UNTOLD GUILT OF JOSEF K.
Possible reality is obtained by slightly bending physical and chemical laws. – Marcel Duchamp
The novelist of The Trial, Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 to German-Jewish parents. He studied law at the German University in Prague although his passion was writing. His break came when he got a job to write reports on industrial accidents and health hazards through which he understood the suffering of the underprivileged women and wrote Conversation with a Beggar (1909) and Conversation with a Drunkard (1909) which were his first published works. Kafka’s first collection of stories was published under the title Contemplation (1913). His works reflected his own childhood and youth where the protagonists underwent alienation with total lack of communication from the outside world.
Kafka composed The Verdict (1912) relating the story to all the elements with Kafka’s world, the most disorderly universe ever presented by a major artist. In the summer of 1912, he wrote the two short stories, The Judgment and The Metamorphosis that established him as a famous writer. His three great novel fragments are The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927). In The Trial, the hero Josef K. is unaware of the offense for which he is prosecuted and finally executed. Kafka refused to allow any of his three novels to be published during his lifetime. But, his friend, Max Brod published the manuscripts of Kafka posthumously and was translated by Edwin and Willa Muir. Kafka died at the age of forty in 1923. His surrealist humor shows influence in his predecessors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.
Fig. 5: Franz Kafka (1883-1923)
Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a work of fiction drives the reader at receiving justice – a moral good that human society should afford to every person. Yet in the novel, justice is corrupted because it is ruled over by a court system which by itself is corrupt and even sinister. The essence of the events that had happened is impassively stated in the first sentence of the work. On the day of thirtieth birthday, Josef K., a chief clerk of a bank discovers that he is under arrest by two policemen in his boarding house. K. is not informed of his wrongdoing and after a confusing interrogation, he is told to go to work as usual. Late that night, he goes to the room of another boarder, Fr?ulein Bürstner to whom he has an attraction. He travels to a courtroom located in a poor tenement building for his first hearing where he stands before a large audience and lambasts the legal system. The judge informs him that such a conduct will deprive him of the benefits that the hearings generally confer.
The next week, K. turns up at the empty courthouse for the second hearing. A court usher shows K. around the legal offices and the oppressive air in the offices stifles K. making him to be led to fresh air. After a few days, K.’s Uncle Karl hearing the details of the trial takes him to Herr Huld, a lawyer and friend to Uncle Karl. On reaching the house of Dr. Huld, they find him bed-ridden. A high-ranking court official is also present and ignores K. during their conversation. K. leaves the room and flirts with Dr. Huld’s maid, Leni. Uncle Karl tells K. that his indecorous absence has damaged his case.
The trial makes K. lose him more obsessed with the case and lose his focus on work. He meets a court painter, named Titorelli who offers to help him and explains the types of acquittal. But, his explanation reveals that none had gained a meaningful acquittal, they are either on continuous trials or convicted. Due to the lack of progress in the trial, K. decides to fire his lawyer and goes to Dr. Huld’s house. He meets another of the lawyer’s clients, Block who have been on legal proceedings for five years. When K. speaks with his lawyer, he tries to win K. back, but he is not swayed.
K. meets a priest in the cathedral who climbs up to the pulpit and addresses K. by name. The priest reveals that he is the prison chaplain, and speaks to K. about his trial. The chaplain tells K. a mysterious parable about multiple gatekeepers guarding the way of the law, which is intended to characterize the law. Finally, on the eve of K.’s thirty-first birthday – a year after his arrest – two men come to his room and they escort K. to a quarry on the outskirts of the town. In the quarry, they thrust a knife into his heart. K. ashamed of his own death, utters a final phrase – “Like a dog!” (172)
Franz Kafka in his novel The Trial presents the reader with a man named Josef K., witnessing an absurd form of justice, a legal system without logic. The novel is based on a mystery story, psychologically and philosophically, where K. desperately tries to discover the nature of his guilt for which he was arrested. There are two streams running in the novel, but in opposite directions. One is the attempt of court trying to convince K. of his guilt. The court does this by attempting to make inroads into K’s conscience. Another is to make K. realize his guilt, and atone for it. On the other hand, we are able to find him making his efforts to figure the guilt for his arrest. All these seem as if the two streams of story pursue and follow each other, but never meet. This makes the novel intangible and surrealistic, but can be said a deliberate artistic form of realistic view.
