Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1794
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 throughout Kafka’s writings; his first novel, The Man Who Went Missing (also, like The Trial, unfinished) concludes with Karl Rossmann’s venture to the nature theater of Oklahoma. It is no mistake that the well-known filmmaker Orson Welles directed a 1962 film adaptation of The Trial so that its opening scenes reveal the comic nature of the first half of the novel. Some critics have pointed out that The Trial begins as a farce and ends as a tragedy. In Mitchell’s translation, the first chapter, “Arrest,” makes K.’s arrest into a production in which various spectators gaze at his predicament. Almost immediately after he awakes one morning, K. spies the older woman across the way staring at him. As his interrogation before the inspector proceeds, two other people gather with the old woman to watch the proceedings, as do his three colleagues from the bank.
Furthermore, later in the same evening, K. reenacts the interrogation scene for Fräulein Bürstner, playing all the roles in the drama and shouting dramatically. K.’s initial appearance before the magistrate also resembles a stage performance, with K. declaiming his innocence before two galleries of spectators. In the penultimate chapter, the priest in the cathedral performs a scene for K., enacting through his parable the meaning of the law. Finally, K. refers to the two men who come to retrieve him as supporting actors whom the court has sent for him, and he even asks them in what theater they are now playing. As they prepare to kill him in the quarry, a face appears at the window in a nearby building, representing yet another spectator who this time observes not a comedy but a tragedy.
The novel is structured within an exact time frame. Exactly one year elapses between the arrest of K., which takes place on his thirtieth birthday, and his execution, which takes place on the night before his thirty-first birthday. Moreover, the novel tells almost nothing about K.’s past; there are no memories, no flashbacks, no expository passages explaining the background. As in so many of his works, Kafka begins The Trial with the incursion of a totally unexpected force into an otherwise uneventful life, and the situation never again returns to normal. Kafka felt that the moment of waking was the most dangerous moment of the day, a time when one was unprotected by the structures of one’s life and open to such an incursion.
K., in this vulnerable state, responds to the messengers of the court; from this point, there is no turning back. The court is invisible—a hierarchy in which even the lowest members are somehow beyond K.’s grasp. There are no formal charges, no procedures, and little information to guide the defendant. Indeed, one of the most unsettling aspects of the novel is the constant uncertainty, the juxtaposition of alternative hypotheses, the multiple explanations for events, and the differing interpretations regarding cause and effect. The whole rational structure of the world is undermined, as perceived reality becomes the subject of detailed exegesis such as one might apply to sacred Scripture. Reality itself becomes a vague concept, because the reader is denied the guiding commentary of a narrator and sees everything from K.’s point of view.
The entire work is composed of K.’s experiences; he is present in every scene. Secondary characters appear only as they relate to him, and the reader knows no more than he does. With K., the reader receives information that could be misinformation; experiences bizarre, barely credible incidents; and moves from scene to scene as if in a trance. This narrowness of the point of view becomes oppressive. The reader, in effect, becomes K.
As the German title, Der Prozess (“the process”) indicates, K.’s story involves a process that includes numerous hearings and investigations; K. experiences a series of trials as he journeys through a legal system that resembles nothing like any legal system with which most people are familiar. As he travels in fits and starts toward a verdict, he meets various people along the way who, like him, are mere puppets of the court. K. is not alone in his inability to comprehend the workings of the court; the others whom he meets cannot comprehend either, for they understand only the little portion of the court with which they are associated. However, by the end of the novel, K. reaches a verdict, and in so doing, he indicates that he understands the court better than most of the workers he has encountered along the way.
In the final lines of the novel, the two men who are executing K. watch him closely to observe the verdict that he will deliver. In the older translation these men are simply watching the final act, while in the new translation it is clear that K.’s verdict demonstrates that he has known all along—or that he has discovered sometime during the process—that he will die.
One is left with the question of what it all means. This is perhaps the wrong question to ask, because it implies that there is a meaning that can be defined, a key to understanding that generally involves assigning some allegorical value to the court: authoritarian society, human alienation from a sense of wholeness and purpose in life, the search for God’s grace. Still, it is the genius of Kafka’s works that they are inexhaustible and veiled in an ultimately impenetrable mystery. They admit of many interpretations, but the more specific the definition of the meaning of the work, the more inadequate it is to encompass the full amplitude of the novel.
Kafka’s works are less allegorical than symbolic; their symbolism lies in the construction of an image or an experience that is analogous to a human experience that lies far deeper than any of the specific problems offered as explanations for the work’s meaning. In The Trial, K. is confronted with the need to justify his life and to justify it at a metaphysical level deeper than any ex post facto rationalization of his actions. It is a demand he cannot meet, and yet it is inescapable because it arises from within him. He is an Everyman, but he is stripped of his religion and on trial for his life. For Kafka, the trial becomes a metaphor for life itself, and every sentence is a sentence of death.