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Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. One of his novels, Der Process (The Trial), was written in 1914-1915 and first published in 1925 (Brown 487-489); it addresses the theme of law, its agents, and the person’s helplessness against them.
In our paper, we will look into this theme by discussing the main features of the trial against the novel’s protagonist. After that, we will proceed to considering some of the possible interpretations of the text, and, finally, we will discuss some parallels between the Kafkaesque law and contemporary American system of judgment.
The Features of the Trial in Der Process
One of the central themes in The Trial is the theme of bureaucracy, law, and an individual’s utter powerlessness against them. The story itself begins with a sentence, “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested” (The Trial 1).
The main character is initially convinced that he is “living in a free country”, where everything is “at peace, all laws” are “decent and upheld” (The Trial 5). Despite that, he finds it impossible to reveal anything even about the nature of the charges however hard he tries.
In fact, the whole story is about K.’s attempts to find out anything that would clarify his situation, and trying to legally defend himself against something he cannot understand the essence of. All his efforts only show his helplessness and the inevitability of the punishment for a crime he does not even know anything about.
The court he is judged in turns out to be a secret one. The only hearing he is able to attend is located in one of “monotonous, grey constructions, tall blocks of flats occupied by poor people” (The Trial 27); it is an untidy, cramped building with no air to breathe. The hearing takes place in one of the dirty apartments.
Everything K. does only seems to exacerbate his situation. While he is able to deliver an indignant defense speech on the court hearing, this turns out to have no positive effect; vice versa, the judge tells K.: “today, you have robbed yourself of the advantages that a hearing of this sort always gives to someone who is under arrest” (The Trial 37).
Not only K. doesn’t have access to the text of the law according to which he is to be judged; it seems that the people involved in the trial, including high officials, also don’t have it, and could not care less about the fact. On his second visit to the place where the first hearing was held, K. finds out that the books belonging to the examining judge of the case which were supposed to be law books are, in fact, only pornographic works (The Trial 38-40).
It turns out that the law in the novel is completely irrational, arbitrary, and inevitable. A situation which occurs in the bank K. works for serves as evidence for this. Having opened a door in the bank he had never opened before, K. is amazed to find the two wardens who came to his home to arrest him on the very first day of the story being whipped by a third policeman (The Trial 62).
The wardens tell him that, had it been not for his speech during the hearing, they would not have been punished (regardless of their guilt); and that they will be punished every day in the future only due to his speech in which he accused them of bribery. The whipping man says that the “punishment is both just and unavoidable” (The Trial 63). On the next day, K. is surprised to find the same two wardens in the same room, still naked, humiliated and whipped by the same executioner (The Trial 67).
The irrationality, inevitability and secrecy of the law and legal proceedings can very well be seen from K.’s conversation with his lawyer (The Trial 84-92). It turns out not only that “the accused and his defence don’t have access even to court records” (The Trial 85), but
even for the junior officials, the proceedings in the courtrooms are usually keep secret, so they are hardly able to see how the cases they work with proceed, court affairs appear in their range of vision often without their knowing where they come from and they move on further without their learning where they go. (The Trial 88)
At the same time, the fact that the trial is being held is common knowledge, despite the details being that clandestine. Rana and Dhanker point out that “Joseph K. is shocked to find out the extent of the court itself; it is everywhere” (410); and a lot of people are involved in it; many of K.’s acquaintances know about him being judged. Even when K. tries to hide in the cathedral from the omnipresent court that is harassing him, he finds it impossible, for the priest there also turns out to be a prison’s chaplain (The Trial 149, 154).
Finally, exactly after a year from the beginning of the trial, K. finds himself visited by two “gentlemen” who are to execute him (The Trial 163). At this point, K. is, what is important, already convinced the court’s sentence is right; when the “gentlemen” draw out a knife to execute him, K. now knows “it would be his duty to take the knife… and thrust it into himself”, although he does not do it (The Trial 166). When K. dies, his last words are: “Like a dog!” (The Trial 167).
