Study Guide

The Trial Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Franz Kafka

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Court as Religious 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.

The World as Stage

Theatrical metaphors permeate Kafka's The Trial, giving the events in the novel an unreal, even farcical quality. From the get-go, the main character wonders if his arrest is a joke and whether the guards are merely play-acting; he doesn't know whether he should take the events seriously. He even dramatizes his arrest for Fraülein Bürstner, taking pleasure in starring in his own play.

K. never seems to get over this problem as his actions seem to conflict with the seriousness of his situation, as seen in his defiant speeches at the initial inquiry or his dalliance with Leni at Huld's. But, in all fairness to K., the novel doesn't seem to give him much of an opportunity as it throws one absurd element after another his way, with random comic touches such as the arresting guards' obsession with his underwear to the examining magistrate's pornography. More extended scenes such as Huld's humiliation of Block have the same timing and physical humor of a skit on Saturday Night Live. K. can't shake his theatrical obsession even at the end of the novel, when he refers to his executioners as "supporting actors."

Air, or, would somebody please open a window?

One of the defining features of the court is its stuffy, muggy, suffocating air. While court officials seem to do just fine in the close atmosphere of the court offices, the air seems to have a debilitating effect on the defendants, particularly on K., who nearly faints. Paradoxically, air, which we take for granted as an all-pervasive, weightless, and convenient source of oxygen, is experienced as a crushing physical burden. The court office air is thus a symbol of the court system's omnipresent yet intangible influence on all aspects of K.'s life.

Children

The court seems to attract children, from the child who guides K. to the examining magistrate's platform to the precocious girls who lead K. up to Titorelli's studio. Perhaps one of the most arresting images of children is the child in front of Titorelli's apartment building, crying face down in the street and ignored by all. These images of children are critical to creating the general mood of a scene. Seemingly parent-less and abandoned, they highlight K.'s own isolation within the unsympathetic and indifferent system of the courts.

Lights

Turn off all the lights in your room, and turn on a flashlight. Chances are, you can make out everything within the narrow circle of light created by the flashlight, but everything outside that narrow circle is difficult to see. Now turn the flashlight off. As your eyes adjust to the dimness of the room, you can probably make out a lot more.

The darkened rooms in which much of the novel takes place exploits this quirk in our biology. When K. does strike a light, the light doesn't seem to illumine very much. In the cathedral, for example, which is pitch black despite the fact it's almost noon outside, K. takes a light to get a closer look at a painting, but all he can really see is one piece of it, the guard. In the novel, lights emphasize the paradox that, in the light, you're actually blinded to the surrounding darkness. The light doesn't illumine the scary outside world out there; its purpose is really just to make you feel safe in your own little circle of light. Every moment of insight has its price in a greater blindness to the world at large. Which is basically just another way of saying that, if you really want to know about the things that go bump in the night, you have to turn off your night light.

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