The Gothic Circle




Patrick Bridgwater

From Patrick Bridgwater, Kafka, Gothic and Fairytale (Amsterdam-New York: Editions Rodopi, 2003) pp. 31-32, 43-51.
I have abbreviated the text very slightly to promote readability.

Odilon Redon


Kafka’s work shares with Gothic what can only be called an infernal circularity: from projection into the world at birth as literal outcast, to transgression and consequent further loss of control, to the search for self which ends as it began, the vicious circle pervades every aspect of the lives of Kafka’s protagonists, most challengingly and claustrophobically in ‘The Burrow’ and The Trial. In the absence of transcendence, fairytale magic, or any kind of exit to meaning, existence is, in all three novels, portrayed as circular. There is no point at which the increasingly vicious circle yields to linear meaning. Even in The Man Who Disappeared [Amerika] the circle continually reasserts itself in the form of Karl Rossmann’s recapitulated fall, and in the K.-novels, for all the shadows of Christian iconography, hints of an inaccessible earlier and other creation, existence is seen in post-Christian, neo-pagan terms. There is no teleology, no transcendence, no redemption, no grounds for hope, just a process comparable to the weary, sorrowful circle of Nietzsche’s doctrine of identical recurrence.

Odilon Redon

Whether the protagonist is seen as trapped in the centre of the labyrinth, as in ‘The Burrow’, or as going round it seeking in vain for an entrance that does not exist, as in The Castle, this infernal circularity turns existence into a nightmare of meaningless experience. Far from being able, eventually, to break out from the vicious circle of meaningless existence, Kafka’s protagonists are finally sucked into the black hole of non-existence that lies at its centre. The experience is that of Nothingness. Because the structure of Kafka’s novels is not teleological, but fractal, the order of their chapters used to be seen as scarcely less controversial than the logic of the events described in them. Such logic is circular: nothing is ever proved except cumulatively or by default. Even Josef K.’s guilt is not proved; it is merely deduced. The Gothic prison-cell (however transparently disguised as ‘Bau’ [burrow], ‘Kasten’ [crate]] or ‘Pension’ [boarding-house], all of which mean a prison or lock-up, or as ‘Kabine’ [cabin], ‘Zimmerchen’ [little room], and so on, which stand for the same thing) therefore becomes a metaphor for life itself. No matter whether the fate of Kafka’s protagonists is defined in terms of imprisonment, or of exclusion, there is no exit this side of the final defeat. Whereas in the earlier Gothic novel disorder gave way to order, with Kafka disorder has become the norm. Normality as such no longer exists. Abnormality has become normative.

Odilon Redon

Each of Kafka’s protagonists receives the ‘mysterious message’ that is as much a part of the stock-in-trade of the Gothic novelist as the speaking tube is of pantomime. Indeed, with characteristic logic, humour and literal-mindedness he even invents, in The Castle, a self-appointed castle messenger in the figure of Barnabas, named after the biblical ‘Son of Consolation’ who inspired hope that turned out to be misplaced in that the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ was spurious. Karl Rossmann, the pariah-protagonist of The Man Who Disappeared [Amerika], receives a strangely challenging and ominously high-handed missive from ‘Onkel Jakob’, who in symbolical terms represents a reassertion of patriarchal authority. In The Trial, Josef K. receives a typically Gothic bolt from the blue (‘You are under arrest’), and his successor, K., receives not only a summons to the Castle, to which he is then denied entry, but also, early on in The Castle, the infamous letter from Klamm that says one thing and means another, this being followed, later in the novel, by a second letter that is equally ominous, given its inaccuracy and the dubiousness of its claim to be what it purports to be. The mysterious messages in The Castle in particular raise the question of the identity both of the sender and of the addressee, for the protagonists of the novels and tales alike find themselves, as a result of a typically Gothic challenge, in doubt about their very identities.

Odilon Redon


Whether any of Kafka’s works are deemed interpretable as a whole in terms of Gothic, as opposed to containing a variety of Gothic motifs, will depend on one’s view of Gothic and of the meaning of the works in question, but if the emphasis is put, as much recent criticism of Gothic has put it, on the notion of transgression against patriarchal power, then core works such as ‘The Judgment’, The Man Who Disappeared [Amerika], The Trial, ‘In the Penal Colony’ and The Castle turn, as the Letter to the Father shows, on just that.

Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead, 1883

The whole story of Amalia’s Secret, for example, which is an exemplum, a story told as a case in point, normally, as in the previous instance, the Parable of the Door-Keeper, in the course of a sermon, turns on the idea of transgression, as do ‘The Judgment’, ‘In the Penal Colony’ and The Trial. Olga is horrified by the would-be ‘seigneurial’ abuse of power practised by Sortini, and it is clear that figures such as Klamm alias Momus alias Sortini, the father in ‘The Judgment’ and, more explicitly, the Old Commandant in the penal colony of life, exercise precisely the arbitrary patriarchal power that is challenged in so many Gothic novels. However, this abuse of power, which can only be properly assessed if the identity of Sortini (with K.) is borne in mind, has another, post-Gothic dimension. Josef K., who is unable to prove his innocence, and Amalia’s father, who is unable to prove his guilt, are both victims of the abuse of power, the power in question being what it began to be in the course of high Gothic, namely, the power of the mind, for neither the innocence of the one nor the guilt of the other exists in any objectively verifiable sense. Josef K. in trying to prove his innocence, when he is guilty, and Amalia’s father in trying to prove his guilt, when he is innocent, are abusing their moral selves. As, of course, is Sortini.

Caspar David Friedrich, Evening, 1821

At this stage we need to distinguish between different levels of fiction, for when a creative process analogous to Freud’s ‘dream-work’ has taken place, and the latent content has been disguised by the subconscious, it looks as though Kafka’s work shares the Gothic obsession, most in evidence in the German Bundesroman or Rosenkreuzerroman (secret-society or Rosicrucian novel) with the ways in which one individual exercises power over another. It looks, for instance, as though Klamm, and through him the whole Castle administration, is controlling K. in a more refined version of the way in which Kafka père controlled his son, and yet what is really controlling K. is his own wayward imagination, of which Klamm and his understudies are projective figments. The protagonists of all three novels appear to fall foul of patriarchal power and its control mechanisms, foremost among them the very notion of transgression (cf. the disobedience of which Kafka was accused by his father).

Edvard Munch, Ashes, 1875

Karl Rossmann is repeatedly expelled from ‘paradise’ by an autocratic father-figure, and Josef K. and K. are ostensibly controlled by systems representing power pure and simple, but in reality all three of them are controlled by their own lack of self-control, notably in the context of sexual self-indulgence, and, once it is too late, by conscience. At this point the vicious circle again comes into play, for we have seen that Kafka’s conscience was shaped by his father’s disapproval. The whole apparatus of the Court in The Trial is real enough, in the way in which dream imagery and events are real, but take away the mummery, and its significance, as the internal tribunal of conscience, is scarcely less clear. It is the same with The Castle, in which the story of Sortini and Amalia, the fictionality of which is stressed both in that Sortini is a figure in a fiction within a larger fiction and in that his reality is questioned through the confusion surrounding his identity, is another version of the story of Klamm and Frieda, K. and Frieda, and K. and the girl from the Castle, inserted into the main text as a parable on the subject of transgression.

Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1895

Background to the novels is the author’s sense of transgression against a conscience provoked into hyperactivity by a lifetime of paternal fiats and interdictions. In the first two novels the apparent transgression against patriarchal law stands for the real one against conscience. What is ultimately most important in The Castle, as in the two earlier novels, are the protagonist’s transgressions against his own better judgment, since this is where the would-be land surveyor is most in need of the moral yardstick which he literally and figuratively lacks. We have already seen this to be the issue that underlies the story of Amalia and Olga. It is wrong to apply Judaeo-Christian moral values and judge Amalia’s self-denial to be right and Olga’s self-surrender wrong, for are not Judaeo-Christian values by definition patriarchal?

Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895

Are there not other ways of looking at Amalia’s behaviour, other codes, other values? Is self-denial invariably right? May not this virtue become a vice if practised too assiduously? May it not equate with fear of life? Is that right? Is self-surrender to life always wrong? Is not life for living? And so on. The point of the parable is to provoke such questions, to indicate that ‘transgression’ is a far from simple concept, given that the ‘Law’ or ‘system’ or ‘authority’, or whatever, is ultimately simply that of the isolated, faithless self, for the corruption of the Castle authority, like that of the Court in the previous novel, is simply a reflection of K.’s corrupt human nature, which is in turn a reflection of what Kafka, on the whole wrongly, thought of as his own moral weakness. The real issue is human fallibility, and there is a further point to be borne in mind: that land surveyor is clearly a metaphor for writer, so that Kafka is himself the self-appointed surveyor of his domain, challenging himself as to his credentials, wondering all the time whether his writing, a matter of life and death by now, is informed by judgment or misjudgment. He is wondering, that is, whether his creative life’s work consists of meaningful structures or meaningless constructs.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