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Some Possible Readings of the Novel
We have seen now the features of the Kafkaesque law and criminal justice. They are vague, totally inaccessible, irrational and arbitrary, secret, yet omnipresent. Kafka depicts some type of sham of justice, and raises the problems of “loopholes of the legal system, incompetent judges, unscrupulous lawyers… absence of proper investigation and right to self defense,… violation of the rules of the court etc.” (Rana and Dhanker, 403-404).
There are various possible interpretations of this, and each of them has its grain of truth. Moreover, an Oxford professor R. Robertson notes that Kafka is the writer who “breaks the convention that a literary text, a story, has to make complete sense” (Robertson 4:23); his works can have various readings.
According to one of the interpretations, Kafka creates the grotesque picture to criticize his modern system of judgment, making a parody on Austro-Hungarian justice, which was based on civil law. Apart from that, the writer criticizes the existing bureaucratic apparatus, which determines the life of a citizen while remaining a mystery itself (Rana and Dhanker, 406-408).
This interpretation can be verified by another Kafka’s work, a short parable labeled “The Problem of Our Laws”. The author writes: “Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us”, “the very existence of these laws, however, is at most a matter of presumption” (par. 1-2).
There is a different reading, however. It is possible to say that K. is, indeed, guilty of some misdeeds, but ones that “are not listed in any penal code: crimes against human dignity, many of which are committed against women” (Carter, 40).
It should indeed be pointed out that, as the story unfolds, K.’s behavior towards women is really dishonorable; and the gravity of his misdeeds increases throughout the novel, so that the trial ends in capital punishment. On the other hand, the judgment system depicted in the novel is too revolting that, while it is not contradictory, but it seems a bit odd to assume that K. gets what he deserves. Besides, how a misdeed not listed in criminal codes can be punished by the system of justice?
It is also assumed that Kafka’s works are a warning about the hidden dangers of that time’s legal world, dangers which were becoming graver and graver (Burns 6). It is also presumed that the immense and unstoppable penitentiary machine in the writer’s novel is a prophecy about the coming totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Stalinism.
Sterne, as referred to in Rana and Dhanker, observes that Kafka could notice “the fascist tendencies present in democracy”, in particular, strong Anti-Semitic ones; major Anti-Semitic trials took place in his time and became examples of flagrant abuse of Jews and terrible injustice towards them (409).
There exists an opinion that Kafka’s works should be interpreted as anarchistic ones. Cohn provides evidence that the writer was linked to anarchism; for instance, he regularly went to a Czech anarchist circle; he read many authors who belong to the anarchist movement, Peter Kropotkin, for instance (p. 297). Kafka, himself, writes:
There is a small party… who try to show us that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do. This party see everywhere only the arbitrary acts of the nobility, and reject the popular tradition, which according to them possesses only certain trifling and incidental advantages that do not offset its heavy drawbacks, for it gives the people a false, deceptive and over-confident security in confronting coming events. This cannot be gainsaid… (“The Problem of Our Laws”, par. 2)
There is no direct reference to anarchism in The Trial; however, it seems that no one could be more aware and feel more pressure and anxiety due to a growing judgment machine than an anarchist. Anarchism rejects any social hierarchies, any inequality and any authority, in particular – the ones of the state and its penitentiary system. In The Trial, the judgment system, as was already noted, is irrational and arbitrary, vague and secret, yet omnipresent.
Such are the hierarchies existing in the society; they are all-present, and their existence is obvious; yet they exist by default and are usually explicitly and definitely noticed only by few, even though everyone exercises them and is part of them. The same is often true of the law enforcement. A single person is powerless against them, as well.
In any case, as was mentioned before, many interpretations of Kafka’s works are possible and consistent with each other. We can never be able to penetrate a writer’s head and read their mind, but we can interpret the text to find its meanings; it seems that only (some) mathematical formulae can have only one reading.
