Kafka, Franz - The Trial

In this paper I want to show that the novel „Trial“ by Franz Kafka is a work of fiction however, in a certain way picturing also reality. I would like to start with a brief introduction to the author’s life and to the plot of the novel. The description of the main hero will follow to show that Kafka wanted to portray the “system” in which he was living based on his own experience.

Franz Kafka came from a wealthy Prague-German Jewish family. He was born in 1883 and spent his childhood in Prague. He suffered from his father despotic behaviour and from living in Czech Prague as a German Jew. He was a very sensitive man, he felt alienated in his world. After studying law he started to work in an insurance company in Prague. Kafka was unhappy there; being a part of the bureaucratic mechanism frustrated him. He lived in Berlin for a time and towards the end of his life he fall ill with tuberculosis and stayed in a sanatorium near Vienna. However, most of his life he spent in Prague. He died in 1924.

Most of things Franz Kafka wrote, including the „Trial“, was not published during his life. Franz Kafka did not want his manuscripts to be printed and he himself burnt a lot of his originals. In the letter he left behind, he entrusted his friend Max Brod to do two things: to ensure that none of his works, that already were published, will be published again and that all the texts that were not published, are collected and burnt without exception. Max Brod disobliged this order and stated why he failed to do it and why he couldn’t do it in the epilogue to the first edition of the „Trial“.
The „Trial“ by Franz Kafka was written in 1915. This novel is one of the three novel „tragedies of loneliness“ which form the most significant part of Kafka´s work.
The novel „Trial“ is finished in a way that is has the final chapter. However, this does not mean that the piece is in its final version. As Max Brod says, the novel is “interminable (and) could be prolonged to infinity”.
The action of the novel is as complex as complicated the mysterious trial is. Joseph K., bank head clerk, is all of sudden arrested on the day of his 30th birthday. He is indicted at unknown court from an unknown misdeed. He tries to face the absurd thing by common means at a normal legal proceedings, however to no end; the already begun lawsuit is stoplessly proceeding. Joseph K. is for the first time in his life facing something, which cannot be calculated or balanced. It breaks down his whole life; it paralyses his performance at work. Joseph K. tries to figure out why he is being accused and tries to fight the Court, but finally seems to just surrender to its power. The trial ends exactly one year after the start of the process by conviction and execution.

Anonymity is one of the characteristics of the novel: we know little about the main hero: he does not have his inner life and we don’t know how he looks like. Joseph K. does not have a full name. Initial is meant as short cut for „anybody”. The intentional anonymity is graded by the fact we know nothing about his past, where he comes from, what are his interests, why he choose to be a bank clerk and how did it happen his career went so fast. Joseph K. is a remarkably talented man; to be a head clerk in his thirties that is a quite an exceptional achievement. A man that intelligent will be twofold responsible for all his deeds. He is decent and diligent man, who knows just work, he sits in the bank till nine o’clock in the evening. He does not have a family. Relationship with other people are not binding but some in connection to his trial might seem as innocent calculations: he starts to be interested in Miss Bürstner, girl living in the apartment next to Joseph K., he enters into a relationship with a girl Leni, only after when he sees that both could somehow help him – because as he says: „women have power“. His other relation to a waitress Elsa is also not tied by love. Nevertheless we don’t know details about his relationship with anybody.

Another fact that perfectly fits with the principle of anonymity is the fact that even though the book is considered as from Prague, the word “Prague” is actually never expressed. We don’t know in which part of Prague the hero lives nor in which bank he works. There are some “signs” which show the reader that it is Prague, where the novel takes place. For example the chapter “In the cathedral” is most probably set in the St. Vitus cathedral and in the last chapter Joseph K. crosses a bridge, most likely the Charles Bridge.
There are some similarities as well as differences between the author and the hero. Kafka purposely uses ER – form, to leave a certain distance from the hero. Joseph K. and Franz Kafka are decent, intellective introverts. For example strong individualism is characteristic for both. However Joseph K., in contrast to Franz Kafka, does not have friends, anyone with whom he could share his distress. He does not have family, love, and relatives. He does not devote his life to anything special. He stands only alone and only for himself.

