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The Trial

Franz Kafka

Summary and Analysis Chapter 9


The Bank picks K. as a guide for an Italian visitor because he speaks the language and is knowledgeable about art. As far as the structure of the novel goes, Kafka uses this connection to demonstrate one more time how utterly inseparable K.'s world of the Bank is from that of his case.

While waiting for his visitor in the cathedral, K. notices a picture and scans it with his flashlight. The cathedral, by the way, is Prague's fourteenth-century St. Vitus Cathedral, under whose Gothic spires Kafka grew up. This is important because Kafka's proverbial love of Prague has been used to argue for the arrangement of Chapter 9 as the culmination point immediately before the final chapter. Note, too, that one of the pictures shows a knight who "seemed to watch an event carefully which went on before his eyes. It was surprising that he did not go nearer." An underlying pattern of Kafka's world, a combination of strong intentionality and absence of motion, becomes visible here. We have dealt with it before in the form of desire and immediate deprivation; here, it is hesitancy that keeps him from following up his intention of looking at it more clearly. The picture brings to mind the doorkeeper of the parable "Before the Law," when K. remarks that the "knight could have been meant to stand guard."

Upon reading the parable, we sense that it mixes concrete and abstract images, that it is an artistic attempt at expressing the basically inexpressible. We will revert to this point after dealing with it in detail. The man from the country, who has not expected "to run into any great troubles," suddenly learns at the door to the Law that he cannot gain admission now. It is astounding that the question he immediately asks is not why he is being denied admission now but, rather, whether perhaps he might be allowed to enter later. Kafka's all-pervading pattern begins to assume contours already: the man from the country has a fatal way of giving away the advantage of initiative. Rather than insisting on clarifying this first essential item, he yields to pressure that at first does not manifest itself as such. The answer he receives to his second, less relevant, question — whether he will be permitted to enter later — is vague, so vague that it reinforces his already strong hesitancy to act. The doorkeeper's statements that he is "powerful" and "only the lowest doorkeeper" intimidate the man from the country enough to prevent his asking any further questions, much less his trying to enter. His aim having been thwarted (this, anyway, is what he thinks has happened), he gradually loses interest in it and permits himself to be distracted. More and more he becomes attracted by the doorkeeper's face, his beard, and even the fleas in his fur coat. His fixation on these irrelevant details mounts, rendering him ever more incapable of acting on his own. The doorkeeper is not described as inhuman. Quite the contrary: he offers the man from the country a chair by the entrance. There he spends the better part of his life, and it becomes obvious that Kafka is here, among other things, also portraying a complex mental process.

As the years pass, the man from the country develops the idée fixe that the man supposedly keepmg him away from the Law is the only obstacle. The man from the country retrogresses, his vision becoming ever more myopic, which is beautifully expressed in his dwindling eyesight. That he sees the "radiance" of the Law only as he dies is a theme which we find in many of Kafka's pieces, most prominently perhaps in "The Penal Colony": it is only in the face of death that we recognize the beauty or even the mere existence of the Law (the Absolute?). Though his single-mindedness of purpose has slackened considerably, the man from the country still has moods in which he pursues his original aim. This is exactly the point that Kafka tries to make: he is inconsistent, dependent on moods, and casting about for outside help, as is K. He humiliates himself further by trying to bribe the doorkeeper. But this is in vain: the doorkeeper accepts, but only to keep the man from thinking that he has left one approach untried. The man from the country thus proves the inaccessibility of the Law, but also his unceasing quest. The one decisive question he never asks is this: why is he not being admitted? As he is about to pass away, he asks something he must have noticed for some time — why nobody else besides him has tried to enter through this door. The doorkeeper's reply is most frightening because it shows that our seeker's recognition of the "radiance," his awareness of insight into the Absolute, has come too late — if, indeed, it could have altered his fate at all. The reply is, "No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it."

This means that the man has not been mistaken in his belief that there is potential meaning to his life. It is just that this meaning turns out to be inaccessible to him, at least as he might benefit from it. The fundamental question is whether he could have attained cognizance of the "radiance" if he had acted differently. The man from the country is a man doomed to remain in the antechamber of paradise, who nonetheless hopes to gain admission through perseverance. The tragedy is that he perseveres by waiting pointlessly rather than by determining the right road for himself. But as one of Kafka's famous aphorisms says, "There is a goal, but no road. What we term 'road' is nothing but hesitating." The man from the country, then, or K., realizes as he dies (is led away to his execution) that his battle has taken place in front of the door set aside for him alone, and that, for a cursed reason beyond his understanding, he has lost it. Let us remember again that, though the man from the country may very well be guilty of a lack of initiative or determination, thereby possibly forfeiting his chance of entry, this in no way explains why he is condemned to such a harrowing situation in the first place. Translated into the language of the novel, this means that K.'s possible, even probable, mishandling of his case has nothing to do with his fundamental guilt, with which he is burdened from the outset. The mishandling of his case may be the result of his fundamental guilt, but it does not explain it.

