Critical Essays On K.'S Guilt, the Court, and the Law


Certainly The Trial has many layers of meaning which not even the most "scientific" analysis can decode, be it psychoanalytically or, more recently, linguistically oriented. The probably inevitable result of the novel's multi-level makeup is that certain components are stressed while others are not. Yet it seems that, in spite of this danger, our view of K. will pretty much determine our interpretation.

Both the philosophical-theological and the autobiographical interpretations shed light on two important layers. If we view the Court only as a description of a corrupt bureaucratic system, or as a projection of Kafka's personal problems, K. winds up as the miserable victim whose story grants mankind absolutely no hope in a totally alienated world. The same is true if we take the parable, the novel's artistic focal point, and view it as the tribunal where K., elevated to an absolute level, is forced to vindicate himself as a representative of mankind without really knowing why or how.

If we look at K. as guilty, as a man who is part and parcel of this faulty world and whose aberrations result in severe, though logically consistent occurrences, then we must acknowledge a higher Law toward whose absolute standards K. is stumbling. Looking at The Trial this way makes it appear not only as a portrayal of human desperation, but also as one of Kafka's faith: not faith in the sense of salvation, or even orientation, to be sure, but faith in his eventual acceptance of his sinful life and its consequences.

In this interpretation, K. does not die as a result of his involved and absurd situation, but because he was already dead inwardly at his arrest. From the very outset of the story he does not love anybody or anything, does not aim for anything beyond his immediate physical needs, is insensitive and egotistical. His assets are limited to purely economic concerns to a point which keeps him from comprehending the nature of his own new situation. But his self-assurance and defiance against the bizarre authorities, which seem to amount to justified protest in the eyes of the reader — at this point still sympathetic to him — gradually disappear. The longer the trial lasts, the more K. becomes aware that the strange Court with all its bizarre and corrupt officials may have the right to investigate against him after all. As the priest warns

K. during their discussion about the meaning of the parable, "It may be that you don't know the nature of the Court you are serving." It makes sense, therefore, to see the many scenes of K.'s trial as sequences of his evolving consciousness (and conscience; the two words are cognates). In this case, the final scene with all its horror represents the last consequence of guilt in the form of a nightmare. If we accept this view, then the confusing and contradictory aspects of the Court are also a reflection of K.'s inner condition.

It is important to understand that there are many levels of the Court, most of them tangible, corrupt, and dealing with K. in a most haphazard way. The highest level is, above all, elusive. The levels at which K. fights mirror the shortcomings of this life (his included, as said above) and are therefore in no position to pass judgment. The representatives of these levels become bogged down in unresolved and unresolvable issues and utter "diverse viewpoints" at best. Their ranks "mount endlessly so that not even the initiated can survey the hierarchy as a whole," and each level "actually knows less than the defense." Even the "high judges" are "common" and, contrary to popular belief, sit only on "kitchen chairs." These officials represent the sensual unhampered forces of life itself. Their power is such that nobody can escape them. At the same time, and this makes for their paradoxical nature, they are forever caught up in reflecting and registering in a rather abstract realm removed from life. "They were often utterly at a loss; they did not have any right understanding of human relations."

Beyond these bungling levels of the Court, there is the highest seat of Law itself, absolute and inaccessible, yet weighing more and more heavily on K., who becomes increasingly aware of its existence and its relevance to his case. It marks that point of the endless legal pyramid where the notions of justice and inevitability come together, where the countless contradictions and errors of its organs are reconciled. It is the instance which K. becomes drawn to, of which he has an increasingly definite feeling that he has been summoned before it to justify his life. This is the Law he has to serve and which he has violated by being unaware of its existence.

The indifferent and corrupt authorities "are merely sent out by the highest Court." They do not know their superiors. They stand clearly below this "highest Law." This is why the doorkeeper of the parable stands before the Law rather than in it.

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