The theme of guilt is discussed throughout The Trial. What becomes apparent is that guilt ironically is not a black-and-white concept, and the sense of guilt in K’s own mind evolves as the book progresses. In fact, the very first lines of the book refer to his guilt, or, rather, to his innocence. The author opens The Trial with,
Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
Later on after his arrest for a crime that is not made clear to either K. or to the reader, K. protests his innocence. He says,
but it might be that the investigating committee could see that I’m innocent, or not so guilty as had been supposed.
Importantly, K. tells the priest,
I’m not guilty … there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty. We’re all human beings here, one like the other.
Largely reflecting upon this dialog, some of the literary analysis of The Trial has focused on the religious, particularly Christian, concept of guilt versus innocence and, specifically, of original sin. Some literary analysis posits that K.’s guilt derives from the original sin inherent in mankind and in each person and K.’s refusal to acknowledge his potential for guilt just because he is a human being.
However, we can also read K.’s remark to the priest in a different light. In simple terms, K could be referring to his own humanity, because humans presumably make mistakes and, if anything, are guilty of fallibility rather than actual misdeed.
At the end of the book, as K. is about to face his death, he decides to take control. This contrasts markedly with the lack of control that characterizes most of the book when K. is taken from his apartment and put on trial. At the end, K. leads the two men who are escorting him to the site where he ultimately will be executed. He thinks to himself,
the only thing I can do now is keep my common sense and do what's needed right till the end … I’m grateful they sent these unspeaking, uncomprehending men to go with me on this journey, and that it’s been left up to me to say what’s necessary.
K. has been swept up in the bureaucracy of the Soviet machine, which could be a key theme that Kafka is referencing with the trial. There is no sense to the process. Although he protests his innocence and there does not appear to be any proof of his guilt, he is convicted and sentenced to death. The author wrote this at a time when the oppressive Soviet regime was gathering force and essentially could do just this to its population.
The lack of proof presented in arresting and trying K. also underscores how surreal the story is. In depicting the seeming randomness of K.’s arrest and meaningless trial that follows, Kafka uses techniques that are similar to those used by other literary existential authors.
The book was written in 1914–1915, an important period in Soviet and world history coinciding with the first World War and the events leading up to the Soviet revolution, when many things happening in the world did not seem to make sense. Moreover, K.’s situation also underscores his position as an outsider throughout the entire process, which is something that Kafka must have experienced and understood all too well.