Study Guide

The Trial Power

By Franz Kafka


Kafka's The Trial is often read as a critique totalitarianism, a form of government power that is characterized by total government control of every aspect of daily life (hence total-itarianism), as well as a state authority that is not accountable to individual citizens and can pretty much do whatever it wants, regardless of what the law says (also known as authoritarianism). Kafka's story about an individual persecuted by the dizzying machinations of an unjust power has been read as an allegory for such modern totalitarian governments as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union. In fact, Kafka's allegory has been so effective that the term "kafkaesque" has entered our general vocabulary as a word that applies to a state controlled by an authority beyond the reach of the law, dominated by an immense and labyrinthine bureaucracy, and saturated by a general state of paranoia where neighbors inform on each other to the government and random acts of violence are perpetrated against ordinary citizens.

Questions About Power

  1. Take a look at the way K. is treated during his arrest, inquiry, and execution. What are some ways that K. was unfairly treated?
  2. Take a look at the passages where the courts are described. How would you describe the bureaucracy of the court system? What are some of the different types of people who work in the court system? Who's on top? At the bottom? What are some of the effects of having all the authority concentrated at the top of the bureaucracy, with all the power in the hands of a few secret, inaccessible individuals?
  3. Where in the novel do you see the influence of the courts extending beyond the court system and into other areas, such as business, religion, art, and everyday life?

Chew on This

Kafka's The Trial explores the abuses of power implicit in a totalitarian society where authority is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals who are not accountable to the public in any way.

The nightmarish vision of the courts in Kafka's The Trial exposes the terrifying efficiency of a bureaucracy whose only concern is the maintenance of its own rules and regulations, regardless of questions of justice and legality.