Modern legislation, statutes, codes, policies, ordinances, and even judicial rulings are considered notorious by the common people for being nearly impossible to understand. All of the seemingly gibberish terminology and arcane procedural regulations are so incomprehensible they have been referred to as “legalese,” a language of sorts that looks and sounds like English, but whose words have little relation to their vernacular meanings. It is because of such things as legalese that justice is seldom dispensed by the government, and why the Law has been deeply perverted away from its purpose to remedy the infringement of inalienable rights, and towards its current function of tyrannical social engineering.
Josef K. is the chief clerk of a bank who is roused out of his sleep one morning by the police who inform him that he has been placed under arrest, yet instead of doing what you’d expect them to do by handcuffing him and throwing him into a cell, they allow him to go about his life provided that he defend himself before the court, as required for his trial. Whenever Josef tries to ask them who has charged him and with what, the police steadfastly refuse to answer, all the while intimidating Josef by saying that his behavior does not help his case. Soon thereafter, Josef gives a speech before the examining magistrate, which is regarded by the sitting audience in the courtroom as a trifling matter when compared to a raunchy make-out session between the court usher’s wife and a law student in the back of the room.
After some pretty weird experiences with discovering pornography in the examining magistrate’s law books, learning that one of his neighbors just abruptly disappeared with absolutely no explanation to as why, and trying to bribe the court flogger to not punish some of the policemen who originally arrested him, Josef manages to acquire an advocate through his uncle. Oddly enough, the advocate’s nurse is more helpful, although the only advice she offers Josef is that his best chance to escape from the charge hanging over his head is to confess to it. An artist who happens to be the court painter is referred to Josef by one of the bank’s clients, but the most useful information the painter tells Josef is that unless he is able to get “absolute acquittal,” he will forever remain subject to the trial (and such an acquittal is impossible to get, realistically speaking).
Following the dismissal of his advocate (whom Josef thought was both lackadaisical about his case as well for for the way he acted like an inhuman monster when he debased another one his clients, a man named Block), Josef discusses his case with a priest who happens to be at a cathedral Josef had intended to show off to another of the bank’s clients. This priest, who also happens to be the prison chaplain, informs Josef that his case is going badly because his guilt has been assumed to be proven, and that it is not likely his case will be able to be appealed. Not long after this, on the night before Josef turns 31, a pair of gentlemen arrive at Josef’s apartment and forcibly escort him to a quarry, where they execute him by thrusting a double-edged butcher’s knife into his heart and twisting it twice. Never did Josef ever find out what he was charged with or whom his accuser was.
In any sort of literary analysis, it is important to attempt to determine what archetypes any of the characters may represent; my contention is that the police who arrested Josef were bureaucrats, the trio of co-workers who arrived with the police are supposed to be informants, Mrs. Grubach and Uncle Max represent family (and specifically, the matriarchal and patriarchal variations, respectively), Miss Bruster (the disappearing neighbor) is the apathetic citizen, the advocate is a lawyer, the court usher is the bailiff, the court usher’s wife is the court secretary, the law student is the prosecutor, the examining magistrate is the judge, the priest is a warden, the artist collectively represents the self-styled common law advocates (and the paintings he pressures Josef into buying are in fact the equally unhelpful “sovereignty packages”), the children who bother the artist are Internet trolls, the executioners are the actual police, and Josef himself collectively represents John Q. Public.
The only characters I had a real hard time trying to determine whom (or what) they represented are Leni (the advocate’s nurse), Block (one of the advocate’s clients), and the sheer mass of those who have been accused that the court usher shows Josef in the depths of the court building’s corridors. Perhaps that sheer mass, and especially the unidentified man Josef briefly spoke with who said he had already submitted evidence in his own case, represent the incarcerated prison population; even if that were true, that still does not answer who Leni and Block are supposed to be. Block pleads before Leni to be allowed to see the advocate, grovels before the advocate, but yet reveals his very deceptiveness to Josef when they are alone together. Because of these characteristics, I would now have to say that I think Block is a lobbyist, but if that were true, then who is Leni? Certainly the most puzzling one of them all, Leni is incredibly manipulative, deceitful, and sadomasochistic (even toward the advocate), all the while appearing to be as innocent and pure as the driven snow. This would suggest to my mind that Leni is, in fact, representative of the secret police, with all of their undercover agents and provocateurs alike (this would simultaneously explain her coaching of Block and her encouragement for Josef to confess).
