Kafka’s The Trial, at its core, is a haunting parable of what occurs when a justice system operates without societal boundaries. Kafka, who lived much of his life under the iron grip of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, knew how easily a government, when structured on a basis of fear and intimidation, can restrict the civil liberties of its constituents. These themes are overtly present in K’s struggle against the justice system, as he futilely attempts to prove his innocence for an unknown crime. Following The Trial’s posthumous publication, the concepts in the novel have grown more relevant. In all societies, from the police states of fascists Germany and Italy, to Cold War and even present day United States, the prophetic undertones of the novel are often readily apparent beneath the constructed surface of the legal system. The legal system, in Kafka’s view, is a tangled and bureaucratically dominated institution, developed to advance the will of the state, not of the people. Kafka illustrates in The Trial how an unaccountable and inaccessible legal system ultimately destroys the notion of justice in society.
The Trial’s historical context is crucial to understanding Kafka’s critical perception of law enforcement. Kafka, a Jew born in Bohemia, often faced difficulties as a minority living within the Habsburg’s cruel and inconsistent justice system. Without due process, Czechs and Jews were often imprisoned and harshly punished based on their nationalities, rather than their presumed innocence or guilt (Kushman, 52). These experiences illustrated to Kafka the law’s potential corruptibility at an early age, and laid the foundation for his later works. It is interesting to note that while many mistakenly assume The Trial was based off events during World War I, and the ensuing rise of fascism throughout Italy and Germany, it was actually written years before the war began. This fact adds weight to the prophetic tones of the novel, as the nightmarish judicial landscape Kafka describes is frighteningly similar to real life occurrences throughout the turbulent 20th century.
Kafka’s strong condemnation of the inner workings of the law is imbued in nearly every page of The Trial. The novel is written in an episodic nature, with each chapter essentially a self-contained anecdote of K’s life after contact with the law. The novel begins abruptly, simply stating that “someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested,” (Kafka, 1). Like Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, The Trial offers little explanation for the sudden cataclysmic change in the protagonist’s life, wasting no time in casting K into the horrific and surrealist underbelly of the court system. The legal system’s expansive power is quickly demonstrated, as K earliest efforts against lowly court officials grant him the realization “that he shouldn’t have spoken aloud, and that by doing so he had, in a sense, acknowledged the stranger’s right to oversee his actions,” (Kafka, 1). Whether K is rebellious in the face of oppression, or ultimately succumbs to his fate is unimportant. The law, through its extensive manipulation of numerous facets of society, will always retain control over his fate.
Kafka illustrates the expansive grip of the justice system by having its influence apparent nearly everywhere K travels. The law is figuratively portrayed in the suffocating air that weakens K’s mental and physical resolve every time he enters the court offices. “The air in the room was extremely oppressive, those standing furthest away could hardly be seen through it,” (Kafka, 32). Kafka is describing the corrupt Court as a life-draining force, one that leaves strong members of society feeble and unable to defend themselves. Rather than working to promote social justice, the legal system in The Trial strives to stifle the freedom of the common people. It soon becomes apparent that the law’s power is far wider in scope than K initially anticipated. Like meeting a stranger on the street and suddenly seeing him everywhere, following his arrest, K begins to notice the law’s presence in every small crevice of society. The law’s presence can be a stranger passing through an apartment building, a man getting whipped in a random dark room, or the desperate look of one of the court’s victims, eager to escape the inescapable. The law, which had previously been invisible to K, is now easily visible in nearly every place he visits, the cloying air seeping out of the court offices and contaminating every nook of K’s now gloomy hometown.
A significant scene in illuminating the consequences of interacting with the law is K’s meeting with Block. K arrives at his lawyer’s office prepared to fire him, when he meets a strange man named Block. Block is described as a “dried up” pitiful figure, a hollow man who has festered in the court offices for the last five years of his life. K, who by this point has already seen a deterioration of his own mental faculties due to the intense stress of his situation, sees in this man his inevitable future. Yet, Block’s life represents the best possible outcome of K’s case. Without contact with any of the government higher-ups, and without the ability to appeal his case’s verdict, prolonging his inevitable fate is the best outcome K can hope for. This shallow life without privacy, constantly living under the eye of the “Big Brotheresque” court system, is essentially tantamount to receiving a not-guilty verdict. In essence, innocence and guilt are entirely inconsequential, with the defendant either doomed to a quick death, or a hollow, artificially prolonged existence.
