Critical Evaluation

Franz Kafka’s The Trial is one of the most effective and most discussed works to originate in Central Europe in the period between World War I and World War II. Although the complex and ambiguous surface of the novel defies exact interpretation, the plight of Josef K., or K., condemned for some sort of crime by a court with which he cannot communicate, is a profound and disturbing image of humanity in the modern world. To some, the court is a symbol of the Church as an imperfect bridge between a person and God. To others, the symbolism represents rather the search of a sensitive Jew for an elusive homeland, ever denied him. Although unfinished, The Trial is a powerful and provocative novel.

The Trial is one of the pillars upon which Kafka’s reputation as a major twentieth century writer rests, and it is one of the works he ordered, in his will, to be destroyed. It survives only because his friend Max Brod, who possessed a manuscript of the unfinished novel, dismissed Kafka’s request and preserved the manuscript, along with The Castle (1926), Amerika (1913)—which is available in a translation with the more correct title The Man Who Went Missing—and a host of fragments and shorter works. The salvaging of this novel from the manuscript was not an easy task, however, and controversy still exists regarding the proper order of the chapters and about the placement and interpretation of a number of unfinished segments, which are not included in the usual editions. Fortunately, both the beginning and the end of the novel are extant and, because of the peculiar structure of the work, minor changes in the order of the sections do not alter a reader’s understanding of the work.

In the late twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first century, new translations of Kafka’s major works, based on the restored texts in the new German critical edition of the works, began to appear. These translations present Kafka’s texts in a form as close as possible to the state in which Kafka left his manuscripts. Breon Mitchell’s 1998 translation of The Trial makes slight changes in the chapter divisions and in the sequence of chapter fragments; the long first chapter in the Muirs translation has in Mitchell been broken into two chapters. Mitchell’s translation illustrates more clearly than ever that Kafka wrote the first and last chapter of the novel simultaneously, and the stylistic and thematic similarities of these chapters become immediately apparent in his translation. For example, in Mitchell, the surprise visit of Franz and Willem, the court’s two guards in the first chapter, and their urging that K. put on a black coat to face the inspector are perfectly parallel with the two nameless men in the final chapter who come to retrieve K.—who is dressed in a black coat while waiting for them—to carry out the wishes of the court.

In addition, Mitchell’s translation vividly captures the images of humans as animalistic creatures that pervade the novel. The presentation of human traits through animals and the images of humans as animals is a Kafka hallmark. Kafka illustrates the animalistic nature of humans in stories that include Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936); “Josephine die Sängerin: Oder, Das Volk der äuse” (1924; Josephine the Singer: Or the Mouse Folk, 1942); “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” (1917; “A Report to An Academy,” 1946), in which an ape delivers a report; “Der Bau” (1931; “The Burrow,” 1946), which features a burrowing creature, perhaps a badger, that obsessively builds and rebuilds its house; and The Man Who Went Missing, featuring the protagonist Karl Rossmann, the “horse-man.” In The Trial, Kafka uses such images to terrific effect. After K. tells Fräulein Bürstner his story, he kisses her all over her face like a thirsty animal lapping at a spring; Leni, lawyer Huld’s servant and mistress, has animal-like features, and K. crawls off to embrace this little creature; during the flogging of Franz and Willem, K. compares the cries of the two men being whipped to a dog howling in the courtyard; finally, as the two strangers kill K., he dies like a dog.

Mitchell’s translation also makes clear the theatrical nature of The Trial. Such theatricality may be found...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)