Kafka brings out a symbolic representation of his own awareness of the unconscious which accuses, tries, and condemns the conscious. K., the protagonist of the novel, experiences the critical accusation by an inner voice represented in the novel by the police inspector, Franz. The inspector himself is not able to confirm that whether K. is charged with an offence or not. Instead, he is advised not to think about his intruders or what is about to occur for K. In the very first chapter, a correlation is established between K.’s state of consciousness and some enigmatic powers from the unconscious responding to it.
You are under arrest, certainly, but that does not prevent you from doing your job. Your normal way of life will not prevent you from doing your job. (13)
The first image which takes us to K.’s unconscious world is the image of his breakfast considered as a sign of completing the wakening process. The very second sentence of the first chapter refers to his breakfast and it is only that particular morning the land-lady’s cook doesn’t bring his breakfast. “That had never happened before” (3) He also emphasizes the importance of breakfast when he talks to Frau Grubach.
… I judge the whole thing more critically than you, and I don’t think it’s above your head. I think it is totally insignificant. I was taken by surprise, that’s all. If I had got up as soon as I was awake, … if I had just this once had my breakfast in the kitchen and asked you to bring m my clothes from my room, if I had acted sensibly, then nothing would have happened, all these things would have been avoided. But one is so unprepared. (17)
The above image appears as a sign of unconscious again in the second chapter, when K. appears for his first trial. The trial place is not known to him and had to hurry for the day of his first trial.
The weather on Sunday was dull. K. was very tired. … he had stayed late into the night, and almost overslept. Hurriedly, having no time to collect his thoughts or to think over the various plans he had devised in the course of the week, he dressed and without taking any breakfast rushed off to the designated suburb. (26, 27)
K. being unable to have his breakfast except one apple reminds us of the original sin of man resulting in his expulsion from the paradise giving rise to a sense of guilt. This sense of guilt does not come to us from the world of senses, as Kafka believed that the spiritual world embraces the world of senses as the Evil. Therefore, any attempt to attach with the spiritual to the tangibly concrete is the business of art. On the other hand, the world of senses is the world of consciousness trapped by the world of unconsciousness which Kafka interprets as the spiritual one.
He threw himself on his bed and took a single apple from the washstand, which he had chosen the previous evening for his breakfast. (8)
The next image on K.’s unconscious is the time of his arrest on the morning of his thirtieth birthday which can be seen as a time of heightened self-awareness. This awareness is the result of his confrontation with the prospect of his death which happens to him with a cruel irony on the very day of his birthday. After a year, K’s guilt becomes more of a concern and he searches for relief becoming immersed in the guilty feelings at maturity. This provides him the opportunity to attempt in the quest of his own unconscious world under the assumed name ‘court’. K.’s first trial at the court made by a lawyer, Dr. Huld who makes his own absurd claim about the legal system and court officials (lawyers).
It said that one advocate leads his client on a thread to the verdict, while another lifts his client straight onto his shoulders and carries him, without putting him down, to the verdict and beyond. (142)
In the above context, Block being humiliated by the lawyer mentions that being a client he had totally forgotten the actual outside world living in loneliness. This expression of Block makes the lawyer’s advice appear to him virtually meaningless proving the absurdity of the lawyer’s claim.
