The story of the mysterious indictment, trial, and reckoning forced upon Joseph K. in Franz Kafka' s "The Trial" is one of the twentieth century' s master parables, reflecting the central spiritual crises of modern life. Kafka' s method- one that has influenced, in some way, almost every writer of substance who followed him- was to render the absurd and the terrifying convincing by a scrupulous, hyperreal matter-of-factness of tone and treatment. He thereby imparted to his work a level of seriousness normally associated with civilization' s most cherished poems and religious texts. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
The plot of The Trial is probably well-known even to those who have never read it. On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K. is arrested. The charges are never revealed to him, and Josef K. must attempt to defend himself against unknown charges in the face of an obscured and foreboding legal system.
Ultimately, The Trial is a book about which I have little to say. It was certainly a worthwhile read if only to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be “Kafkaesque.” Perhaps my biggest complaint is that Kafka’s purpose seemed to be to make a point rather than to make a point through telling a story. Of course, the fact that The Trial remained unfinished on Kafka’s death more than likely contributes to this feeling.
In short: when I read the last page of The Trial, I was glad to have read it, but I was even more glad to have finished it. And that probably says everything that needs to be said.
Josef K. is arrested for an unspecified crime he may or may not have committed and faces an extra-legal process, not involving the usual court system, with unwritten rules and procedures. K. at first does not take the process seriously, but becomes totally consumed over the course of several months. He attends initial inquiries, his uncle introduces him to a lawyer, his bank client introduces him to a friend of the court and his bank president artfully arranges for him to meet the prison chaplain. K. realizes that the trial is indeed serious business, but that none of these advisers can directly influence the outcome of the process. Even the functionaries of the quasi-court who handle his case do not make the final decision--that is made at a higher level, so high that no one can even say who is involved or how they make the decision.
K.'s life unravels as the process unfolds, especially after he fires his lawyer and takes control of the case himself. He is confident of his ability to manage the process, perhaps buoyed by the advice given by the friend of the court that, if he is truly innocent, he needs no help from anyone and acquittal is assured. As the trial takes over his life, his one area of success, his banking career, sinks under the weight of his despair. He feels "the trial is positively closing in on me in secret." A year after his arrest, on the eve of his 31st birthday, he discovers the final verdict.
The bare facts of the plot make for a nightmarish scene of a man's lonely fight against an unseen bureaucracy. But the nuances of the story contain a deeper layer that suggests that K. has more control of his destiny than seems apparent. He himself has the largest influence on how the process plays out. It was his choice to pursue acquittal, but a better strategy may have been to pursue protraction, an indefinite deferral of judgment suggested as an option by the friend of the court.
It is on Day 1 of the trial, his thirtieth birthday, that two minions arrest K., gently confining him to his bedroom with "Wouldn't you rather stay here?" and, after he ventures into the living room, "You should have stayed in your room!" K. considers leaving the premises to force the issue of his arrest, but instead returns to his room, "without a further word," else "they might indeed grab him, and once subdued he would lose any degree of superiority he might still hold over them."
Meanwhile, a third minion, the inspector, has set himself up in Frau Burstner's room, and calls for K. to be brought in. The inspector tangentially brings up the matter of K.'s arrest, gives him friendly advice to "think less about us and what's going to happen to you, and instead think more about yourself." Later he says, "that's not at all to say you should despair. Why should you? You're under arrest, that's all." K. is free to go his job as chief financial officer of his bank, the arrest is "not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life."
This is a strange sort of arrest, hardly more than a wake-up call, an injunction to "think more about yourself," arresting his attention so as to encourage an examination of his life in the Socratic sense.
On Day 365 of the trial two other minions, "old supporting actors," have come to take K. away. Throughout this engagement, the two guards are tentative in their roles, not well-rehearsed in the script of the process. On their journey, the three perform a delicate dance, the guards locking arms with K. using a straight-arm entwining that makes them a single, comical unit. It is K. who takes the lead in this dance. At one point K. stops and says, "I'm not going any farther." The guards are ineffectual in getting K. to move, and it is only with the sudden appearance of Frau Burstner that K. gives up his resistance. It is K. who then chooses to follow her, who abandons the quest when she turns down a side street, who later rushes the three-in-one unit past a policeman who might have intervened if K. had given a sign of distress.
Their journey ends at a quarry outside the city where the guards continue to be tentative in their actions. It takes them some time to find a suitable location and position for K. One guard unsheaths a butcher's knife, but they seem uncertain how to proceed as they pass it back and forth between themselves. "K. knew clearly now that it was his duty to seize the knife as it floated from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself. But he didn't do so [...]." So one guard held him "while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. 'Like a dog!' he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him."
"Like a dog." K.'s assessment, not the plunge of the knife, is the verdict. A self-verdict on his (now) examined life, not an indictment of the manner of his death. The knife was his final wake-up call and the guards attend closely to hear the verdict that K. quickly reaches under the ultimate stress of approaching death.
His conduct of the trial is like a dog begging at the dinner table: when no morsel appears from a diner--when no tidbit of advantage accrues from the landlady (Frau Grubach), the washerwoman, the merchant (Block), the lawyer--K. abandons them, dismisses them, and moves on to the next diner. K. does not use his human capacity for reasoning, but, like an animal living unaware and only in the moment, "He'd always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad." He had no social competence, evidenced by his first encounter with Fraulein Burstner: "K. [...] rushed out, seized her, kissed her on the mouth, then all over her face, like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring it has found at last."
