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The Sense of Indeterminacy and Ambiguity in ‘The Castle’ and its Archi-tectonic Implications (Part I)

Is K. summoned by the castle to carry out his duties as a land surveyor? This question remains unanswered throughout the novel and is the driving force behind its narrative progression. It can be argued that on a meta level the sense expressed by this propositional attitude of questioning, is one of indeterminacy and ambiguity, thus resulting in a suspension of logical inference. With this project, I have focussed on two related issues: 1) how does Frank Kafka achieve the overwhelming sense of indeterminacy and ambiguity in The Castle; and 2), how is this ‘sense’ and the corresponding literary tactics used  are translatable archi-tectonically: that is, in the geometry, form, materiality and existential experience of architecture.

The terms indeterminacy and ambiguity are often used interchangeably. They are, however, distinct terms which, in linguistics and philosophy, produce differing interpretations. A literary interpretation of the forementioned senses will be discussed. In Timothy Bahti’s paper, Ambiguity and Indeterminacy: The Juncture, he begins by referencing the definition of ambiguity as expounded by literary critic M.H. Abram. Ambiguity, M.H. Abram states, is a term used to describe a phase or word where multiple meanings exist[1]. Conversely the definition of indeterminacy is given by Jonathan Culler as the ‘impossibility or unjustifiability of choosing one meaning over another’ in literary interpretation. Ambiguity is a term used to describe the quality of the text while the concept of indeterminacy deals with its interpretation.

“But here it is enough to note that the two terms are oriented toward different sites of literary meaning, and bring with them different evaluations: ambiguity is found in literature, and represents a “value,” a “richness,” while indeterminacy surfaces in interpretation, where it introduces “im- possibility or unjustifiability” of choice and decision, rather than the discovery of some value[2].”

Using this understanding of ambiguity and indeterminacy, as applied in a literary context, it can be stated that Frank Kafka’s, ‘The Castle’, is both ambiguous and indeterminate. The novel is ambiguous as multiple meanings or the narrative exists (it can also be debated if a meaning even exists), ranging from religious readings of transcendent meaning to social political commentary. Its meaning is indeterminate as no consensus on its interpretation can be reached.

Both the naturalist and the anti-or supernaturalist interpretations of Kafka are legitimate, the first on the basis of the absence of explicit references to supernatural beliefs and motifs in Kafka and the second  on the basis of biographical data relating to Kafka’s preoccupation with mystical doctrine[3].”

It can be identified that Frank Kafka deploys at least six narrative and compositional tactics in ‘The Castle’ that enables the sense of indeterminacy and ambiguity to be achieved. 1) The first in the enigmatic identity of the main protagonist K, which is closely related to his status as a land surveyor. 2) Secondly, there exists a liar paradox in the dialogue between characters, further obscuring any logical inference that can be obtained about his status. 3) Thirdly, the extensive use of anachronism when describing scenes is evident 4) Fourthly, the use of limited third person perspective contributes to the suspense. 5) Fifthly, the extensive use of conjunctions in the compositional structure of the text, hinders and obscures its expression. 6) Finally, the tension between the authority imposed by the Count and the contrasting spontaneous behaviour of the characters results in cognitive dissonance for the reader.

As stated previously the central problem of the ‘The Castle’ is the question of K’s identity and status as a land surveyor. The pseudonym K, in place of a real name, is already evidence of the obscuration of identity achieved by Kafka. There are inconsistencies relating to the protagonist’s background. For instance, in an earlier passage it is claimed that he had left behind a wife and child, while his intention is to marry Frieda in the latter scenes. Furthermore, it is bemusing that K would establish a new life for himself so readily in a distant and foreign village. Walter Sokel, noting these inconsistencies, in his interpretation, proposes the thesis that K is indeed not a land surveyor but a mere imposter[4]. Although this thesis has been acknowledged as a credible interpretation by claiming it as a decisive reading “it undermines the novel’s fundamental hovering between possibilities,” and discounts “Kafka’s cunning ambiguity”, in the words of Stephen Dowden[5]. If K is indeed an imposter, however, his identity is made no more transparent. Ambiguity remains nonetheless, as it presents new questions regarding his background and his credibility throughout the novel.

