Summary and Analysis
The Great Wall of China" (Beim Bau Der Chinesischen Mauer)"
The discussion of the system employed in the construction of the wall takes up most of the story's first section. The way average workers react to the piecemeal system of building is contrasted with the way the sensitive workers react. This latter group would succumb to discouragement rather easily if they were to work far away from home, under difficult circumstances, without ever seeing their efforts come to fruition. It is only after they see finished sections of the wall that these sensitive workers go on performing with enthusiasm; being intellectuals and therefore more aware of the possible illusory nature of the whole project, they need continued reassurance of purposefulness. The piecemeal system was selected to give them this feeling of purposefulness (by having them marvel at finished sections) while permitting the high command to transfer the regular day laborers (who do not have this problem) to wherever they are needed. In its wisdom, the command has taken human nature of all kinds of workers into account by decreeing the piecemeal system.
In China, which Kafka uses as a symbol of the whole of mankind, people have been convinced of the meaningfulness of construction ever since architecture was raised to the level of the most important science. They are convinced because the workers have common plans and common goals. There is no chaos because no one is preoccupied with his own personal problems. The way for the individual to prevent chaos is by stepping out of his isolation, at least at certain intervals, and joining the great reservoir of mankind in a common ideal.
The narrator tells of a scholarly book which in the early days of the construction persuaded people to "join forces as far as possible for the accomplishment of a single aim." In those days, it was possible to achieve aims every bit as impressive as the building of the Tower of Babel although, "as regards divine approval," the Great Wall to be built is presented as a venture that, unlike the Tower of Babel, does bear the stamp of divine sanctioning. This book that the narrator cites says further that the Tower of Babel failed because its foundations were too weak, and that the "Great Wall alone would provide for the first time in the history of mankind a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel."
The trouble is that the construction of a new skyscraper, be it ever so commendable an attempt on the part of mankind to fulfill its ancient dream of reaching the heavens, clearly goes beyond man's capabilities. This is why the new Tower of Babel remains something "nebulous." How can the wall be the foundation of this gigantic venture if it consists only of individual segments with numerous wide gaps not filled in? There is also justified doubt if the Great Wall will ever be finished. Kafka's comparison of the construction of the wall with that of the Tower of Babel has decidedly political overtones. In this connection, it is interesting to cite a passage from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov (Part 1, Chapter 5), with which Kafka was thoroughly familiar. There, in his criticism of political tyranny, Dostoevsky used the image of the Tower of Babel: "For Socialism is not only the labor question, or the question of the so-called fourth state, but above all an atheistic question, the question of the modern interpretation of atheism, the question of the Tower of Babel which is deliberately being erected without God, not for the sake of realizing heaven from earth, but for the sake of bringing heaven down to earth."
Fully aware though Kafka was of man's need for a common cause, he nevertheless shrank from endorsing any mass movement that inscribed the liquidation of the individual on its banners. His sensitivity to the emerging totalitarian ideologies of our century made him cautious and suspicious of "people with banners and scarfs waving." He detested and ridiculed their naive belief in uncompromising solidarity for some version of perennial bliss on earth. His clear rejection of such ideologies is all the more remarkable because it demonstrates how well and consistently he could differentiate between totalitarian utopias on the one hand and the promise the Zionist dream held out to him on the other.
The greatest threat to which mankind is exposed comes from those fanatics who submit detailed blueprints for the wall and the new tower to be placed on top of it without having the right methods of construction. As the scholarly book explains, it is exactly this "nebulous" idea of a great common cause that appeals to people. Enthusiasm alone will not do, however. What makes the situation so much more difficult today is that almost everyone knows how to lay foundations well and the general yearning for a common cause has taken the form of yearning for any common cause. Naturally, the scholarly book is a great success with everyone now too: it gives people insight into their "essentially changeable, unstable" natures that "can endure no restraint" and will "tear everything to pieces" once it gets the chance to pool its energies. By revealing the counter forces to which people are exposed, Kafka has once again described his own situation — namely, that of a battle field. Two antagonistic forces are within him — the hunt that drives him beyond his limits and the forces chasing him back in the opposite direction, back to his concrete and earthbound existence. As he himself termed his anguish, he was continually torn by the "assault from above" and the "assault from below."
All we know about the nature of the command is that in its office, whose location remains unknown, "all human thoughts and desires were revolved, and counter to them all human aims and fulfillments. And through the window the reflected splendors of divine worlds fell on the hands of the leaders." These leaders represent the totality of human experience, and while they are far from divine themselves, they nevertheless reflect divine splendors. Like the officialdom in The Trial or in The Castle, the command may be seen as the symbol of man's spiritual world.
Remote, nebulous, and impersonal, it has probably existed from times immemorial. But it is also powerful and omniscient. And as in virtually all Kafka pieces, men rebel against an imperfect world created by a power which, they believe, could have done better. The human situation is aggravated because men have to assist in the expansion of this deficient world.
