Perhaps thanks in no small part to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the word “Kafkaesque” has long since become a ten dollar word to replace the more austere “weird”, “bizarre”, or “incomprehensible”. Kafka’s name has been made synonymous with alienation, absurdity, existentialism, futility, pointlessness, and so forth. This most famous work of his features prominently in the arguments advancing this position.
Per Forward, The Trial is a warning of “totalitarian ideologies”. SparkNotes calls it a tale of “state-induced self-destruction”. Quora’s top answerer is convinced it’s all about existentialism. That is apparently also a common opinion. Shmoop has a particularly egregious explanation of The Trial as a naked critique of divine authority, religion, and so forth. Facts & Arts reviews the novel, asking: “Is the search for meaning possible, let alone worthwhile?”
Yet it is not a coincidence that the pivotal scene of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, arguably his most well-known work, occurs in a Cathedral. Nor is it a coincidence that the centerpiece of the story is a parable. Nor is it a coincidence that this most pivotal parable’s significance is told through the voice of a priest — and extensively at that.
The Trial is the story of high-ranking bank officer Josef K., presumably living in pre-First World War Vienna, who is arrested and put on trial for a crime that is never mentioned or even certain to have been committed. He attends hearings, hires lawyers, and commiserates with judges, court workers, and other defendants in vain efforts to advance his case, learn about the legal process, and acquit himself. He never learns what crime he has been accused of committing nor how he would be able to clear his name, and the trial drags on for months, slowly consuming his mind and life.
It is easy to interpret this seemingly straightforward story as “existentialist” or “anti-state”, but those interpretations wholly miss the blunt religious insertions into the story as well as the issue of Josef K.’s character. After all, just because the reader and Josef K. never learn what crime Josef K. has committed, it does not follow that Josef K. has committed no crime at all. Why do we not attempt to guess what crime Josef K. may have committed? There is plenty of character material to aid us.
Josef K. is not actually an innocent or average soul. He is a well-placed chief financial officer at a bank in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, neurotically preoccupied with his status at the bank when not with his trial. He celebrates his thirtieth birthday on the day of his arrest, which kickstarts the plot, but remains unmarried and without children.
Almost as soon as we are introduced to him at the beginning of the book, K. attempts to fornicate “like a thirsty animal” with his young neighbor, Fräulein Bürstner. This attempt at fornication follows a conversation with his diminuitive and evidently conservative housekeeper and landlady Frau Grubach, who expresses shock and horror at K.’s accidental suggestion that the Fräulein is “seeing men” around the city. Grubach and K. agree that such a thing would be horrible and is not at all what K. intended to mean. The implication is clear: whoring around is unacceptable in the capital of the conservative Catholic empire.
And yet, Josef K. tries to seduce the Fräulein immediately following this conversation with the Frau. He does not for a moment reflect on this contradiction nor lament this fact, even despite the admission that he has a girl named Elsa whom he “sees” elsewhere in the city. Josef K.’s abrupt incident with Fräulein Bürstner causes no rumination in Josef K.’s head, a stark contrast to his constant bewilderment and Angst at his legal and business life. In fact, following this attempt, we never hear of Fräulein Bürstner again.
A similar pattern is repeated twice more. Visiting the court for the first time, Josef K. tries to seduce a court clerk’s wife, who is stolen and carried away from him by a competing law student. This infuriates and embarasses K., who just moments earlier felt that the wife was trying to seduce him, but that he didn’t want her.
Josef K. also seduces and carries on an affair with his sick and elderly lawyer’s mistress, beginning it by half-inadvertently spurning his Uncle, lawyer, and a judge who could help K. with his trial in the process. This incident infuriates his Uncle, who is worried sick about his nephew’s arrest and trial. Josef K.’s Uncle is worried about K.’s soul and his life, whereas K. worries only about proving himself innocent in order to escape the court. His Uncle is also none too happy about K.’s avoidance of his family and ignorance of family matters. K. is unbothered — as usual, the only things to which he devotes any introspection are his legal troubles and social status at the bank. One wonders if for the wrong reasons.
Visiting a painter, Titorelli, who may be of use to K.’s trial, K. interprets the teases and taunts of three teenage girls living in the same building as sexual advances. Titorelli, who is teased and taunted far more and far more constantly than K., a visitor, by the same troublesome trio of teenage girls, shows no indication that he believes he is being sexually propositioned. One must wonder: why does K.?
