The Trial (Kafka, 1925)

In his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, George Steiner writes that “The thought that there is anything fresh to be said of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is implausible.” Well, so much for any motivation I had to write this post.

But I’m still going to write a short one. In this series, of course, I haven’t tried to indulge in literary criticism as much as undertake a stylistic analysis and particularly point to style elements in authors that I admire and might some day try and use. This is largely for my personal benefit but perhaps, especially for any writers in the audience, for yours. Anyhow, I only have one comment on The Trial, since I will be limiting myself to the style. I am curious about the role of women in the book as well, but that will have to wait for a more courageous day (or until I find where that is already written).

The narrative, at least according to Steiner, is common knowledge. In case he’s wrong: Joseph K. is a banker who is arrested by a mysterious yet legitimate court and sent on a mouse hunt to win his freedom. There have been times in my past I have been tempted to write similar stories, an individual caught in a whirlwind of the absurd, but I’ve never been able to. Reflecting on The Trial, I notice that the narrative is fueled  in part by ethos, a tactic I had never before considered. The story begins with a farcical scenario, Joseph K. awakens in his bed to find men in the next bedroom waiting to inform him that he is under arrest. The legitimacy of this charge is suspect, yet Joseph K. is outnumbered and thereby coerced into listening instead of throwing the court servants out on their ear. As the story continues, the threat held by a conviction continues to grow, particularly because of an expanding cast of characters who are given authority and proceed to take the case seriously. The main example is Joseph’s uncle, who–as a respectable countryman–is established as an important and trustworthy character off the bat. I believed that his entrance into the narrative would be the end of the case being thought of, but instead the uncle defies expectations by his grave concern over Joseph’s case. In this way, ethos energizes the mystery and suspense of the book from this point on, if the uncle takes the case seriously we probably should to. In which case it matters how Joseph handles his predicament, no matter how absurd. This established, the narrative continues even further into the absurd, but it never goes so far that no one outside of the court system believes the legitimacy of the case. Joseph K. is on his own in his doubt, yet he is not a island unto himself–he has relationships and even blood relations who are invoked throughout to bolster the trial.

Kafka thus avoids two pitfalls. On the one hand, he could take the court case too seriously, making Joseph’s position hopeless and creating an unrealistic situation where he is all alone in the world. This often comes by annihilating all of the protagonist’s relationships; he/she is the only one that understands the situation and no one else believes them, etc. Instead, Joseph K. is able to relate to various characters, sometimes who are related to the case and sometimes not (at least at first). The second pitfall is to not make the case serious enough (to leave it entirely comedic). This would deflate the narrative and make any possible punishment seem non-threatening. so that Joseph K. is wrong to pay any attention to the court at all. This is a tempting point of view throughout, but it is often tempered by trustworthy characters taking the case seriously. This is the appeal to ethos I mentioned.

Thus Kafka, by creating an extensive cast of supporting characters, positions Joseph K. with perfect balance. This is a brilliant way to handle absurd elements in a narrative, which can easily fall prey to one of these pitfalls. Kafka, instead, navigates right between the rocks and creates a hilarious and perceptive story.

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