book review on The trial by Franz Kafka

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
this is a book review on the novel The trial by F Kafka, a jewish Austrian lawyer who wrote around the time of World War I.

Submitted: May 20, 2008

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Submitted: May 20, 2008



Kafkaesque’ is defined as the helplessness of man in the face of unknown forces that persecute him without reason. In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is persecuted by the Law (symbolized by the Court) and is not given a reason for his arrest. The entire court system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I is parodied, as well as the police, who are portrayed as a ‘theater’ act; they were open to bribery and corruption of all sorts while conducting legal procedures that made no sense. Along with this central theme, the novel also denotes the alienation and anxiety of humanity in general ‘in the absence of God’ as revealed by other existentialists such as: Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky and Kierkegard.
In the first chapter, Joseph K. is told he is under arrest, but his charge is kept secret, for the two men and the Inspector are mere underlings and have no other information. He assumes that his employees at the office are playing some kind of joke on him, but as the fanfare goes along his situation gets more critical. He tells them that he is innocent, but no one seems to be listening to him, he is also told that he is allowed to contact his lawyer (which will do nothing to advance his case). According to the Austrian law of 1873, the accused had the right to counsel throughout all stages of criminal proceedings; however, the function of counsel was extremely limited during the preliminary stages: he could only call matters to the judge’s attention, examine questionable documents, and advice the client on how to respond to the charges, he was not allowed to interrogate the accused or the witnesses; therefore, at this moment his function was practically useless. Afterwards, he decides not to call his lawyer and is told by the Inspector that he could go to work as usual. This is considered normal procedure in the European system of criminal law; the only time pretrial detention is enforced is when: 1) guilt is highly probable, 2) the offense is major, or 3) there is a danger that the accused would flee, tamper with the evidence or repeat the offense, all these factors are apparently not present; although the chosen place for the arrest’s notification is highly inappropriate. Kafka was also a lawyer, worked in a law office during his last term at the University; following his graduation he worked in the criminal courts for a year, then he worked in a large insurance company in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its capital in Vienna) concerned with worker’s compensation for industrial accidents. Kafka also mentions the strange fact of the secrecy of the laws in his well-known parable The Problem of Our Laws: “Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles that rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know.” He also in the same essay makes the following observation: “…and though there is still a possible freedom of interpretation left, it has now become very restricted.” The Magistrate, a judge of an inferior court, had extensive powers to hear witnesses, inspect premises, order domiciliary searches, and proceed with an arrest. The accused would not necessarily be informed at first, nor would the proceedings be made public. Before the authorities would order such an arrest they must be quite well-informed about the reasons for the arrest and the person of the arrestee: “Our officials, so far as I know them, says Willem, never go hunting for crime in the populace, but as the Law decrees, are drawn toward the guilty and must then send out warders. That is the Law.” Joseph K. must therefore be guilty, furthermore, the warder Franz observes later: “See…he admits that he doesn’t know the Law and yet he claims he’s innocent.” He condemns himself by offering his ignorance as proof of his innocence, one who does not know the law cannot possibly know whether it has been violated, although this could not be used as grounds of exculpation, according to the Austrian Penal Act of 1945. Yet, the entire scene can be read as a classic burlesque of the police and their secret practices. This theme returns in a later chapter when K. has accused the warders of attempted bribery and they are then flogged by Whipper in a closet at the Bank, their chief complaint is that now they have lost their chances of promotion to be floggers themselves. The reason for the secrecy is mainly for the protection of the reputation of the accused, and only those charges sound in fact and law go to trial or were made public, as it has been since the Medieval period.
