by Franz Kafka
The Trial Theme of Philosophical Viewpoints
We hesitate to lob a big old word like "hermeneutics" in your direction. But hermeneutics is a general term that describes philosophies that attempt to wrestle with such questions of interpretation as: How do we interpret a literary, philosophical, or religious text? What are some of the assumptions and biases we bring to a text when we attempt to understand it? What elements in a text do we look at in order to make sense of it, to get some meaning out of it? What elements of a text remain mysterious and enigmatic, defying our every attempt to understand it? More generally, what is the place of logic and philosophy in a work of fiction? In our everyday lives?
But as these questions hopefully show, hermeneutics, or the question of interpretation, is at the heart of Kafka's Trial.
First of all, there's the obvious question of interpretation involved in the trial itself. How do we know what Josef K. did, and what evidence do we have to suggest his guilt? Is there something fundamentally unknowable about Josef K.'s crime, whatever it is? And does it indicate something fundamentally unknowable about all human existence?
Secondly, the novel keeps thrusting parables at us, demanding us to try and interpret these quizzical little stories. Chapter 9 is just a long lesson in how to read a story, as the prison chaplain guides Josef K. through a parable about the Law. The religious context of the story – they're in a cathedral – suggests that the novel is engaging with the Biblical roots of hermeneutics, its foundation in problems of interpreting the many stories that make up the Old and New Testaments. Kafka's parable takes on the Biblical interpretive tradition that relies on the idea that there is some way of correctly interpreting these stories to get at a fundamental "truth" of human existence. For Kafka's novel, there is no "truth" – just endless possibilities for interpretation.
Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints
- Take a look at the parable of the Law that the prison chaplain tells in Chapter 9. What do you think is going on in the story? Now, take a look at the prison chaplain's different interpretations of the story. Do these interpretations change the way you look at the story? In what way do you feel that your own interpretation is superior (or inferior, if you're feeling modest) to the priest's interpretations?
- What is the relationship of the parable of the Law to the events in the novel? What are the possible parallels in the situation of the man from the country in the parable to K.'s situation?
- What are some other instances in the novel, in addition to the prison chaplain's parable, where the characters are called on to interpret a story or a text? How are these instances of interpretation similar or different to the chaplain's discussion of the parable? Consider, for example, Block's attempt to interpret the legal document that Huld gives him, or the little story Huld tells about the judge who threw all the lawyers down the stairs.
- What are some instances in the novel where K. finds that events in real life require the same kind of close reading that the prison chaplain requires of the parable of the Law?
Chew on This
The parable on the Law, including the prison chaplain's discussion of the parable, serves as an interpretive key to The Trial.
The discussion of the parable of the Law proves that the only way to live outside the Law is to abandon the quest to access the Law altogether, a lesson that K. and the rest of the defendants in the novel never learn.