officially recognised.

The bureaucrats fail to resolve K’s status and so leave him in limbo.

An ironic ending

In his afterword to the first edition of Das Schloss, Max Brod states that Kafka revealed to him how the story would end.  By this account, K does not give up his struggle; but he eventually dies in the attempt, from exhaustion.  The local people gather around his death bed.  Now the Castle officials hand down their decision: although they deny K any legal claim to live in the village, taking into account the circumstances, they grant him permission to live and to work there.


  • Class: the officials have arbitrary power over the lives of the villagers and appear to from a separate, superior class
  • Gender: the officials are all male; they abuse their power when they take village women (expected to comply) as their mistresses
  • Bureaucracy: while little indication is given of much activity being carried out in the village, it is made clear that the officials maintain detailed records of everything.


1 The novel reflects the human search for belonging to a community

2 Similarly, it reflects the human search for recognition, by the community, of one’s personal worth

3 It may reflect the human search for order in society

4 It may also have something to do with the need for fairness and flexibility, which can temper the rigid administration of rules

5 It may reflect the elusive nature of a fair social order and the imperfections of human societies in reality

6 In part it may be a satire on excessive and inflexible bureaucracy (the maintenance of some sort of order, at any cost)

7 It may too represent a critique of excessive individualism

8 For a 21st century reader, it can be seen as a parable that illustrates the plight of people who remain outsiders, for example, the homeless, those who suffer discrimination, foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees

9 Fundamentally, Das Schloss remains ambiguous.



Thoughts on Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’


Love’s Labour’s Lost is, as far as I can make out, one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.  But it is worth a look.

The play is set in the court of a fictional Navarre.  Henri III, King of the real Navarre, had become Henri IV of France in 1589.

Comedies of the period end in marriage; tragedies end in death.  LLL commences with a battle of the sexes and ends in uncertainty.   


There is little plot, but what there is I’ll summarise.  In part, there is a love story, but instead of there being one man and woman falling in love with each other, and overcoming obstacles to their marriage, in this play there are four pairs. (Is this excessive?)

Four lords, then – three courtiers and their king (the King of Navarre) – first decide to study for three years, to achieve fame and honour, while remaining celibate – indeed, while banishing all women from the court.  They bind themselves by an oath.  However, the Princess of France promptly arrives, on a diplomatic visit, already arranged, escorted by three ladies.  The four lords are obliged to welcome the ladies and speak to them, thus compromising their ill-advised oath.  Their stance is further undermined by their falling in love with the four ladies.

The four lords proceed to find excuses to break their oath and to find ways to woo the ladies, via poem writing and play acting.  Describing the ladies as goddesses rather than mortal women, they try to wriggle out of their commitment to monk-like study.  The ladies refuse to take the men seriously, and indeed they mock them. 


At the end of the play, the Princess is informed of the death of her father.  Her grief reinforces the ladies’ need to delay their response to the lords’ marriage proposals.  As the princess says, the time is “too short/To make a world-without-end bargain in” (5.2).  Berowne sums up: “Jack hath not Jill” (5.2).  The ladies impose a year’s penance upon their admirers and state that they will reconsider the matter when the term is up.


Hence, the men appear immature and inept, the women as more mature and sensible and indeed wittier.  Indeed, though the other men in the play can be classed as clowns or pedants (or both), the gentlemen can be seen as clownish and pedantic too.


Firstly, the other male characters plan a pageant of the ‘Nine Worthies’, to entertain the ladies.  Unfortunately, when they put on the performance (Act 5, Scene 2), the gentlemen keep rudely interrupting and making fun of them.

Meanwhile, two comic characters – Armado (a Spanish knight and braggart) and Costard (a clown) – are rivals for the hand of Jaquenetta (a dairymaid).  To a degree, their own wooing parodies that of the gentlemen.  At the end of the play, it is revealed that Jaquenetta is pregnant by one of them.


The players are wordy in their attempts to be witty and persuasive, sometimes to excess.  They delight in word play and puns.  Unfortunately, many of the jokes are, nowadays, obscure.


Once the gentlemen decide to woo the ladies, they each choose to write a love poem, while hiding it from the others (4.2 and 4.3).  The embarrassing revelation of these acts of love (but also of oath breaking), in front of their colleagues, is a source of comedy (4.3).

In his sonnet, addressed to Rosaline, Berowne confesses that he is exchanging his oath for pursuit of his lady-love:

“If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?

Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed.

Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove.”


The King’s poem, addressed to the Princess, concludes thus:


“O Queen of queens, how far thou dost excel,

No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.”


Longaville’s sonnet, addressed to Maria, is similar to Berowne’s:


“Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye….

Persuade my heart to this false perjury? ….

A woman I forswore, but I will prove,

Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee.”


Finally, in similar vein, Dumaine’s poem, addressed to Katherine, contains the lines:


“Do not call it sin in me,

That I am forsworn for thee.”




I’ll briefly examine Act 4, Scene 3.


First, Berowne enters, alone.  He admits, in a soliloquy, that he is in love with Rosaline.  Then the King enters: not seeing Berowne (who hides), he reads his poem (see above) out loud.  Next, Longaville and Dumaine arrive, in turn, and proceed to recite their poems (see above): each thinks he is alone, but each is overheard by his predecessors  Then, in reverse order, the lords emerge from hiding: Longaville confronts Dumaine; the King confronts them both, and wonders what Berowne will say when he finds out.


Browne now comes forward, saying, “Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy”: he claims that he is “honest”; and he holds it a sin “to break the vow I am engaged in”.  But his own hypocrisy is demonstrated by the intrusion of Costard and Jaquenetta, who are in possession of Berowne’s own love poem (see above), which has not reached its intended recipient.


Hence, the lords’ shared guilt comes to light.  But Berowne goes on to persuade his partners in crime to abandon their foolish oaths and to pursue the love of women:


“From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;

They are the books, the arts, the academes,

That show, contain and nourish all the world.”


So off the lords go, to try their success with the ladies.




The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes in Much Ado About Nothing (2.3 and 3.1), where Benedick and Beatrice, in turn, hear themselves being discussed by their friends.  But these discussions form part of a plot, to bring them together.  As for LLL, the idea of a series of men being overheard, while reading out their self-incriminating poems aloud, is ridiculous – but (despite this, or perhaps because of this) it is funny.  In his film of LLL (2000), Kenneth Branagh used the scene to great effect.  (Mention of this prompts me to comment on the film itself.)      




In the film, Kenneth Branagh used about 700 lines of the play’s 2,600 plus.  He placed the play in the early 20th century and inserted 20th century songs.  In Act 4, Scene 3, instead of the poems mentioned above, we have, firstly George and Ira Gershwin’s I’ve Got a Crush on You, and secondly, Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek.    The songs are fine; but I miss the poems; and it is a pity that space was not found for them. 




The play ends with a pair of poems, which could be sung or recited: the song of the cuckoo, related to spring, and the song of the owl, related to winter.  (They are omitted from Kenneth Branagh’s film.)  Even these verses are ambiguous: the cuckoo “mocks married men”; and the “staring owl” can allude to death, wisdom or good fortune, in mythology.




The play can be interpreted as a plea for honesty and plain speaking, and as an encouragement to men to respect the intelligence and judgement of women.


The empowerment of women and the uncertain ending make it appreciable (in principle) by a 21st century audience.


(I am grateful to these editors of the play: J Kerrigan (Penguin, 1982), G R Hibbard (Oxford, 1990), and in particular, H R Woudhuysen (Arden 3, 1998).)


David R Harries


February 2014