Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been called everything from a modernist to an existentialist, a fantasy writer to a realist. His work almost stands alone as its own subgenre, and the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – whose meaning, like the meaning of Kafka’s work, is hard to pin down – has become well-known even to people who have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. Perhaps inevitably, he is often misinterpreted as being a gloomy and humourless writer about nightmarish scenarios, when this at best conveys only part of what he is about.
Three of Kafka’s works stand as his most representative. It depends on how we choose to approach him as to whether we favour ‘The Metamorphosis’ (his long short story, which we have analysed here, about a man who wakes one morning to discover he has been transformed into a ‘vermin’), The Castle (a quest with no end-goal – and no castle), or The Trial. But perhaps it is The Trial, most of all, that is responsible for the most prevalent meaning of the term ‘Kafkaesque’.
Before we offer an analysis of this obscure and endlessly provocative novel, here’s a brief summary of the plot of Kafka’s The Trial.
The Trial: plot summary
Josef K., the chief cashier in a bank, is arrested one morning by two mysterious agents. However, they refuse to tell him what crime he is accused of. He is not thrown into prison pending his trial, but allowed to carry on with his day-to-day affairs until summoned by the Committee of Affairs.
His landlady, Frau Grubach, suggests that the trial may relate to an immoral relationship with his neighbour, Fräulein Bürstner, so he goes to visit her and ends up kissing her. He then finds out that a lodger from a neighbouring room, a Fräulein Montag, has moved in with Fräulein Bürstner, and he suspects this has been done in order that Bürstner might distance herself from any involvement with Josef K.
Next, he is ordered to appear at the court in person on Sunday, though he is not informed of the date of his hearing or the precise room in which it is to take place. He eventually locates the correct room in the attic, and is informed that he’s late for the meeting. He tries to defend himself, pointing out the baselessness of the accusation against him, but this only riles the authorities further.
So he next tries to quiz the judge about the nature of his case, but the judge’s wife attempts to seduce him. The judge then takes K. on a tour of the court’s offices. Then, things take an even more bizarre turn as K. stumbles upon the two anonymous agents who arrested him at the start of the novel. They are being whipped by a man because of what K. said at the attic hearing. K., however, attempts to intercede and plea on their behalf, but the man continues to whip them.
Josef K. receives a visit from his uncle, who is concerned about the rumours surrounding K. and the trial. He introduces his nephew to Herr Huld, a lawyer who is confined to his bed and looked after by a young nurse named Leni. Leni seduces K, and when his uncle discovers that K. accepted the woman’s advances, he is annoyed by his nephew’s behaviour and thinks it will hamper his trial.
Realising that Huld is an unreliable advocate for his cause, K. seeks the help of Titorelli, the court painter. Titorelli agrees to help him, but is aware that the process is not favourable to people and Josef K. will find it difficult to get himself acquitted. K. decides to represent himself.
On his way to Huld’s to dismiss the lawyer from his case, he meets Rudi Block, another of Huld’s clients, who offers K. some advice. Block’s own case has been ongoing for five years and he has lost virtually everything in the process: money, his business, and his morals (he, too, is sexually involved with Leni).
Josef K. is tasked with accompanying an important Italian client to the city’s cathedral, where K. realises that the priest, rather than giving a general sermon, is addressing him directly. The two men discuss a famous fable (published separately as ‘Before the Law’), in which a doorman stands before a door leading to ‘the law’ but refuses a man entry. The man waits by the door until the day of his death, when he asks the doorman why nobody else has tried to gain entry. The doorman then reveals that this door was meant only for that one man, and that he is now going to shut it.
The priest thinks this fable represents Josef K.’s situation, although many people have different ideas about what the story is supposed to mean, and K. and the priest disagree over its ultimate meaning. The day before Josef K.’s thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment and lead him outside, where they stab him to death, killing him ‘like a dog’.
The Trial: analysis
There is a literary-critical study by Mark Spilka, Dickens and Kafka: A mutal interpretation, which brings together the unlikely pairing of the modernist Kafka with the most popular of all Victorian authors. Although this may strike us as a surprising comparison at first, Spilka shows that these two ostensibly very different writers actually share a great deal: their comic approach to the absurdities of life (even the tragedies of life), their childlike way of viewing the world’s injustices, and – perhaps more importantly for The Trial – their skewering of the endless and nonsensical bureaucratic processes that fill the corridors of law.
And Kafka is a comic writer, although he finds humour in the most tragic and unpromising situations, such as the sinister arrest of a man who has apparently done nothing wrong, and his subsequent execution. In a sense, the English title by which Kafka’s novel is known, The Trial, conveys something of the double meaning of the original German title, Der Process: Josef K. is on trial for some unspecified crime, but Kafka’s novel exposes the absurd ways in which all life is a continual trial, ‘trying’ us by testing and challenging us, tempting us to commit things we shouldn’t and making us feel guilty even when we’re not sure precisely what we have done to feel such guilt.
All of this is tragic and hopeless, anticipating the dystopian futures of people like George Orwell but also the absurdist and existentialist writing of someone like Albert Camus, whose 1942 essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ is an important text about the absurdity of modern life.
