Staring Through the Blindfold: Queer Space and Time in Franz Kafka’s The Castle
Franz Kafka’s final novel, The Castle, is an uncanny and unsettling depiction of social otherization and isolation. And in its central protagonist K., the book also presents one of the sharpest depictions of queerness found in literature — a man who is perpetually out of time with the world around him, ostracized and untethered by a system he has no chance of understanding.
Franz Kafka stands as one of the 20th century’s most towering literary figures, an author who, like Orwell or Ballard, created worlds so frighteningly uncanny that he has been afforded his own stylistic descriptor — the Kafkaesque. But whereas Orwell reflected our growing dependence on surveillance and authoritarianism, and Ballard depicted a world that merged our obsession with technology, violence and sex, Kafka’s sights were altogether more metaphysical — he not only hyperbolized the trappings of unfathomable bureaucracy (what he is undoubtedly most well known for), he also highlighted our modern penchant for individualism, unfulfillment and disassociation. Kafka’s finely crafted nightmare worlds were undoubtedly influenced by his experiences as a Jewish man reaching his adulthood in post World War I Germany, and have remained uneasily recognisable in times were disconnect and minutiae continue to define our modern lives. Analyses of Kafka’s work have covered much theoretical and theological ground, but here I want to approach Kafka’s last book The Castle from a new angle, through a queer lens. The book — in which a land surveyor, K., arrives in a wintry town to find he is neither wanted, nor needed, and at the same time unallowed to leave — combines all the classic Kafka elements: isolation, absurdity, bureaucracy and social dislocation. But its vivid depiction of small town suspicion and an uncanny reflection of social order and bureaucracy, combines with a heartfelt pathos to create a work that opens itself up to a variety of queer readings.
When I use the term ‘queer’ here, I am using it in its most basic theoretical and etymological sense — queer as in ‘to twist’, or ‘turn away from the expected path’. So though my analysis of The Castle speaks more specifically to experiences of people who may identify as ‘queer’ — members of the LGBT+ community — living in a heteronormative world, I venture to say it can be extrapolated to any community who is ostracized within normative spaces. The Kafkaesque, as a style that encapsulates the sensation of being trapped in a vast, unexplained and impenetrable system that also dictates your life and fate, is a tangible feeling for those living queer lives. In The Castle, Kafka perfectly captures the feeling of being in a dream, creating a world that is just out of sync with our reality, uncannily familiar yet attuned to it’s own bizarre flow of tradition, protocol and temporality. It is this uneasy dissimilarity that I believe will resonate with a queer audience.
When K. first arrives in the unnamed town where the novel is set, he describes being unable to see the eponymous castle, “gazing up into the seeming emptiness” to see “not a glimmer of light” betraying its presence. Even though K. has the castle in his periphery henceforth, and spends much of the novel trying to reach it, it remains perpetually just out of reach. The castle remains impenetrable and unreachable, and largely unfathomable even by the townspeople, who have presumably lived in its grounds their whole lives. As the reader, we gather quickly that K. will never reach the castle, though its whims and processes greatly influence his social standing within the town as soon as he arrives. The castle exerts a powerful dark presence over the town, a presence exaggerated by its mystique. In fact, though the castle is the narrative’s centrifugal point, it is the not the driving force behind the narrative or its conflict, but the suspicious members of the town living in its shadow. On his first night, an exhausted K is woken by Schwarzer, a former employee of the castle, who admonishes K. for sleeping in the town without a permit, and yet further admonishes K. when he asks how he may obtain one. Schwarzer’s malicious indignation towards K., wrapped up in administrative protocol, is indicative of how K. is treated by the townspeople throughout his first week. He is treated with equal amounts of suspicion, hostility and curiosity by the people of the town, who often fall into rapt silence when he enters a room, or edge around him with fright as if he were a wild animal. Several times throughout the novel, he is reprimanded by the people he meets for his perceived insolence and refusal to abide by castle protocol, despite never having such protocol explained to him. And yet, as much as he is derided and debased by the town in which he arrives, he is not allowed to leave. For K. the town becomes a sort of purgatory. He is told upon arrival that he is not needed, and that his presence in the town is largely unwanted, yet he is expected to debase himself ever further in his efforts to make the village his home — despite the fact that he arrived only a few days before, leaving his wife and child for what he thought would simply be another job.
K.’s treatment within the village is the first aspect of the book that stirred in me feelings of queer recognition. It is not simply that K. is trapped in the village and expected to abide by its rules, but also how he is punished innumerable times for getting it wrong, driven to shame and ruin by his own naivete. What’s more, though the people of the village are quick to admonish K. for his failure to adhere to castle protocol, it becomes abundantly clear that they have very little understanding of the process themselves. In K.’s reluctance to adhere to official protocol, and in his lone attempts to criticize the system he is trapped within, we feel the anguish of being a queer person trapped in heteronormative world — expected to abide by a system that is out of sync with our own embodied understanding of the world, and similarly alone in our ability to perceive it’s repressive influence over everyone around us. Much as how only K. can see how the castle’s protocol restricts the lives of those who live in it’s shadows, so can queer people often recognise how the repressive influence of hetero/cisnormativity forces the lives of our cishet peers into rigid binaries and worldviews. And much like K., our attempts to reveal this great façade to our peers is often met with derision and vitriol, an indignant offence taken to our decision to not live our lives by such ludicrous traditions. But K.’s rebuttal of the system is also temperamental and inconsistent — though he recognises the system is corrupt, he does not take the initiative to pack up and leave, and some of his actions read as almost self-sabotaging. There is an uneasy feeling that K. is not necessarily relenting to the castle’s influence of his own free will, but is being conditioned to work by the village’s confusing customs as best he can. But whether he rejects the rules or attempts to adhere to them, he is always shown as coming up short — saying the wrong thing, or arriving at the wrong time. As the novel plays with strange, dreamlike temporalities, it always feels as if K. is wasting time, or nor using it effectively — he holds long, unimportant conversations that stand in the way of his mission to meet with Klamm, and makes snap judgements without proper thought despite his rational nature. There is a constant feeling that K. is running out of time, no matter how much time he allows himself, almost is if the castle is bending time around him. The way the book plays with the passage of time is yet another way in which it may connect with its queer readers.