I believe, that even though it is said that more than 80% of what Kafka wrote is about him, the „Trial“ is not a portrait of his life, but it rather pictures the „system“ in which Kafka lived and which he did not agree with. In my opinion Kafka criticise the bureaucratic institutions in the modern society. Kafka sort of warns against flat and mechanized life of the 20. century.
The Legal state, that Kafka pictures, does not mean anything positive. The hero does not know about it until a “gap”appears in it. Joseph K. is an ordinary citizen, a bank clerk, who never had any problems up till now (till the arrest) and never participated in the problems of others. As long as Joseph K. is in his bank he is ready for anything that is why he stays there so long. The bank is the source of his self-confidence. As he says: „In the Bank, for instance, I am always prepared, nothing of that kind could possibly happen to me there, I have my own attendant, the general telephone and the office telephone stand before me on my desk, people keep coming in to see me, clients and clerks, and above all, my mind is always on my work and so kept on the alert; it would be an actual pleasure to me if a situation like that cropped up in the Bank.“ (27) He is successful in the bank and he does not need anybody there. In his life, outside the bank, he suffers from isolation.

The novel is progressing on two levels: life reality and dream. Both levels mingle and flow from one to another. Everything that concerns the “court” and its authorities is depicted with concrete detailed realism while scene from daily life are only selected and sort or unspecified. Kafka often uses inner monologue.
The “Trail” is actually about the hero’s attitude towards the “case” which is gradually changing. At first Joseph K. denies that fact that he could be guilty, he “takes it easy” and thinks it is just a joke. As a result he does not think of taking a lawyer. The trial seems to be only little important at the beginning. Joseph K. takes interest in the case only to explain the misunderstanding, however the case takes more and more his time and energy. It sort of disturbs his life and Joseph K. gives in more and more to the invisible court. It is surprising how quickly he reconciles with the fact he does not know why he is arrested, what is the trial about and who is the judge. Still he denies every though of guilt even though for example Leni reminds him that one can’t save himself from court and that it is necessary to admit guilt. Towards the end Joseph K. asks the prison padre: “And if it comes to that, how can any man be called guilty? We are all simply men here, one as much as the other.” “That is true,” said the priest, “but that’s how all guilty men talk.”
Joseph K. quickly generalises his case to broad threat: “there can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organization at work … And the significance of this great organization, gentlemen? It consists in this, that innocent persons are accused of guilt“ (54).
This is just another expression of the author’s view of the bureaucratic power. Kafka was a very sensitive man and some parts of the “Trial” might have originated from his ordinary experience of a visit in some stuffy Prague office situated in dirty quarter. This might be where his images of authorities came from. Kafka showed a society with ruling laws and authorities against which man is defenceless.

The trial is a vain attempt of the accused to justify him from guilt, to become a “clean” and a “normal” man. Joseph K. does not know about any law, according to which he could be accused and judged. The fact that he does not know this law makes the judicial authorities astonished. Moreover the unfamiliarity with the law does not relieve from guilt and is not an extenuating circumstance. Pleading at the inaccessible court is of no effect. Joseph K. is unable to understand the incomprehensible.
His guilt is that he is unable to defend himself from the “organized power”; he does not go against the wrong. He is a victim of the mechanism, of the stereotype of life, of the isolation.
The result from the book is that a solitary man without help of the others has no chance to resist the absolute power. The book actually predicts the totalitarian regimes, which came after Kafka, such as fascism, communisms.
We can find complicated symbolism and ambiguity in the book, however no poetic or colourful images. The case of Joseph K. is a tragedy of a man who is guilty because he lives in a way one can’t live; he lives apart, for himself.

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