The Trial By Franz Kafka Summary and Analysis Chapter 1

Summary

If we look at the novel in terms of its opening sentence, we see that this sentence contains nothing but unproven assumptions: "Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." Until the end of the book, this atmosphere of ambivalence, temporariness, and possible deception is reflected in Kafka's language. Slander, which perhaps comes to mind when we focus on the word "traduced," is not likely to be the reason for K.'s arrest because he remains at large. The trouble is we will not know the reason at the end of the story either, though one warder's remark that "K. claims to be innocent and doesn't even know the Law" gives us a certain hint. Yet no legal charges are leveled and no verdict is passed. The trial takes place before an invisible Court without ever getting off the ground, at least in the conventional sense of the phrase.

All this leads one to think of the novel's title in terms of the connotations of the German original. "Prozess" is cognate with the English "process," and Kafka uses it interchangeably with "Verfahren" ("procedure"), which in turn has definite undertones of "entanglement." In other words, we are not necessarily dealing with a trial but perhaps a lifelong "process" of some kind. After all, everybody and everything belongs to the Court, as we are told time and again.

Certainly the timing of K.'s arrest, whatever its meaning, the morning of his thirtieth birthday, is well chosen: birthdays, especially one marking off a decade, tend to cause some soul-searching. Block, the tradesman, is also to be arrested shortly after the death of his wife — that is, at a moment when the routine of his life suffers a decisive break. At any rate, K. is caught by surprise and is in no way prepared to fend off the characters arresting him. If he were at the Bank, where he is thoroughly familiar with every detail, nothing of the kind would happen to him. He admits that much to Frau Grubach during the evening following his arrest: he regrets he did not have the presence of mind to ignore the unexpected events of that morning (for example, Anna did not bring his coffee) — in short, he did not act "reasonably." As in so many of his other pieces, Kafka shows his hero waking up and being unprepared. It is Kafka's way of saying that K.'s arrest is not a dream but inescapable reality.

The invisible Court jealously guards the "highest Law," whose content remains as inaccessible as its top-level judges. How it operates on the low levels is beautifully shown in the arrest scene: two obnoxious warders, who do not even know their superiors, much less anything about K.'s case, are sent to arrest K. They are not even eager to apprehend him; they merely claim to do their job. But quite the contrary, by waiting for K. to ring the breakfast bell, they let him take the initiative. In other words, K., by ringing for his breakfast, is actually ringing for his arrest. This, by the way, is a major argument against the interpretation of the novel as essentially a political satire or even a symbolic account of the totalitarian mind: neither the Gestapo nor the Soviet K.G.B. have been known to leave the details of arrest up to their victims. Anyway, the warder lets K.'s question about his identity go unanswered, as if nothing unusual had happened, and casually asks whether K. has rung the bell.

The problem of whether K. could do anything to alter his fate will be dealt with elsewhere. If we accept the line of interpretation that he becomes guilty because he mishandles his trial, then we will have to look at this arrest scene more carefully because it is here that things already begin to take their fateful course.

K. commits his first, though on first glance perhaps negligible, mistake: rather than pushing for an immediate clarification of the strange occurrences surrounding his arrest, K. acknowledges the warder's insolent question ("Did you ring?") by referring to Anna and the breakfast she is supposed to bring. K. is trying to convince himself that he is merely gaining time to observe the intruder to detect his intentions. In reality, he has already accepted his appearance and assault. His insistence that the stranger introduce himself before any more questioning is only a desperate attempt on K.'s part to suppress the gravity of what has happened and cannot be reversed. Toward the end of this scene, the two warders reveal that they have been sent merely to "observe your reactions." If K.'s guilt is predetermined for any reason, does it make sense that the invisible Court tries to prod the "reactions" of someone already firmly in its grip? No wonder this sentence has been used to back up the interpretation of K.'s guilt, resulting solely from his wrong handling of his case.