There have been countless interpretations of the parable, but they all can be classified under two categories. Each has to come to terms with the crucial question: would the doorkeeper have held back the man from the country if he had simply walked through the door? Let us first discuss the line of interpretation which answers with a clear "no." In order to be consistent, it will also have to pronounce K. guilty in the sense that he mishandles his case, thus forfeiting his chance of acquittal.

That the doorkeeper goes to shut the door at precisely the moment the man dies illustrates that the two men are but two aspects of the same phenomenon and are dependent upon each other. They both represent aspects of our innermost struggle between activity and passivity, initiative and hesitancy, or conviction and doubt. In other words, the doorkeeper's vagueness and ambivalence is a direct function of the supplicant's failure to try to enter. His determination would have forced the doorkeeper either to yield to demands or to turn the man away by force. If we ask the doorkeeper within us for permission instead of acting on our own, we will certainly not be permitted in, for it is the doorkeeper's function to say "no." The lesson of the parable is that the man from the country should have tested the alleged power of the guard. He might very well have discovered that the guard's power is a figment of his imagination, the result of his own hesitation. He would also have discovered that, once the first "doorkeeper" is behind us, the others look far less invincible: a psychological mechanism sets in, reinforcing our self-assurance with each successive step. Within itself this argument makes sense. The trouble is, however, that it grants a degree of freedom to the man from the country which he simply does not have. His severe mishandling of his case is the inevitable consequence of guilt accumulated throughout his life. Both lie buried in his insensitivity and amorality.

The other line of interpretation argues that it is the fate of the man from the country to have to fight a battle he cannot possibly win. As far as K.'s case is concerned, certainly, there are many more lines in The Trial, as well as in Kafka's stories and letters, in favor of this more pessimistic outlook. At any rate, this outlook takes issue with the key sentence of the first interpretation: the doorkeeper would not have held back the man if he had merely tried to walk through. The argument is now, from the doorkeeper's reply, "the door was intended for you; I am now going to shut it." The parable draws its enormous tension — the tension between the certainty of a goal and the impossibility of reaching it. It argues that "Before the Law," as, indeed, the whole novel, would not be a parable but only a thrilling exercise in brinkmanship if the doorkeeper's reaction were made subject to the supplicant's determination. The very point of the novel, runs the argument, is that the human condition is vis-a-vis logically insolvable paradoxes — that is, a human obligation to come to terms with them by accepting them as necessary. This interpretation argues that there can be no clear-cut answer to the question of how the man from the country should have acted because this is a false or irrelevant question in the first place. Why pose this question once we know he cannot escape his punishment, the just and inevitable consequence of the guilt he loaded upon himself long before his thirtieth birthday?

Ambivalence also characterizes the conversation K. has with the priest about the interpretation of the parable. As a member of the Court, the priest reproaches K. for deluding himself about the nature of the Law which he has to "serve." Yet none of the interpretations they discuss emerges as absolutely correct. The priest warns K. not to pay too much attention to mere "opinions." The main insights of this round of intellectual one-upmanship are, as the priest puts it, that "it is not necessary to accept everything as true, but only as necessary," and that, as K. counters, "both conclusions are to some extent compatible." This is a variation of the priest's statement at the beginning of their discussion, a most revealing comment on the nature of both the Law and Kafka's writing: "The right perception of any matter and the misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other."

Perhaps the most mature way of looking at the parable, and thus the novel, is contained in a famous section from the short story "The Great Wall of China" (1918):

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely symbols and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the wise man says "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if it were worth the effort; he means some miraculous beyond, something unknown to us, something he too cannot define more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the least. All these symbols merely express that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we have known that before. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this, a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the symbols you would become symbols yourselves, and thus rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet this is also a symbol. The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only symbolically. The first said: No, in reality; symbolically you have lost.

The upshot is that the parable seems to have been invented with the explicit intention of defying interpretation.

The pictorial quality of K.'s language assumes a rare density in the parable. It is amazing how distinctly we can see both the doorkeeper and the man from the country before us. Nothing really seems abstract, and we almost forget that the man has waited all his lifetime. The doorkeeper's language enhances our vivid impressions of an everyday event as do the sentences beginning with "he," through which we are drawn close to the entrance seeker. His voice we hear only once at the end in the form of a question, a marvelous way of showing his metaphysical loneliness.