Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions

By Elizabeth Boa | Go to book overview

I
Reading Kafka

Kafka's work has provoked a vast and disputatious literature on texts which themselves turn on issues of interpretation. The competing interpretations of the priest's tale convey in miniature the questions which the reader asks of The Trial: what is the nature of the court, what is the law, what should the individual on trial do? In The Castle too it is from the start unclear what the castle even looks like, to say nothing of whether the bureaucracy inhabiting it is benign or malignant, powerful or impotent, competent or chaotic. Critical argument is compounded by Kafka's narrative techniques, whether third-person narration focused through the protagonist or more personalized, unreliable narrators. Much has been written about narrators.1 I want to begin instead by considering the reader. The reader of The Trial has an advantage over Josef K. in that s/he can see how his interpretations are infused with subjective attitudes, but also how K.'s subjectivity is shaped by the world he inhabits and modified by the kind of text the priest offers him. The moment repeats in miniature an effect of the novel as a whole: the workings of the court (what officials do and the discourse they employ) and Josef K. (what he does, says, and thinks) are disconcertingly alike. Likewise readers of Kafka's work may be doomed to find only a reflection of the cultural codes which they themselves bring to its reading. I take a less pessimistic view. Kafka's work offers a profoundly political vision of society and of individual subjectivity as sites of struggle in action as in thought. The metaphors of the criminal law in The Trial and civil law in The Castle constantly invite interpretation. Law is a matter of authority: from recognition of authority as legitimate or its rejection as oppressive flow relations of subjection or of struggle. In Kafka's fictional world, the law is obscure and authority uncertain. The undermining of authority in the action is mirrored by the lack of closed authorial commentary on the action. Kafka's readers have no

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1
See e.g. Roy Pascal, Kafka's Narrators ( Cambridge, 1982).

-1-

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