Franz Kafka’s The Trial

The TrialGeorge Steiner, at 83 still one of our best literary critics, articulates my primary difficulty in writing this post in the very first sentence of his Introduction: “The thought that there is anything fresh to be said of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is implausible.” I will, therefore, content myself with more modest goals and attempt to provide some framework and context for understanding Kafka and this, his most famous work.

The difficulties in reading Kafka are myriad, and no critic of his that I have yet to read has failed to remark on them. Central to these is the fragmentary nature of his novels. Kafka died prematurely, at 40 years old, from complications resulting from tuberculosis. The actual cause of death is thought to have been starvation; apparently, the symptoms of tuberculosis made swallowing food too painful, and, intravenous methods of nourishment not having been invented, he slowly wasted away in bed. I would ask you, dear reader, to dwell on this fact for a moment, if for no other reason than as an exercise in empathy. Max Brod, Kafka’s longtime friend and executor to his literary estate, was charged by Kafka with collecting the extant manuscripts and notes and immolating them, preferably without reading them himself. Whether, in disobeying Kafka’s demands, Brod was a good friend or bad is of no concern to me; I feel only gratitude to Brod, without whose interventions we would not have The TrialThe Castle or Amerika.

One consequence of his early demise is that not a single one of Kafka’s novels – not to mention a great many of his short stories – is a finished work. They are often referred to as “fragmentary novels,” owing to the fact that even the best efforts of editors and scholars inevitably concede that whole sections of the plots are missing or incomplete. In the case of The Trial, this difficulty is compounded by the structuring of the novel itself: Brod received chapters with titles but no numbers, and was left the difficult task of assembling a coherent plot out of a kind of collage. Thus the version of The Trial most familiar to readers contains a narrative sequence that is the source of much dispute. Add to this Kafka’s subtleties and strangeness, coupled with the difficulties of translation, and The Trial presents unique challenges, reflected in the divergent understandings of its plot: is it parable or prophecy, existential or nihilistic?

The basic plot of The Trial has attained iconic status, such that many who have not even read the book are familiar with its premise: Joseph K., a moderately successful bank functionary, wakes up one morning to find himself placed under arrest for crimes unknown, and must attempt to mount his defense against a mad and endlessly hierarchical bureaucracy working without rest to indict him. Central to the plot is the question of K.’s guilt. Not knowing the nature of his crime, we are invited – demanded, in fact – to speculate on the nature of guilt. K. has broken no laws, and, in any event, the court indicting him is demonstrated to be separate from that which handles civil and criminal procedures; his guilt, therefore, is not of the ordinary, legal kind. In the penultimate chapter, faced with a priest who is himself an employee of the courts, K. once more avows his innocence: “But I am not guilty […] And, if it comes to that, how can any man be called guilty? We are all simply men here, one as much as the other.” The “if it comes to that” is telling, marking a shift in K.’s conception of guilt: from the legal, where he is certain of his innocence, to the moral, ethical or spiritual, where is he certain of his guilt, for, as he appeals, no human being, being fallible, can hope to live without some stain on his conscience. “That is true,” the priest concedes, “but that is how all guilty men talk.” Being a Christian, the priest no doubt believes in the doctrine of original sin, but he is also a court functionary and it is in his bureaucratic rather than his priestly capacity that he makes this reply, encapsulated by his final words to K.: “[…] why should I want anything from you? The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come, and it dismisses you when you go.”

Kafka gives us all the unfeeling machinations of bureaucracy that seem to chillingly prophecy the gulags and death camps, and a powerful argument for the necessity of due process and the rights of the accused, but these are merely tangential, symptomatic of his larger theme, which is a study of guilt and its effects on the human psyche. Ultimately, K.’s objective guilt or innocence is immaterial (the novel, in fact, repeatedly suggests that his guilt is presumed and that even an acquittal will mean only a temporary suspension of the trial, to be resumed at a moment’s notice). What is significant is that K. is made to feel that he is guilty, forced to live his life with the weight of the charge burdening him daily, always at the back of his mind, distracting him, detracting from his quality of life and causing him to seek, from every woman he meets, validation and affection (“You cast about too much for outside help, especially from women,” the priest tells him).

The lure of reading Kafka through the lens of his biography is great. His relationship with his father is legendary, exposed in a 45-page letter, replete with legal terminology, that Kafka wrote to his father in an attempt to explain why he feared him, and published long after his death to the prying eyes of readers and scholars. In Kafka’s opinion, his father created impossible standards against which to judge his son, and was forever raising the bar of achievement or bending the rules in such a way that, try as he might, Kafka could not but fail to measure up. The temptation to compare the no-win scenario the courts present Joseph K. with and Kafka’s perceived no-win scenario with his father, is great, and certainly not invalid, but I would caution readers to resist such easy answers. The Trial, like all great art, resists the arrogance of our certainties and rewards our more patient probings and explorations.