The Trial  

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“Everyone strives to attain the Law,' answers the man, 'how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?' The doorkeeper perceives that the man is nearing his end and his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: 'No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it.”

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Trial (de:Der Process) is a novel by Franz Kafka about a character named Josef K., who awakens one morning and, for reasons never revealed, is arrested and subjected to the rigours of the judicial process for an unspecified crime.

According to Kafka's friend Max Brod, he never finished the work and gave the manuscript to Brod in 1920. After his death, Brod edited The Trial into what he felt was a coherent novel and had it published in 1925.

The Trial has been filmed by the director Orson Welles, with Anthony Perkins (as Josef K.) and Romy Schneider. A more recent remake featured Kyle MacLachlan in the same role. In 1999 it was adapted for comics by the Italian artist Guido Crepax.

Contents

Plot

On his thirtieth birthday, the chief financial officer of a bank, Josef K., is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. The agents' boss later arrives and holds a mini-tribunal in the room of K.'s neighbor, Fräulein Bürstner. K. is not taken away, however, but left "free" and told to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. He goes to work, and that night apologizes to Fräulein Bürstner for the intrusion into her room. At the end of the conversation he suddenly kisses her.

K. receives a phone call summoning him to court, and the coming Sunday is arranged as the date. No time is set, but the address is given to him. The address turns out to be a huge tenement building. K. has to explore to find the court, which turns out to be in the attic. The room is airless, shabby, and crowded, and although he has no idea what he is charged with, or what authorizes the process, K. makes a long speech denigrating the whole process, including the agents who arrested him; during this speech an attendant's wife and a man engage in sexual activities. K. then returns home.

K. later goes to visit the court again, although he has not been summoned, and finds that it is not in session. He instead talks with the attendant's wife, who attempts to seduce him into taking her away, and who gives him more information about the process and offers to help him. K. later goes with the attendant to a higher level of the attic where the shabby and airless offices of the court are housed.

K. returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.

Later, in a store room at his own bank, K. discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes and as a result of complaints K. made at court. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the whipper and the two agents.

K. is visited by his uncle, who was K.'s guardian. The uncle seems distressed by K.'s predicament. At first sympathetic, he becomes concerned that K. is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces K. to a lawyer, who is attended by Leni, a nurse, who K.'s uncle suspects is the advocate's mistress. During the discussion it becomes clear how different this process is from regular legal proceedings: guilt is assumed, the bureaucracy running it, is vast with many levels, and everything is secret, from the charge, to the rules of the court, to the authority behind the courts – even the identity of the judges at the higher levels. The attorney tells him that he can prepare a brief for K., but since the charge is unknown and the rules are unknown, it is difficult work. It also never may be read, but is still very important. The lawyer says that his most important task is to deal with powerful court officials behind the scenes. As they talk, the lawyer reveals that the Chief Clerk of the Court has been sitting hidden in the darkness of a corner. The Chief Clerk emerges to join the conversation, but K. is called away by Leni, who takes him to the next room, where she offers to help him and seduces him. They have a sexual encounter. Afterwards K. meets his uncle outside, who is angry, claiming that K.'s lack of respect has hurt K.'s case.

K. visits the lawyer several times. The lawyer tells him incessantly how dire his situation is and tells many stories of other hopeless clients and of his behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of these clients, and brags about his many connections. The brief is never complete. K.'s work at the bank deteriorates as he is consumed with worry about his case.

K. is surprised by one of his bank clients, who tells K. that he is aware that K. is dealing with a trial. The client learned of K.'s case from Titorelli, a painter, who has dealings with the court and told the client about K.'s case. The client advises K. to go to Titorelli for advice. Titorelli lives in the attic of a tenement in a suburb on the opposite side of town from the court that K. visited. Three teenage girls taunt K. on the steps and tease him sexually. Titorelli turns out to be an official painter of portraits for the court – an inherited position – and has a deep understanding of the process. K. learns that, to Titorelli's knowledge, not a single defendant has ever been acquitted. He sets out K.'s options and offers to help K. with either. The options are: obtain a provisional verdict of innocence from the lower court, which can be overturned at any time by higher levels of the court, which would lead to re-initiation of the process; or curry favor with the lower judges to keep the process moving at a glacial pace. Titorelli has K. leave through a small back door, as the girls are blocking the door through which K. entered. To K.'s shock, the door opens into another warren of the court's offices – again shabby and airless.

K. decides to take control of matters himself and visits his lawyer with the intention of dismissing him. At the lawyer's office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K. some insight from a client's perspective. Block's case has continued for five years and he has gone from being a successful businessman to being almost bankrupt and is virtually enslaved by his dependence on the lawyer and Leni, with whom he appears to be sexually involved. The lawyer mocks Block in front of K. for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons K.'s opinion of his lawyer. (This chapter was left unfinished by the author.)

K. is asked by the bank to show an Italian client around local places of cultural interest, but the Italian client, short of time, asks K. to take him only to the cathedral, setting a time to meet there. When the client does not show up, K. explores the cathedral, which is empty except for an old woman and a church official. K. notices a priest who seems to be preparing to give a sermon from a small second pulpit, and K. begins to leave, lest it begin and K. be compelled to stay for its entirety. Instead of giving a sermon, the priest calls out K.'s name. K. approaches the pulpit and the priest berates him for his attitude toward the trial and for seeking help, especially from women. K. asks him to come down and the two men walk inside the cathedral. The priest works for the court as a chaplain and tells K. a fable (which was published earlier as "Before the Law") that is meant to explain his situation. K. and the priest discuss the parable. The priest tells K. that the parable is an ancient text of the court, and many generations of court officials have interpreted it differently.

