Study Guide

Josef K. in The Trial

By Franz Kafka

Josef K.

Outlaws, rebels, anti-heroes, iconoclasts – they're such staples of pop culture and Hollywood blockbusters that you can understand why, as the guard says in Kafka's The Trial, the law is attracted to guilt. Of course, few of us would put it exactly in that way, but there's something attractive and, yes, undeniably sexy about outlaws.

Certainly Josef K.'s mini-performance for Fraülein Bürstner seems to come out of his own desire to star in his own biopic, to exploit the seductive allure of the outlaw. The same appeal that makes for memorable heroes in films like Rebel Without A Cause also makes for great drama and fascinating fiction, as we find ourselves drawn into K.'s doomed adventures through the court system.

But K. doesn't really look or act like an outlaw. He's the chief financial officer of a bank, a respectable position that most of us are more likely to associate with Monopoly board games than with leather-clad James Dean types. We keep waiting for K. to take some decisive steps in his case and to burst out with some concrete act of defiance. But K.'s actions seem to consist mainly of empty grandstanding and long periods of procrastination. K. himself doesn't seem to be all that confident, as his moods fluctuate between fiery arrogance and paralyzing insecurity.

It doesn't help that the novel doesn't tell us what his crime is or why he's being persecuted. K. is an outlaw because…he's an outlaw. Yet paradoxically, K.'s very vague status as an outlaw in general enables K. to represent all outlaws, from actual criminals to people who feel guilty without knowing why, people who don't quite fit in with every single social convention or expectation – which pretty much describes everybody on the planet. We are all in some way outside the law just by virtue of the fact that we are all unique individuals. Just the very fact of our singularity – the details in our biography that differentiates us from other people – makes us stand out as exceptions to the general rule.

Perhaps this is the heart of K.'s struggle in the novel. Try this thought out on for size: the novel takes this basic intuition about the human condition – we are all outlaws – and elevates it into a law. The Law. And if the Law states that we are all outlaws (read: individuals), then there's no way we can ever be innocent because according to the Law, we're all guilty. This is the Law we can't escape even if we tried to break it because, if we broke it, we'd still be following the Law.

If you think that's messed up, imagine living in a society where such a Law was actually enforced and enforced violently, backed up by a huge, impenetrable bureaucracy.

So no wonder K. feels paralyzed and acts out in seemingly unproductive ways. Acquittal before such a law is impossible if you're a human being, because the Law applies to all human beings – it is, in fact, the law of being human. This might explain why K. keeps referring to dogs, because dogs would be innocent before such a law. Logic and common sense, K.'s weapons for much of the novel, are useless against such a paradoxical law. Your only options are, as Titorelli explains, forms of deferral and procrastination. You just have to find a way to endure existence under the Law, which is just another way of enduring your human life.

Now, for many of us, enduring life doesn't sound like a big deal at all. Life is actually pretty good, downright pleasurable, filled with good friends and family, happy memories, and hopes and dreams that make getting up in the morning a lark. But if you've ever questioned the meaning of your life, felt obscurely uncomfortable about the direction your life is taking, sensed a knot or a wrinkle in the fabric of your existence, Josef K.'s story is the parable for you.

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