Kafka further illustrates the law’s unfairness, demonstrating that innocence is solely reserved for those with personal connections to high-ranking officials, or to those who are able to manipulate and prolong the judgment process. Block mentions how some are able to hire so called, “great lawyers”, or lawyers actually able to garner a not-guilty verdict for their clients. This is immediately ironic, as the reader sees the sharp contrast between the actual and perceived function of attorneys in this oppressive society. K’s lawyer does little throughout the entire book, foreshadowing K’s ultimate tragic fate, as well as implicating that only people of power and influence are able to successfully manipulate the court system. Additionally, the details of the legal process appear vague and muddled, revealing the law’s unaccountability, and lack of constitutional checks and balances to control its blatant disregard for justice. When K first questions the policeman regarding the nature of his arrest, the policeman responds, “our department, as far as I know, and I know only the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt has to send us…” (Kafka, 1). Throughout the novel, K only meets lower ranked, subordinate court workers, such as the court magistrate and the court painter. However, there always remains an eerie sense that a shadowy figure is pulling the strings behind the scenes, secretly manipulating the legal system without society’s consent. The law remains inscrutable, with only the invisible upper ranked figures understanding the legal system’s complex machinations. The Court inevitably judges the accused guilty; refusing to explain its allegations, present evidence, or provide any transparency into the private deliberations that result in the final verdict. K only sees a small fraction of the complex court system, with the novel never revealing who is responsible for K’s final verdict. Furthermore, while it appears that K never actually partakes in a trial, the entire novel can be seen as a trial of sorts, as the court constantly judges how K reacts in response to their presence. In The Trial, the omniscient and inscrutable Court perpetuates inequality and injustice through its lack of openness and accessibility.
The Court in The Trial appears nightmarish, too manipulative and powerful to possibly exist in real life. Yet, many justice systems since the publication of this novel have taken actions that frighteningly mirror the corrupt court of Kafka’s imagination. The Russian Communist Government under Stalin completely discarded the notion of a fair trial, purging threats to Stalin’s all-powerful leadership with utter disregard for innocence and guilt (Kagan, 877). Hitler and Mussolini utilized similar techniques, taking control of the justice system to obtain absolute power over the state. However, The Trial becomes especially pertinent when the criticisms Kafka levels against corrupt court systems are apparent in societies founded on a strong belief in justice and equality. The United States, even with its Constitution, transparent legal system, and Bill of Rights, has similarly used its court system to restrict the rights of certain nationalities and ideologies. During World War II, the United States placed Japanese citizens into internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Brinkley, 744) While the majority of Japanese citizens were innocent, and possessed no traitorous intent towards the U.S., the government still authorized their imprisonment, suspending their rights to insure the protection of the country. This event mirrors Kafka’s own early life as a Jew in Bohemia, as both the United States and the Habsburg Empire treated minorities less fairly in the court of law. Decades later, at the peak of the heated Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, the United States was again host to rampant injustice. Senator Joseph McCarthy, capitalizing on fears of the spreading “red terror” of communism, accused numerous people of secretly harboring communist sympathies (Brinkley, 757). Though his accusations were baseless, his successful use of manipulation, fear, and intimidation, temporarily made McCarthy one of the most powerful men in America. McCarthy’s actions parallel the steps taken by the Court in The Trial. Both forces grew powerful through a lack of transparency, and a perceived will to maintain societal order and safety. These historical examples make it clear that a desire for greater law and order ultimately comes at the cost of one’s personal ideologies and liberties.
The Trial is a cautionary tale that illustrates the potential corruption and restriction of freedoms that occur under an all-powerful, overbearing government and legal system. K, who cannot question or ask the Court about the actual details of his case, is doomed to his tragic fate from the novel’s start. Through the use of horrific surrealist imagery, Kafka starkly portrays what occurs when injustice is consistently perpetuated in society. Even more pertinently, the dystopian undertones present in the novel are mirrored by real life examples in the in the legal systems of all spectrums of governments, from dictatorships to democracies. The Trial represents Kafka at his most prophetic, as he warns the readers of the extensive societal control and restrictive practices enforced by higher governmental institutions. Without transparency or accountability, a legal system has no responsibility to the common people, instead acting to insure the state’s absolute control. The Trial, a nearly unpublished novel, remains extremely relevant today, as it compels its readers to seek out and prevent injustice in one’s own society.