“The Great Wall of China”
In Franz Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”, the reader is presented
with an allegorical account of a man leaving his home and loved ones in the south of
China to partake in the building of the Great Wall in the north. By using an account of an
unknown emperor, yet a universally accepted high command, Kafka strikes common
ground with Plato’s idea of Forms, which Kafka uses to present the people of china as
those who believe that “ignorance is bliss”. The Great Wall functions throughout the
story as a metaphor for writing, and through this metaphor, Kafka reveals his feelings that
writing serves as a form of protection, and a means of uniting peoples of different
cultures, as well as his feelings that it is important to take what is presented as the truth
and examine it more thoroughly before coming to any conclusions.
Most striking to the reader is the fact that the people of China have such faith in
and obedience to their emperor, although they do not know his name or who he truly is.
The high command, or emperor, in Kafka’s story is startlingly reminiscent of Plato’s idea
of Forms. The narrator states, “Our leaders know us… I must say that in my opinion the
high command has existed from old time, and was not assembled, say, like a gathering of
mandarins summoned hastily” (page 241). The fact that the narrator feels as though there
are essentially two emperors, the idea of the emperor, as well as the literal emperor, can
be directly translated into the idea of the universal Form, and an imitation of that Form.
The emperor, as such, on the other hand, is mighty throughout all the
hierarchies of the world: admitted. But the existent emperor, a man like us,
lies much like us on a couch… (page 243)
The people fully acknowledge that they know nothing about their current emperor, and it
is very possible that he is an extraordinarily ordinary man, not unlike themselves.