by Franz Kafka
The Court as Religious Allegory
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Kafka's The Trial has often been read as a religious allegory, even though the novel itself seems to eschew specific religious references. This is perhaps most notable in Chapter 9, which should be the mother lode of religious references because it takes place in a cathedral. Instead, the prison chaplain co-opts the space and gives a lecture on the (secular) legal system instead.
These absences are a way for Kafka to masterfully stage his critique of divine authority, or more precisely, the way divine authority becomes corrupted by human institutions such as the court system. Like God, the higher officials of the court are inaccessible to ordinary mortals; although no one can confirm whether they exist or not, they have extraordinary powers over individual destinies. Like the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the court has its own sacred texts – court documents and ancient legends about past cases. And, like religious texts such as the Bible and the Talmud, the documents of the court require a particular method of interpretation that guides the interpreter into some insight into the court's workings, but the possibilities for interpretation can be endless, contradictory, and irreconcilable. We get a taste of this interpretive method through the prison chaplain, who seems to take more pleasure at generating interpretations than in coming to some final conclusion about his parable, parables – or stories that have a moral to them – being a major religious genre.
Yet the court system abuses these religious elements in order to repress and dominate individuals. What may be a great way of understanding a divine entity like God really stinks when it comes to actual human authorities. One example of this is the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which Kafka lived, who, as most monarchs do, based his authority on divine will, the idea that God picked him to rule over everybody else. By setting itself as a quasi-divine tribunal, the court system places itself above all accountability. (For more on this, see our discussion of "Justice and Judgment" under "Themes.")
But would Kafka reject all of the moral and ethical values we inherit from these religious traditions? If anything, the novel seems to stress the significance of K.'s struggle to find meaning in his life, which, even if it is a failed quest, in some way echoes the religious tradition of self-examination and personal enlightenment through religious study. Whether Kafka's The Trial rejects all forms of religiosity or just the human, secular exploitation of religious forms is an open question made all the thornier by the novel's relentless irony.