Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301

The Trial deals with such themes as guilt, judgment, and retribution, and although Kafka studied law himself, the novel is not really about the legal system nor is it only about that portion of the legal system which complements or exacerbates a more complex and pervasive psychological phenomenon characteristic of the human psyche. The trial in this novel is an inner one brought about by the guilt Joseph K., the central character, experiences once he has been arrested. Although he is not accused of any particular crime, he assumes a mantle of guilt which produces a cycle of self-condemnations, which, in turn, produce his internal trial. Joseph K. goes to his death never really understanding what he is accused of but the reader learns that his "crimes" are more in the nature of omissions than commissions. Joseph K. is devoid of love, alienated from nature, and deprived of the consolations of art, literature, and music. Furthermore, he does not even realize that he is missing all of these things and that compounds his crime.

Joseph K. is not totally without self-awareness, but until his arrest he seems unable to act on it. By then, of course, it is too late. The trial stresses Joseph K.'s weakness not only before the law but also before his own consciousness. Indeed it is this very level of awareness, fed by his education and middle-class life, with its connections to those in higher places, which prevents one from seeing Joseph K. as some sort of Everyman. His experience is not everyone's; his life is of a privileged sort and the inability to use the opportunity that his status affords him is one of the most damaging accusations against him. Unlike the lower orders, Joseph K. should be able to do better than he does.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198

A central element of Judeo-Christian theology is the belief that humans are guilty of original sin. There are various ways to deal with this situation but in many theological doctrines, redemption and entry to heaven depend upon people leading moral lives. For Protestants, salvation is gained when the individual confesses to God. Assistance in this task comes from the Bible as well as through the teachings of those who spend their lives studying the Bible. In Judaism the book of God is the Torah, and literally speaking, God is the Law.

K.’s story takes place in a world familiar with this theology; yet this theology is changing. For example, the Calvinists’ theory of predestination, which is the belief that what you do in life does not matter since people have already been selected by God (before birth) for salvation, is evoked by K.’s situation. K. has been predestined for a judgment. In religious terms, this means he should accept his guilty nature and seek redemption in whatever form the court decides. Block has done so and has avoided death but has paid a humiliating price: he must forever run on all fours before a representative of the law.

K. resembles a character from the Old Testament named Job. Job is a wealthy man who steadfastly believes in God. One day, the devil makes a bet with God that, if allowed to do so, he can put Job’s faith on trial so that he curses God. The bet is on but despite all the pranks and hardships of a trial by faith, Job doesn’t curse God. Instead, it is Job’s faith that sees him through. K., who has been similarly slandered by someone, undergoes a trial but he has no faith in the Law to see him through. K.’s predicament is neatly summed up, “I don’t know the law.”

Calvinism, Protestantism, and Judaism are not the only theologies under assault. The descriptions of the court’s personnel evoke the cosmology of Catholicism with its levels of angels, its history of Inquisitions, and its secret tribunal of Cardinals. Also, Catholic degrees of grace are transformed into degrees of guilt. There is, of course, innocence and guilt, the discussion of which always involves a statement that K. must know some law. With Bürstner, he discusses being guiltless and “not as guilty as they thought.” Much later, Titorelli describes the states of permanent guilt: actual acquittal (heaven), apparent acquittal (purgatory), and protraction (hell). Catholics believe that sins can be dealt with through the sacrament of confession. In this sacrament, the guilty person discusses his or her sins with a priest and he gives counsel, as well as a set number of prayers to be recited. That is how the person may cleanse his or herself of the sin. This practice was abused during the time of the Inquisitions when torturers forced people to confess to all sorts of crimes—like witchcraft. In Catholic fashion, K. is constantly told that “all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get.”

Language and Meaning
K. views his trial as “no different than a major business deal” in which he must pay close attention to details such as how people exit or how people use words. The Inspector notices this obsession with details and cautions him. K. disregards the advice and berates himself whenever he loses focus. The scene that exemplifies K.’s failure to understand what is happening to him, despite his best efforts, is the conversation with the bank president and the Italian client. Despite his knowledge of Italian, K. cannot understand the client’s dialect and he is bothered by the client’s lips being obscured behind a mustache. To K., the client’s words “literally poured from his lips” and all K. can see are “various difficulties.”

Another example is when K., who knows something about art, thinks he will understand a portrait but does not. He misreads a portrait as that of a great judge, but Leni tells him that the subject of the painting is actually a small man and an examining magistrate. When confronted by Titorelli’s work in progress, K. needs guidance immediately, “It’s the figure of Justice,” says the painter. “Now I recognize it,” says K., as he traces out what he knows as the allegorical image of law. His assessment is incorrect and the painter reveals that the court allows only those paintings done according to a code that only Titorelli knows. In other words, art, like the Law, can only be known by its priests. Finally, K. enters the cathedral where he intends to show the client the famous religious artworks. The lighting inside, however, makes it impossible and he is unable to tell a column from a statue. Clearly, outside of financial numbers—and even the trial ruins his ability to help the manufacturer—K. is lost.

Block reveals to K. that “a suspect is better off moving than at rest, for one at rest may be on the scales without knowing it, being weighed with all his sins.” Unfortunately, K. later sees a painting at Titorelli’s wherein the allegorical figure of Justice is also the winged and mobile figure of Victory.

Sex Roles
Women, for K., perform the impossible and mysterious acts which keep life functioning. “A woman’s hand indeed works quiet wonders, he thought he might have smashed the dishes on the spot, but he certainly couldn’t have carried them out.” Women are also capable of great influence on the unknowable court: “Women have great power. If I could get a few of the women I know to join forces and work for me, I could surely make it through.” However, this dream is as unlikely as the idea of flogging a judge. The reason is that women, in the novel, have their particular doors to guard. They are somewhat like Gatekeepers. They also have a defect. For example, Leni has a claw and Elsa is confined to a corset. The exception to this rule is Bürstner. She is not a Gatekeeper but someone who works and learns. She will not help K. because he is incapable of respecting her or the Law.

The Universe vs. The Individual
K., except for a brief friendship with Hasterer, prefers his own company. In the matter of his trial, “he didn’t want to enlist anyone’s aid and thus initiate them in the matter even distantly.” To do so would be to initiate another person into himself. This is an act he cannot even do in the form of a petition. This is as it should be since the trial is his own, it is his guilt, and no matter what he does or where he goes, that is where the inquiry will be located: “he is certainly being treated with strange carelessness.”

As much as K. desires it, he is not alone. Everyone who knows him also knows about his trial. From his point of view, the entire universe finds him guilty from the casual observer to the men who kill him like a dog.

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