All one has to do in order to show the built-in ambiguity of this central issue is to see the warders as part of K.'s own personality, as some sort of ever-watchful superego. Their observing mission assumes a very different meaning because the simplistic opposition "Court versus K." is considerably modified. There are several lines about how close the warders feel toward K., and at the end the executioners also accompany

K. to the quarry like a "unity."

There are more instances of people watching K. or K. feeling watched: before he is even arrested, a woman is "peering at him with a curiosity unusual even for her," and a bit later the same "inquisitiveness" is mentioned. During his arrest, several people are "enjoying the spectacle," and the Titorelli scene in Chapter 7 is full of peeping girls. All these instances of observing, feeling observed, or actually being observed reflect Kafka's own neurotic self-analysis and his deep-felt need to get at every aspect of everything in order to arrive at a bearable degree of certainty (for an example of his self-analysis, see the pros and cons about marriage in his diary, or read the stories "The Burrow" or "A Hunger Artist").

K. will never be able to extricate himself from his acknowledgment of his arrest. It is precisely his strange arrest that causes him to feel attracted to the Court; the warders also admit that the Court feels attracted by guilt and that this is the reason they have been sent out. This mutual attraction prevails throughout the story, yet there is also the possibility that it, too, is a lie. Certainly it is remarkable that the Inspector himself says the warders may have told K. a lot of nonsense about the arrest and their role in it.

In an obvious parallel to Gregor Samsa's futile attempt in "The Metamorphosis" to separate the extraordinariness of his insect personality from his daily life, K. also seeks to separate his daily routine at the Bank from the events surrounding his arrest. His three colleagues from the Bank, whom the Inspector has brought along to faciliate K.'s unobtrusive return to his office, show that such a separation is impossible. In fact, K. refers to them as a "Court of Inquiry" during his re-enactment of his arrest later on in Fräulein Bürstner's room. This inseparability is exactly what his uncle means when he says, "to have a case like this means to have already lost it." It has to be this way, for if we accept any real guilt (beyond that purely tactical one of mishandling his trial) on K.'s part, it has been brought about exactly by the way he has lived as a carefree bachelor-businessman. At any rate, by desperately trying to keep the arrest away from his consciousness (conscience), he tries to keep the metaphysical sphere from interfering with his daily life. If something is to make sense to him, it must appear in the familiar form of his material world.

K. is guilty because he has completely buried his moral sensitivity under his job at the Bank. He cannot deal with things, including his case, in terms other than those he uses at the Bank: "The trial was nothing but a big business deal, the kind he has managed successfully many times for the Bank." He never begins to comprehend the fundamentally different nature of this case against him; he only comes to accept certain facts about it later on. He cannot even think of guilt unless it is put in clear-cut legal terms and definitions to him. Neither Samsa nor K. can imagine that their guilt consists precisely of their ignorance of the Law beyond its known bourgeois codification.

K.'s encounter with Fräulein Bürstner is important because she is the first of the three women he meets. They represent the three possibilities vis-a-vis the Court: to stand outside of it, like Fräulein Bürstner; to live in conflict with it, like the usher's wife; and to be its slave, like Leni. As a result of his inability to understand his own case, K. cannot establish any meaningful contact with Fräulein Bürstner beyond that of sexual desire and subsequent deprivation. (In some areas of Germany, "bürsten" is a slang expression for sexual intercourse). The description of K. as "chasing over her face with his tongue like a thirsty animal, then kissing her violently on her neck, right on the throat, before resting his lips there" speaks for itself. (The scene between Frieda and K. in The Castle is similar even to details; it is patterned, in turn, after the seduction scene in "The Stoker" chapter of Amerika). It is important to see that in this assault scene, K. desperately tries to drown himself in sensuality in order to forget his situation. He craves something no woman can possibly supply — oblivion from his suppressed guilt feelings. And these he has from the outset, for in spite of his put-on defiance, he senses he has been summoned before this strange Court to justify his life. He is not even all that taken aback by his arrest, as he says to the Inspector. The assault scene conveys a pattern typical of Kafka, the conflict between pairs of opposites, the continuous ebb and flow between desire and tranquility, movement and standstill.

It is Fräulein Bürstner's function to distract K. from his case simply by being around him. When she asks him how his arrest was, he replies, "terrible," and the narrator continues that he "did not even think about it now that he was moved by her sight." Her other function — and she is the only woman who does so — is to turn him away after their first encounter, thereby trying to direct his attention back to his own case. At the end, K. will think of this when her image appears again and will accept his fate because he realizes he has not taken her advice seriously. That the Inspector conducts his first questioning in her room is evidence for the role she plays in his case.

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