A key description for why Josef is being persecuted is given by the prison chaplain in the form of a parable entitled, “Before the Law.” In its entirety, the parable says:
“In front of the law, there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry. But the doorkeeper says he can’t let him in to the law right now. The man thinks about this, and then he asks if he’ll be able to go in later on. ‘That’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not now.’ The gateway to the law is open as it always is, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, so the man bends over to try and see in. When the doorkeeper notices this, he laughs and says, ‘If you’re tempted to give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can’t. Careful though: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowliest of all the doormen. But there’s a doorkeeper for each of the rooms and each of them is more powerful than the last. It’s more than I can stand just to look at the third one.’
“The man from the country had not expected difficulties like this. The law was supposed to be accessible for anyone at any time, he thinks, but now he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, sees his big hooked nose, his long thin tartar-beard, and he decides it’s better to wait until he has permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down to one side of the gate. He sits there for days and years. He tries to be allowed in time and again and tires the doorkeeper with his requests. The doorkeeper often questions him, asking about where he’s from and many other things, but these are disinterested questions such as great men ask, and he always ends up by telling him he still can’t let him in.
“The man had come well equipped for the journey, and uses everything, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. He accepts everything, but as he does so he says, “I’ll only accept this so that you don’t think there’s anything you’ve failed to do.’ Over many years, the man watches the doorkeeper almost with a break. He forgets about the other doormen, and begins to think this one is the only thing stopping him from gaining access to the law. Over the first few years he curses his unhappy condition out loud, but later, as he becomes old, he just grumbles to himself. He becomes senile, and as he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s fur collar over the years that he has been studying, he even asks them to help him change the doorkeeper’s mind.
“Finally, his eyes grow dim, and he no longer knows whether it’s really getting darker or just his eyes that are deceiving him. But he seems now to see an inextinguishable light begin to shine from the darkness behind the door. He doesn’t have long to live now. Just before he dies, he brings together all his experience from all this time into one question which he has still never put to the doorkeeper. He beckons to him, as he’s no longer able to raise his stiff body. The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man. ‘What is it you want to know now?,’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘You’re insatiable.’ ‘Everyone wants access to the law,’ says the man, ‘how come, over all these years, no one but me has asked to be let in?’ The doorkeeper can see the man has come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: ‘Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you. Now, I’ll go and close it.’”
Although Josef and the prison chaplain go on to debate with each other the meaning of the parable, I would like to throw my two cents in here with regards to my own interpretation of this parable. Assuming that the doorkeeper is a lawyer and the man from the country is John Q. Public, the doorkeeper intimidates the man from trying to enter into the law by himself, and so the man acquiescences. This doorkeeper promises that the man may enter at an indeterminate time later, but refuses to allow the man to enter into the law peaceably. The man desperately bribes the doorkeeper in the attempt to peacefully enter into the law, but just as soon as the doorkeeper takes the bribe, he refuses the man entrance. Acquiescing yet again, the man degenerates with age, until right before his death he asks the doorkeeper why no one else bothered to show up, to which the doorkeeper weirdly answers that this particular entrance was only for him, but since he has failed to enter it, it will now be closed. I think that because the man didn’t forcibly enter into the law, despite the doorkeeper’s assertions, he died completely in vain with nothing to show for it. The takeaway here, I think, is that if you want justice (entrance into the law, if you will), you’d be better willing to call anyone who gets in your way out on their bullshit before they are able to run roughshod over you.
Some individuals I’ve tried to discuss this novel with seem to have a tough time just trying to understand what is even happening. I think the reason for this understandable confusion is quite simple – it’s not supposed to make any sense whatsoever. As opposed to Orwellian slogans, which while contradictory are at least explainable (illogical as they are), the Kafkaesque elements throughout this novel are not intended to be comprehended. Although there are many contradictions (whether emanating from the mouth of the artist, the priest, or even the advocate), unlike Orwellian slogans these contradictions are portrayed as being incredibly vague and thus beyond comprehension. I think this was the author’s intention, for his thesis (if you could call it that) seems to me to be that he thinks the law is intrinsically arbitrary, and therefore whenever your number’s up, it’s up. This is a very determinist perspective, where self-determination is nullified by this fatalistic worldview which glorifies the victim mentality.
Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a truly surrealistic journey into the depths of the monopolistic practice of law. It demonstrates that whenever justice lies in the hands of the unjust, injustice is the only conceivable verdict. Maybe if political dissidents understood how the Administrative Agencies govern our lives today, then perhaps all the seemingly Kafkaesque misdeeds of government begin to actually make a strange sort of sense, as it were.