History: This book was first published in 1925. Like Kafka's other novels, The Trial was never completed, although it does include a chapter which brings the story to an end. Because of this there are certain inconsistencies which exist within the novel, such as disparities in timing in addition to other flaws in narration.
After his death in 1924, Kafka's friend and literary executor Max Brod edited the text for publication.
Plot: On his thirtieth birthday, a senior bank clerk, Josef K., who lives in lodgings, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, however, but left at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs.
K. later visits the court and stands in the witness box pleading his case. He then returns home.
K. later goes to visit the magistrate again, but instead is forced to have a meeting with an attendant's wife. Looking at the Magistrate's books, he discovers a cache of pornography.
K. returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.
Later, in a store room at his own bank, K. discovers the two agents, who arrested him, being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes, as a result of complaints K. previously made about them to the Magistrate. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the Whipper and the two agents.
K. is visited by his uncle, who is a friend of a lawyer. The lawyer was with the Clerk of the Court. The uncle seems distressed by K.'s predicament. At first sympathetic, he becomes concerned K. is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces K. to an advocate, who is attended by Leni, a nurse, who K.'s uncle suspects is the advocate's mistress. K. has a sexual encounter with Leni, whilst his uncle is talking with the Advocate and the Chief Clerk of the Court, much to his uncle's anger, and to the detriment of his case.
K. visits the advocate and finds him to be a capricious and unhelpful character. K. returns to his bank but finds that his colleagues are trying to undermine him.
K. is advised by one of his bank clients to visit Titorelli, a court painter, for advice. Titorelli has no official connections, yet seems to have a deep understanding of the process. K. learns that, to Titorelli's knowledge, not a single defendant has ever been acquitted. He sets out what K.'s options are, but the consequences of all of them are unpleasant: they consist of different delay tactics to stretch out his case as long as possible before the inevitable "Guilty" verdict. Titorelli instructs K. that there's not much he can do since he doesn't know of what crime he has been accused.
K. decides to take control of matters himself and visits his advocate with the intention of dismissing him. At the advocate's office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K. some insight from a client's perspective. Block's case has continued for five years and he appears to have been virtually enslaved by his dependence on the advocate's meaningless and circular advice. The advocate mocks Block in front of K. for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons K.'s opinion of his advocate, and K. is bemused as to why his advocate would think that seeing such a client, in such a state, could change his mind. (This chapter was left unfinished by the author.)
K. is asked to tour an Italian client around local places of cultural interest, but the Italian client short of time asks K. to tour him around only the cathedral, setting a time to meet there. When the client doesn't show up, K. explores the cathedral which is empty except for an old woman and a church official. K. decides to leave, as a priest K. notices seems to be preparing to give a sermon from a small second pulpit, lest it begin and K. be compelled to stay for its entirety. Instead of giving a sermon, the priest calls out K.'s name, although K. has never known the priest. The priest works for the court, and tells K. a fable, that is meant to explain his situation, but instead causes confusion, and implies that K.'s fate is hopeless. Before the Law begins as a parable, then continues with several pages of interpretation between the Priest and K. The gravity of the priest's words prepares the reader for an unpleasant ending.
On the last day of K.'s thirty-first year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot. The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: "Like a dog!"
Review: The Trial led to the word Kafkaesque’ defined as the helplessness of man in the face of unknown forces that persecute him without reason. The nature of the crime is never revealed to the reader or even to Joseph himself. Joseph progresses through various stages of confusion and paranoia, trying to understand his situation as he moves from one strange situation to another.
In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is persecuted by the Law (symbolized by the Court) and is not given a reason for his arrest. The entire court system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I is parodied, as well as the police, who are portrayed as a theater’ act; they were open to bribery and corruption of all sorts while conducting legal procedures that made no sense. Along with this central theme, the novel also denotes the alienation and anxiety of humanity in general in the absence of God’ as revealed by other existentialists such as: Sartre, Camus and Kierkegard.
Kafka intentionally set out to write parables, not just novels, about the human condition. The Trial is a parable that includes the smaller parable Before the Law. There is clearly a relationship between the two but the exact meaning of either parable is left up to the individual reader. K. and the Priest discuss the many possible readings. Both the short parable and their discussion seem to indicate that the reader is much like the man at the gate; there is a meaning in the story for everyone just as there is one gate to the Law for each person.
The parable within Kafka's masterpiece highlights perfectly the essence of his philosophy. Assigned unique roles in life, individuals must search deep within the apparent absurdity of existence to achieve a somewhat objective self-awareness. The old man, therefore, is the symbol of this universal search inherent to mankind. The Trial is not simply a novel about the potential disaster of over-bureaucratisation in society; it is an exploration of the personal, emotional and particularly subjective needs of individual human beings.
Opening Line: Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had
done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
Closing Line: "Like a dog!" he
said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.
Quotes: "The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other."