The Trial

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Franz Kafka; @ 1925, 1998 by Schocken Books, Inc.; 266 pages.

After finishing The Trial, my first response was to go online for a professional analysis of what this novel was all about. Unsuccessful, I decided to see what I could come up with on my own. I knew when I began reading The Trial that it was unfinished, and normally that would put me off, but since it has been called one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, I was interested to read it anyway.

The story opens as Josef K., (or K.) the CFO of a bank, wakes up without the breakfast that his landlady normally gives him. He opens his door to find strangers waiting for him and is placed under arrest. Thus, his trial begins. From that point forward, he tries unsuccessfully to discover what charges have been brought against him and to defend himself against an impersonal, bureaucratic legal system.

Metaphor for Realization of One’s Own Mortality?

To me, the theme of “the trial” seemed to be a metaphor for life, especially man’s relationship with religion and his quest to enter Heaven. Many symbols supported this view for me. In the beginning, K. was not taking his trial seriously (just as children don’t take their lives seriously; their consciousness of life is a dreamworld of possibility). Later, as the book progresses, K. takes his trial (life) more and more seriously; this seems to escalate as everyone tells him his trial is going badly.

K. was arrested within the boundaries of his everyday life (just as one who has the realization of their own mortality would be arrested, unable to think of anything else for a while). K. isn’t detained in a prison, but instead is allowed to go on living just as he always had, only now with the shame (metaphor for knowledge of original sin) of being on trial (life). He had to report to hearings from time to time (metaphor for going to church on a regular basis), and was promised that no one would know about his trial (shame attributed to life through original sin), however, many found out about it.

He doesn’t know the higher judges, can’t find them, can’t communicate with them directly (God), and is never free again, as he was in his innocent childhood.

There were two ways to avoid conviction (death). One was the “extension option” (extending the trial indefinitely) and the other was “temporary acquittal,” which amounted to working really hard to get acquitted and then forgetting about the trial until the judges found your paperwork again and you were tried again. (This idea seemed to mirror the illnesses we get during life. We get sick and then get well again, until finally one day, we get sick and don’t recover.)

The way K.’s lawyer treated his other client, the merchant, as a dog, and that the man allowed him to do so, served to illuminate K.’s character. The merchant had chosen the “extension option” and in so doing had lost every ounce of self respect he ever had. He was turned into an obedient “dog,” always begging for approval (Kafka’s view of the obedient churchgoer?). The reader could see that this was not something K. was willing to do as his own trial (life) progressed, and K. fired the lawyer.

The options given K. for avoiding a verdict, that of extending the trial (by going to court (church) on a regular basis) or seeking a temporary acquittal (forgetting about the trial (nature of life) for a while), were ultimately rejected by K. The option of “temporary acquittal” seemed like it would buy K. some peace until the next time the court noticed his paperwork, which could be years, or minutes. However, the knowledge that the court would one day discover him and try him again, would keep K. from ever being free (like the looming knowledge of death. Eventually death will catch up with us all, so we are never really free.)

Some people take actions to avoid judgment or to postpone it. This progresses differently for everyone, depending on how predispositioned they are for obedience. This is illustrated by the merchant and how he acted as an obedient dog, giving up the rest of what shreds of freedom existed for him to serve his lawyer in an effort to postpone the inevitable, obediently reading texts he didn’t understand (metaphor for the scriptures/Bible?) in a dark room with very little light.

I found K.’s romantic relationships with women interesting. Other than his landlady, the women were all a little slutty, even the young girls who waited outside the painter’s apartment (women are the tempters of men). So, for a while, I thought K. might be on trial for his boorish treatment of women. All of the women except for Fraulein Brustner were already involved with other men (even the little girls could be said to have been involved with the artist). K. himself was involved with a woman that the novel didn’t say much about, and he cheated on her without thought or apology. He was told not to stop enlisting the help of women, but K. disagreed with this. He believed that women could help him (in the end, they didn’t.) This seemed like a loose end attributable to the novel being unfinished.


For a high ranking officer at a bank, Josef K.’s living quarters seemed inconsistent with his status. He was a boarder in a house with a landlady. Wouldn’t a CFO have his own place? This was odd. The writing at the beginning of the novel was much more vivid and engaging than at the end. Of course, this wasn’t a finished novel, and Kafka had left instructions for it to be burned. To further the religious metaphors, K. was sentenced in the cathedral (perhaps symbolic of the courtroom of God), and his execution took place in a quarry.

Parable of the Law

In the parable of the law told to K. by the priest in the cathedral, I figured that the priest was represented by the gatekeeper of the law (priests can be thought of as gatekeepers to God), and K. was represented by the merchant who waited his whole life to enter the gate to the law (the everyman waiting outside the Pearly Gates of Heaven). The merchant (like K.) was afraid and was advised that he could not gain entrance to go through the gate to the law (Heaven) even though we later learn that this gate was made especially for him (Jesus died for our sins). I thought this might be the key to the entire novel. K. never figured out a way to get justice (to get to Heaven).

Free Will

Kafka’s references to freedom (free will) were interesting. How the gatekeeper’s post (the priest) restricted the merchant’s freedom, while the merchant, in fact, restricted his own freedom by seeking what he couldn’t have, or could he have it? (entry into the law (into Heaven)). Inside or outside the law, the man still had a choice to pursue his desires (free will). He could have chosen not to seek (Is Kafka saying that the only free men are those who are not religious? Those who seek nothing?) Yet, I don’t think the merchant was free, since he was enslaved his whole life by his desire to enter the law (Maybe this is Kafka’s point—seeking God one’s whole life is a form of slavery). Or, is it that believing what others tell you can prevent you from having what is easily attainable? Or, is it that the desire itself is enslaving. Or, is it that forgetfulness is good?

This book was much more fun to analyze than it was to read. 🙂

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