K. had rapid success in his career, but none at all in his life. His professional colleagues had sailboat, car, villa, and a social life, while he lived in a boardinghouse, had no friends among his contemporaries, had shut out his relatives, had no prospects of finding a life partner. K.'s lilfe was controlled by fear of exposing any weakness, of losing any perception of advantage he had over others. The washerwoman's husband, the court usher, provides K. with a hint to a solution as they discuss the wife's abduction by the law student, Bertold. "'Someone needs to give the student, who's a coward, a thorough flogging the next time he tries to touch my wife [...]. Only a man like you could do it.' 'Why me?' asked K. in astonishment. 'You are a defendant, after all,' said the court usher. 'Yes,' said K., 'but I should fear his influence all the more [...]. Then he gazed at K. with a look of trust he hadn't shown before, in spite of all his friendliness, and added: 'People are always rebelling.'"
The verdict exposes his shame and it is, of course, too late for any recourse. Too late for K. to thrash Bertold or to take any of the other forks in his path which led away from the quarry.
The plot wasn't so dull as I feared it might be, since Joseph K. has freedom of movement and makes the most of it. He tries every emotional response to his straits but to no avail. Whether he rails against the irrationality of his captors or attempts to reason with them, it's all for naught. He comes on too strongly with women and is too self-centered, sometimes aggressive with those he judges inferior, but there's never any clue dropped to suggest what he's charged with. He never aggressively seeks his right to know, but that's of a piece with the metaphor: once it is determined that life is unfair, there's little point in asking why.
We never get to a trial as such, only a sort of preliminary hearing. The court and all its officials are housed in a tenement block in a poor part of town, where living quarters and offices of court are merged into one another or linked by mysterious corridors, some of which seem to open up unexpectedly, like a darker version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. At K's office, too, bizarre scenes and exchanges take place at the opening of a door. It all contributes to a sense that nothing is quite what it seems, and everything is menace. We can't even be sure of K; all we know about him is by his own reckoning, and although he is, in the early stages of the book, very pleased with himself there are hints of character traits which are very unpleasant, not least his lecherous and vaguely misogynistic attitude to women.
The power of the novel comes from K's growing obsession and sense of foreboding about the trial. We see him gradually disintegrate before us. The more he seeks to know the less he knows. The characters around him seem at once to know everything and nothing. The threat is claustrophobic and, like his supposed crime, nameless. The ending that Kafka gives us is ritualised and solemn - perhaps in the way that executions are universally, whether they be labelled 'legitimate' or 'illegitimate'. The symbolism is political, but the shiver is deeply and unforgettably personal.
Reviewer David Wiliams writes a regular blog Writer in the North.
In front of the law there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry. But the doorkeeper says he can't let him in to the law right now. The man thinks about this, and then he asks if he'll be able to go in later on. 'That's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but now now.' The gateway to the law is open as it always is, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, so the man bends over to try and see in. When the doorkeeper notices this he laughs and says, 'If you're tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can't. Careful though: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowliest of all the doormen. But there's a doorkeeper for each of the rooms and each of them is more powerful than the last. It's more than I can stand just to look at the third one.' The man from the country had not expected difficulties like this, the law was supposed to be accessible for anyone at any time, he thinks, but now he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, sees his big hooked nose, his long thin tartar-beard, and he decides it's better to wait until he has permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down to one side of the gate. He sits there for days and years.... Over many years, the man watches the doorkeeper almost without a break. He forgets about the other doormen, and begins to think this one is the only thing stopping him from gaining access to the law. Over the first few years he curses his unhappy condition out loud, but later, as he become old, he just grumbles to himself. He becomes senile, and as he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar over the years that he has been studying him he even asks them to help him and change the doorkeeper's mind. Finally his eyes grow dim .... He doesn't have long to live now. Just before he dies, he brings together all his experience from all this time into one question which he has still never put to the doorkeeper. He beckons to him, as he's no longer able to raise his stiff body. The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man. 'What is it you want to know now?' asks the doorkeeper, 'You're insatiable.' 'Everyone wants access to the law,' says the man, 'how come, over all these years, no-one but me has asked to be let in?' The doorkeeper can see the man's come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so, so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: 'Nobody else could have got in this way as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I'll go and close it.' location 3949
This is a vivid portrayal of the agonizing sufferings one experiences when all they strive for is to get away from the terror that surrounds them, only to realize that this terror 'is' them. Protagonist and antagonist become one in a battle of self-conflictions.
There is a dark undercurrent knowing Kafka was a Jew in Prague shortly before Hitler would put the entire race on trial; Kafka didn’t live to see the Holocaust but his family did, and many of his relatives perished in concentration camps. This amplified the message and meaning of the book for me.
The frustration of battling an unseen legal bureaucracy is a much darker take on “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens; here “K” is battling for his life. As Steiner puts it in the introduction to this edition, “To live is to be sentenced for living.” However, despite all that great existential darkness, as with “The Metamorphosis”, it’s a book I didn’t particularly enjoy or would recommend. It’s a bit like required reading, only less creative than “The Metamorphosis”, published posthumously and unfinished, and painfully longer … so if you want a book of Kafka’s to read, I would recommend it instead of “The Trial.”