Last Tuesday, during our first Classics Book Club at Bryant Park of the season, Bruce Bauman (author of Broken Sleep) led a discussion of The Trial by Franz Kafka. Among many other interesting takeaways, Bauman described The Trial as “an affirmation of life, art, and of the necessity to continue against great odds.” He went on to explain that “the greatest thing art can do is increase your perception and give you hope” and stated that “a society that does not value art will starve.”
The following excerpt from the introduction of The Trail, well-known Kafka scholar Ritchie Robertson considers the many enigmas in the novel and the different interpretations to which it has been subject.
Ever since Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the motif of the trial has been fundamental to literature. Ideally, the trial serves to bring the truth to light and to assign people their just deserts. In practice, literature questions and complicates this simple conception of a trial. It shows that the meaning and purpose of a trial depend on the legal system, the society, and the people among whom it is conducted. An unjust judge may himself be put on trial, as in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The legal system may be so heavily satirized, as in Dickens’s Bleak House, as to make it doubtful whether a trial can resolve anything of importance. Or it may be suggested, as in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that a judicial investigation opens up a series of moral and ultimately religious problems which no legal system can handle.
In Kafka’s The Trial, there is no courtroom scene in which the issues are debated by lawyers before a judge. In keeping with the continental system in which Kafka, a law graduate, was trained, the procedure is not adversarial but inquisitorial. Once Josef K. is arrested, an examining magistrate inquires into the case against him. Hearings are held. K. engages a lawyer to advise and defend him. He hears of a vast, impenetrable legal organization, where the highest judges are wholly inaccessible, and where the trial merges imperceptibly into the verdict. No charge against Josef K. is ever formulated. The real trial is elsewhere. It may be, as Heinz Politzer argued, that we should read the novel as a ‘trial against the court’, in which the court is gradually exposed as relentless and malicious. Or perhaps we should see the trial of Josef K. as moral rather than legal: the question is not whether he is guilty of a misdemeanour, but how he responds to the increasing pressure under which the court places him. On this reading, it is Josef K.’s whole character, the extent of his human and spiritual resources, that is put on trial.
Given the vast implications of the trial metaphor, we need not expect Kafka’s own biography to yield more than trivial clues to the meaning of the novel. Nevertheless, it is striking that the main female character, Fräulein Bürstner, is usually referred to in Kafka’s manuscript by the abbreviation ‘F.B.’, which also forms the initials of his fiancée Felice Bauer. Soon after their first meeting, in August 1912, Kafka began to correspond with her — she lived in Berlin, he in Prague — and on 1 June 1914 they celebrated their official engagement. Kafka, however, had profound misgivings about marriage. It would provide an escape from solitude, but then solitude was what he needed in order to write. In his diary he wrote that at the engagement party he was ‘chained like a criminal’ (6 June 1914). Very unwisely, Kafka confided his doubts in letters to Felice’s friend Grete Bloch, who passed the bulk of the letters on to Felice. Learning about the misgivings which he had concealed from her, Felice was understandably furious. She summoned Kafka to what he described as a ‘court’ in a Berlin hotel, where she was supported by her sister Erna and by Grete Bloch (diary, 23 July 1914). It was in the aftermath of this experience that Kafka began writing The Trial.
After writing the first long section, beginning with Josef K.’s arrest and leading up to his sexual assault on Fräulein Bürstner, Kafka immediately turned to the last chapter, in which K. is executed exactly a year after his arrest. This was in part a precautionary measure. From the difficulties he had already had in writing The Man Who Disappeared, Kafka knew that his stories tended to run away with him, especially as he did not make plans, drafts, or sketches, but relied on the inspiration of the moment. But it also shows that the fictional K. had to be punished, and that his punishment would in some undefined way be connected with his treatment of F.B. In the final chapter, as K. is being led to his execution, he tries to resist his executioners. Just then, however, somebody who is either Fräulein Bürstner, or strongly resembles her, appears in front of them, and K. instantly feels that his resistance is pointless. In Kafka’s original conception, therefore, K.’s relations with Fräulein Bürstner were to give the novel its overarching coherence.
As Kafka worked further on the novel, its shape became less clear. Each chapter he wrote was placed in a separate folder with a brief indication of its contents (corresponding to the chapter headings in the published text). Not all of the chapters were finished. Even the long and important chapter in which K. dismisses his lawyer breaks off in the middle of the action. Others tell us more about figures who are only mentioned briefly in the completed chapters, such as K.’s mother, his girlfriend Elsa, and the state prosecutor Hasterer.
Featured image credit: “Law, Justice…” by Activedia. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.