The Trial: Parable of European Christianity

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1879

The body of critical commentary on the works of Franz Kafka is huge enough to have warranted the description, “fortress Kafka,” and the extant criticism on The Trial is no exception. Readings of the novel have spanned the range from Calvinist to postmodernist, by way of Marxism, feminism and post-structuralism. In many ways, the seemingly endless series of commentaries and perspectives is highly appropriate to the subject matter of The Trial. Both within the novel and by nature of the body of critique which surrounds it, The Trial raises insistent questions about the nature of meaning, interpretation and reality which ultimately remain unanswered and unanswerable. Joseph K.’s inability to find or understand the High Courts and the Highest Judges is directly analogous with a basic inability to pin the book down to simple interpretations.

Like the parable that Joseph hears at the cathedral, The Trial is capable of withstanding extended and divergent exegetical commentary without ever offering up a clear or essential lesson. In doing so it serves as a meta-commentary—a critique of the shortfalls of critique itself, which has much in common with Medieval Christian mystic writing. In both Kafka’s novel and the work of such mystics as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen, ‘Truth’ and supreme authority are unknowable— capable only of being grasped at by metaphor, diffusion and analogy. Indeed, Kafka’s text perhaps works best as a commentary upon religious commentary— a critical analysis told through fable and analogy of the impossible psychological burden imposed on humanity by western Christianity. The fact that the essence of The Trial remains unknowable thus becomes a structural reinforcement of the central theme. Just as God’s ways are all important but forever mysterious to the ‘Everyman’ of Christian Europe, so the reading experience pulls ‘Everyreader’ into textual authority, only to refuse access to essential textual meaning.

The perfect paradigm of the text’s machinations can be found in the first page of the novel. From the opening line of The Trial, we are thrown into a bewildering profusion of textual meaning that is as puzzling to us as it is to Joseph K. We begin in media res, thrust into a confusing lack of narrative explanation in the same way that Joseph is thrust into his case without understanding what the facts of it are:

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

Neither K. nor we will ever receive satisfactory answers to the causes of his arrest, and we are even more at a loss than he since his essential identity will remain hidden from us throughout the novel. He will always be a linguistic cipher to us, his last name known only ‘through a glass, darkly’ with the single letter, ‘K.’ The period marks it as an abbreviation instead of a generic signifier, both creating and undermining our ability to read it as a parable. In other words, Joseph K. is both Everyman and a specific character—his namelessness makes him a cipher, even as the period implies specificity and invites guesswork. Such guesswork will, of course, remain unconfirmable, just like every other aspect of The Trial.

The essential similarities of Joseph K.’s initial plight and the basic premises of Judeo-Christian theology are obvious and have been frequently commented upon. In the former, Joseph awakes to find himself guilty of a crime he is sure he has not personally committed, but for which he will suffer and eventually die. In the latter, man ‘wakes up’ guilty—born with the burden of an original sin which he has not committed, but for which his days will be a trial to him. Essentially, both K. and the Judeo-Christian subject are forced into a world where existence consists of awaiting judgment for sins that they cannot comprehend. The “fine apple” that K. eats as a replacement for his stolen breakfast underscores the parallel. The essential symbol of the Fall of Man that the apple serves here—as it does in Metamorphosis to signify the existentially guilty fate of the protagonist.

From this initial re-staging of the Fall of Man, the actions contained in The Trial can be plotted onto a trajectory that describes the development of Christian theology in the West. The first stage is Catholic—a system of religious signification that is firmly based on a top-down hierarchy of power in which intercession and removal from the sources of authority are essential aspects of the power infrastructure. Like the Church officials who enforce a Papal Bull, the Warders who come to arrest K. are serving a remote ‘Law’ to which they are un- thinkingly obedient, but whose workings they do not understand. Further, this very ‘unknowability’ is taken as proof positive of its untouchable, almost sacred nature. In this way, neither the warders nor the Inspector are privy to the actual facts of the legal system which they represent, and since K. cannot learn which law he has broken, he is de facto incapable of proving that he hasn’t broken it. As Franz says, “See, Willem, he admits that he doesn’t know the Law and yet he claims he’s innocent.”

In this cosmology, power and meaning are continually deferred and removed. The Warders are following the orders of the Inspector, who is following the orders of the Court, who in turn are following the orders of a higher Court. Above it all is the Law—the Papal Bull that is yet another step removed from the source of power, since the Pope too receives meaning from an unknowable higher Authority.

The intercessionary motif is elaborated throughout the first half of the novel, and its association with Catholicism is strengthened by K.’s relationship to women. Just as Catholic tradition draws heavily on the intercessionary role of woman in the guise of the Virgin Mary, so K. is drawn to a series of women from whom he seeks reassurance and aid with his Case. As he says to the Priest:

Women have great influence. If I could move some women I know to join forces in working for me, I couldn’t help winning through.

The first is his landlady, Frau Grubach, who is present at his arrest and to whom K. looks for comfort and explanation. His next impulse after he has realized the implications of the situation is to go to another woman—Fraulein Burstner—and explain his woes. Neatly, K.’s need to ‘make a confession’ about the horrors of his situation is tied to the symbolic role of women in Catholic theology. The fact that Fraulein Burstner is of dubious sexual moral- ity points to the other Mary, the Magdalene, and K.’s sexual reaction to her is perhaps a commentary on the deeply conflicted role of the Goddess/ Whore binary in the history of European thought.