The credibility of the protagonist is not only called into question but also the utterances of secondary characters. The liar paradox is apparent in the dialogues between K and castle administrators, in his attempts settle the validity of his status. On one hand the official document given by the castle authorities is explicit in his summon as a land surveyor, however this is rendered obsolete by the superintendent.

As I remarked before apropos Klamm’s letter. All these utterances have no official significance; when you attach official significance to them you go astray. On the other hand, their private significance in a friendly or hostile sense is very great, generally greater than an official communication could ever be[6]

Contradictory, in previous dialogue, it is acknowledged by the superintendent, that the official letter is indeed credible.

“Klamm’s letter,” said the Superintendent. “That’s valuable and worthy of respect on account of Klamm’s signature which seems to be genuine…[7]

The problem presented in the above set of dialogues can be categorised as a form of the liar paradox, simplified as the following proposition “This sentence is false.” Like in the paradox, a circular logic entails – K’s letter is credible as an official document due to Klamm’s personal signature, which can be regarded as ‘private signification’. However, as the signature is attached to an official correspondence it becomes meaningless. The status of K is left in a state of indeterminacy in reference to official letter as it is impossible for neither the protagonist nor the reader to assign it logical validity.

The third feature Frank Kafka deploys to create senses of ambiguity and indeterminacy is with anachronisms. This is most evident in the description of illumination sources, where candlelight, lanterns and electric lights are used in different scenes throughout the novel.

Everything became bright, the electric lights blazed inside on the stairs, in the passages, in the entrance hall, outside above the door.[8]

The change in illumination source changes the interpretation of scenes, from a modernist aesthetic to a medieval sense, for instance.

It was quite dark, the candles in the lanterns had burned down.[9]”

Anachronisms are also used with reference to modes of communication from divergent historical periods being used. Even K is surprised by a modern telephone network in a seemingly provincial setting, upon his arrival.

So there was a telephone in this village inn?[10]

Paradoxically, confirming Mr. K initial intuition regarding the provincial setting of the village, coexisting in a world of a modern telephones is a medievalesque messenger system represented by Barnabas.

Barnabas, the bearer of this letter will report himself to you from time to time to learn your wishes and communicate them to me[11]”

The extensive use of anachronisms, indirectly, introduces chronological inconsistency into the narrative making determinations regarding the historical setting of ‘The Castle’ ambiguous for the reader.

To further heighten a sense of intrigue, Frank Kafka employs a limited third person narration perspective in ‘The Castle’. The sense of indeterminacy is most pronouncedly felt in descriptions concerning the spatial progression of K. Unlike in an omniscient point of view, where the totality of setting is described, it is difficult for the reader sharing the protagonist’s limited perspective to form a coherent cognitive map or comprehension of its architecture. Only fragmentary glimpses are provided.

Leaning against the wall of the house he took out his lunch, thought gratefully of Frieda and her solicitous provision for him, and meanwhile peered into the house. A very angular and broken stair led downwards and was crossed down below by a low but apparently deep passage; everything was clean and whitewashed, sharply and distinctly defined.[12]

Any sense of a reference point or directionality in the novel is rendered incomprehensible. With the same limited perspective, the reader is as spatially lost as K.

At every turn K. expected the road to double back to the Castle, and only because of this expectation did he go on; he was flatly unwilling, tired as he was, to leave the street, and he was also amazed at the length of the village, which seemed to have no end; again and again the same little houses,…..[13]”

Although a limited third person perspective restricts an explicit understanding of the spatial setting, it simultaneously invites the reader to imagine and construct their own scene by instilling their own meanings to descriptions. The ambiguity created through a restricted perspective, rather than being limiting, contributes to the experiential richness of the novel.

The extensive use of conjunctions in the compositional structure of the text is the fifth distinctive linguistic characteristic of ‘the Castle’. Conjunctions in one instance hinders and obscures expression by introducing ambiguity through the addition of new contradictory propositions, while simultaneously intensifying the evocativeness of the text, this is evident in the below phase.