To conclude, with reference to any of the works under discussion, that everything is ultimately a matter of conscience would, however, be to bypass the real issue, which is that the conscience starts off blank and has inscribed on it in course of time various notions and precepts of greater or lesser validity. Kafka himself was, much of the time, puritanical to a degree, building up the slightest transgression into a ‘cardinal sin’, although his values are, for the most part, humanistic rather than dogmatically or orthodoxly religious. Indeed, his work challenges the power over an individual such as himself of a value-system like the Judaeo-Christian moral code, in which that individual may or may not believe, and, what is more important, which may or may not be valid. I refer to Judaeo-Christianity because, while he was increasingly conscious of his Jewish heritage, the iconography and religious background of his work, as of his native city, reflects the eschatological tradition of the Catholic middle ages, which is never out of sight for long in the parts of the ‘old city’ of Prague in which he lived and worked. Wherever he went in Prague, he was reminded of patriarchy and, with it, of sin, hence his belief that ‘irrespective of any [other kind of] guilt, we [humans] are guilty of sin’. By definition sin means transgression against the law of the father.

Gustave Moreau, Fate and the Angel of Death, 1890

The moral of the original Gothic novel, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, that ‘the sins of the fathers are visited on their children’, underlies all Kafka’s work in the psychologically explicable, theologically fundamentalist form of an obsession with the idea of original sin. This precludes the idea of redemption, which he would have classed as a fairytale, or as one of the legendary wonders, beautiful maybe, but unproveable and therefore incredible, of which Titorelli [in The Trial] tells. Although he was neither an orthodox Jew nor a Christian, Kafka inherited from Judaeo-Christianity a disastrous legacy in the form of what became, at times, an obsession totally at odds with his own moral lack of dogma. Original sin, the transgression to end all transgressions, means, as Schopenhauer, whose view surely shaped Kafka’s, saw so clearly, that our very existence is a transgression: we ought not to exist, so that, existing, we are guilty. Kafka’s experience of life was tragic in the sense that he wanted to believe, but found it always difficult and often impossible to do so, and because what he derived from religion, far from being consolatory, was unremittingly disheartening. His troubled religiosity made him liable to dwell on the negative. The divine being simply that in which Josef K., unlike Franz K., fails to believe, a matter of legend, what remains is the negative sublime of terror, once the source, according to Burke, of everything sublime, but now, in a godless age, void of such meaning, and therefore merely that ‘grim phantasm, fear’ (Poe).

Gustave Moreau, Dead Poet Carried by a Centaur, 1890

Because Kafka wanted to believe in God, but was obsessed by the Devil, his work contains elements of a Gothic-style travesty of religion in which God is replaced by the Devil, but the underlying problem is the validity and relevance of Christian concepts and the Christian moral code in the work of a non-Christian writer in the post-Christian early twentieth century. The paradox of Gothic, that it became the expression of a post-Christian outlook but was locked into the medieval Christian ‘conception of guilt-laden, sin-ridden man’,1 is illustrated nowhere more clearly than in Kafka’s novels. In this sense he is the very personification of Gothic.


1 – G. R. Thompson, in The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, ed. G. R. Thompson (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1974), 6.

Gustave Moreau, Apparition, 1876

Transgression, in Kafka, which ranges all the way from presumption to the ‘licentious enactment of carnal desire’,1 is often the result of misjudgment or hubris, hence K.’s personification of the misjudger in The Castle. K.’s supposed profession of Landvermesser derives not from the verb vermessen, which means to measure, but from the reflexive form of the verb, sich vermessen, which means to mismeasure and to presume. All three meanings are relevant to K.’s supposed profession, but the fact that he is not actually a land surveyor at all means that the ideas of mismeasurement and presumption are all the more important. The normal German word for land surveyor is Landmesser. In opting for the less common, alternative form, ‘Landvermesser’, Kafka was foregrounding the idea of mismeasurement, of misjudgment. So far as his challenged identity is concerned, K. is no ‘land surveyor’, but figuratively speaking he is, for he is given to misjudgment (not a very desirable trait in a surveyor), of doing what he knows to be wrong, and particularly of going too far in his obsession with self-justification, which at a given point shades over into self-righteousness and thence into pride (in German, Vermessenheit, for which K.’s Landvermesserarbeit stands). How fine, but crucial, is the line between judgment and misjudgment, between being right and being self-righteous, between self-worth and self-importance.


