In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollack, Franz Kafka wrote, "What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us" (source).
Kafka's Trial has to be up there as one of the biggest literary ice axes of all time. The Trial follows the incredible ill fortune of one Josef K., who wakes up one morning to discover that he's been arrested on unnamed charges. Throughout the novel, K. struggles futilely against a secretive and tyrannical court system, only to be abruptly executed at the end with a knife to the heart.
If The Trial lands like an ice axe, it's because K.'s story is so believable and relatable, despite the utter absurdity and sheer terror of his situation. It is our own ill fortune that the decades following the posthumous publication of the novel in 1924 have given us so many historical examples that correlate far too closely with K.'s legal nightmare. For many, The Trial is read as a spot-on critique of totalitarian governments such as Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, where civil rights were suspended and individuals persecuted on the barest suggestion of civil disobedience. The Trial can also be read as a critique of the unwieldy bureaucratic systems that characterize any modern government, both totalitarian and democratic.
For other readers, The Trial isn't just a political critique, but a religious allegory about man's relationship to divine will. By leaving character and place names unspecified, many elements of The Trial are just general and mysteriously significant enough to have an allegorical quality reminiscent of Biblical parables, including, naturally, the parable of the Law in the penultimate chapter of The Trial.
It is perhaps this allegorical quality that also makes The Trial resonate with many twentieth century philosophical movements, from Frankfurt School philosophers such as Walter Benjamin to the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida. The Trial's ironic attitude toward traditional systems of value, including religious and moral ones, as well as its display of interpretive fireworks, resonates well with these contemporary philosophies.
Perhaps the final irony is that The Trial comes to us via an actual death, the early death of Kafka himself. Kafka had asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished novels, including The Trial, but Brod just couldn't bring himself to fulfill his friend's last wish. (That, by the way, is why there are two different English translations of the novel circulating around. We've based our discussion on the most recent translation by Breon Mitchell, which is based on the most authoritative German edition of the text.) Readers today can be grateful to Brod for having the sense to hold on to Kafka's work, but the fact of the matter is that The Trial exists because of a betrayal, an irony that the main character of the novel would surely appreciate.
Why Should I Care?
Picture yourself at an office building. You're there to take care of something: request your school transcript, change the address on your driver's license, return a defective laptop – whatever the task is, it seems a relatively simple and straightforward matter.
Until you actually try to get it done.
The first person you talk to tells you you're in the wrong office; you have to go to a different one. And at that office they tell you that you need to complete a form which you can only pick up at a different office, which is in a different building all the way across town. And at that office they tell you those forms are actually outdated and you can do it all at home online. When you get home, you can't find the forms online, so you call the office again for help. But you get forwarded straight to some answering system that gives you ten options, none of which apply to your particular situation.
As a sultry but stern answering system voice asks you to say "yes" or press 1, you're overwhelmed by feelings of frustration, anger, and finally, futility. You hang up, and three weeks later, you still haven't gotten around to getting that defective laptop exchanged.
Congratulations, you've just had a taste of the world of the "kafkaesque," a term that entered our vocabulary with Kafka's horrific vision of bureaucracy in The Trial. Although the novel came out in 1924, it described the bureaucratic structure of the court system with such devastating and prophetic precision that we can still recognize many features of The Trial's court system in bureaucracies today.
Like the court system, many bureaucracies – whether it's a school or a government, a private company or a public institution, a small firm or a multi-national conglomerate – operate according to their own rules and regulations. And like Josef K., any individual who attempts to confront the bureaucracy can only do so on its own terms, or fail miserably.
If you've ever felt the life slowly being sucked out of you as you patiently endure the Muzak on yet another customer service "help" line, you can almost understand why Josef K. seems to submit so passively to his eventual fate.