For Camus, Sisyphus is the poster-boy for Absurdism, because he values life over death and wishes to enjoy his existence as much as possible, but is instead thwarted in his aims by being condemned to carry out a repetitive and pointless task. Such is the life of modern man: condemned to perform the same futile daily rituals every day, working without fulfilment, with no point or purpose to much of what he does. This might describe any of Kafka’s protagonists, whether Gregor Samsa of ‘The Metamorphosis’, Josef K. of The Trial, or K. from The Castle.
However, for Camus, there is something positive in Sisyphus’ condition, or rather his approach to his rather gloomy fate. When Sisyphus sees the stone rolling back down the hill and has to march back down after it, knowing he will have to begin the same process all over again, Camus suggests that Sisyphus would come to realise the absurd truth of his plight, and treat it with appropriate scorn. He has liberated his own mind by confronting the absurdity of his situation, and can view it with the appropriate contempt and good humour.
Although for many people Camus is all posing in overcoats and looking world-weary and miserable, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the grim comedy and stoicism that underscores his reading of the myth of Sisyphus. Similarly, many people who have never read Kafka believe that The Trial is a dark dystopian work, but that reveals only part of what the novel is about. It is also a comedy, albeit a bleak one: Kafka’s friends reported that he laughed out loud while reading from the novel when he was working on it. Although the plot of the novel is pessimistic overall, the smaller situations we find within it, such as the numerous seductions of Josef K. by the women in the novel, are treated comically, bordering almost on farce.
Although Kafka’s Josef K. is less amused by his hopeless situation, it would be a mistake to overlook the absurd humour of The Trial, which could easily be dramatised as a sort of black comedy in which the protagonist is similarly thwarted as he seeks to clear his name. And like Dickens’s Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit or the never-ending court case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce from Bleak House, the individual is helpless against the faceless and hidden forces that work within the great beast that is the legal system.
But if Kafka has affinities with Dickens, he can also claim descent from Dostoevsky, whose influence on The Trial he readily acknowledged. Dostoevsky’s understanding of the psychology of crime, punishment, and guilt feeds into Josef K. in Kafka’s novel, as does the Hasidic Jewish tradition of examining the nature of guilt and judgment. Indeed, Kafka is often analysed as a deeply religious writer, even though the settings for his work are normally secular.
Here, the significance of the cathedral, and Josef K.’s final conversation with the priest, become apparent. Although the priest is powerless to save Josef K. from his fate on earth, he can provide a more metaphysical and spiritual context for his understanding of guilt and acceptance. (It is arguably of deeply symbolic importance that Josef K. had previously sought help from both a lawyer and an artist, neither of whom could ultimately help him; perhaps religion may succeed where law and art fail, if only because religion takes us out of earthly or temporal concerns and into the heavenly and supernatural.)
The critic J. P. Stern attempted to define ‘Kafkaesque’ by using synonyms, ranging from ‘weird’ and ‘mysterious’ to ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ and even ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’. Undoubtedly all of these terms are applicable, and all of them are relevant to an analysis of the mood and themes of The Trial.
Perhaps only ‘Orwellian’ can stand ahead of ‘Kafkaesque’ as a twentieth-century literary term which so sharply describes, and even shapes, our own thinking about our twenty-first-century world. As Stern observes, though, alongside ‘nightmarish’ we must also place ‘humdrum’: the ‘everyday quality’ of Kafka’s people and situations is indistinguishable from its horror. Writing about totalitarianism later in the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘the banality of evil’, to describe the unsettling fact that evil acts are not always carried out by ‘evil’ people, but are sometimes the result of bureaucrats who are dutifully following orders.
This is true even of Kafka’s most fantastical work, his novella ‘The Metamorphosis’. Everyone knows the famous opening line in which Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant ‘monstrous vermin’ or ‘beetle’ or ‘insect’ (depending on which translation of the German ungeheures Ungeziefer you’re reading), but the sentence or couple of sentences that follow that initial opening line reveal how closely the bizarre and the ordinary rub shoulders in Kafka’s fiction. After the initial shock of discovering his transformation or ‘metamorphosis’, and within four paragraphs of this appalling change, Gregor is reflecting on the ‘irritating work’ that is his day job as a travelling salesman.
So it is with The Trial. Again, the work’s opening sentence is the most famous quotation in the whole book: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one morning.’ But what follows is not a nightmare tale of being locked up in a cell or put on ‘trial’ in the usual sense, with a jury and a courtroom and a dock. Instead, the ‘trial’ is the trial of day-to-day living and the sense of ordinary guilt which stalks many of us in our waking (and even, sometimes, sleeping) lives.
The Trial (Der Process in Kafka’s original German-language text) was written in 1914-15 but, like much of Kafka’s work, remained unpublished until after his death. He commanded his friend Max Brod to burn all of his unpublished material (and even his published work!), for reasons which remain a mystery. The main thing is that Brod refused to honour Kafka’s dying wish, seeing the slim body of work as an original contribution to literature and too important not to publish.