The Castle stands as perhaps the most digestible of Franz Kafka’s full length novels, containing a pathos and emotional heart that is largely missing from the bureaucracy-heavy The Trial. I agree with the sentiments of William Burrows, who challenges us to look beyond the book’s more obvious critiques of “bureaucracy and unfair process”, to instead see it as a book dealing with the themes of “aloneness, pain, the longing for human companionship [and] the need to be respected and understood”. At its heart, The Castle is a domestic drama, as concerned with the manifestations of administrative confusion within the home as it with its influence over an entire town. True, K.’s sudden engagement — and then estrangement — with the barmaid Frieda, is a heteronormative one , but it’s strange and unnatural timeframe, within the context of the book’s own nightmarish temporality, is fundamentally queer by design (much has been written about Kafka’s portrayal of women, who are often hard, unyielding, hysterical or temptresses — which incidentally, is often used to support the argument that Kafka himself was gay) . Judith Halberstam is one of many queer theorists who has suggested a theory of ‘queer time’ — a means of describing the ways in which queer people, traditionally divorced from the social landmarks of marriage and parenthood, experience time when heteronormative markers of a normative temporality are removed. K., as our primary queer stand in, experiences the passage of time in a way that is ostensibly queer.
More specifically, K.’s experience of the passage of time in the village is that of a queer person bandied about by the inexplicable passage of normative temporality, one that is supported by normative notions of business, administration and heteronormative domesticity. In the space of just 5 days, K. meets Frieda, falls in love, moves into a school with her as live-in janitors, and loses her to one of his assistants. The absurdity of this whiplash affair is only highlighted by the extremity of emotion Frieda presents, something K. is clearly quite miffed by. Frieda moves from general disinterest to long, emotional outpourings of passion in less than 48 hours, more than willing to give up her social standing as a barmaid in the name of her love for K., though she is aware that aligning herself with the land surveyor would be social suicide. It is up for debate as to whether K. himself harbours any real feelings for Frieda, or if he simply clings to her as something on an anchor in a world where he is perpetually untethered, unmoored and unwanted. Ultimately, if this is the case, he fails bitterly — Frieda’s presence hardly alleviates his position, and her leaving him drives him further down the social ranking of the town.
And when he comes into contact with the town’s other examples of bizarre time keeping, he is similarly out of place — the letter which called him to the town on business is revealed to be extremely outdated, the processes in the castle being so convoluted that it reached him long after he was originally needed. And his attempts to conduct business is similarly and repeatedly curtailed by the inconsistent timekeeping of castle officials, who make themselves available at unannounced times (often in the dead of night) and for extremely short bursts, unwilling to be kept waiting or hang around. The elastic temporality surrounding the due process of castle bureaucracy — where time is always too short or too long, too urgent or not important enough, the epitome of “hurry up and wait” — reveals something about the exhausting timeframes and milestones the mark a normative, ‘straight’ temporality. In lives marked by heteronormative domestic milestones and capitalistic ideals of productivity and efficiency, queer people — and this is multiplied when queer identities intersect with other identities pertaining to race, class and disability — are often left feeling at the mercy of timeframes that are out of sync with our lived experiences. The book’s abrupt and unceremonious ending, a result of the work remaining unfinished before Kafka’s death, only adds to the sense of exhausting, cyclical circumstances beyond our control, with no clear end or exit in sight. Much like his inability to come to terms with the social contract connecting everyone in the town, K.’s inability to get a firm grip on the town’s routine ‘Others’ him from the start. Strangely, though everyone in the town is subjected to the same bizarre logic and temporality as K., he is ostracized precisely because he is the only one who is unable to fall in time with the town’s spasmodic rhythm. And his inability to do so is perceived, first and foremost, as a moral failure.
When one takes the work of an author as ground-breaking and idiosyncratic as Kafka, the joy as a reader comes from trying to make sense of this uncanny, off-beat world. A queer analysis of The Castle is but one approach, one that falls in line with other analyses that focus on the book’s conspiratorial effect. But I propose that this queer approach makes a case for The Castle to be seen as a work that perfectly encapsulates an element of the queer experience — a book that highlights the gnawing anxiety of existing in a world that is plainly flawed, yet unfathomable. K. functions as a perfect stand in for the ostracised and othered, a man who is hopelessly at odds with a system he cannot understand nor be accepted by. For queer people, The Castle may be a haunting experience, it’s absurdity worryingly close to the displacement we experience in straight spaces every day. Could Kafka have possibly known, as an artist who died believing his life’s work to be a wasted exercise, that his novels would resonate so deeply nearly 100 years after they were written? And could he possibly have fathomed that The Castle, as a reflection of the author’s own time and mental anguish, could give voice to the embodied experiences of people similarly lost in an unforgiving, labyrinth world, and describe feelings that, for many, remain indescribable? One wishes that he had some inkling, and some perhaps somehollow comfort in knowing that he was only one of many who experienced the pains of ludicrous ‘normality’.