8) Franz Kafka’s The Trial - ambiguous novel that asks deep metaphysical questions

Photo: Proces, Chantal Montellierová a David Mairowitz, BB art 2009

Written between 1914 and 1915, during one of Franz Kafka’s creative outbursts, The Trial revolves around the struggle of the main protagonist, Josef K., who finds himself suddenly arrested upon waking up one morning. As with much of Kafka’s work, the novel has been subject to much interpretation. In this episode of Czech Books You Must Read, we talk to Oxford University’s Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature Ritchie Robertson and Professor Ricarda Schmidt from the University of Exeter about those interpretations, as well as the authors that inspired Kafka to write what is considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.

The Trial,  photo: Pavel Polák,  Czech Radio

Kafka’s world

Franz Kafka,  photo: public domain
Professor Robertson, before we look into The Trial specifically, could you tell us something about the author himself? It is often said that Kafka was heavily influenced by his father and the society he lived in. How would you describe “Kafka’s world”, especially in relation to the Austria-Hungary he lived in and the city of Prague?

Ritchie Robertson: “One of the many myths about Kafka was that he lived in social isolation. He was a German speaking Jew in Prague, but, in fact, the German and Czech communities had all sorts of links. You needed to know Czech just to go shopping. Kafka’s father had Czech employees. They all spoke Czech, even though German was the language of daily use. Kafka spoke Czech particularly well, although he was not completely flawless.

“Culturally, Kafka was very much a member of German culture. He was familiar with the German classics. However, he also read Czech literature. He went to the Czech National Theatre, which was unusual for a German speaker. He certainly knew some Czech classics, such as the writings of Božena Němcová. When he read Russian literature, he did so in Czech, because the language was closer to the original.

“As for his father. He had a very difficult relationship with his domineering father, but his psychological difficulties have been ascribed even more to the withdrawal from his mother. It is also worth remembering that, aside from three sisters who outlived him, he also had two brothers who died in early infancy. This of course affected his parents grief. He had a rather neglected and soldierly upbringing, which, in a way, is a very good upbringing.”

The Trial was written by Kafka between 1914 and 1915. He had already written a number of short stories by then, including The Verdict and The Metamorphosis, and had begun writing a novel. How would you describe this period of his life and do we know why he decided to write The Trial at this time?

Ritchie Robertson: “Kafka’s creativity came in bursts. There was one burst in 1912, another in 1914, then in 1915 and in 1922. In most cases they were triggered by some emotional disturbance. He wrote his breakthrough story, The Judgement (Das Urteil) a month after meeting Felice Bauer, to whom he was later engaged. The engagement was broken off very painfully in the summer of 1914 and he began writing The Trial as a kind of self-therapy. His description of the breakup in his diaries is full of legal metaphors. He describes a summons to a ‘court’ in a hotel room, where he was confronted by Felice and her best friends and accused of all sorts of bad behaviour.

“Another question of course is why did he break off writing The Trial? His inspirations tended to be intense but short lived. He simply ran out of steam. Aside from the text that everyone is familiar with, there were a number of unfinished papers, usually printed as appendices. We cannot quite tell what counts for a finished chapter and what does not. Kafka may have taken the story in several other directions, but he simply lost track of it and confidence in it.”

Structure and characters in The Trial

The Trial begins with the famous opening:

"Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning".

Upon waking up, Josef K, the main character, finds himself confronted with two men who tell him he is under arrest. How would you summarise what happens then?

Ritchie Robertson: “The story, you could say, has two movements. After the arrest, K goes through a phase of denial. He claims to be innocent, but never asks what the charge is. He does do so feebly once, but is very easily sidetracked. He protests innocence for a long time.

“In the second phase he goes on the offensive, tries to influence his case by hiring a lawyer, who turns out to be quite as bad as the court, and the second phase ends by the court approaching him again. He has an unexpected meeting with a clergyman, who turns out to be the prison chaplain and finally two court officials arrive who turn out to be executioners. They take him outside Prague and horribly execute him.”

What can we say about the main protagonist of the book, Josef K. himself?

Ritchie Robertson: “It is not really a novel of characters. Many of the figures appear with no names. You could certainly say with Josef K. that he is a bureaucrat. He has a high position in a bank. He is very much an inhabitant of institutions. Routine and order are all-important to him. His arrest upsets him because it breaks up his daily order. He expects the maid to bring him breakfast in bed, but instead a guard in an unidentifiable uniform appears in his bedroom which is most disruptive.

“In fact when Kafka read the account of the arrest to his friends, both he and they kept on laughing, because you have this pompous bureaucrat who is confronted with something he does not understand and reacting in obviously inappropriate ways. It is a picture of a man used to routine confronted with another reality, something that does not fit into his tidy world.”

How are the other characters in the book portrayed?

Ritchie Robertson: “They tend to be portrayed only in relation to Josef K. Without any reference to their private lives, their biographies, what they do behind the scenes. To that extent they are focused on the central character and his wrestling with the situation, whereas eight years later, when Kafka wrote The Castle, it is quite different. There is a real relationship there. One that breaks up in a very sad, but also very recognisable way.”

Heinrich von Kleist
According to Professor Ricarda Schmidt from the University of Exeter The Trial alludes to works of German writers E.T.A. Hoffman and Heinrich von Kleist, who wrote a century before Kafka. For example, she says that footprints of Kleist’s 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaascan also be seen in The Trial.

Ricarda Schmidt: “Kleist’s protagonist Kolhas is acting not just simply in his own interest after having been treated unjustly, but argues that he does it for the good of everybody because there has been such a level of nepotism in the state that the people are suffering. The Trial’s Josef K in his public address also claims he is acting in public interest.