… the client finally forgot the whole world and could only drag himself along this illusionary path to the end of his trial. He was no longer a client; he was the advocate’s dog. (146)
The second attempt of dealing with guilt is Titorelli’s offer of various types of acquittals open to K.. The painter’s description of the kinds of judges and the barrenness of the heathscape implies that there is nothing left for a man seeking release from his burden of guilt (unconscious burden). This scenario clearly depicts that art can describe but not enact.
The last attempt to deal with K.’s guilt is made by the priest, who is also a prison chaplain and informs K. that he has been found guilty. The parable ‘Before the Law’ told by the priest stands as a world of unconscious portrayed by Kafka in the name of a parable. In the parable, a world of unconscious is explained by the ocean of nothingness, with slammed doors protected by thousand doorkeepers who are agents of man’s unconscious. It is in this world that the man wants a door, a door through which he can never pass or enter. Every effort results in nothing which indirectly points out to K.’s situation in the name of an unknown court.
You see, the lowest judges, who are among those I know, do not have the right to pronounce a final acquittal; only the very highest court, which is inaccessible to you, to me, to all of us, has that right. (119)
The world of conscious is not accessible to everyone. In the waking process, the unconscious can traverse the world of the frontiers into the realm of conscious, and dictates the pattern as it occurs to the country man and K. in the frame of death. But, K.’s life ends tragically where he dies under a butcher knife. This death of the conscious happens by the world of unconscious in which K. meets after the long process of futile striving. We find that the final solution for K. to free himself from the trap of unconsciousness is ‘death’.
… the only thing I can do now is to keep calm and marshal my thoughts rationally. I always wanted to rush headlong at things, not always for the best reasons. (170)
There are several images of unconsciousness portrayed in the novel as characteristics of surrealism. K.’s nightmares happen to him on Sundays and during nights about how to attend his own trial which seemed more pressurizing than his day’s work.
… but above all else he was thinking that it would be best to get there at nine o’clock on Sunday morning, since all the courts began work at this time on weekdays. (26)
The telephone calling in the novel symbolizes a call from the unconscious indicating that K. should go to the court for a short inquiry into his case. Moreover, the court placed in an outlying suburban street represents the unconscious where K. visits for the first time trying to penetrate into depths of the legal system of the court.
When he had heard this message, K. hung up the receiver without replying. He had made up his mind at once to go there that Sunday, he must certainly do that, his case was getting under way and he had to fight it; this first interview was also going to be the last. (26)
For Kafka, the ontological characteristic of human existence is the guilt which is claimed to the riskiest moment that happens to man in the awakening process. He explains that during this process, the repressed wishes are expressed in the form of unconsciousness which cannot be controlled showing the man a reality that he tries to cover under his illusions. Similarly, in the novel, K. experiences the same crucial moment, when he is arrested and his difficulties appear to him in the shape of intruders making him one of the puppet-figures. They also motivate him to struggle within his inner-self in confrontation with totality of his own existence but not expressed outside. So, the concepts of guilt and arrest belong to a world within and not without.
What alarmed K. was not so much that he had discovered court chambers here too; what alarmed him most was his own ignorance of court matters. A fundamental rule for an accused person, it seemed to him, was always to be prepared, never to be caught off guard, not to look unsuspectingly the other way … (123)
Alienation, an important element of surrealism is also quoted in the novel as an expression of man alone in the world of the Other, a cry for freedom as an impotent act in a meaningless world of humans and the cry for authentic self. Kafka portrays this alienation in the darkest form through the life of K. who is confronted by the Other.
You should be altogether more careful in what you say; almost everything you have said so far, even if it was only a few words, could have been inferred from your behavior, and besides, none of it is particularly favourable to your case. (11)
K. being under arrest without being aware of the reason of his arrest and the law which is independent of human judgment stand as representatives of the Other subjecting him to the trial of chronic anxiety. He is forced to endure while he awaits his trial and under anxiety, he starts realizing the charge made on him by someone. It is the result of the dehumanizing atmosphere created by the moral irresponsibility of the government (law). This creates alienation where he is unable to escape from the irrational legal system which is powerful and incomprehensible as a cage in search of a bird.