The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never before heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices- but yet not a hum,, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance- blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound which vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.[14]”

The phase can be dissected into individual propositions and analysed as follows.

Root Proposition: The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never before heard on a telephone –

Propositional claim A: It was like the hum of countless children’s voices

Propositional claim B: but yet not a hum,

Propositional claim C: the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance- blended by sheer impossibility into one high

Propositional claim D: but resonant sound which vibrated on the ear

Propositional claim E: as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing

It is clear in the above example that the initial propositional claim A, describing the sound of the telephone as a hum is negated and contradicted by propositional claim B, which follows it. Propositional claim C renders both A and B partly irrelevant by inducing a new description of the sound as an impossibly high-pitched echo. Subsequently, however propositional claim D introduces contradictory information, adding that it is a resonant sound – a term which describes the phenomenon of increased amplitude – given the initial claim of its impossibility, propels it beyond this superlative description. In propositional claim E the impossibility of the sound is further exaggerated as something that can be experienced beyond hearing.

Again, ambiguity in expression, as defined by the richness of the text realised though the possibility of multiple meanings is achieved. A sound, in this instance, is not just a singular and definitive description but the imperfect interaction and coagulation of propositions to form a vivid sense impression in the imagination of the reader.

The sixth literary technique used by Frank Kafka is the incitement of cognitive dissonance through juxtapositional tension. The tension created by the strict authority imposed by the Count, resulting in absurd bureaucratic proceedings governing human relations, on one hand, is juxtaposed with the equally absurd and incomprehensible behaviour displayed by characters on their own volition. A tension between these two narrative situations results.

The absurd rigidity of the castle’s bureaucracy is evident from the moment of K.’s arrival to the village.

This village belongs to the Castle, and whoever lives here or passes the night here does so in a manner of speaking in the Castle itself. Nobody may do that without the Count’s permission. But you have no such permit, or at least you have produced none[15]”

The absurdity of this situation is expressed in K’s subsequent reaction and reply.

And one must have a permit to sleep here? Asked K., as if he wished to assure himself that what he had heard was not a dream.[16]

In contrast to this bureaucratic rigidity is the equally incomprehensible love affair K. enjoys with Frieda and their subsequent spontaneous decision of marriage upon this first meeting. As to acknowledge the irrationality of the situation he finds himself. K. exhibits a sense of doubt and disbelief.

“”What have you done?” He said as to himself. “We are both ruined.” “No,” said Frieda. “it’s only me that’s ruined, but then I have won you.”[17]”

The sense of indeterminacy, in relation to the juxtaposition of divergent narrative situations, is not achieved textually, as in the previous five examples, but rather is caused indirectly by the cognitive dissonance that results when the readers attempts at comprehending the irrationality of the scenes. In other words, the reader is propelled into a state of disbelief when all logical inferences are momentarily suspended, thus making explanation impossible. Alternatively, to use the term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘a suspension of disbelief’’ occurs.

The exposition on how Frank Kafka achieves an overwhelming sense of ambiguity and indeterminacy, through specific literary techniques, can be translated to archi-tectonic tactics. These strategies can subsequently be used to design a Kafkaesque architecture.



[1] Timothy Bahti, “Ambiguity and Indeterminacy: The Juncture.” Comparative Literature 38, no. 3 (1986): 209

[2] Ibid. p.210

[3] Charles Neider, KAFKA: His Mind and Art (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1949), 8

[4] Rebecca Schuman, Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism. 1 ed (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015) pg 115

[5] Ibid. p.116

[6] Franz Kafka, The Castle. 4 ed (London, Secker and Warburg, 1947) p 96

[7] Ibid. p.92

[8] Ibid. p.133

[9] Ibid. p.156

[10]Ibid. p.10

[11]Ibid. p.36

[12]Ibid. p.135

[13] Ibid. p.22

[14] Ibid. p.33

[15] Ibid. p.11-12

[16] Ibid. p.12

[17] Ibid. p.60