In chapter two, K. is informed that the hearing of his case will occur the following Sunday. When he arrives at Court, he becomes aware of the ‘dimness, dust and reek’ perhaps an allusion to the secrecy of his charge, and the obvious corruption of the Court, which later he discovers is also open to bribery and also that having the right connections matters a lot more than being in the right. The Examining Magistrate commits a typical mistake by confusing K.’s identity with that of a house painter; he then grabs the opportunity to denounce the whole proceeding as senseless and absurd, where innocent people are humiliated in public. He then rushes out of the door, where he is stopped by the Examining Magistrates, who says to him: “ Today you have flung away with your own hand all the advantages which an interrogation invariably confers on an accused man.” This man is more interested in talking with bystanders than questioning K., has little authority to control the audience and is easily humiliated, it is all a parody of the Judge and the jury, which at that time was under attack and later abandoned. Restored in 1873, the jury did not gain acceptance by legal scholars, indeed, it was thought to be a Utopian dream, the reasons for this were: 1) the jurors were ignorant of the psychological principles for evaluating proof, 2) grasping the significance of evidence and deducing questions and/or conclusions, and 3) that their political independence was a myth for they were dominated by the government, counsel and the press. Hans Gross, a former judge and a professor at the German University where Kafka graduated as a lawyer and who was a brilliant scholar and whose work on Criminal Psychology is still considered a basic text, criticized the investigative process by saying: “Every fundamental investigation must first of all establish the nature of its subject matter… witness and judge, have not defined the nature of this subject; they have not determined what they wanted of each other….the one did not know, and the other did not tell him.” Neither Joseph K. nor the Examining Magistrate has any understanding about what the other one thinks the inquiry is all about. The parody is made more hilarious by presenting lawyers and judges as a bunch of lusty, lecherous officials more interested in examining pornography than studying their own law books, which exist only to collect dust; upon K. taking a closer look at the Magistrate’s table, he finds a salacious novel and another book that contains an indecent picture. The usher’s wife is being pursued and later raped by one of the law students in the court and has also attracted the Magistrate’s attention, she is then carried off by the law student for the Magistrate which K. tries to prevent to no avail. Emrich, a critic of Kafka, suggested that the role of the usher’s wife is that of Woman living in conflict with the court, contrasted to Woman outside the court (Fraulein Burstner) and Woman defeated by the court’s power (Leni). The subject of bribes returns with the discovery by K. of the flogging of his warders, which he tries to have them pardoned by offering a bribe himself. Bribery was commonplace in the judicial system, K. also makes the observation that it is not for lack of money that the court offices are so poorly housed, but it is because the court officials pocket the money. Another humorous observation is made later when the unbreathable air is explained as the result of “washing their dirty linen.” After this scene, K. becomes progressively isolated and obsessed with his case, to the point where he cannot concentrate on his work, while at the office. His uncle comes from the country and finds him a very competent and influential lawyer, but who does nothing and is later fired by K., because the lawyer is more arrogant and more proud of having connections than of doing anything for his clients; but under Austrian law, pleas could only be entered after the presentation of evidence and only after the investigation led to a trial, which has yet not occurred in K.’s case, therefore, there is nothing his lawyer can do at this point. Judges are represented as vengeful, dishonest, bad tempered, unpredictable, and vain. Before firing his lawyer, K. has a conversation with another of his clients, a tradesman named Block whom he finds in bed with Leni, in this conversation a debate prevalent at that time in the courts (and which to some extent is still extant today) is introduced: according to the Darwinist, Lombroso, man is born with certain features or traits which are hereditary and which can be recognized as criminalistic and also primitive such as disproportionate mandibles and cheekbones (prejudicial to Asian and American Indians); this is contrasted with Enrico Fermi’s theory in which he sets out to show that crime is the product of a variety of physical and social forces; Kafka decides the argument by having Block say: “they take refuge in superstition.”
A minor theme in this novel is that of the alienation and anxiety of humanity in general, as represented by K., who grows more anxious as his case becomes more complicated and also as to its outcome. This is a common theme among all Existentialists, Dostoevsky says: “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible”, and Sartre further stressed by saying: “neither within him nor without him does he find anything to cling to.” According to Heidegger, anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for their choices; the lack of freedom of choice and the inevitably of disproving K.’s guilt is also stressed throughout the novel. Also Heidegger tells us that each individual must choose to follow a goal, aware of the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of one’s life; we discussed earlier the meaninglessness of the Court’s procedures in this novel and therefore we know that eventually K. will be executed for crimes which he has been found guilty before his arrest was even performed.
In Kafka’s The Trial, the entire Austro-Hungarian court system is parodied through the eyes of Joseph K., who is persecuted by unknown forces, even though he is innocent, arrested and executed; without ever his crime being revealed to him. This led to the term ‘Kafkaesque’ , which has been used ever since in literature as well as in legal documents. The alienation and anxiety of humanity is also described in the novel, these are also common existentialist themes found elsewhere in literature.

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