Study Guide

The Trial Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Franz Kafka

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

The unexpected question, however, confused the man, which was even more embarrassing since he was obviously a man of the world, who would certainly have retained his self-confidence elsewhere, and did not easily relinquish the superiority he had attained over so many others. (4.7)

The defendant that K. encounters in his first tour through the court offices is a taste of what will come for K. Just as the defendant seems easily confused, K. will also lose his powers of reasoning as the novel progresses.

As he passed by the junk room again on his way home, he opened the door as if by habit. What he saw, in place of the expected darkness, bewildered him completely. (5.3)

The Trial is filled with these absurd episodes. A flogging – in a file closet? Absurd! It's the kind of thing that makes you laugh, but then makes you feel really guilty for laughing because it's so awful.

But instead of working, he […] without being aware of it, left his arm outstretched on the desktop and remained sitting motionless with bowed head.

The thought of his trial never left him now. (6.1-2)

Just like the defendant in Quote #1, K. can't concentrate or do his job effectively. His obsession with the trial keeps distracting him from the task at hand.

Just don't attract attention! Keep calm, no matter how much it seems counter to good sense. (7.2)

This passage emphasizes that "good sense" and the court just don't get along. The court is a fundamentally paradoxical institution that defies logic (see our discussion of "Justice and Judgment" in "Themes" for a refresher on all the court's kookiness).

It was absolutely necessary for K. to intervene personally. It was precisely in states of extreme fatigue, as on this winter morning, when his thoughts were drifting aimlessly, that the conclusion seemed almost inescapable. (8.6)

Ironically, K. comes to a decision – "absolutely necessary" – while his thoughts are "drifting aimlessly." That is, instead of coming to a decision logically, he happens onto this important decision while he's daydreaming. This makes his decision seem unconvincing because he can't explain why it's "absolutely necessary" to intervene personally, particularly when everyone who does intervene personally in his own case (like Block) seems to have suffered terribly.

Anything but stop half way, that was the most senseless course of all, not only in business, but anywhere, at any time. Admittedly, the petition meant an almost endless task […] it might provide a suitable occupation for a mind turned childish. (8.9)

K. makes the mistake here of applying his business conduct to matters of the court. But even at this late point in the novel, he recognizes that the petition is fit for a "childish" mind – the petition is an irrational, nonsensical proposition that is, paradoxically, a necessary one.

How could he have just sat there, totally paralyzed by the mere decision to defend himself? (8.12)

As K. gets immersed in his trial, he is unable to follow his intentions through to a concrete action. He decides to defend himself, but he can't get around to actually defending himself. The novel ends without his submitting a single petition on his own behalf.

And now of all times, when he should be gathering all his strength to act, previously unknown doubts about his own judgment had to arise. Were the difficulties he was having carrying out his office work going to begin in his trial as well? (8.15)

K. continues to doubt himself as his trial progresses. The court has done such a thorough job of overturning everything he believes to be common sense that he doesn't know what to believe anymore.

K. wasn't so shocked at having found law court offices here; he was more shocked at himself, at his ignorance when it came to the court. It seemed to him a basic rule of behavior that the defendant should always be prepared, never be caught by surprise. (8.28)

It's telling that K. is more shocked at himself, rather than the court. The court has undermined his belief in himself, further aggravating his feelings of insecurity.

K. knew clearly now that it was his duty to seize the knife as it floated from hand to hand above him and plunge it into itself. But he didn't do so […] He could not rise entirely to the occasion, he could not relieve the authorities of all their work; the responsibility for this final failure lay with whoever had denied him the remnant of strength necessary to do so. (10.9)

As with Quote #5, K. arrives at an astonishing insight – he's supposed to be the one to kill himself. And as with Quote #5, this insight doesn't come through careful thought, but in a moment of exhaustion. Instead of doing something active, like running away from the guards, K.'s resistance consists in passively refusing to submit to this one final demand on the part of the courts. This passage is doubly ironic when we consider that K. did actually consider suicide in Chapter 1, but immediately rejected the idea as "irrationality" (1.4).