Kafkaesque Law and Contemporary American System of Justice
However many interpretations of The Trial there are, it seems clear that the novel criticizes the system of judgment. It is interesting to note how timely this criticism is nowadays. The parallels between Kafka’s novel and the modern American system of justice are many. Brown in his 2014 article observes that, for many years by now, the USA has had the largest incarceration rate in the world (488, 493). A huge numbers of innocents have been punished, many of them – for the gravest types of felony (Brown 488).
The most common way of arriving to sentences for imaginary crimes is to get false guilty pleas from innocents; the police use various methods of achieving this, which include, but are not limited to, torture, coercion, legally threatening to charge the relatives of a defendant with criminal offenses, etc.; plea bargaining is a common practice (Brown 490-491).
Rana and Dhanker observe that, in The Trial, K. has no rights to legally defend himself, and the accusation of a crime is, in fact, equivalent to conviction on this crime (413); this, as can easily be seen, asks for a parallel with what one gets when arrested by the American police. In the last chapter of the novel, K. doesn’t even resist the “gentlemen” who come to execute him (The Trial 163-167), which is, again, similar to a false guilty plea.
Another parallel exists between the American criminal codes and Kafkaesque law. Even though the US codes are available to the public, they are so complex and verbose that, in fact, they remain hidden knowledge of lawyers. There exist a great number of crimes in criminal codes which people do not even suspect to be crimes (Brown 492). This, again, closely resembles K.’s situation, where the main character cannot even imagine what he is charged with.
There is another point to be noted. The American bureaucracy, according to Brown, is “fragmented” and “disorganized”, not a strictly hierarchical one (494). The one in The Trial also has some disorganized elements, but, as Brown points out, it is “inspired by… classic hierarchical bureaucracy” common for Europe (495).
Despite Kafka’s critique of this kind of bureaucracy, Brown claims that hierarchization of American system of judgment could actually reduce the number of false convictions (e.g. by making court officials less interested in high numbers of convictions that shows the officials’ “effectiveness” and permits them to make a better career, etc.), and thus the USA, in fact, needs more bureaucracy (499-502).
While it might reduce the number of false convictions and the amount of legal injustice, indeed, it seems to us that Kafka wouldn’t agree this to be a good enough method, for it wouldn’t remove the root of the problem. As the writer says in “The Problem of Our Laws”, the majority of people think that the problem of the laws is that they are incomplete and many years need to pass for them to become adequate, whereas the people he agrees with see the law itself as arbitrary decisions of the influential ones (par. 2).
As we have seen, in The Trial Kafka pictures the system of criminal justice that is vague, arbitrary, clandestine and yet all-present; an individual cannot resist it. There are many interpretations of the novel, each of which has its grain of truth. It also turns out that Kafka’s novel is indeed timely nowadays, especially if one considers the activity of contemporary American system of justice, which has much in common with the Kafkaesque one.
Brown, Darryl K. “What Can Kafka Tell Us about American Criminal Justice?”, Texas Law Review 93.2 (2014): 487-503. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 July 2015.
Burns, Robert P. Kafka’s Law: “The Trial” and American Criminal Justice. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.
Carter, Steven. “Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.” Explicator 61.1 (2002): 39-40. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 July 2015.
Cohn, Jesse. “’Don’t Trust Anybody, Not Even Us’: Kafka’s Realism as Anarchist Modernism.” Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature 35.2 (2011): 295-315. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson).
Kafka, Franz. The Problem of Our Laws. n.d.
—. The Trial. Trans. David Wyllie. 1925. PDF file.
Rana, Sujata and Pooja Dhanker. “The Law as Tyrannical Mystery in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.” Language in India. 13.8 (2013): 403-423. Literature Resource Center.
Robertson, Ritchie. “Treasures of the Bodleian: Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’.” Online video clip. YouTube.