“However, while Kleist, and another of his contemporaries whom Kafka read called E.T.A. Hoffman, write stories dealing with the relationships between the state and the individual, Kleist is dealing with Hobbes, Rousseau and Fichte, in Kafka this is all internalised. The conflict, the legal system in Kafka, is both ubiquitous and anonymous. Josef K is never told what he was accused of and we do not know who issues the orders for his arrest and execution. The legal and commercial spheres are intertwined. The bank employees Frany and Willem arrest him and the bank employees are there with the official interviewing him. Everything that Kafka’s predecessors did is sort of taken inside the individual.”

Kafka actually referred to Kleist as one of his “blood brothers”, a title he would also ascribe to the Russian author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky.

God, existentialism and the police state - interpretations of The Trial

Looking for connections in how the law is portrayed in Kafka’s novel is of course not the only interpretation out there. I asked professor Ritchie Robertson how The Trial has been interpreted since it was first published posthumously by Kafka’s friend Max Brod in 1925.

Max Brod,  photo: public domain
Ritchie Robertson: “Brod was very keen on a theological and Jewish interpretation in which the court stands for a mysterious God. He compares it to a mysterious God, to the Book of Job, where Job wrangles with a mysterious God. However, that interpretation did not prove very popular to many people.

“Readers from the West seemed more inclined to interpret it as a story about an absent God, of Josef K’s struggles with the absence of any divine or metaphysical authority. It was very rewarding for existentialists as the story of a man thrown back on his own resources. I myself am very sympathetic to that interpretation.

“There are also plenty of others, some of which you can dismiss completely. When Kafka was first read in Eastern Europe and Russia, people thought that this unknown author must have been brought up in the Soviet Union for he seems to describe the workings of a police state so accurately. Although that is not quite true, I think the novel does contain a very, very perceptive analysis of power, authority, the abuse of it and how the victim colludes with authority, even in a kind Stockholm Syndrome. It is worth noting that Kafka read Dostoyevsky and The Trial is his Dostoyevsky novel, his version of Crime and Punishment and that there are strong resemblances.

“Then structuralism came along and used some very rewarding and interesting analyses of narrative patterns in Kafka. Then, deconstruction came along, but had nothing to say, because Kafka, who specialises in ambiguity and indecipherability, had got there already.

“More recently, some of the most interesting books about Kafka have been what you might call cultural studies. A very influential and interesting study called Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg Fin de Siècle by Mark M. Anderson came out in 1992, which looks at the importance of clothes in Kafka’s life and works. It comes to many interesting conclusions. People have written about Kafka’s travels, his reading of travel books, as well as about the photographs and pictures that often appear in Kafka’s works and drawn interesting conclusions. People have also been interested in communication, in the telephone, in letters, typewriters and so on in Kafka.

Photo: Thomas Hawk via / CC BY-NC
“However, the downside of this focus is that people shy away from the big metaphysical questions the novels certainly raise and I think that is a pity. I have been going back and have tried to historicise Kafka by seeing him as a writer very sensitive to his period, in which religious and metaphysical truths had become incredible, but yet it feels very hard to do without them. For example, it was very hard to deal with the idea that the meaning and purpose of life has no answer. It is worth remembering that Kafka certainly knew something of Nietzshe.”

How much did the great German philosophers shape Kafka’s thinking?

Ritchie Robertson: “Although Kafka did have a very sharp mind, he did not read systematically in philosophy. He certainly knew a number of works by Nietzshe. He never mentions this philosopher in his writings at all, but we know that he read Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The internal evidence suggests that he read On the Genealogy of Morality.

“One of Nietzshe’s most consistent claims is not only that God is dead, but the metaphysical systems that philosophers tried to set up are fictions. That what you see in life is what you get. In The Trial it is always a question what lies behind the legal system in which Joseph K is entangled. Before he dies he laments that he never reached the high court that is responsible for his arrest. Nevertheless, the court has enough authority that he acquiesced and in his death.

“In The Castle, written eight years later, the castle itself seems to stand for some sort of metaphysical authority, but what form it takes and what it even looks like is vague and undecidable. The story strongly suggests that the purpose of life is not to be found in some authority outside or above life, but in human life, its relationships and work. That, I think, is the trajectory through which Kafka’s work goes through.”

There are so many articles, papers and even books that interpret Kafka’s work. What do you think makes him so fascinating for analysis? Is it the ambiguity?

Photo: Jekaterina Staševska
Ritchie Robertson: “It is definitely positive to see openness to interpretation. He is ambiguous and in some ways you might see this as a fault. On the other hand, it makes for endless fascination. You do not simply read these stories passively. You work at them. You practically help to write them yourself. The liberty allowed to the reader to co-author is a major source of their fascination.”

So, in a way, they can put a bit of themselves into his work?

Ritchie Robertson: “Yes.”

Is there any way you could perhaps predict how you think Kafka is going to be analysed in the future? How will the changing world reflect our interpretations of Kafka’s work?

Ritchie Robertson: “Well, just one idea. A frequent thing in a lot of Kafka, is the relationship between human beings and animals. He has several stories where animals behave like human beings, or claim to have become human beings. In Kafka’s short story, A Report to an Academy, in which an ape claims to have become a human being is absolutely full of irony and humour is the best known example. Now, partly, Kafka is responding to Darwin and Nietzshe who is asking what animal humanity is.

“Nowadays, when we know much more about animals, we have found they are more like us than we thought. Some animals can solve problems, some animals are much more intelligent than we thought and can reason. I think that is an avenue where Kafka can shed some light.”