The Trial

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The Trial
TrialKafka.jpg
First edition dustjacket
AuthorFranz Kafka
Original titleDer Process[1]
LanguageGerman
Genre
PublisherVerlag Die Schmiede, Berlin
Publication date
1925

The Trial (original German title: Der Process,[1] later Der Proceß, Der Prozeß and Der Prozess) is a novel written by Franz Kafka between 1914 and 1915 and published posthumously in 1925. One of his best-known works, it tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader. Heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka even went so far as to call Dostoyevsky a blood relative.[2] Like Kafka's other novels, The Trial was never completed, although it does include a chapter which appears to bring the story to an intentionally abrupt ending.

After Kafka's death in 1924 his friend and literary executor Max Brod edited the text for publication by Verlag Die Schmiede. The original manuscript is held at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar, Germany. The first English language translation, by Willa and Edwin Muir, was published in 1937.[3] In 1999, the book was listed in Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century and as No. 2 of the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century.

Plot[edit]

On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K., the chief cashier of a bank, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. Josef is not imprisoned, however, but left "free" and told to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. Josef's landlady, Frau Grubach, tries to console Josef about the trial, but insinuates that the procedure may be related to an immoral relationship with his neighbor Fräulein Bürstner. Josef visits Bürstner to vent his worries, and then kisses her. A few days later, Josef finds that Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, has moved in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this maneuver is meant to distance him from the latter woman. Josef is ordered to appear at the court's address the coming Sunday, without being told the exact time or room. After a period of exploration, Josef finds the court in the attic. Josef is severely reproached for his tardiness, and he arouses the assembly's hostility after a passionate plea about the absurdity of the trial and the emptiness of the accusation.

Josef later tries to confront the presiding judge over his case, but only finds an attendant's wife. The woman gives him information about the process and attempts to seduce him before a law student bursts into the room and takes the woman away, claiming her to be his mistress. One evening, in a storage room at his own bank, Josef discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes and as a result of complaints K. made at court. 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 storage room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the whipper and the two agents. Josef is visited by his uncle, a traveling countryman. Worried by the rumors about his nephew, the uncle introduces K. to Herr Huld, a sickly and bedridden lawyer tended to by Leni, a young nurse who shows an immediate attraction to Josef. During the conversation, Leni calls Josef away and takes him to the next room for a sexual encounter. Afterward, Josef meets his angry uncle outside, who claims that Josef's lack of respect for the process has hurt his case.

During subsequent visits to Huld, Josef realizes that he is a capricious character who will not be much help to him. At the bank, one of Josef's clients recommends him to seek the advice of Titorelli, the court's official painter. Titorelli has no real influence within the court, but his deep experience of the process is painfully illuminating to Josef, and he can only suggest complex and unpleasant hypothetical options, as no definitive acquittal has ever been managed. Josef finally decides to dismiss Huld and take control of matters himself. Upon arriving at Huld's office, Josef meets a downtrodden individual, Rudi Block, a client who offers Josef some insight from a client's perspective. Block's case has continued for five years and he has gone from being a successful businessman to being almost bankrupt and is virtually enslaved by his dependence on the lawyer and Leni, with whom he appears to be sexually involved. The lawyer mocks Block in front of Josef for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons Josef's opinion of his lawyer. Josef is put in charge of accompanying an important Italian client to the city's cathedral. While inside the cathedral, a priest calls Josef by name and tells him a fable (which was published earlier as "Before the Law") that is meant to explain his situation. The priest tells Josef that the parable is an ancient text of the court, and many generations of court officials have interpreted it differently. Two days before Josef's thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment to execute him. They lead him to a small quarry outside the city, and murder him with a butcher's knife without any sense of formality. Josef summarizes his situation with his last words: "Like a dog!"

Characters[edit]

