My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While I don’t think my opinion of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is unique, I think it offers a different approach then the traditional “man vs. modernity” synopsis. Let me be clear: I think this struggle is a prominent feature of Kafka’s work, and it is meant to be noticed by the reader; but, for me, the event of Josef K.’s trial is far too fantastic to be a theatrical polemic against the coarse, lifelessness of bureaucracy. I think Kafka trickier than that.
My analysis begins here: I do not think that Josef K. is in direct conflict with a bureaucracy or those who represent the bureaucracy (the thugs, the judges, the lawyers, etc.). What I mean to state is that Josef K. has invented his trial. It is not real.
While I usually refrain from a Psychoanalytic approach to texts, my reading of The Trial begins with that this thought: Josef K. is dreaming. (Phew, now I can commence a more sensible, e.g. Marxist, reading of the text). Josef K. is an overworked, overstressed, unappreciated, undersexed, lonely, and paranoid CFO. His shadows in life are Dostevsky’s Underground Man (Notes from Underground), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (The Overcoat), and more recently, Tyler Durden—not to mention many others that I do not have at hand.
The first time I recognized the dreaming was during the second of two shrieks that K. hears during his court proceedings. The second is on page 71. Kafka writes:
“K. was now approached by a guard, who could be recognized chiefly by a saber whose scabbard, to judge by its color, was made of aluminum. K. was amazed by this and even reached out toward it.”.
While the shrieks are not odd as an event, their peculiarity is derived from their abruptness and seemingly unnecessary nature. In the first, we never find out what happens to the screaming man; in fact, most everyone at the trial ignores the couple as though it never occurred. For the latter, the guard leaves with an intent to examine the scream himself. What caught my attention was K.’s motion to grab the saber. What an odd detail. And it is only with curiosity that K. attempts this maneuver. He does not wish to escape or attack the guard; he is like a child exploring every oddity he encounters. He is a man grasping for meaning; for reality; like a pinch for the dreaming man who discovers the guard’s scabbard is aluminum, only then to suddenly wake up.
Now, once I had made a decision to venture down this “dream” path, I noticed it everywhere. For instance, in the beginning of the chapter featuring the Painter. It begins, “K. was sitting in his office, already thoroughly fatigued in spite of the early hour” (111). It is my contention that K. often falls asleep and dreams these fanciful events. The visit to the Painter is surreal: the heat, the paranoia concerning his jacket, and finally the escape through the rabbit hole just above the Painter’s bed that, of course, leads to the court halls. Or in the chapter with Block, the Merchant. Kafka writes: “This resolution drained K. of a great deal of energy… he worked at unusually slow pace, stayed late at the office” (166). And again, in the chapter featuring the Flogger, Kafka takes note that K. is “almost the last to leave [the office] that night;” indicating that K. may have fallen asleep and dreams the absolutely absurd scene featuring Franz and Willem (80). And of course, “the next day… he had difficulty concentrating on his work, and in order to finish up he had to stay at the office slightly longer then he had the day before” (86). K. is almost disappointed that Franz and Willem are not being flogged that night as well, and in a rage makes his assistants clean out the junk room.
Each chapter of The Trial could exist on its own. There is very little narrative continuation between the chapters, i.e. the characters appear and disappear just as easily and are rarely mentioned again, and the plot does not require any cohesiveness. They are episodic and farcical; as a man trying to piece together a dream in an attempt to make sense of it all. But this dreamlike state does not erase the “man vs. modernity” aspect. All it does is make it an indirect conflict. It is not K., the physical character of the novel who is overworked and paranoid, it is his dream that confronts the bureaucracy—mainly because K.’s position does not allow him freedom to confront it. He is it. He is at the top of the bureaucratic food chain (so to speak), and he knows there is absolutely NO way out. The trial is his invention. It is his psychosomatic illusion wrestling with his position and his responsibility as CFO. The trial is his way out.
Lastly, I have to add that the priest’s story of the doorkeeper is perhaps one of my favorite moments of this text. There is so much to draw from it as an allegory or metaphor. And the literary criticism of a text within a text is an astounding feat for any author. Not to mention that it is positioned as the initial conception of the Law. I think it is K. that waits at the metaphorical door. He does not realize he is free, which is exactly why he believes that the doorman deceives the man; because K. believes he has been deceived by the grandiose promise of life, steady employment, trust in the system, etc., and now that he has ascended to his coveted position any chance to be truly free is over. After all, “Worker bees can leave. / Even drones can fly away. / The queen is their slave” (Durden).