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Masturbating in Public; or Misreading Kafka

By Shannon Burns.

Misreading Kafka by Shannon Burns

In Franz Kafka’s fiction, humiliation and shame take on a variety of implied forms. In The Trial they are inextricably bound to Josef K.’s fear that hidden things will be made public. In chapter one, K. is appalled to find that his neighbours have been watching him through the apartment window, ogling his private world, and this sensitivity to public exposure lingers throughout each of the novel’s subsequent episodes.

On the night of his arrest, K. is keen to apologise to Fraülein Bürstner – his neighbour across the hallway – for his unintended intrusion into her room during the course of his arrest and interrogation. However, the landlady assures K. that there is no need for an apology because Fraülein Bürstner is unlikely to notice that he was ever there. Besides, she adds, Bürstner conducts herself rather shamelessly anyway, staying out on the streets until late, accompanied by a different gentleman each evening. But K. rebukes her for the imputation:

“Mrs. Grubach, you are on quite the wrong track,” said K., so angry that he was hardly able to hide it, “you are quite mistaken, I know Miss Bürstner very well and there is no truth at all in what you say.”

In fact, from what we can gather later in the novel, K. hardly knows his neighbour at all. He is wildly attracted to her, however, and forces himself on Bürstner later that same evening.


Kafka’s fiction remains stridently ambiguous. On a formal level, stories like ‘A Hunger Artist’ can be read as a tragedy or existential puzzle or as an elaborately drawn-out joke; in The Castle we’re confronted with an inscrutable blend of parable and slapstick, whose protagonist is as mysterious as the world he tries to decipher (what is K.’s backstory? what is he truly searching for?). The Trial, too, is as impossible to decode as its famous parable ‘Before the Law’, and it undermines the process of literary analysis in a self-reflexive manner. Kafka has his protagonist and priest perform interpretive gestures hopelessly, as they try to understand the parable:

“So the doorkeeper cheated the man,” said K. immediately, who had been captivated by the story. “Don’t be too quick,” said the priest, “don’t take somebody else’s opinion without checking it. I told you the story exactly as it was written. There’s nothing in there about cheating.” “But it’s quite clear,” said K., “and your first interpretation of it was quite correct. The doorkeeper gave him the information that would release him only when it could be of no more use.” “He didn’t ask him before that,” said the priest, “and don’t forget he was only a doorkeeper, and as doorkeeper he did his duty.” “What makes you think he did his duty?” asked K., “He didn’t. It might have been his duty to keep everyone else away, but this man is who the door was intended for and he ought to have let him in.” “You’re not paying enough attention to what was written and you’re changing the story,” said the priest.

This last sentence, of course, mocks our own attempts to decode the story, not to mention the novel as a whole. We should simply accept the words on the page instead of attempting to explicate. The priest continues:

“However you look at it the figure of the doorkeeper comes out differently from how you might think.” “You know the story better than I do and you’ve known it for longer,” said K. They were silent for a while. And then K. said, “So you think the man was not cheated, do you?” “Don’t get me wrong,” said the priest, “I’m just pointing out the different opinions about it. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to people’s opinions. The text cannot be altered, and the various opinions are often no more than an expression of despair over it.”

And here Kafka leaves us, with analysis presented as an act of despair. As a critic, I’m condemned by these lines. What I’m doing is foolhardy in the extreme: I’m an emperor without clothes, begging readers to politely refrain from laughing at my inadequacies. Kafka is brutal when it comes to disappointing the desire for comprehensibility and coherence. In the end, we realise that there’s no way forward, that all of our energies keep leading us back to the same uncertainty; the only option left for the careful reader is to accept their fate and try to make the best of a bad situation.

Yet despite the extraordinary difficulties faced by critics who try to unlock the mysteries of Kafka’s fiction, there has been no shortage of speculation about Josef K.’s guilt or innocence and the ‘meaning’ of his trial. In the spirit of these doomed interpretations, I offer my own theory about the ‘secret’ that underlines Kafka’s dreamlike nightmare of inexplicable punishment – the clandestine event that feeds into K.’s ambiguous status, hovering as he does between one kind of guilt and another kind of innocence.


The maid, as we know, is unusually late bringing Josef K. breakfast on the morning of his fateful arrest. Because he has some spare time on his hands, K. begins to fantasise about his neighbour, the loose-living Fraülein Bürstner, and not for the first time. The old lady from across the street witnesses his undignified ritual through the window (we read that she was “observing him with a curiosity quite unusual for her”) and Joseph K. is arrested minutes later.

K.’s great crime, according to this reading, is that he masturbated with the curtains drawn open.

Much the same holds for my reading of the Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa is not a cockroach at all; instead, he has awoken to discover that he cannot stop wanking. Gregor masturbates in front of his mother, father, sister, the chief clerk at his office, the tenants in the other room, even the family’s charwoman. He leaves a sticky substance across the walls and floor. His eyesight fails. The world dims.


When I was a boy, perhaps eight or nine years of age, my stepmother dragged me to one of her brother’s many bail hearings after he was charged with drunk and disorderly conduct. While waiting in the courtroom for my uncle to appear I witnessed several other cases. The magistrate dealt mostly with small-scale thefts and a few minor assaults that morning, but I found one of the hearings totally baffling.

It began with a young mother walking with her toddler through inner city streets on a summer afternoon. At the edge of her vision the woman caught sight of something unusual near the balcony directly above her. On closer inspection, she realised that a man was leaning out of his second-floor apartment, frantically masturbating, and she hurried off to report his behaviour to the police.

The man who stood before us on trial that morning was middle-aged, well dressed and softly spoken. He pleaded with the magistrate, and with us, to understand his predicament. More than a decade ago, he explained, he was the victim of an alien abduction. His captors installed a tiny computer chip in his brain before releasing him back into the world, and they had controlled his behaviour from afar ever since. He was not to blame, said the softly spoken man. It was all the fault of an alien presence inside him.


Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns lives in Adelaide. He writes articles and reviews for Sydney Review of Books and Australian Book Review. His fiction has recently appeared in Verity La, Overland, Tincture, Mascara Literary Review and Gargouille, and he is a member of the J. M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 15th, 2015.