  • Josef K. – The tale's protagonist.
  • Fräulein Bürstner – A boarder in the same house as Josef K. She lets him kiss her one night, but then rebuffs his advances. K. briefly catches sight of her, or someone who looks similar to her, in the final pages of the novel.
  • Fräulein Montag – Friend of Fräulein Bürstner, she talks to K. about ending his relationship with Fräulein Bürstner after his arrest. She claims she can bring him insight, because she is an objective third party.
  • Willem and Franz – Officers who arrest K. one morning but refuse to disclose the crime he is said to have committed.
  • Inspector – Man who conducts a proceeding at Josef K.'s boardinghouse to inform K. officially that he is under arrest.
  • Rabinsteiner, Kullich and Kaminer – Junior bank employees who attend the proceeding at the boardinghouse.
  • Frau Grubach – The proprietress of the lodging house in which K. lives. She holds K. in high esteem, despite his arrest.
  • Woman in the Court – In her house happens the first judgment of K. She claims help from K. because she doesn't want to be abused by the magistrates.
  • Student – Deformed man who acts under orders of the instruction judge. Will be a powerful man in the future.
  • Instruction Judge – First Judge of K. In his trial, he confuses K. with a Wall Painter.
  • Uncle Karl – K.'s impetuous uncle from the country, formerly his guardian. Upon learning about the trial, Karl insists that K. hire Herr Huld, the lawyer.
  • Herr Huld, the Lawyer – K.'s pompous and pretentious advocate who provides precious little in the way of action and far too much in the way of anecdote.
  • Leni – Herr Huld's nurse, she has feelings for Josef K. and soon becomes his lover. She shows him her webbed hand, yet another reference to the motif of the hand throughout the book. Apparently, she finds accused men extremely attractive—the fact of their indictment makes them irresistible to her.
  • Albert – Office director at the court and a friend of Huld.
  • Flogger – Man who punishes Franz and Willem in the Bank after K.'s complaints against the two agents in his first Judgement.
  • Vice-President – K.'s unctuous rival at the Bank, only too willing to catch K. in a compromising situation. He repeatedly takes advantage of K.'s preoccupation with the trial to advance his own ambitions.
  • President – Manager of the Bank. A sickly figure, whose position the Vice-President is trying to assume. Gets on well with K., inviting him to various engagements.
  • Rudi Block, the Merchant – Block is another accused man and client of Huld. His case is five years old, and he is but a shadow of the prosperous grain dealer he once was. All his time, energy, and resources are now devoted to his case, to the point of detriment to his own life. Although he has hired five additional lawyers on the side, he is completely and pathetically subservient to Huld.
  • Manufacturer – Person who hears about K.'s case and advises him to see a painter who knows how the court system works.
  • Titorelli, the Painter – Titorelli inherited the position of Court Painter from his father. He knows a great deal about the comings and goings of the Court's lowest level. He offers to help K., and manages to unload a few identical landscape paintings on the accused man.
  • Priest – Prison chaplain whom K. encounters in a church. The priest advises K. that his case is going badly and tells him to accept his fate.
  • Doorkeeper and Farmer – The characters of the Chaplain's Tale.

Interpretation[edit]

The Trial can be interpreted from various different angles, and literary critics have not agreed on one clear-cut interpretation. Generally, there are five major perspectives:[4]

Although the diverse interpretations of the novel provide valuable insights, they are often impeded by the critics' eagerness to squeeze these insights into a frame which, ultimately, is beyond the novel's text.[5] Kafka's novel The Castle shows similar tendencies as well. Only later interpretations, e.g. by the German writer Martin Walser, express an increasing demand for a strictly text-based view.[6] Current works, e.g. by the contemporary literary critic Peter-André Alt, go into the same direction.

Relations to other texts by Kafka[edit]

The myth of guilt and judgement discussed in The Trial has its cultural roots in the Hasidic tradition, where tales of plaintiff and defendant, heavenly judgement and punishment, unfathomable authorities and obscure charges are not uncommon.

There are many parallels between Kafka's The Trial and his other major novel, The Castle. In both novels, the protagonist wanders through a labyrinth that seems to be designed to make him fail or even seems to have no relation to him at all.[7] Ill, bedridden men explain the system in lengthy terms. Erotically charged female figures turn to the protagonist in a demanding way.

Written around the same time, in October 1914, the short story In the Penal Colony bears close resemblance to The Trial. In both cases, the delinquent does not know what he is charged with. A single person – an officer with a gruesome machine – seems to be accuser, judge and executioner in one.

The idea that a single executioner could be enough to arbitrarily replace the entire court is exactly what Josef K. is frightened of.[8]

Diversity of interpretations[edit]

One possible interpretative approach is to read the novel autobiographically. This claim is supported by the similarities in the initials of Fräulein Bürstner and Felice Bauer. Elias Canetti points out that the intensely detailed description of the court system hints at Kafka's work as an insurance lawyer.[9]

Theodor W. Adorno takes the opposite view. According to him, The Trial does not tell the story of an individual fate but rather contains wide-reaching political and visionary aspects and can be read as a vision predicting the Nazi terror.[10]

German scholar Claus Hebell offers a synthesis of these two positions and demonstrates that the negotiating strategy used by the bureaucratic court system during the process to demoralize Kafka is reminiscent of the deficiencies in the Austro-Hungarian Empire's judicial system.[11]

A few selected aspects of interpretation[edit]

Over the course of the novel, it becomes evident that K. and the court do not face each other as distinct separate entities but that they are interweaved. This interweaving between K. and the court system increasingly intensifies throughout the novel. Towards the end of The Trial, K. realizes that everything that is happening stems from his inner self[12] and is the result of feelings of guilt and fantasies of punishment.