… did that not mean he would virtually have to abandon all other activities? Was he capable of doing that? And how could he do it while he was at the bank? (100)
The pressure of the Other world is imposed on K. as the problem of choice. Therefore, the matter of choice is meaningless in determining his destiny for which the court officials had to abide with the legal administration of court.
Because they are forever bound up in their laws, day and night, they do not have a proper understanding of human relationships, and in such cases that is quite essential. (89)
The instances of alienation shows that the man’s self to unify with other selves is prevented because of the reflection of the inherent ambiguity of the law’s force itself.
They were allowed only to deal with the particular stage of a trial that is designated for them by the law, and in most cases they know less about its further progress, that is about the results of their own work, than the defence, which as a rule stays in touch with the accused almost until the end of the case. (90)
The same situation is described by Titorelli in his paintings and in explaining the three forms of judgment – absolute acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement which also turns out to be meaningless. It does not help man’s self to seek compromise with the unknowable world but reveals only the terror of an existential alienation that death was the only choice left and K. did not possibly accept it.
To be sure, the submission would involve an almost endless amount of work. … not out of laziness or deviousness, which were all that prevented the advocate from completing it, but because he did not know either what he was accused of or any further changes that might arise; as a result, he would have to recall the most trivial events and actions of a whole lifetime, record them and examine them from every angle. (97)
The question of K. in terms of self-examination through the other selves is not answered till the end and the same situation prevails in the parable told by the priest, where the self is in isolation and wants to be a separate entity allowed by the doorkeeper or social system. The entire parable sums up K.’s situation from the beginning of the novel, as the doorkeeper becomes the abstract equivalent of the inspector, the lawyer, the painter. All the parallels in the novel become more striking until the court embraces all the incomprehensible institutions to the self as a non-distinguishable part of the court itself. Due to this, the theme of alienation is brought in to self, in the form of K. with a tragic ending.
K. now knew perfectly well that it should have been his duty, as the knife was passed from hand to hand over him, to take hold of it and plunge it into himself. But he did not; instead he turned his head, … He could not bring himself to do it; he would not relieve the authorities of all their duties. The responsibility for this final failing lay with those who had deprived him of the remaining strength he needed. (171)
The untold guilt makes K. feel empty within himself resulting in alienation without any contact with the outside world and being unable to distinguish between himself and the place where he stands with regard to the legal system. Man tries to seek a form of redemption but there is no redemption waiting for him, but just a more insane duplication of the human world of endless searching. We must become our own law and open the door with our fundamental sign of questioning. But in the novel, the law is the shielded god of the bureaucrat and justifies the execution of K. who questions it. Isolation holds everyone before the law where man does not trust others, alienating even from himself in the world of impossibilities.
There can be no doubt that all the activities of this court, and therefore my own arrest and today’s investigation, are backed by a large organization. An organization that not only employs corrupt guards, foolish supervisors, and examining magistrates … supports a high-ranking judiciary with its inevitable vast retinue of attendants, clerks, police, … (36)There is a dark picture of an ambiguous future for K. of such system preventing him from struggling more or stopping him from learning the charges against him. This makes him silent driving to a frenzied activity and aggressive in his struggle to identify the self. All his struggles seem to be shadows where the invisibility works more on imagination, making him more involved to bring progress in his trial. At first, he was annoyed by the mystery of his trial, later, he is haunted by it and finally, plagued by it, until it is made the primary concern of his life. He is trapped in a void by his own imagination, tormented by his own intelligence, and defeated by his human nature.
Finally, the novel has a significant conclusion that we have to recognize the futility of trying to work with the world of the Other (court) which does not simply relate to the self. Life is only a nightmare because there are a number of inscrutable forces that are beyond our control with no solution to protect the self from them. Annihilation is not a choice but a fact of alienation which is left to us, whether to accept it or continue to struggle against it.