1 – Fred Botting, Gothic (London & New York: Routledge, 1996) 6

Gustave Moreau, Samson and Delilah, 1882

The reason why Kafka’s novels, unlike the average Gothic novel, have neither hero nor villain in the normal sense, is, of course, that there are no valid criteria by which to identify them as such. The fact that Josef K. and K. are ostensibly heroic in persistence, but, judging by results, wrong in persisting, subverts the notion of heroism. Josef K., who persists too long in proudly proclaiming his innocence, and in the end judges himself unworthy of living, seems, on the surface, to be innocent of any specific ‘transgression’ in the Gothic sense, but the fact that the idea of transgression is beset with problems complicates the issue. What is a ‘transgression’ in the early twentieth century, when more or less hermetic references to medieval Christianity echo away into a void? A matter of perspective, of judgment without a yardstick. The very word distances the concept from modern reality. Basically it means going too far in crossing some forbidden liminality or boundary, but the paraphrase lacks the appeal, the transgressive edge, of the term that is now so widely used in the context of Gothic. However, beneath the surface, it is precisely in the Gothic sense that Josef K. is guilty. The Priest’s argument that it is the guilty who go around proclaiming their innocence is as astute as it is fatuous: quite apart from the fact that there are no characters in the novel who are not projections of himself (the Priest represents K.’s moral self), Josef K. is the only person who is competent to assess his own innocence or guilt, although readers find themselves challenged by Kafka’s exegesis, which is provocatively inconclusive, to arrive at their own verdict, and readers of The Castle too must by the same token judge for themselves whether K.’s persistence is morally great or merely foolish. In the text, of course, it is described as neither, for the basis for making a clear moral judgment is lacking.

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus & the Sphinx, 1864

The points made in a recent survey of Gothic are therefore readily applicable to all three of Kafka’s novels: Gothic engages us by showing us a world in which evil is stronger than good, and disorder more likely than order. Homes and other places of former security are forbidding, unsafe or deserted; once revered figures of authority are sinister and despotic; motives are malign and devious; even children are fiendish and malicious.1 These are fundamental points. Karl Rossmann is forbidden his childhood home and its symbolical replications, Josef K. is arrested in the once unchallenged privacy of his rooms at Frau Grubach’s Pension (which just happens to mean ‘prison cell’, so that his arrest was inherent in his way of life),2 and K., like Karl Rossmann before him, is challenged in and expelled from one domicile after another. The Priest in The Trial serves the Court as the typical Confessor of Gothic serves the Inquisition; indeed, he turns out to be the Prison Chaplain, the church being, as it was throughout the Inquisition, which is thereby invoked, in cahoots with the court. It is in what would once have been the sanctuary of the Cathedral that Josef K. meets his third and final challenge, and Georg Bendemann, Gregor Samsa and the Burrower are others who meet their greatest challenge precisely where they might have fancied themselves in least danger of having to face a challenge of any sort, let alone a fatal one.

Gustave Moreau, The Victorious Sphinx, 1886

On the verbal level it is ‘The Burrow’ that makes my point most clearly, for the ‘Burgplatz’ at the centre of the burrow has the connotation of being a citadel or place of womb-like security (Burg Geborgenheit), and yet this counts for nothing, for what is contained or hidden (geborgen) deep within this Satansburg, like death within life, is the fear that undermines and destroys any sense of security. The Castle authorities, leaving aside for the moment their purely fictional nature, appear to be a self-serving power for evil, although even on this there is no absolute certainty, for if all were not relation in the post-Nietzschean moral sphere, the novel would not exist in its present form. Indeed, if The Castle shows anything, it is that moral valuations and the judgments to which they lead are relative and therefore unsafe. It often seems as though the reader can only make an unambiguous judgment in the foreknowledge that it will necessarily be unfounded and simplistic. In brief, Kafka goes beyond transgression in the Gothic sense to a concern with the genealogy and meaning of moral values as such, the undermining of moral preconceptions being one aspect of the loss of control faced by protagonist and reader alike.


1 – F. S. Frank, Guide to the Gothic: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984), xii.
2 – She is more than the commonsensical figure she seems, for her name points to Czech hrobar (gravedigger) and chrobak (dung beetle), these serving to suggest that she too is a projection of Josef K.