The next intercessionary women to whom K. turns are again sexually active ones—the Usher’s wife and Leni, the Lawyer’s nurse. With each woman that K. turns to, he gets closer and closer to the authority of the court, and the women would seem to be more and more capable of playing an active role in the mitigation of his circumstances. Leni especially seems to be able and willing to help him, both in her ability to give him valuable information about the legal system, and in her role as the first port of entry to the Lawyer’s services. In this reality of deferred meaning, the Lawyer is, of course, a stand-in for Priesthood—the church’s first representative.

K. comes to realize that the power of the Lawyer is limited after the painter describes for him the Byzantine complexity of the legal hierarchy, of which the lawyer and his friends are but the smallest cogs. In the style of the Protestant Reformation, K. revolts against the hierarchy—deciding to represent his own case. Just as Protestantism rejected the intercessionary authority structure of the Catholic Church and placed its emphasis instead on personal salvation, so K. rejects his lawyer—the established means of communicating with ‘the Law’—and attempts to take his fate into his own hands. With his rejection of this ‘priesthood’ comes a rejection of the intercessionary female. K.’s realization that the Lawyer can do nothing for him occurs simultaneously with his realization that Leni has no real power to help him; that her relationship with him is not special, but instead symptomatic of her fetish for condemned men. Again, this is in direct parallel with the massive drop in the power status of the Virgin Mary—and women in general— in Protestant Christianity.

Following his decision, however, the essence of K.’s situation remains unchanged. He is still incapable of understanding the crime he has committed, and—most importantly—equally incapable of escaping the looming judgment. His nature still condemns him, as Block suggests when he informs K. that:

you’re supposed to tell from a man’s face, especially the line of his lips, how his case is going to turn out. Well, people declared that judging from the expression of your lips you would be found guilty, and in the near future too.

Here K. is ‘guilty by nature.’ His physiology marks an essential condemnation that is as inescapable as Augustinian original sin even while he is switching to a ‘theology’ that would seem to promise hope for the individual soul. Again, this hopelessness directly parallels the history of European Christianity. This time it is the bleak doctrine of Calvinism that is at play. In this theology the doctrine of predispensation decrees that individual souls have been judged guilty or not guilty before they are born, and are as powerless to alter their fate as they are to know which sentence has been passed upon them. As the parable in the Cathedral shows, the issues surrounding free will and determinism are as opaque and unknowable as those surrounding direct intercession. In the final line of the novel, K. dies—an end that has proved to be inescapable no matter which style of theological maneuvering he has chosen. If the Law is God, this would suggest, then, the very fact of God condemns man to misery, condemnation and guilt. By accepting and believing in the power of the Law, K.’s society has allowed itself to be structured by nothing more or less than guilt.

Of course, this reading is reductive. To draw a coherent system of meaning from Kafka’s text, more must be excluded than is included. To create a meaningful narrative to describe this most elusive of texts is to be reminded again and again that The Trial is a novel about the failures of narrative— a text about extra-textuality, as it were, that cannot be reduced to a simple trajectory. The acts of reading and analysis thus become part of the text itself— another part of the ongoing meditation on the nature of language, reality and meaning which the novel represents. In the final analysis, the most intelligent— and intelligible—thing that can be said about The Trial is that it is intelligently unintelligible.

Source: Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Trial: A Review

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

When the late Franz Kafka’s The Castle was published in this country some years ago, it created no general stir, but it was immediately seized upon by a few people as a very distinguished book. Time has passed, and other people—though still not many—have concurred in that conclusion. I must confess that I have not read The Castle, but I mean to, for I have read The Trial, and not in a long time have I come upon a novel which, without being in any vulgar sense spectacular, is more astonishing.

The Trial is not for everybody, and its peculiar air of excitement will seem flat enough to those who habitually feed on “exciting” books. It belongs not with the many novels that horrify, but with the many fewer novels which terrify. It does not trick out the world we know in grotesque and fantastic shapes; it is at once wholly of our world and wholly outside it. It keeps one foot so solidly on the ground that you can think of few books which stay there more firmly with both feet. But its other foot swings far out into space, conferring upon the literal action of the story a depth of meaning—or if meaning is often elusive, a power of suggestion—which can best be called visionary.

Something of the book’s quality may be guessed from a brief mention of its plot. Joseph K., a young bank official, gets up one morning to find that he has been arrested. He knows he has committed no crime, and he is never then or later told what his crime is supposed to be. He is permitted his freedom, except that periodically he must go to court. Court is a weird place, full of other accused people and innumerable petty officials. There K. is allowed to assert his eloquence, but the business of his trial never makes any progress.

There is more to the story than an account of K.’s “trial.” We are told much about his life at the bank, about his relations with his landlady and with the young woman who has the room next to his. In all these things K. is made to feel just as uncertain and frustrated as in the matter of his trial and this frustration contributes most of all to the dream character of the book. It is exactly the sensation we have during a lingering nightmare.

No summary can convey the atmosphere which Kafka cunningly distills—the atmosphere of some idiotic and hellish labyrinth where Joseph K. is forced to wander. The more he tries to control the situation, the more stranded he becomes. On psychological grounds alone the story has a peculiar force and distinction. But the impact of The Trial is much more moral than psychological. Kafka is at bottom a religious writer, with a powerful sense of right and wrong and an unquenchable yearning toward the unrevealed source of things. His story then is a great general parable. It is a proof of Kafka’s other talents as a novelist, a humorist, a psychologist and a satirist that he does not leave his parable a bald one, but works into it every kind of human gesture and lifelike detail. The man who can, while writing symbolically, make a hilarious stuffed shirt out of K.’s advocate, and then —in a later scene—express his religious feeling in the richest organ tones, was a writer in whose death literature suffered a real loss.

Source: Louis Kronenberger, “Special K,” in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1996, p. 44.

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Critical Overview