Why have some critics compared K to Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener?
Melville's character is famous for his enigmatic passivity, his succinct and flat phrase "I would prefer not to," and his utter flummoxing of the Wall Street lawyer who hires him. Bartleby is silent like K is silent, in a way that connotes neither reticence nor explicit heroic resistance. Bartleby's phrase and some of K's are, as Duncan McColl Chesney explains, a sort of "abstract negation" that is "disruptive, as it shuts down the regular, smooth functioning of social speech." It is possible to see this when considering how K frustrates the Medical Officer and Noel with his silence or his ambiguous answers to their questions, forestalling truth and fact.
Is K a hero?
Many critics want to take a decisive stance either way: K is a hero, whose mute resistance to apartheid and civil war is inspiring in its improbability and stubbornness, or he is a figure who is too outside of history to offer any lessons in heroism. His garden is either a utopia or the haphazard diggings of a fool who cannot overcome starvation. What is probably more compelling than either side of this binary is that K is somewhere in the middle. As John Bolin writes, "the novel works to alter our parameters for conceiving the 'heroic' and the 'political'...heroism in the text in fact inevitably functions as a form of misrepresentation."
How does the state treat K?
As a young person of inferior intelligence, K is sent to a state-run institution that brutalizes him in its harshness and rigidity. As an adult of few means and most likely of an inferior race, he is denied permits, considered a vagrant, harassed, forced into a labor gang, housed in a resettlement camp, beaten, insulted, had his mother cremated without his consent, interrogated, and more. The state represents discipline and rules, and it seeks to control and/or expel K when he is not conforming to them. To the state, he is small, cumbersome, and exploitable.
What is the significance of K's silence?
K is undeniably a character of few words, but that is not entirely due to his putatively low IQ or his social marginalization. Rather, as critic Duncan McColl Chesney notes, K's "reticence in the novel is not just that of shame and intimidating. His silence is more profound and passes a harsher judgement on his 'times.'" He moves into the silence of animals, revealing "the indistinctness of the limit between human and nonhuman." His silence is a version of bearing witness, for, as Chesney asks, "what can you say in the face of systematic and dehumanizing violence, injustice, and absurdity?"
Is the Medical Officer a reliable narrator?
We might be tempted to read the Medical Officer's account as rooted in truth. After all, he is clearly an intelligent man who is aware of what is going on in the state and who displays a decent amount of understanding and compassion in his dealings with K. While these things might be true, the Medical Officer still poses a problem. Being part of the state and the system, he is conditioned not to truly see K. He changes K's story and claims K for himself. He fashions meaning out of K's existence and experience that the reader either already knows is not true or has the urge to question. K's time in Kenilworth is comprehensible to us in many respects, but with the Medical Officer narrating, there are many other aspects of it that elude us.