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1824


If the Gothic novel deals with ‘control and with the uncontrollable: lust, greed, fear, death’,1 all of which dominate Kafka’s work, with death, which preoccupied and terrified him as the invisible but ever-present factor in the equation, what is quintessentially Gothic is the loss of control that is the product of the weakness at the heart of human nature, and in that sense of the malignity of human fate. One recent overview of Gothic writing has seen it as evincing a ‘new metaphysical paradigm, where belief in providence persists, but not faith in its benevolence’.2 With Kafka, as in Gothic, the reader is faced with a vision of life as nightmare, for Gothic tales gave literary expression to the metaphysical anguish and anxiety which, like so much in the Gothic world of the Romantic period, were re-experienced a century later.


1 – Lucien Jenkins, in the Introduction to P. Teuthold [sic!], The Necromancer (London: Skoob Books, 1989) iii
2 – Robert Miles, Gothic Writing 1750-1820 (London & New York: Routledge, 1993) 3

Caspar David Friedrich, Cemetery, 1825

Kafka too depicts a world out of control. No matter whether the mask it wears is paternal, patriarchal, ecclesiastical, or whatever, the apparent abuse of power facing Kafka’s protagonists serves to bring home to them their total inability to control their destinies. From the outset they are disempowered. They may seem to live in a world too well controlled, but appearance, as so often, misleads; in reality their troubled inner world is the product of their own lack of self-control. Properly seen, the world of the K.-novels, too, is ‘dark, disordered, threatening and fallen’,1 a world in which, following the Gothic logic of disaster, things go from bad to worse. Slipping from a safe and orderly universe into a looking-glass, uncertain one beyond the simplifications, consolations and falsifications of reason and rational discourse is the most basic Gothic experience, and if there is any single Gothic emotion, it is the apprehension that is thereby engendered. All this applies to Kafka’s novels and tales, which in this respect differ from most earlier Gothic mainly in that the sudden loss of control, the shift from security to vulnerability that triggers a Gothic-style metamorphosis, is, typically, their starting-point. Thus Karl Rossmann’s life is totally changed by his moment of weakness, compare the moral of ‘A Country Doctor’: ‘Mistake the sounding of the night-bell just once, and it can never be made good’. In general terms, Kafka means that a single mistake is enough to destroy a life, but his metaphor carries the more specific meaning that mistaking night for day, dream for reality, can prove fatal.


1 –F. S. Frank, Guide to the Gothic: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism  [I] (Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984), xi

Ludwig Richter, Pool in the Riesengebirge, 1839

In his work, as in Gothic, all pre-existing or perceived certainties are undermined, and there is a pattern of false leads and real and apparent contradictions. From some leads the protagonist draws the wrong conclusions; from others he fails to draw any conclusion, and when he is offered what might be supposed to be the right conclusion, as K. is by Bürgel, he also fails to draw it, although I hasten to add that there is in reality no reason to think that there is a right conclusion, or that, if there were, K. would be capable of drawing it; he is simply at his most human and vulnerable when exhaustion prevents him from hearing Bürgel’s message. The only certainty is therefore that there is a myriad of false conclusions waiting to be drawn, and the same applies to The Castle as a whole. At issue here is our inability to understand not so much the outside world, which to the romantic mind is but a projection, a figment of will and imagination, as ourselves. Kafka seems to enable readers by showing them the conflicting motivating impulses of which Josef K. himself remains unaware. Being, necessarily, governed by one dominant emotion, impulse or thought at a time, Josef K. cannot see himself as the reader is able to see him, and since we are in a similar position when it comes to viewing ourselves, and there is no conscious central controller of his and our manifold impulses and the selves they seem to spawn, self becomes a fluid concept and identity problematical.

Joseph Anton Koch, Landscape near Olevano, 1830

It is, however, not only imagined certainties that slip out of control as they are transformed into sites of danger; so too do places hitherto considered secure, for the challenge inherent in Gothic operates on both inner (figurative) and outer (spatial) levels. Proof of this is ‘The Burrow’, where the creative burrower finds his womb-like citadel of security transformed into a Gothic prison-vault-cum-tomb, for in the German language the idea of the grave (Grab) is contained in that of digging (graben); there could hardly be a better example of how das Heimliche (the familiar) is transformed or perverted into das Unheimliche (the uncanny). Kafka shows the individual’s long-cherished positive ideals being destroyed one after another as he is driven into an inner world of his own creation, until in the end, back to the wall, all that remains is the defensive ideal of trying to protect this inner world against his worst enemy, himself, in the form of the death that he carries within him like a malign second self. Both the bewildering suddenness of change—Karl Rossmann’s seduction and his receipt of Onkel Jakob’s missive; Josef K.’s arrest; K.’s reception in the village—and the slow encroachment of the irrational upon the rational, especially in the K.-novels, are notably prefigured in Gothic, and these changes in his environment signal a change or metamorphosis in the protagonist himself.

