The Trial Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

The Trial deals with such themes as guilt, judgment, and retribution, and although Kafka studied law himself, the novel is not really about the legal system nor is it only about that portion of the legal system which complements or exacerbates a more complex and pervasive psychological phenomenon characteristic of the human psyche. The trial in this novel is an inner one brought about by the guilt Joseph K., the central character, experiences once he has been arrested. Although he is not accused of any particular crime, he assumes a mantle of guilt which produces a cycle of self-condemnations, which, in turn, produce his internal trial. Joseph K. goes to his death never really understanding what he is accused of but the reader learns that his "crimes" are more in the nature of omissions than commissions. Joseph K. is devoid of love, alienated from nature, and deprived of the consolations of art, literature, and music. Furthermore, he does not even realize that he is missing all of these things and that compounds his crime.

Joseph K. is not totally without self-awareness, but until his arrest he seems unable to act on it. By then, of course, it is too late. The trial stresses Joseph K.'s weakness not only before the law but also before his own consciousness. Indeed it is this very level of awareness, fed by his education and middle-class life, with its connections to those in higher places, which prevents one from seeing Joseph K. as some sort of...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

The Trial Themes

Religion
A central element of Judeo-Christian theology is the belief that humans are guilty of original sin. There are various ways to deal with this situation but in many theological doctrines, redemption and entry to heaven depend upon people leading moral lives. For Protestants, salvation is gained when the individual confesses to God. Assistance in this task comes from the Bible as well as through the teachings of those who spend their lives studying the Bible. In Judaism the book of God is the Torah, and literally speaking, God is the Law.

K.’s story takes place in a world familiar with this theology; yet this theology is changing. For example, the Calvinists’ theory of predestination, which is the belief that what you do in life does not matter since people have already been selected by God (before birth) for salvation, is evoked by K.’s situation. K. has been predestined for a judgment. In religious terms, this means he should accept his guilty nature and seek redemption in whatever form the court decides. Block has done so and has avoided death but has paid a humiliating price: he must forever run on all fours before a representative of the law.

K. resembles a character from the Old Testament named Job. Job is a wealthy man who steadfastly believes in God. One day, the devil makes a bet with God that, if allowed to do so, he can put Job’s faith on trial so that he curses God. The bet is on but despite all the pranks and hardships of a trial by faith, Job doesn’t curse God. Instead, it is Job’s faith that sees him through. K., who has been similarly slandered by someone, undergoes a trial but he has no faith in the Law to see him through. K.’s predicament is neatly summed up, “I don’t know the law.”

Calvinism, Protestantism, and Judaism are not the only theologies under assault. The descriptions of the court’s personnel evoke the cosmology of Catholicism with its levels of angels, its history of Inquisitions, and its secret tribunal of Cardinals. Also, Catholic degrees of grace are transformed into degrees of guilt. There is, of course, innocence and guilt, the discussion of which always involves a statement that K. must know some law. With Bürstner, he discusses being guiltless and “not as guilty as they thought.” Much later, Titorelli describes the states of permanent guilt: actual acquittal (heaven), apparent acquittal (purgatory), and protraction (hell). Catholics believe that sins can be dealt with through the sacrament of confession. In this sacrament, the guilty person discusses his or her sins with a priest and he gives counsel, as well as a set number of prayers to be recited. That is how the person may cleanse his or herself of the sin. This practice was abused during the time of the Inquisitions when torturers forced people to confess to all sorts of crimes—like witchcraft. In Catholic fashion, K. is constantly told that “all...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)