Posts Tagged ‘kafka’

kafka’s ‘the trial’

August 18, 2009

Men are inherently guilty – or so we are led to reason in The Trial – and the course of our life is determined by how we handle this guilt, or whether we even choose to let this guilt manifest itself in our consciousness. K. is guilty – everybody seems to accept this, even his uncle and the Advocate, who need to know that he is convinced of his innocence, though it appears only he need be convinced of it for it have any effect, whether it’s ultimately true or not – but he does not accept it. Thus, his downfall and fate are sealed from the first chapter, when he appears so smugly superior to his guards. For much of the story we can sympathise with K., he is a man taken into custody, though it can hardly be called such, for reasons never explained and it seems unnecessary for him even to counter the accusations of guilt when he has no physical evidence to counter, and so naturally we ally ourselves with him, in his fight for justice against a meaningless, oppressive, ignorant force – though by the end of the tale the Law seems to stand very much in complete opposite of these condemning adjectives. As the story progresses, K. becomes increasingly arrogant, and as a reader we are slowly estranged from the protagonist. This arrogance most obviously evidences itself in K.’s single mindedness, that he is innocent, that he can finish this trial alone, and his increasing hostility to both aid – such as his dismissal of the Advocate – and friendship – his curt words to Leni in his final scene with her. By the end, indeed, it does not matter that K. is innocent, or guilty, since he seems so much to condemn himself by so often taking the opposite approach to the case than to the methods suggested by the people he encounters. K. paints these people as foolish, almost terrified by the great unseen force of the Law, but it seems in the final few chapters that K., in all his attempts to outwit the organisation, is the fool. Only in his final moments does he seem to ally himself with these fools – dying as he does ‘Like a dog’, just like Block appeared to be before the Advocate. Man is guilty by default, so he has created a society in which he has the opportunity to recognise the guilt, and if, by following the rules set down, he is lucky, his guilt shall be alleviated. The painter makes a point that he has never known someone’s guilt to be entirely removed, but it can be postponed.

That K. is never told of his crime, that it appears to be a much more abstract immorality he has displayed, that it is said he has ‘inherited’ the guilt, suggest Biblical overtones – for it is original sin that we all, as humans, are stained with at birth, and that through baptism only are able to rid ourselves of it. More importantly we must accept this guilt. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to cleanse ourselves of a crime we are unaware we have lingering over us. K. does not accept the guilt, and as such is never able to rid himself of it, thus causing his life to become ever more miserable, until its final unhappy termination at the hands of men, in K.’s opinion, no more than poor actors. Acting as what? It isn’t clear. They hang either side of him like vultures, or perhaps more accurately like the two conflicting elements of his conscious, good and evil on each shoulder like in so many cliched cartoons. They throw between themselves each task, before one seems to relinquish and commit to its action, and the knife that K. is supposed to plunge into himself passes between the two men like neither of them wish to punish K. as he should be in the eyes of the Law. They cannot embody so simply ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Neither wants to commit the deed that will surely leave some kind of guilty feelings, which is perhaps why K. realises he should be taking the knife himself from them. They are giving him a final chance at accepting the guilt. But he does not. He stays defiant until the end, like some hot-headed teen, and it is only in the moments of death, as the knife twists inside him, that he acknowledges his dog-like behaviour and demise.

K. constantly incurs the wrath of the higher-ups against the very people trying to aid him, in a manner that appears both easy to avoid and careless. He shows very little regret, for example, when the lady in the courtroom fears his retribution against the young student who eventually carries her away. He tries once to intervene with the flogging his first two captors receive in the cupboard in the Bank – in what is perhaps the most ‘through the looking glass’ scene in a very Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tale. It is, however, useless, and he cannot do anything to convince the man flogging the two that he did not wish it to happen, for he has already made a complaint, he has already acted and his actions must have consequences, they cannot go unheeded or ignored. That the court’s have been so quick in reacting to a complaint of K.’s seems entirely to contradict the complaint that K. is always making of the Law, and of the Advocate and of the entire justice system; that it is too slow-moving, that it does not react and that lengths must be taken to ensure that the procedure is well underway, hopefully in his favour. Block recognises that K. is a business-man like himself, and he is naturally used to working towards visible results almost constantly, but he also tries to warn K. that the Law works very differently to them. They cannot, and should not, attempt to make it work to their own preconceptions – since it will only hinder the final judgment.

