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The Trial by Franz Kafka

10/09/2013

Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a disturbing indictment of an opaque justice system which creates confusion at every step for those who are forced to interact with it.

The arrest

Kafka’s protagonist is Joseph. K, an ambitious and successful young bank manager, who is unexpectedly accused of a crime (he never discovers what the crime is) and summoned to appear in a court. His arrest is a bizarre and surreal occasion which sets the tone for the foggy uncertainty which envelopes him, the nature of the offence he is charged and how he may fight the charge. Lying in bed on a sunday, he is surprised when his maid does not respond to his call for breakfast, upon leaving the bedroom he is instead startled to find two large men who inform him he is under arrest and he should not leave the house. Yet when he questions the men as to what he has been charged with or how he can challenge the charge he does not receive answers. The two men appear to be as informed as Colonel Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes () and in this respect represent the worst sort of officialdom.

K. is bemused to learn of his arrest yet willing to accept that as the two arresting officials are junior within the system, they maybe uninformed as to the greater details of his situation, but he is none the wiser after the inspector arrives and also fails to provide answers to his questions. His case becomes more confusing when he finally presents himself in the court before a magistrate.

The Court

After much difficulty, K. finds the courthouse where he is to present himself, yet still finds himself oblivious as to the nature of his charge, or how it may be challenged. Rather, he learns that he is in the lowest court and his case his been reduced to a mere triviality. The officers of the court appear bored with the proceedings and no inclination to answer his questions. The bureaucratic inertia to which he is subjected would be comical were it not concerned with the utterly serious matter of the freedom of an innocent man. Furthermore this is no ordinary court as we may know it today with due process, habeas corpus, or legal precedents. Instead there are no records at this lowest court, therefore no precedents of like cases and no possibility of acquittal. Indeed, K. is not prosecuted as a defendant might be in the ordinary sense for it is predetermined that he is guilty and he is trapped within the system. Subjected to this perverse law with no account for justice or fairness, K. struggles against his inevitable bleak fate unable to escape the tentacles of the monstrous system.

Totalitarianism and bureacratic inertia

The experience of Joseph. K suggests the loss of hope for all who are caught within the web of the system. Franz Kafka’s the trial is a desperate tale of hopelessness when one man is trapped within a pit of despair. Kafka is regarded along with George Orwell as one of the great anti-totalitarianism writers. However, K.’s world differs greatly to that of Winston Smith in 1984 – Smith is always under the watchful eye of Big Brother but his romance with Julia creates the illusion of freedom subsequently quashed by the omnipresent Big Brother. In contrast, K endures a surreal interaction with an obfuscatory and opaque judicial system. Both novels present a bleak view of worlds where people are oppressed by the institutions they create to protect themselves. Nonetheless, the case of Joseph. K warns us that freedom is fragile and we must be vigilant in defending ourselves against the abuses of the system.

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