The Trial by Franz Kafka

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”

-F. Kafka

Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a surreal expression of angst and an unforgiving commentary on the law and the too-powerful people who administer it.

The protagonist, Josef K., is awakened one morning to the accusation that he has committed some crime. He is cast summarily into nonsensical court processes and a frustrating quest to ascertain the nature of his alleged offense.

There are no melodramatic courtroom scenes or misuse of rules on which I can base a cautionary blog post. There aren’t any practical lessons to be learned. It’s not even an uplifting tale that conveys hope for a triumph against adversity.

Kafka's The Trial cover art

So what’s The Trial’s value to you?

There’s value in knowing that you are not alone. You might identify with the fear and frustration that Kafka depicts, and which Orson Welles adapts artfully to the big screen. The dream-like, surrealistic tone could echo your own experience of representing yourself in court when you have no formal legal training: What’s happening? How do I figure out what I need to do? When will my life be normal again?

Kafka knew all about it. You might be surprised to learn that Franz Kafka was a lawyer. He was a legal system insider, not a bewildered, unrepresented defendant driven to cynicism by the labyrinthine justice scheme. So you might appreciate Kafka’s harsh appraisal of it. In fact, the term, “Kafkaesque,” was coined to describe that experience of people being forced to deal with faceless bureaucracies, without point, without resolution, without accountability.

Also, there comes a point in the story at which Josef K. fires his lawyer and decides to represent himself.

If you are representing yourself in court and are feeling overwhelmed with the stress of it, I do caution you against taking up a broad study of Kafka‘s works. Kafka was a Jewish resident of Czechoslovakia. He lost several close family members to the Holocaust. As you can well imagine, he suffered emotionally. As if that wasn’t enough, he contracted tuberculosis, which eventually took his life when he was only 40 years old. All this horror seems to permeate his stories. So, you might want to postpone any delving into Kafka’s works until your own stress eases.

There are some critics who question the wisdom of Kafka’s status as a great twentieth-century writer. Without going too far afield from the point of this post, here is an article from the Atlantic, who rightly points out the timing of Kafka’s writings and the rise of Sigmund Freud (double entendre unintended but, when noticed during editing, left standing).

I like this review by Roger Ebert. Ebert gives a nice summary of the “plot” (a term that applies loosely at best), and some insights into both Kafka and Welles.

Kafka published his novel in Prague in 1925; it reflected his own paranoia, but it was prophetic, foreseeing Stalin’s gulag and Hitler’s Holocaust, in which innocent people wake up one morning to discover they are guilty of being themselves.

So, if a dark story won’t add to your emotional burden, I recommend The Trial. I recommend it not for any lessons on how to represent yourself in court, but for the foray into an environment in which you might find some comforting vindication in the story’s baffled protagonist.

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