The Trial was begun in July, 1914, when Kafka turned thirty-one. He had just broken off his first engagement to Felice Bauer. He had also been unable to write any literature for more than a year, and he was feeling simultaneously frustrated by this writer’s block and guilty for having been unfair to either Bauer or himself (depending on how one looked at it). Out of this inner turmoil arose The Trial, which was completed within six months.
Like all Kafka’s writing, The Trial achieves a fine balance between the real and the imagistic, containing enough references to everyday life that the reader is initially tempted to confront the content of the surface story with logical argumentation. Were this a standard crime story, one would say that K., who was a banker by profession, misses three excellent opportunities to save himself. At the beginning of the novel, when arrested without being told why, K. neglects to contact his friend the public prosecutor. In the middle of the novel, when it would help to get away for a while, K. turns down his uncle’s invitation to stay with him in the country. At the end of the novel, K. avoids the policeman, who clearly wants to intervene.
The premise of fantasy, though, is that it details inner reality. Kafka was involved in coming to terms with himself, and he presents the reader with strong evidence that K. and the court are one and the same. Names are always significant in Kafka’s works, and one of the two warders who arrests Josef K. on his thirtieth birthday is called Franz—that is, the reader is to understand, Franz Kafka. Josef K. subsequently complains to the Examining Magistrate about the man’s behavior and is surprised, on leaving the bank an evening or two later, to hear moaning coming from behind a door he has never opened. To K.’s astonishment, there are the two warders about to be flogged by a third man with a birch, and K. watches as Franz is flogged senseless. On his way home the next day, K. opens the door of the room again: “What he saw, instead of the darkness he had been expecting, destroyed his self-possession completely. Everything was exactly the same, just as he had found it the evening before when he opened the door. The old files and ink-bottles just inside the door, the Flogger with his birch, the warders still completely undressed.” Clearly, it is all in K.’s mind, for he must be present for the scene to continue.
What is happening to K., then, is an inner sorting of priorities. What is on “trial” is Kafka’s own lack of existential authenticity. At the time that he wrote The Trial, Kafka had already realized that Bauer would have been more of a hindrance in his life than a help. Her counterpart in the novel is Fräulein Bürstner (same initials), who does not wish to get involved with K. The other aspect of Kafka’s life that necessarily continued to interfere with his writing was his professional work as a lawyer with the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. This situation is analogous to K.’s workaday existence in the bank. Kafka the writer must have derived great satisfaction from placing on trial and sentencing to death that aspect of his life that was guilty of wasting his time, but that he nevertheless needed.
Der Prozess is translated into English as “the trial” or “the process.” In fact, no trial takes place in the novel, so the reader might do well to consider the other meaning of the title. Hegelian and post-Hegelian German philosophy, with which Kafka was familiar, made use of the Greek terms “process” and “praxis” to describe contrasting modes of existence. “Process” imports the notion of an implacable system wherein one is acted upon by forces one does not understand and cannot alter. Surely this is the case of Josef K. in The Trial. “Praxis,” the opposite of “process,” is an act of taking control of one’s own destiny, and that is what the more mature protagonist of the same name, K., undertakes to do in...
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