I have found it a pleasure to study Kafka’s Trial again.
The Trial is a good read. It is well written. Kafka covers the absurd in a dispassionate way. The prose reflects, at times, legalistic language (appropriate to the nature of the story), very cleverly.
At first sight, The Trial may appear to foreshadow the oppressive tyrannies that have disfigured the history of the 20th century and later. (It was written in 1914 but first published, after Kafka’s death, in 1935.)
But I think we should study it carefully and retain an awareness of its ambiguities.
As at the beginning of Amerika, The Trial story opens with a dramatic, informative and emphatic sentence:
Jemand muẞte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daẞ er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.
Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.
His being taken by surprise, early in the morning, is reminiscent of the rude awakening of Gregor Samsa, in Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis].
Josef K’s fate follows this sequence: arrest, but no charge, no release of court papers to K or his advocate, no cross-examination, no verdict, no sentence, but a violent disposal.
The court proves to be opaque, impenetrable, highly bureaucratic, hierarchical and secretive.
From the start, it is downhill all the way, for K.
INNOCENCE V GUILT
The officers who arrest K observe that he claims to be innocent, while not knowing the law (whatever that is): “er gibt zu, er kenne das Gesetz nicht, und behauptet gleichzeitig, schuldlos zu sein.”
Leni, the woman who looks after the lawyer, and who seduces K, advises K to admit his guilt. The lawyer himself gives K the same piece of advice: ‘Das einzige Richtige sei, sich mit den vorhandenen Verhältnissen abzufinden’ [‘The only correct course was to come to terms with things as they stood’]. (Chapters 6 and 7)
The court chaplain informs K that his case is going badly and that he is already considered to be guilty. K denies that he, or indeed anyone, can be guilty. The chaplain replies that this is exactly what guilty people say. (Chapter 9)
EXHAUSTION AND HUMILIATION
K meets other defendants. Involvement with the court takes up more and more of their time and it wears them out. K has a similar experience. He tries to carry on as normal and continues working at the bank; but he perceives the extent to which he is distracted by the court case, and tired out by it.
At his lawyer’s house, K meets a defendant who has been involved with the court for five years (Chapter 8). The relationship between this defendant and the lawyer has been inverted: the man is extremely humble in front of the lawyer, as if his self-respect has been completely undermined: ‘Das war kein Klient mehr, das war der Hund des Advokaten.’ [‘This was no longer a client but the advocate’s dog.’]
Finally, at the point of death, K compares himself his treatment to the way a dog might be treated: ‘“Wie ein Hund!” sagte er, es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben” [‘“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame was meant to outlive him.”]. (Chapter 10)
Josef K seeks help with his case from both men and women. With his contacts with women, there is a sexual aspect.
K seeks out Fräulein Bürstner, his neighbour, to talk about his arrest: he ends up kissing her repeatedly without her permission (a case of sexual assault). (Chapter 1) Unsurprisingly, she terminates all contact with him.
K shares a fleeting mutual attraction with the wife of the court usher. The usher – let alone K himself – feels obliged to tolerate court officers taking her for themselves. (Chapter 3)
K is seduced by Leni, his lawyer’s carer, as the same time as she offers to help him. At this point, K reveals some insight: ‘“Ich werbe Helferinnen,” dachte er fast verwundert’ [‘“I recruit women helpers,” he thought, rather to his surprise”].
The court chaplain expresses disapproval of K’s approach. He tells K that he seeks too much help from strangers, especially women, but that they cannot help him: “Du suchst zuviel fremde Hilfe, und besonders bei Frauen. Merkst du denn nicht, daẞ es nicht die wahre Hilfe ist?”
Philosophical questions raised by The Trial
1 What is guilt?
2 Who is fit to judge the guilty?
3 What if the judges are themselves corrupt?
4 How should men relate to women, and women to men?
Hypotheses re interpretation
Some of these may overlap.
1 K is innocent and it is the court that is guilty.
2 K changes. The corrupt nature of the court infects him. At the start, he is innocent; but under the influence of the arrest, he becomes guilty. The arrest precedes the commission of the crime. K’s guilt arises from the lustful aspect of his character, which comes to the surface.
3(A) The court represents dark aspects of the human psyche (especially K’s), or human society, or both, normally hidden from view.
3(B) K should face up to his faults, without relying on advisors and advocates.
4 What is the meaning of life? Well, life has no meaning, other than the meaning we give to it. Many things do not make sense.
5 Some aspects of our world are benign, others are not. We suffer cruel, unjust events, inflicted by arbitrary, unaccountable forces. As individuals or as a society, we do not have full control.
6 The world that Kafka portrays is ambiguous and the reader has to live with the ambiguity. No single interpretation of his work is adequate.
7 It is also possible to read Kafka’s novels as reflecting his own anxiety about sex and relationships with women, as reflected in events in his personal life.
This remains a very modern novel. The protagonist is not an old-fashioned hero – he has faults and makes mistakes. He arouses sympathy in the reader, as he finds himself in a maze, with no way out other than the one that is imposed on him.