This pattern of sexual deviance, preoccupation with social status, and lack of familial devotion is veiled, but repetitive and distinct from the main narrative of legal anguish. One who ignores or, worse yet, sympathizes with Josef K.’s poor personal behavior misses the answer to an important question in a story about judgment: what kind of a man is Josef K.?
The answer is clear: Josef K. is a bad man. With that key detail in mind, a hidden narrative emerges:
The Trial is the story of a prideful sinner’s battle with God, told through the eyes of the sinner himself. The lack of sense in K.’s never-ending trial is not real, but the perception of a lack of sense as seen by the addled mind of K. The Kafkaesque plot is not an indictment of the legal system, but a consequence of a mind riddled with sin that is confronted with a judging God.
The unrepentant sinner cannot understand the unbending and inevitable judgment of a higher power. To him, it appears arbitrary and absurd — why do they persecute me so?
K. never learns what crime he has committed not because there is no crime, but because an unrepentant sinner is incapable of perceiving his crimes for what they are. If he were, he would repent and there would be no story.
K.’s intense focus on proving his innocence cleverly masks the fact that we are never certain that he is in fact innocent at all. The perceived insanity and absurdity of the court is taken to be real by the undiscerning reader, instead of the more likely conclusion that the insanity and absurdity is the product of the mind of Josef K. himself. His innocence is taken for granted by reviewers of The Trial who have reached this conclusion and interpretation a priori. K.’s focus on acquittal is an ever-expanding and impossible-to-understand black hole, which clouds the bright flashes of understanding that appear when the topic is his personal character.
The brightest such flash is the sudden call of the young priest to Josef K. as K. dawdles around an empty Cathedral. As Kafka writes, “there was no escape” from the voice of the priest. The priest calls out in a tone of final judgment that is unmistakable despite its simplicity: “Josef K.!”
Josef K., at that point, freezes. He is no longer “free”. An exchange between him and the priest is telling:
“But I’m not guilty,” said K., “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty. We’re all human beings here, one like the other.” “That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.”
A subsequent one even more so:
“You look for too much help from people you don’t know,” said the priest disapprovingly, “and especially from women. Can you really not see that’s not the help you need?”
The priest, who figuratively and literally serves the final judgment and sentence to Josef K., tells him that “help from women” is “not the help you need”. Take note of the subtle double meaning: is the priest saying that women cannot provide legal advice for K.’s trial… or is he saying that K.’s trial is not a legal trial at all, but perhaps another kind? Say — a moral trial?
In such a trial, “help from women” i.e. fornication and adultery, would indeed be “not the help you need” to be acquitted.
But K. does not see. He attempts to justify his behavior by emphasizing the supposed power of women around the court — did he not notice the real power of the powerful judge whom he spurned in order to carry on an affair? — then falling back to pointing out the supposed immorality of the people in the legal system, unaware that, as the old, simple wisdom goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right”. The priest’s response to his excuses is a protracted silence. Josef K. then advances some sheepish questions to the priest, when the priest suddenly screams:
At that, the priest screamed down at K.: “Can you not see two steps in front of you?” He shouted in anger, but it was also the scream of one who sees another fall and, shocked and without thinking, screams against his own will.
This is the clearest indication of the point of the story yet: the “fall” of Josef K. Much like in the “fall from grace” of Man in the Garden of Eden, the religious language of sin is unmistakable.
Following this outburst, the priest relates the famous ‘Before the Law’ parable to Josef K., which summarizes the theme of futility before a higher power that characterizes the story of Josef K.’s trial. The typical reading of the parable — to which K. seems to subscribe — says that the Law is an absurd and unjust Catch-22. An untypical reading would say that the parable demonstrates that it is Man’s just duty to submit to a higher power in the face of his utter futility to resist it.
K. does not grasp this, however.
Spoiler alert: The Trial ends abruptly. Josef K. is led out of his home and brutishly executed outside of town by two men. As he exclaims in the last line of the novel: “Like a dog!” Yes! For indeed Josef K. is a dog, a “thirsty animal” — an unrepentant sinner — and he is put down like one. With his very last breath, he finally realizes his crime and the nature of his trial. But by then it is too late. Justice has been served. Pray for his soul!