The Trial by Franz Kafka Essay
Although not in the same league as some of the great literature that I've read over the years, Franz Kafka's "The Trial" is an evocative, engrossing novel, albeit, ultimately a frustrating one.
"The Trial" tells the story of a man, one Joseph K., that is accused of a crime of which he has no knowledge and must defend himself against, despite his increasing awareness of the improbability of an acquittal. It is a very human story. One can understand and sympathize with K.'s reactions to the absurd circumstances with which he is compelled to negotiate. We see K. attempt to deal with the situation in a range of approaches. Initially, upon his arrest, he is disbelieving and indignant. Then, when called to court for interrogation, K. attempts to be done with the matter once and for all with a zealous rebuke of the Court and the manner in which he has been handled thus far. But K. soon realizes that the proceedings cannot be brushed off so easily. Over the course of the coming days, weeks, and months, he becomes acquainted with others who have had dealings with, or who have tenuous relations with, the elusive Court. It becomes apparent that K. has no chance of winning his case without the help of others, who insist that the only way to help is behind closed doors, through the strength of their political ties, gradually convincing officials of K.'s innocence. K. is acquiescent at first, but becomes increasingly agitated and unpredictable when no apparent progress is being made. I leave the remainder of the plot to those who wish to experience it for themselves.
The type of justice that we take for granted in the States - burden of proof, the sovereignty of "innocence before proven guilty" - is an alien concept to the Court in Kafka's "The Trial." What makes it all the more frightening is that, not long after Kafka's death in 1924, this type of "justice" became commonplace in Eastern Europe. This unfortunate reality makes "The Trial" a surrealistically prophetic novel, one of paramount importance and undeniable relevancy.
In the end however, "The Trial" is a frustrating experience. As other Amazon readers have pointed out, the alleged crime is never disclosed. I'm quite sure that Kafka never meant to elucidate the nature of the transgression. The desire to find out what K. is accused of is part of what propels one through the novel, and the fact that it is never revealed is what lends the novel its surreal punch. Nevertheless, when you've spent the entire novel trying to guess and are left without an answer, it's frustrating.
More frustrating however is the fact that "The Trial" was left unfinished. I suppose the fact that the novel was never finished is common knowledge among the literati, but it came as an unpleasant surprise for me. This incompleteness doesn't detract from the story until the very end. The "Dismissal of the Lawyer" section in Chapter 8 trails off in mid-paragraph. The conclusion to K.'s internal debate regarding whether or not to dismiss his lawyer never arrives. (Granted, the conclusion is assumed, but I would've liked to have followed K.'s thought process to completion.) It also leaves the question of the lawyer's true nature uncertain. The novel ends rather abruptly after the next chapter, "In the Cathedral." (One gets the feeling that the majority of the unfinished sections of the novel were between Chapters 9 and 10.) The reason behind Kafka's failure to finish the novel becomes apparent when reading the Appendix; Kafka abandoned "The Trial" in 1915, approximately nine years before his death, and as such never meant it for publication.
I for one am glad the novel was published. Although we may never know how great this story could have been, we should feel fortunate to have it, even in unpolished form.
P.S. The introduction to this edition by George Steiner is a dense and convoluted treatise on how Kafka is an inheritor of a Talmudic tradition of endless commentary... Only those well-versed in ancient Judaic literature (anyone?) need feel compelled to read it.