The book does not read like a religious text, and whilst God figures are evident throughout the novel, it is not overbearing and the religious symbolism can often be interpreted to have a much more tangible, somatic meaning. However, since K. is told he has inherited his sin, these themes and images shall be seen in a religious light. The arms flung wide open in the final sentences of the story are suggestive of some kind of spiritual freedom – the windows themselves are a continuous theme throughout the book, as K. often longs for them to open so that he may feel the fresh air again, though more often than not he is forced to stay trapped with the stagnant air, trapped behind a window which will only open now that he is dead (these closed windows are another symbol that reflect his unflinching stance, and foreshadows his mental and physical destruction). We are told the windows appear to open as a flash of light – an angelic light perhaps? The flashing light of an angel appears once before in the previous chapter, in complete darkness it appears to reflect merely the light created by its own brilliant silver in the cathedral shortly after his death has been predicted by the priest in his tale of the country-man and the door-keeper. K. is often in the darkness like this, looking out at some angelic figure. Fraulein Burstner is viewed early on in the book through his bedroom door, slightly ajar, whilst he stands in total darkness and waits for the girl to arrive in the light of the hall. Whilst these figures stand in the light, emerging from the darkness are K.’s captors, the fellow in the room when K. first meets the Advocate, comes out of total blackness.

Minor characters too seem to embody at times the entire story arc in an instant. The babies in the crib, trying hard to reach other, without actually being able to move, in the final chapter, before K. is killed, reflect the progress of K.’s case – and all the progress that it shall ever make so long as K. acts as childish as he does. He will never reach his goal. The case shall never be settled, and it is all futile. The Advocate explains the reason that Leni likes K. is because all accused men exude an attractiveness so abstract and ethereal that one cannot really justify it, it’s just a fact. However, the girls that wait outside Titorelli’s door make it quite clear that K. is ugly – they say so themselves quite explicitly – and this to reflects the attitude K. carries with him throughout the story; as an accused man he should be attractive, however, he refuses to accept this, it is all a joke to him, or at least it is in the early chapters, and because he won’t accept the accusations in an serious manner he never embodies the attractive characteristics of a man like Block, who even in his timid, weak, weasel-like manners is attractive to Leni. Fraulein Montag (is it important that her name is Monday?) travels back and forth between the room she is moving into with Burstner and her items outside, and K. seems to realise the stupidity of her actions, refusing help, but fails to see how they directly relate to his own situation. The process Montag undertakes his slow, laborious and could be made so much easier with many hands. K.’s trademark stubborn nature could learn a lot from this scene, but naturally he doesn’t. This image is furthered in a later chapter when Titorelli hands him a number of paintings all apparently identical – whether they are or not is irrelevant, since we are viewing the scene through K.’s eyes, which fail so often to pick up on little things. K. is here associated with the depressing scene, Titorelli mentions that many people would not like the paintings, but he assumes K. to identify with such a bleak landscape, an austere and barren prospect.

It is obvious that K.’s trial will never end. Everything is always inaccessible to K., even such simple things as engaging in conversation with women, and it is no wonder that he cannot do anything to further his cause. Inaccessibility is a constant theme, at least to K.; the winding corridors of the Law Offices, in which K. finds himself so very lost, the Burstner figure at the end, which walks ahead of K. and his two captors, which he eventually gives up on following. To everyone else, however, because they play by the rules, everything appears infinitely more reachable. The painter, the uncle, Leni, the Advocate, the housekeeper lady are all in contact with members of the court, they are all devices through which K. should be able to further his case, but he uses them, or rather misuses them, so frequently that it is eventually impossible. The inaccessibility results in K. feeling very often imprisoned, as by the windows, and his heightened awareness of imprisonment contributes another theme to the novel. The babies, the windows, the flies losing their legs trapped on fly paper are all things K. observes alone, rarely does another character comment on it.

The meaning of the parable is entirely fluid – the readers can each take it how they wish. This essay was not meant to explain the overall meaning of the book – but to highlight themes within it, links between events, and the reflective, self-perpetuating nature of K.’s trial, for it is visible in almost all elements and levels of society. The harder he tries to draw it to a close, the harder it becomes to actually do so. For K. to have lost just one breakfast and resign oneself to following normal procedure, nothing more than that, in the face of such an apparently insubstantial trial would surely have been preferable to trying so hard to go against the grain and attain a recognition of his innocence, especially when an admission of guilt was all that was really necessary.