Study Guide

The Trial Art and Culture

By Franz Kafka

Art and Culture

Fraülein Bürstner, laughing as she listened, held her finger to her lips to keep K. from yelling, but it was too late, K. had entered too deeply into his role: "Josef K.!" he cried (2.10)

By acting out his interrogation for Fraülein Bürstner, K. attempts to make sense of a situation that was puzzling and disturbing. K. is thus able to turn a terrible event – his arrest – into romantic paydirt, as his little charade ends with his embracing Fraülein Bürstner.

[K] noticed in particular a large painting hanging to the right of the door and leaned forward to see it better. It showed a man in a judge's robe; he was sitting on a throne, its golden highlights gleaming forth from the painting in several places. (6.3)

The judge's painting at Huld's house shows how similar the strategies of art are to the court's. The painting is arranged in such a way that the viewer of the painting stands at the judge's feet – in the same position of the defendant, just as K. stood before the examining magistrate. Just like the painting, the court arranges the courtroom in such a way as to intimidate the defendant and impress the defendant with its power.

"That's all an invention," said Leni, her head bent over K.'s hand, "he's actually sitting on a kitchen stool with an old horse blanket folded over it." (6.3)

Leni's tidbit of information highlights one of the strange features of the court, which is its association with impoverished conditions (see our discussion of "Society and Class" and "Justice and Judgment" in "Themes").

It was a snapshot: Elsa was caught at the end of her whirling dance of the sort she enjoyed performing at the tavern, her dress still swirling about her, her hands on her hips looking off to the side and laughing, her throat taut; the person at whom her laughter was directed couldn't be seen in the picture. (6.3)

The photograph of Elsa, coming so soon after K.'s viewing of the painting, invites us to consider the similarities between the two, between K.'s mistress and the judge. Both use visual imagery and theatrics to establish their control (erotic for Elsa, judicial for the judge) over K.

For instance the following story is told, and has every appearance of truth. (7.2)

Huld introduces the story of the lawyers being flung down the stairs by a judge with this little phrase, which tells us a lot about stories. Stories are fictional, yet have the "appearance of truth." The paradoxical nature of stories is that, even though they're not factual, they can tell us a lot about the human condition.

"Yes," said the painter, "I'm commissioned to do it that way, it's actually Justice and Victory in one." "That's a poor combination," said K. smiling, "Justice must remain at rest, otherwise the scales sway and no just judgment is possible." (8.23)

K.'s discussion of the painting neatly shows how a painting can reveal a deeper truth. Even though the painter's image of Justice melded with Victory is supposed to be just a decorative touch on a judge's portrait, K. realizes that it actually reveals the problem with the court, which is that it has no interest in justice, just its own power.

"The judge wanted it that way," said the painter, "it's intended for a lady" […] now [the figure of Justice] just looked like the goddess of the Hunt. The painter's work attracted K. more than he wished; at last, however, he reproached himself for having been there so long without having really undertaken anything for his own case. (8.23)

Again, the painting reveals a deeper truth about the judge beneath a surface resemblance. It associates the judge (and the rest of the judges) with sexually predatory behavior, suggesting something inherently corrupt in the court.

"The rules for painting the various levels of officials are so numerous, so varied, and above all so secret, that they simply aren't known beyond certain families […] Every judge wants to be painted like the great judges of old, and only I can do that." (8.26)

The rules for painting judges, as Titorelli describes them, sounds an awful lot like the way the court is run. Just like the court, painting judges has its own secret and intricate rules and its own ancient history.

The first thing K. saw, and in part surmised, was a tall knight in armor […] It was amazing he simply stood there without moving closer. Perhaps he was meant to stand guard […] [K.] discovered it was a conventional depiction of the entombment of Christ, and moreover a fairly recent one. (9.6)

Here we have yet another painting. Interestingly, K. isn't really concerned with the main event described in the story – the entombment of Christ. He's really fascinated by the guard. The painting looks ahead to the parable of the Law, which is all about a guy and his gatekeeper.

"They've sent old supporting actors for me," K. said to himself, and looked around again to confirm his impression. (10.1)

There are certainly elements of farce in The Trial, and instead of lightening up the story, they tend to make the story much more dreadful. To K., his executioners look like a pair of old actors, and the executioners do seem to have an excessive politeness. Perhaps it's because they don't say much, but communicate a lot through pantomime. And really, what could be creepier than a couple of mimes walking you to your execution?