Any accusation leveled at the leadership is futile in the sense that we may say it is directed not at actual beings, but at man's world of imagination. This is why Kafka keeps warning us to try and comprehend things only up to a point. This message is clearly stated for us with the help of the parable of the river that floods the lands beyond its banks: as soon as man tries to transcend his limits — the "destiny" of the parable — he loses his direction. The thing to remember is that man's apparently innate temptation to attempt something beyond his limits is something the command has taken into account by ordering the piecemeal system of construction. As stated at the outset, the realization of the wall's imperfectability is something the workers could not cope with. Kafka has, of course, drawn his own lifelong battle here between his understanding "that the limits which my capacity for thought imposes upon me are narrow" and his unending, self-tormenting intellectual probing into the unanswerable questions of human existence.
Since work on the wall is completed (though large gaps will always remain) and since the narrator's "inquiry is purely historical," this probing continues. Doubt is expressed not merely as to the meaningfulness of the piecemeal system but also about the whole construction. Was the wall really intended to protect the land from northern nomads (Kafka's symbol of incalculable evil that might intrude anytime)? (Compare this with the threat of evil from the "outside world" of "The Burrow.") The mere mention of the nomads scares the children, it is true, but the enemies may very well be harmless fairy-tale creatures — again very much like the mysterious animal drilling away in "The Burrow." Surely the nomads are too far away to pose much of a threat. At any rate, the command's decision to have the wall built was not the result of this potential, if unlikely, threat because the decision is as old as the command itself. Man may mark certain points in time as beginnings and ends, but both the command and the building of the wall have been, and are, eternal. The decree to defend the territory against the nomads resulted from the wise realization of the command that men cannot survive without concrete tasks in a secured order of things or, to put it in Kafka's terms, "outside the law."
Empire is one of the most ambiguous institutions in China, as the narrator assures us at the beginning of the second part of the story in one of Kafka's characteristic efforts to dress the most profound questions in factual, quasi-scientific terms: the narrator knows a method whereby certain subjects may be "probed to the marrow" because he has studied the "comparative history of races." People do not even know the name of their ruler, and "Pekin itself is far stranger to the people in our village than the next world." Complete confusion prevails as to government guidelines and laws of everyday life, and any meaningful concept of time has been lost. As a result, dead emperors are venerated as if they were still alive and contemporary crimes are condoned because they are believed to have occurred in the distant past. Here Kafka has expressed a terrible insight about man, namely his tendency to turn his back on the problems of his own time and permit himself to be guided by the outmoded ways of thinking in bygone ages. Whole societies are fashioned after obsolete models, no matter how they terrorize people living now. The "law" of their own day remains hidden from them. This is their tragic fate.
The enormous distance between Pekin and the people of the south may also be seen as Kafka's illustration of Jewry outside history. It is a fact that Kafka chided Jews who deliberately forsook their own ways in order to try and become assimilated. If one reads the story on this level, China appears not only as the symbol of the universe but also as that of the Jews, scattered far from their spiritual center and yet, in a sense, held together by tradition.
If anyone should think that "in reality we have no Emperor because confusion abounds, he would not be far from the truth," the narrator says. Since the Emperor is immortal, however, at least as an institution, this means that man cannot know the institutions of the empire nor, as a result, abide by the laws it decrees. This is so not because the people have forsaken their Emperor: on the contrary, "there is hardly a more faithful people than ours." While one may read the story as dealing with the secularization of our age, the theme of the ambiguous relationship between the Emperor (God) and man is more paramount. Under no circumstances can the Emperor's message reach a specific individual because even the strongest and fastest messenger is bound to become lost in the infinite spaces between the imperial courts and the endless wastes beyond the palace gates. Only distorted fragments of a message may eventually trickle down to a subject, but even if this should happen, the message would arrive too late. Besides, the village people would not take any such messenger seriously and would probably kick him out anyway.
Nonetheless, the narrator says, we all "sit by our windows dreaming of such a messenger descending." A message would give direction and meaning. The situation resounds with all the melancholy of human longing for "law." The people, "insignificant shadows cringing in the most remote stretches before the imperial sun," stand no chance of making themselves heard at the distant court. It is partly beyond their capabilities to do so and partly due to circumstances they cannot change which keep them from succeeding. Yet subtly and consistently, an overtone of reproach is in motion which charges the people with not mustering up enough imagination and initiative when it comes to dealing with the cumbersome machinery of the state. As in the parable "Before the Law" in The Trial, where Joseph K. fails to act firmly on his own behalf against the clumsiness and callousness of a nebulous authority, Kafka attacks man's subservience before the state. The odds may be heavily against him and he may be aware of this, but he should nevertheless continue fighting. He must continue if he wants to secure a measure of dignity for himself in a basically hopeless and — which is worse — absurd situation.
This story is eminently "religious" in the broad sense of the term. Whether we interpret the empire to be a spiritual realm actually existing or whether we take it to be a figment of man's spiritually starved imagination, in both cases it serves to show human longing for meaningfulness. The empire's inaccessibility and the wall's imperfectability stand as convincing bits of evidence that man's desire and search for a fixed order must be thwarted unless he learns to employ the right means: it may be better, after all, to have old-fashioned believers than victims of "scientific investigations" into realms that must, of necessity, retreat before such probing. Kafka knows, as does the high command of the story, that people would lose the ground under their feet without some measure of hope anchored in the metaphysical. "Therefore I shall not continue probing these questions beyond this point."