Study Guide

The Trial Power

By Franz Kafka


[H]e realized at once that he shouldn't have spoken aloud, and that by doing so he had, in a sense, acknowledged the stranger's right to oversee his actions (1.1)

From the get-go, we're introduced to a world where all aspects of everyday life are subject to surveillance.

After all, K. lived in a state governed by law, there was universal peace, all statutes were in force; who dared assault him in his own lodgings? (1.1)

We're never told what power exactly has the authority to arrest K., and this passage suggests that there is a power at work in society in addition to the legitimate state apparatus. (See also the end of the novel, where K. and his executioners have to elude the police, who are part of the legitimate state apparatus.) Such a passage has often been read as an allegory for totalitarian states, where the main political power resides in a party (like the Nazi party), rather than the official government.

[T]here can be no doubt that behind all the pronouncements of this court, and in my case, behind the arrest and today's inquiry, there exists an extensive organization […] And the purpose of this extensive organization, gentlemen? It consists of arresting innocent people and introducing senseless proceedings against them, which for the most part, as in my case, go nowhere. Given the senselessness of the whole affair, how could the bureaucracy avoid becoming entirely corrupt? (3.27)

Here, K. decries the immense bureaucracy that masterminds the persecution of an ordinary citizen like himself. The bureaucracy seems to exist to support itself, rather than society, a feeling that a lot of people have when they encounter a government bureaucracy like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service.

One man, who was apparently in charge of the others and drew K.'s attention first, was got up in some sort of dark leather garment that left his neck and upper chest, as well as his entire arms, bare. (5.1)

Episodes of violence throughout the novel emphasize the essentially unjust nature of the state in which K. lives. This random episode, where a flogger punishes the guards who arrested K. in a rubbish closet in K.'s office building (!!!), looks ahead to the final scene in the novel where K. is executed at a random quarry outside of town.

Try to realize that this vast judicial organism remains, so to speak, in a state of eternal equilibrium, and that if you change something on your own where you are, you can cut the ground out from under your own feel and fall, while the vast organism easily compensates for the minor disturbance at some other spot – after all, everything is interconnected – and remains unchanged, if not, which is likely, even more resolute, more vigilant, more severe, more malicious. (7.2)

Like Quote #3, we have here another description of the court as a gigantic, closed system that exists to support itself rather than the needs of society. It is so terrifyingly efficient that no individual can hope to triumph over it.

K. must not overlook the fact that the proceedings are not public, they can be made public if the court considers it necessary, but the Law does not insist upon it. As a result, the court records, and above all the writ of indictment, are not available to the accused and his defense lawyers (7.2)

The court maintains its power by remaining secretive about its operations. And since it is accountable to no one except itself, it does not have to make its actions public.

"Judges on the lowest level, and those are the only ones I know, don't have the power to grant a final acquittal, that power resides only in the highest court, which is totally inaccessible to you and me and everyone else. We don't want to know what things look like up there, and incidentally, we don't want to know." (7.28)

According to Titorelli the painter, the court bureaucracy is set up in such a way that real authority rests in the hands of a few, "the highest court," who are beyond the reach of ordinary people.

When a group occasionally begin to believe they share some common interest, it soon proves a delusion. Group action is entirely ineffective against the court. (8.4)

Since the court is a closed system that operates on its own rules, and since the court's power is so absolute, it is effective at rebuffing any effort from outsiders – including ambitious defendants – to penetrate its mysteries.

This lawyer and his colleagues are only petty lawyers, however; the great lawyers, whom I've merely heard of but never seen, stand incomparatively higher in rank above the petty lawyers than those do over the despised shysters. (8.4)

Like the highest court, the "great lawyers," the lawyers who have the power to get things done, are inaccessible to ordinary people.

"First you must see who I am," said the priest. "You're the prison chaplain," said K. […] "Therefore I belong to the court," said the priest. "Why should I want something from you? The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go." (9.18)

The court is so all-pervasive that it even infiltrates the church, in effect replacing religious authority (i.e., God) with its own authority. The prison chaplain, even though he's ostensibly some kind of priest, owes his first allegiance to the court, not to God.

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