On the eve of K.'s thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment. He has been waiting for them, and he offers little resistance – indeed the two men take direction from K. as they walk through town. K. leads them to a quarry where the two men place K's head on a discarded block. One of the men produces a double-edged butcher knife, and as the two men pass it back and forth between them, the narrator tells us that "K. knew then precisely, that it would have been his duty to take the knife...and thrust it into himself." He does not take the knife. One of the men holds his shoulder and pulls him up and the other man stabs him in the heart and twists the knife twice. K.'s last words are: "Like a dog!"

Interpretations

Existence

Josef K. is guilty of his existence. Although we might sympathize with him and share his concerns through the book, in the end the court is in the right - Josef K. is guilty, guilty of his existence which he tries and fails to justify (note how Josef K. takes his guilt for granted, he never questions why, he simply sets to defend himself against unknown charge). The guilt which is being referred to is not an ordinary guilt which people encounter in their day to day living (for his proprietress Frau Grubach, an average lady, his "case" is something metaphysical which she can't and doesn't have a need to understand), it is a guilt which appears when a man asks himself why does he exist? He can't find the answer (read "defense") and the more he ponders on it the more his guilt increases. He can of course seek for the things which will momentarily distract him from that guilt (such as pleasures from women which Josef K. indulges in) but in the end he has to face the reality and accepts his penalty - death (of this human life), "like a dog".

Bureaucracy

The Trial is both a chilling and blackly amusing tale that maintains a constant, relentless atmosphere of disorientation and quirkiness, right up to the surreal ending. Superficially the subject matter is bureaucracy: an illustration of a truly twisted yet realistic brand of law and church. However, one of the strengths of the novel is in its description of the effects of these circumstances on the life and mind of Josef K. It presents the absurdity of "normal" human nature, of acting upon one manic thought after another and chasing along with surprise after surprise, yet without direction and without result.

Humanity

When analyzing The Trial, it is useful to note that the end of the novel, the death scene, was the first part written by Kafka. K. is never told what he is on trial for, and he maintains his innocence almost to the end. Upon declaring his innocence, he is immediately questioned "innocent of what?" Is it that Josef K. is on trial for his innocence? By confessing his guilt as a human being, perhaps Josef K. could have freed himself from the proceedings. Perhaps the trial against K. was set up because he was incapable of admitting his guilt, and, by extension, his humanity. This theme of not being human, of there not being anything to point to as the "human race", is a theme that Kafka explores throughout his works, one that keeps the book fresh, prompting a questioning of the arbitrary customs and beliefs of life which can appear, in a certain light, just as bizarre as the occurrences in K's life.

Marriage and Social Relations

Another interpretation is offered by Kafka's diary around the time he began to write the novel. In 1914, he entered into an engagement with Felice Bauer. In a letter to Felice, he compared their nuptial to a couple who, during the terror after the French Revolution, had been tied together upon the scaffold for execution. He visited Felice in Berlin a few times during that year. On the last occasion, that of the official engagement ceremony, he notes in his diary that it was like trial-and-judgment, in which others decided upon the course his life took while he himself was kept aside. A subsequent visit to Felice involved much disputation during which he was again sidelined. Eventually, it was decided that the engagement should be broken off. Kafka described his letter of farewell written on the eve of the first World War as his "speech from the gallows." He himself, it seems, found the prospect of marriage a threat to the sustenance he received from writing. His writing was mainly done at night, a time at which he would have been expected to sleep with his wife.

In this biographical interpretation it would seem that The Trial parallels Kafka's engagement, and his entering into serious social relations. Such a reading accounts for Josef K's willingness to partake in his own execution, since it mirrors the end of the engagement; that is, the end of Kafka as a "human", as a familial member of society and an ancestor. It also accounts for the bizarre, subdued sexual tension of "The Trial", with the scattered sexual interludes reflecting his private encounters with Felice on his visits to Berlin for the aforementioned family meetings. Such an interpretation accounts for the correspondence between the book and Kafka's life at the time, though the themes explored reach beyond this superficial similarity to Kafka's broader thoughts on society, family, and writing, which must have arisen at such a cross-roads in Kafka's life. The Koanic story related by the prison chaplain, of the man waiting for admittance by a stern doorman to the Court, is especially relevant to this.

K's execution is seemingly his triumph, in that he realised the constant deferment implicit in his desire for "admittance to the Law" and instead accepted his fate without withering like the old man waiting his whole life at the door of the Court in the chaplain's story. Kafka too at this time accepted the execution or closure upon himself as a "human", deciding he would not lead the life chosen for him but one in his own strange world.

Jewish Identity

Another way to interpret The Trial is to consider what Jean-Paul Sartre has to say about it in his book Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etimology of Hate. As the title suggests, the book relates the way Jews receive a world marred with anti-Semitism. Jewish life in such a world, Sartre argues, is similar to the way K. experienced it, and the way Kafka may have experienced it as well. According to Sartre:

"This is perhaps one of the meanings of The Trial by the Jewish Kafka. Like the hero of that novel, the Jewish person is engaged in a long trial. He does not know his judges, scarcely even his lawyers; he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows that he is considered guilty; judgement is continually put off -- for a week, two weeks -- he takes advantage of these delays to improve his position in a thousand ways, but every precaution taken at random pushes him a little deeper into guilt. His external situation may appear brilliant, but the interminable trial invisibly wastes him away, and it happens eventually ... that men seize him, carry him off on the pretence that he has lost his case, and murder him in some vague area of the suburbs." [88, Schocken Books].




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