Arbitrary power, futility, illusory freedom, unobtainable goals, inherent guilt and alienation are some issues one is left thinking about after reading Kafka’s The Trial. The nightmarish scenario Kafka depicts is done in a way that the reader knows it could be her own nightmare. There is a universality in the lack of context regarding protagonist Josef K.’s geographical environment, biographical history and even the nameless crime he is accused of, that allows this story written in 1914 to have such an enduring impact.
What could I say about the plight of Josef K. that hasn’t already been said, over-analyzed, acted, filmed, etc.? Not much I’m afraid. But I can say that I see parallels with how black Americans are treated by the legal system in America today. I see the injustice of using powerful institutions and bureaucracy to produce opacity and confusion among citizens. The less transparent and convoluted the rules of the game are, the worse your chances are of winning it.
I see how a false superiority and bloated ideas of authority can lead to statements like that of the prison chaplain to K.:
“I had to speak to you from a distance first. Otherwise I am too easily influenced and forget my duty” (170). In other words, I have to stay apart from you lest I become aware of your humanity.
Kafka also made me acutely aware of how busy work can be mistaken for true progress. Because society’s ethics differ in place and change over time, we are searching but are ultimately unaware of the objective or universal ethical standards by which we will be judged. Therefore, like K., we are also in the dark about what we are guilty of. True progress is pretty hard to track when work is detached from context.
The Trial highlights the futility of efforts towards a goal that is unattainable where the obstacles to it are unknowable and immovable. It is a bleak message but one that shows great sensitivity to the lives of people born into oppressive and constraining households or societies. And it is a message that shows great sensitivity toward mankind in merely awarding sympathy to the fact that we are still ignorant and it is not fun.
What I underlined:
‘My innocence doesn’t simplify the matter’ (119)
‘You are Josef K.?’…’Yes,’ said K., thinking how frankly he used to give his name at one time and what a burden it had become recently; now his name was known to people he was meeting for the first time; how pleasant it was to introduce himself first and only then be known (168)
Edition: Penguin Classics 2015