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey among Oak Trees, 1810

Metamorphosis, in the literal sense a feature of fairytale rather than of Gothic, is, with Kafka, more often figurative or psychological than literal. Karl Rossmann, Josef K., the Man-from-the-Country [‘Before the Law’], K., Amalia’s father [The Castle], the Country Doctor and others are changed out of all recognition by what happens to them at a fateful moment as a result of misjudging a situation or misreading a challenge. Most literal and visible of the many metamorphoses in Kafka’s work is that of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis. In historical terms Kafka’s bug is merely one of the fearful prodigies issuing from the Gothic imagination. What makes it both unique and other than Gothic is its multivalency and the self-loathing it represents.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

The uncanny, through which Kafka is linked with the German early Gothic master E. T. A. Hoffmann in a way that goes to the heart of both men’s work in that ‘What is experienced as the uncanny is an objectification of the subject’s anxieties, read into shapes external to himself,1 is an important agent of the loss of control. Hoffmann believed in demons that work in and through the mind and in the mind’s ultimate ability to withstand them; Kafka shared the former belief but lacked the latter. In Hoffmann’s Der Sandman, Freud’s paradigm of the uncanny in literature, the experience in question derives from the taking literally of a metaphor (in this case that of the ‘sandman’), the technique that is at the very heart of Kafka’s work, as it is also at the heart of fairytale. In Kafka, as in Hoffmann, it is the premise or half-suppressed opening metaphor that is weird or supernatural, not the story as such, which is normally but a consequential elaboration of the opening. Granted, for instance, the weird opening of The Metamorphosis, the development of that situation could not be more matter-of-fact. It is the grounding of their fantasies in reality, or rather in what looks like or passes for reality, that makes the work of Hoffmann and Kafka at once so compelling and so disconcerting, in other words, so uncanny, for it is the essence of the uncanny that it verges on the homely or cosy, but veers away from it in a disconcerting, scary way. Hoffmann, like Goya, reveals what is normally hidden, and may be better left so, and at the same time transforms the familiar into the alien and therefore alarming. In Kafka’s work we see both this and its opposite. In The Metamorphosis, for instance, he makes the alien overwhelmingly familiar.


1 – Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London & New York: Routledge, 1981, repr. 1995) 66f.

Henry Fuseli, Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women, 1780

A further form of uncanniness is also relevant: the sense of empty space which according to Heidegger is produced by the loss of faith in divine images (cf. the ‘empty crucifixes’ of the great pulpit and the ‘empty niche’ of the small pulpit in the Cathedral in The Trial, but also the god-forsaken empty space of Titorelli’s heathscapes [The Trial], and The Castle as a whole; it is that same empty space that the would-be surveyor K. surveys). In the first chapter of The Man Who Disappeared [Amerika], the crucifix in Johanna Brummer’s cell-like bedroom, and the Madonna on the wall of the Stoker’s no less cell-like cabin, are, in seeming empty of any transcendental meaning, more like pin-ups than icons, and something similar could be said of the empty Cathedral in The Trial, which Josef K. approaches as a work of art and leaves as an adjunct of the Court. Of the numinous as such there is everywhere a chilling absence.

Odilon Redon, Girl and Chrysanthemums, 1905

Given the way in which the uncanny challenges the moral order, it is true to say that the process begun by the early Gothics is finally complete in Kafka. I mean the separation of action and morality and therefore the putting into question of the nature of right and wrong. In the works of Kafka the uncanny stands naked and as it were ‘unassimilated into any recognizable transcendent or ethical scheme’.1 It is this that makes him the great master of the uncanny in twentieth-century literature and at the same time, properly defined, the greatest master of the Gothic form.


1 – Siegbert Prawer, The ‘Uncanny’ in Literature (London: Westfield College, 1965), 17, 21

Odilon Redon, The Red Thorns, 1897


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