Considering my love of the bizarre in fiction, it was only a matter of time before I read about the strange and surrealistic world of The Trial. I am no stranger to the works of Franz Kafka. Having previously read his short story “The Metamorphosis” and his novel The Castle, I went into this one having some idea of what to expect. Kafka takes this absurdist tale to a whole other level with this story about a man who is trying to find answers against an oppressive court system. There are definitely similarities between The Trial and Orwell’s 1984; however, I found a much deeper personal connection to this one that seemed to echo some of my own past trials. Despite some slow chapters, I overall enjoyed this dark and twisted tale that has stayed with me despite having finished the book quite some time ago.
“Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Joseph K. finds that his usual routine is disrupted by the intrusion of two men who place him under arrest for an unidentified charge. It is a strange arrest, not only for the lack of information provided, but also for the lack of restraint put on K. who is allowed to continue about his daily business. As he attempts to learn more about this mysterious charge and fight the courts, K. finds himself drawn into a dark and labyrinthine system where the rules of logic have no place. This is a world where hearings take place within the attics of dilapidated houses and inquiries can occur at the most ridiculous of times. K. becomes increasingly frustrated as he finds one dead end after another and encounters those that continue to fail him in his pursuit of the truth. Containing large amounts of paranoia and symbolism, readers find themselves feeling the hero’s helplessness against a seemingly impossible system.
The first rule to reading The Trial, or anything else by this author, is to suspend all logic. Kafka had a style that was so different from anyone that came before him, that the term “Kafkaesque” has become immortalized in our dictionaries. Considering that this novel was written in 1915, it is clear to see that Kafka was way ahead of his time. Traditionally this novel has been explored under two different lenses, as a satire of totalitarian governments/bureaucracies or as a psychoanalytic study into the psyche. In the current age of insanity within our political system, it is easy to see how the themes of Kafka’s work can apply. The Trial has also been adapted for the stage with the setting taking place within a large office setting. As someone who has worked for in an oppressive business environment, I can relate to feeling lost within that nightmarish world.
As K. attempts to clear his name and free himself from the courts, he finds that escape is not an option as he continues to become enmeshed within its web. Kafka was a master of crafting the act of futility. This is evident in his writing style, which he called scribblings, as the text consists of long sentences broken up with many commas. Quotations are not separated either, so it took me a while to get used to the rhythm of his writing. It is interesting to note that Kafka wrote to his best friend requesting that this work along with several others be destroyed. Of course, his friend defied these wishes, resulting in one of the most famous classics of all time. I guess it’s good when your friend doesn’t listen.
It was fun spotting the similarities between this work and that of contemporary author Haruki Murakami. As a huge fan of Murakami, it was clear to see just how influential Kafka was to his fiction. For example, there is the way women are portrayed in The Trial as dual entities that offer both the hope of salvation or the threat of total damnation. There is a dark sexual force in these dialogues with the women in The Trial, but here Kafka handles these encounters with a subtlety that later Murakami would adapt into his own fiction. The women K. meet throughout the novel also have a tendency to vanish mysteriously, yet another staple of Murakami. I had to laugh when the character of Leni revealed to K. her two webbed fingers, as minor physical abnormalities are another common feature in Murakami’s female characters.
Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father, and the turmoil he experienced comes across in The Trial. The members of the court system are often depicted as opposing figures, such as the giant painting of one of the judges. These men are often intimidating both physically and emotionally, leaving K. often feeling powerless in his quest to clear his name.
“Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.”
Despite the hopelessness of his situation, we cannot help but be drawn to K. and his plight. We continue reading despite the knowledge that the outcome cannot be good. The character of K. is not a perfect man. In fact, at times he comes across as downright. unlikable. Yet we cheer for him. There are scenes in the book of neighbors spying on K. through the windows. For me, these characters represent us as the readers looking in on the proceedings. How often do we engage in acts that others may find futile? If we know that a course of action may lead to a sad outcome, should we still persist in the act?
My favorite section of the book is the parable “Before the Law” as told by the priest. If nothing else, you should read this one section of the novel as it basically sums up the themes Kafka is attempting to convey. I will give a quick summary here. One day, a man from the country seeks entrance through the door to the Law. The doorkeeper denies him the right to enter and tells the man that past the door are other doors with even more powerful doorkeepers. The man attempts to bribe the doorkeeper with everything he possesses, yet is told that he cannot go through the doorway yet. The man decides to sit outside the door for the rest of his life until he has grown old and frail. As her nears death, he asks the doorkeeper why others do not come this way seeking the Law. The doorkeeper responds that “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you.” The door is then closed off forever.
Although there have been many interpretations of “Before the Law”, I connected to this story-within-the-story in a very specific way. One could take the existential approach that the man should not have forced his way through the doorway, not allowing himself to be bullied by the doorkeeper. Another interpretation could be that the man should have accepted this and continued to live his life rather than pining for whatever was on the other side. Personally, I viewed the man and the doorkeeper as different aspects of the same person. Using this theory, I applied it to the overall story of K. Throughout The Trial, K. made it his mission to fight the court system and remove the charges brought against him. He becomes so dedicated to this one purpose that all other areas of his life begin to fall into disarray. His work suffers. We learn that he has a girlfriend, yet we never meet her once during the book. Although he was determined to fight the system, K. fell into a pattern with his actions which eventually led to his destruction. Perhaps if he had chosen a different method, the outcome would have been better. In the parable, the man from the country chose to just stay near the door where he wasted away his life rather than look for answers elsewhere.
In life, we choose the directions we take. Sometimes, we go the wrong way, so we need to stop and change course. However, obsession can sometimes be our downfall. If we spend too much time focused on the wrong goals, then we lose sight of those aspects of life that can make us truly happy. Consequently, it can be our very own “doorkeepers” within ourselves than can hinder us towards finding our own answers.
Please remember that this is what I personally took from the book. Your interpretation will be quite different. That’s the beauty of literature, as everyone has a different viewpoint. We all walk our own paths and enter our own doorways.
This book counts towards three of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!