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Short Review of The Trial by Franz Kafka

Andrew reviews books and occasionally movies for online blogs and print magazines.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Kafka and The Trial

Franz Kafka's The Trial is the strange, disturbing story of one Josef K., banker and single male, who wakes up one morning in his lodging house to find himself under arrest. For no apparent reason. Living opposite is an old woman who is peering at him in an odd way through the window. Life is never going to be the same again.

There follows a series of meetings, discussions and events in which the protagonist attempts to find answers to burning questions about the system, the law and his guilt.

Josef K's quest for personal justice brings him up against the impenetrable hierarchy of the judicial process. In short, he never quite gets what he wants, he only wants what he can't quite get.

I found this book to be full of increasing angst as the day to day life of the accused is taken over by the need to find out the root cause of his arrest. It's not quite a thriller, not quite a black comedy and definitely not a confessional. And the ending is as dark as the oppressive winter weather.

Kafka lets us know only so much before closing the door, leaving everyone clueless yet craving more. Enter the shadowy, confusing world of state law, where the guiltless can wait years for an uncertain outcome. Without ever knowing why.

Themes Within The Trial

The Trial is considered to be one of the most influential books of the 20th century because of its portrayal of one person battling against modern state judiciary and bureaucracy. A powerful and dark novel that anticipated the rise of the state's bureaucratic machine. The main themes of the book are:

  • individual rights within society.
  • the law and judiciary.
  • bureaucratic processes.
  • trust
  • existence.
  • political regimes and use of power.

Josef K., 30, ambitious banker and upright citizen, is in bed one morning, expecting Anna to bring him breakfast. But then a slim man wearing an unusual black suit knocks on his door and from that moment on Josef's normal existence ends.

What should have been a quiet, uninterrupted breakfast, instead turns into a disturbing arrest and interrogation.

'The proceedings have now been started and you will learn everything in good time.' So says the supervisor on this, Josef's initiation into the workings of the state judicial system.


The opening few words set the tone for this rather harrowing story of a supposed innocent man struggling against the state's judiciary system. Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K....these simple words open up a kind of Pandora's Box. Someone. Somewhere. Somehow.

The whole book is a search for justice. It takes you into a claustrophobic, secretive world where bureaucrats and legal people go about their business, processing individuals in readiness for the courts.

The next time you're in a big city walking in silence past a large, ordinary looking office building, glance into a window and focus on a worker at a desk who is processing information. But do not stop to gawk. Repeat. Do not stop. Carry straight on.

I identified with Josef K. He's under psychological strain from the beginning. Here is a working man in a capital city being told that he is no longer free, given no reason for an arrest that is somehow not an arrest - he isn't taken to a police station for example, he isn't specifically charged with a crime - he's told only that a brief examination of his case is to take place soon.

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The Cathedral

As Josef K's life begins to unravel - he upsets his uncle Albert, dismisses his advocate, loses grip on his job - he ends up in the capital's cathedral. He's supposed to meet with an Italian businessman, to show him the art, but the guy doesn't turn up.The place is empty.

Just as Josef is about to leave, a preacher beckons him over to the pulpit and delivers a weird sermon, exclusively for him. before reminding Josef that his case is going badly, he tells the long-winded story of a 'door-keeper to the law and a man from the country' and goes into some detail about a man who wanted to gain access to the law but couldn't.

The man is deceived into believing everything the door-keeper says. Or is he?

'No, one does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe it is necessary.' The preacher is clear.

'Depressing thought', Josef replies,'It makes the lie fundamental to world order.'

The Trial

As the story progresses you begin to learn about corruption, judicial rhetoric and the bizarre nature of those in positions of power. Josef K. cannot get satisfactory answers to any of his questions. From the initial arrest - To what authority did they belong? - to his final few minutes - Were there objections which had been forgotten? - his case is never dealt with in a proper manner.

'All I want is public discussion of a public outrage.' But Josef K. fails to achieve this. His world becomes ever more tense and unreal. I began to fear for his sanity as scene after scene unfolds in the middle of the book.

For instance, he opens a store-room door at work one evening and in the room is a leather clad man with a whip having a go at the two men who initially arrested him. They are naked. Josef K. wants the whipper to stop but it continues to the next day when Josef opens the door again. This time he just slams it shut.

Kafka's gift is to take us only so far into the mind of Josef K. as he tries to work out his next move, with or without outside help. To do this he introduces the reader to the frightening idea of an overwhelming bureaucracy and Josef K. to the 'illusory path to the end of the case.'

The flirtatious Leni, the sick advocate Huld, the painter Titorelli, the merchant Block, the cathedral preacher, they all offer advice and suggestions but in the end Josef K's quest for the truth is an exercise in futility. Why?

'The hierarchical structure of the court was endless and beyond the comprehension even of the initiated.'

Each chapter is like a different scene in an unusual play that goes nowhere yet suggests that it could be going somewhere. I was frequently wanting a definitive answer for Josef K., for someone to come out of the woodwork and declare him either innocent or guilty.

Instead Kafka skilfully leads you up one garden path which branches into two or more, then leaves you in a sort of no man's land. For example, there are suggestions of a romance with Fraulein Burstner from the lodging house and also with Leni, the advocate's assistant, who is always falling for accused men. But these come to nothing.

Kafka's interior worlds are disturbing, surreal, fascinating, illusory and yet somehow all too real. How many of us have sat across a desk answering the endless questions of a faceless office worker? How many of us have filled in useless forms, been given repeated information, had our queries pushed to one side and then been assured of a definite outcome?

How many of us have read or heard about or watched on t.v. the experiences of those unfortunate people who live in a police state or under a totalitarian regime, who have had relatives simply disappear?


Ten chapters on, Josef K., on the eve of his 31st birthday, is done away with. Two executioners, gangsters, state sponsored murderers, mafia men, call them what you will, arrive and escort him away to a lonely place on the edge of the city. He puts up little resistance.

This killing shocked me. I didn't expect Josef K. to die, not in such a brutal, cold fashion, by knife, all alone in a quarry.

'Am I to depart as an utterly stupid man?' he asks.

It's almost as if Josef K. is pleading with the reader. He's been through so much judicial chicanery, faced humiliation in front of corrupt magistrates, compromised his job and endured the nightmarish atmosphere of the attic court offices. All for nothing. Help never did arrive despite what some people said.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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