It is also worth mentioning the dreamlike component of the events: Like in a dream, K.'s interior and exterior world intermingle.[13] A transition from the fantastic-realistic to the allegorical-psychological level can be made out. Even K.’s working environment is increasingly undermined by the fantastic, dreamlike world. It is, for example, a work order that leads to K.’s encounter with the priest.

The Trial as a humorous story

According to Kafka's friends, he laughed out loud several times while reading from his book.[14] It is thus reasonable to look for humorous aspects in The Trial despite its dark and serious essence.

This phenomenon is also addressed by Kafka biographer Reiner Stach: The Trial "is gruesome in its entirety, but comical in its details."[15] The judges read porn magazines instead of law books and send for women as if they were ordering a splendid meal on a tray. The executioners look like ageing tenors. Due to a hole in the floor of one of the courtrooms, an advocate's leg protrudes into the room below from time to time.

Film adaptations[edit]

Radio adaptations[edit]

Stage adaptations[edit]

Selected publication history[edit]

  • Everyman's Library, 30 June 1992, Translation: Willa and Edwin Muir, ISBN 978-0-679-40994-6
  • Schocken Books, 25 May 1999, Translation: Breon Mitchell, ISBN 978-0-8052-0999-0 Translator's preface is available online[25]
  • Dover Thrift Editions, 22 July 2009, Translation: David Wyllie, ISBN 978-0-486-47061-0
  • Oxford World's Classics, 4 October 2009, Translation: Mike Mitchell, ISBN 978-0-19-923829-3
  • Penguin Modern Classics, 29 June 2000, Translation: Idris Parry, ISBN 978-0-14-118290-2
  • Vitalis-Verlag [de], 15 September 2012, Translation: Susanne Lück and Maureen Fitzgibbons, ISBN 978-80-7253-298-8
  • BigFontBooks.com, Large Print Edition, 4 June 2019, Translation: David Wyllie, ISBN 978-1-950330-31-7

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ a b Kafka himself always used the spelling Process; Max Brod, and later other publishers, changed it. See Faksimile Edition.
  2. ^ Bridgwater, Patrick (2003). Kafka: Gothic and Fairytale. Rodopi. p. 9. ISBN 978-90-420-1194-6.
  3. ^ Coetzee, J. M. (14 May 1998). "Kafka: Translators on Trial". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 22 May 2015.
  4. ^ Krieschel, p. 108–110[incomplete short citation]
  5. ^ M.Müller /von Jagow p. 528[incomplete short citation]
  6. ^ Krieschel p. 111[incomplete short citation]
  7. ^ Louis Begley p. 297[incomplete short citation]
  8. ^ Cerstin Urban p. 43.[incomplete short citation]
  9. ^ von Jagow/Jahrhaus/Hiebel reference to Canetti: Der andere Prozess. p. 458.[incomplete short citation]
  10. ^ von Jagow/Jahrhaus/Hiebel reference to Adorno: Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka. p. 459.[incomplete short citation]
  11. ^ Claus Hebell: Rechtstheoretische und geistesgeschichtliche Voraussetzungen für das Werk Franz Kafkas, analysiert an dem Roman „Der Prozeß“. Doctoral thesis, Munich 1981, ISBN 978-3-631-43393-5, (Online)
  12. ^ Peter-André Alt, p. 417.[incomplete short citation]
  13. ^ von Jagow/Jahrhaus/Hiebel, p. 462.[incomplete short citation]
  14. ^ Max Brod's Franz Kafka. Eine Biographie (1974 edition Über Franz Kafka)
  15. ^ Reiner Stach/Entscheidungen p. 554[incomplete short citation]
  16. ^ Christie, Tom (12 October 2017). "Inside the kaleidoscope mirrored heart of Blade Runner 2049". medium.com.
  17. ^ "The Skin of the Teeth". IMDb.
  18. ^ "The DefinitiveThe Columbia Workshop Radio Log with Georgia Backus. William N. Robson and Norman Corwin". www.digitaldeliftp.com.
  19. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Extra – Franz Kafka – The Trial". BBC.
  20. ^ "BBC Radio 3 – Drama on 3, The Process". BBC.
  21. ^ Berkoff, Steven. "The Trial, Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony. Three theatre adaptions from Franz Kafka." Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1981.
  22. ^ "'K.' by The Hypocrites: Greg Allen's 'K.' can be unfeeling, but it showed the way" by Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune (26 October 2010)
  23. ^ "Joseph K – review" by Lynn Gardner, The Guardian (17 November 2010)
  24. ^ Billington, Michael (28 June 2015). "The Trial review – a punishing Kafkaesque experience". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  25. ^ "Afterword: Breon Mitchell". Conjunctions.com. Archived from the original on 25 December 2014. Retrieved 27 November 2014.

Bibliography

External links[edit]