Please explain the surreal elements in The Trial. Give quotes if possible.

The surreal nature of The Trial seems to operate under dream logic, with the story not making sense in a rational sense yet still having an emotional weight and impact. Under this assumption, the characters of the story are made more inconsequential by their dubious existence and actions.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Almost every narrative development within The Trial makes very little sense when approached rationally. Instead, much of the action of the story seems to operate under the trope of "dream logic." This is not only true for the situation that K. finds himself in but for his reactions to his world as well. The progression of events in the story, for example, seems particularly dreamlike. K. is never made to fully understand the nature of his crime, he is never imprisoned as someone on trial for such a presumably heinous crime would be, and lastly, there is never any sort of moment where a verdict for his trial is rendered. Instead there is simply a scene wherein two men lead K. out of his apartment and have him killed in a quarry in the most unceremonious of fashions.

Curiously absent from a narrative titled The Trial is a scene with any cohesion representing court proceedings. The characters seem, with little rhyme or reason, to simply be stacked against K., at best confirming his worst fears and at worst actively thwarting his efforts. In this since, the titular "trial" does not refer to an actual court scene but a personal, metaphysical trial that K., and perhaps by extension Kafka himself, must overcome. Operating under this assumption of a metaphysical dream-state, the characters outside of K. are made even more inconsequential by their dubious existence. As K says:

They're talking about things of which they don't have the slightest understanding, anyway. It's because of their stupidity that they're able to be so sure of themselves.

Though referring to the two men that accosted him, K. seems to be making a statement about society as a whole, reflecting the uncertainty that he feels at this pivotal moment in his life. This may be a reflection of the uncertainty that Kafka felt after breaking off his engagement and finding himself at a crossroads in his life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Trial, Joseph K. is arrested for reasons unbeknownst to him. Throughout the novel, he tries unsuccessfully to understand the courts and their rationale. Courts and legal systems are supposedly based upon logic and fairness. But K. can not determine how they are being logical or fair. 

Surrealism was a movement which was opposed or at least deviated from the logic and rationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries (the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in particular). Surrealists sought to blend the real and the imaginary, or the conscious and the subconscious. Reacting to the so called rational thought of their era (and reacting to the lack of logic and fairness in the wake of World War I), the surrealists entertained the idea of tapping into the unconscious: as a way of getting past the limits of conscious, rational thought. So, as much as the Surrealists were skeptical of the logic of cultural institutions (including art), K. became skeptical and disillusioned by those same institutions. He could not comprehend their actions even though they were supposedly based on logic. Consequently, he would hallucinate (as the flogging in the junk room seems to be), taking inner (perhaps subconscious) images and projecting them externally, thus blending the real and the imaginary, the conscious and the subconscious. He did this as a way to make sense of things; even if such images only complicated his frustration. 

If there is no sense to the order of cultural institutions (the legal system in The Trial or the logic of countries who resort to a World War), then deviations to the subconscious are either equally illogical, a useful alternative, or in psychoanalytic study: a way to get underneath all of the conscious logic of those institutions. 

Not comprehending his arrest and the logic of the High Court, K. is left feeling isolated. Hence, he retreats into his own mind and occasionally daydreams. (Again, one of the tools of Surrealism was tapping into the subconscious.) 

Another way to think of this is that K.'s experience in the real world was surreal to him because things did not make sense. The real world of his trial seemed, to him, as random and ambiguous as some dreams can be. There are times in the novel where K. is equally bewildered by what may be real and/or imaginary. The novel is about trying to make sense of the real world, through direct observation or by subconscious tangents. The imagery at the end of Chapter 9 sums these ideas up. K. is being led by a priest, an authority figure, someone presumably with answers, but is simply leading him through darkness. This scene also blends the real and the imaginary: 

In silence, they carried on walking for some time, K. stayed close beside the priest without knowing where he was. The lamp in his hand had long since gone out. Once, just in front of him, he thought he could see the statue of a saint by the glitter of the silver on it, although it quickly disappeared back into the darkness. 

K. thought he could see a saint, maybe a clue, something to give sense and context, but the clue disappears. Likewise, the Surrealists tried to create works which blended real life and dreams. When the real world does not make sense, why not impose images and ideas from dreams to try and make sense of them. In K.'s case, the search for sense is endless. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team