On his thirtieth birthday, Joseph K. is arrested even though he has done nothing wrong. Naturally Joseph K. is angry and annoyed. On the day of his thirty-first birthday, Joseph K. is taken to a nearby quarry by the warders and killed. Joseph K. does nothing to stop them from killing him. The Trial is the story of the intervening year between Joseph K.’s two birthdays. This novel treats many subjects, but this paper will examine only three: the mystery of the bureaucracy in the novel, sexuality during the process, and the economic and social point of view of The Trial.
The bureaucracy in The Trial is large, impersonal and frightening. Prior to the beginning of the book Joseph K. is a successful businessman working in a bank apparently on the fast track for advancement and even greater success. After his arrest he and his life decline until his execution. Although Joseph K. “is accused of crimes he did not commit . . . [he] still feels guilty about these unnamed offenses” (Meyers, 329). This guilt plays an important role throughout the novel. Joseph K. is mentally and emotionally paralyzed by his guilt of having been accused of the unknown crime.
As Boa writes, the experience of being arrested has taken Joseph K. out of his comfort zone and he is unable to operate; he doesn’t know what to do. “What is the nature of the court, what is the law, what should the individual on trial do?” (1). The paralysis Joseph K. suffers appears to be psychological rather than due to a physical threat. The parable told to Joseph K. by the priest provides an accurate description of the state Joseph K. is in. In the parable a man from the country comes to have access to the law however the doorkeeper will not admit the man.
The doorkeeper steps aside from the doorway and offers no physical resistance, but the man is paralyzed by what might be done by the institution. “‘If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other . . .'” (Kafka, 267-8). Rather than confront these possibilities the man sits on a stool by the door and waits. This is precisely what Joseph K. does. He tacitly accepts the non-accusation of the court and submits to its jurisdiction. One cannot help but feel that if he were refuse to comply with the court that he would be free to continue living his life. The mystery of the bureaucracy of the court appears to be a psychological threat of the unknown combined with a man’s natural inclination to obey the institutions that govern the locality where he lives.
The second area this paper will address is sexuality during the process. During the year of the trial, Joseph K. has a brief flirtation with Fraulein Brustner but she later refuses his advances. It is interesting that “Brustner” is very close to the German word “brusten” meaning breast. The desire to dominate a woman has considerable Freudian implications that suggest that Kafka was greatly influenced by his mother, the source of his life and breastfeeding, and not always in a positive manner.
During this encounter Joseph K. kisses her “all over the face, like some animal lapping greedily at a spring of long-sought fresh water” (Kafka, 38). This is an interesting foreshadowing of his execution where he dies “[l]ike a dog” (Kafka, 286). After kissing her Joseph K. returns home, “[h]e fell asleep almost at once, but before doing so he thought for a little about his behavior, he was pleased with it, yet surprised that he was not still more pleased” (38).
This appears to be an example where a man dominates a woman to get his will without regard to her desire. This strength is uncharacteristic of Joseph K. particularly in regard to the affair he has with Leni, Huld’s nurse. Leni appears to like men who are vulnerable. She has considerable control over her employer who must accept her care because of his heart condition and because she is unaccountable attracted to Joseph K. who is vulnerable because of the accusation against him.
From an economic and social point of view The Trial is particularly interesting. The Trial “moves beyond the household to explore the interlocking of social power and psychic structure in urban society at large” (Boa, 133). Adler suggests that Kafka is writing about “[t]wo defining factors stand out in this period.
Firstly, the conflict between Czech, German and Jewish traditions; and secondly, the struggle between Prague’s history and modernisation [sic]” Kafka appears to have had trouble reconciling these three worlds in his own life and feels he is unable to successfully struggle against the enormous, looming presence of the government and his religious background. It is interesting that Joseph K. actually has considerable impact, although it appears is unaware of it.
In fact, the Court even follows his requests and confirms his assumptions. Although K. tells himself what time he should arrive for his first interrogation, this turns out to be the same hour mentioned by the Examining Magistrate. K. decides that he will attend only one interrogation, instead of the series of short interrogations planned by the Court, and the Court complies K. accuses the warders, and the Court promptly punishes them . . . . (Lasine, 34).
It is this lack of awareness of the capabilities that Kafka seems to warning the reader about. The Trial is not to be viewed as a plan or even a call to change society, but an examination of authority intended to help people think for themselves about the issues in the book (Boa, 186).
The Trial is a haunting frightening book in the same genre as the later books Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. However, it is more subtle and thought provoking. Given the multi-leveled layers of bureaucracy both governmental and in business one wonders if The Trial is not more relevant today that when it was written near the beginning of World War I. Given the excess of administrative law with its great power that is not subject to many of the protections of due process, it is easy to empathize with Joseph K.
Adler, Jeremy. “What Was Lost? The Czech Jewish Community.” European Judaism. 38, 2 (2005) 70+.
Boa, Elizabeth. Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1996.
Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1957.
Lasine, Stuart. “Kafka’s Trial.” The Explicator. 42, 3 (1985): 34.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Swift and Kafka.” Papers on Language & Literature. 40, 3 (2004): 329.