Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, the bachelor Josef K., a career-oriented bank employee, wakes up to the unsettling news that he is under arrest. Uninformed as to the crime he is alleged to have committed, K. receives a summons to appear before a judge a few days later. Yet neither this nor a subsequent visit to the curiously irregular court provides him with any clarity about his case.
Left stranded in his efforts to communicate with the legal authorities, K. finds his daily life invaded by grotesque reminders of guilt and punishment. Soon a debilitating sense of doom begins to destroy the normalcy of his existence.
In order to advance his case and to justify himself, K. turns to ever more unlikely helpers. A famous lawyer is dismissed when he counsels procrastination as the safest course of action. The inside information K. hopes to gain from a portrait artist in the employ of the court and from its prison chaplain only entangle him further in a world of legal subterfuge.
Worn out by his futile search, K. shows no surprise when, on the eve of his thirty-first birthday, two executioners come to his apartment. Willingly he submits to their authority as they lead him to his death.
For some critics, the German-Jewish author from Prague has foreseen the nightmare of totalitarianism that was to descend on Europe under the reign of Nazism. Others see K.’s fate as a parable on the price man must pay if he refuses to acknowledge his peculiarly modern in-authenticity. Most readers, however, are captivated by Kafka’s claustrophobic visions of a horrid and yet faintly ridiculous world without feeling the need to arrive at a definition of its menacing spell.
Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Problem. New York: New Directions, 1946. An important and relatively early collection of essays, three of which deal specifically with The Trial.
Flores, Angel, and Homer Swander, eds. Franz Kafka Today. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958. Two essays treat the structure and meaning of The Trial, respectively; useful as a companion volume to the previous Flores collection. Includes a long bibliography.
Gray, Ronald, ed. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Fifteen excellent essays on general themes in Kafka, two dealing with The Trial in particular and several dealing with it in part. Almost all of the contributors are well-known critics. Also contains an introduction, a chronology of important dates, and a survey of recent Kafka criticism.
Rolleston, James, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Trial.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Ten essays with an introduction, “On Interpreting The Trial,” offer a wide sampling of critical responses to the work’s “opaqueness.” Presents Kafka’s relationships to psychoanalysis and other modern modes of interpretation. Extensive critical bibliography.
Tauber, Herbert. Franz Kafka: An Interpretation of His Works. Translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Roger Senhouse. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948. Places The Trial in the context of literary analysis of Kafka’s major works. Chapter 7 compares the book to The Castle in terms of both themes and execution. Should be read in conjunction with Max Brod’s seminal Biography of Franz Kafka (1937) for interesting comparison.