Structure and Order of Chapters in The Trial
As we follow K.'s stumbling through the story, we get the distinct feeling that there is not much of a development he goes through. Not even Huld, for instance, with all his insight and connections, knows whether K.'s case has ever gotten off the ground. There is no "way," or, more appropriately, whatever appears to be K.'s "way" assumes an altogether different meaning in the thicket of the Court's endless mazes. Kafka once wrote, "The true way leads over a rope which is not strung up in the air but a little above ground; it seems designed to cause us to stumble rather than be walked on." What we have in The Trial is a detailed depiction of K.'s directionless stumbling.
The abrupt beginning is a good case in point. We know nothing about K.'s background, and his attempt to vindicate himself through a written petition referring to his past fails miserably before he has a chance of carrying it through. To argue that a major structural reason for this absence of a "way" lies in the closely defined time span of the novel is not very convincing. Many twentieth-century novels also deal with strictly defined time spans and yet do not confront the reader with such a complete tabula rasa of their heroes' backgrounds.
Each chapter has the pronounced tendency to start all over again because thematic interconnections are unclear if not absent altogether. The entire section with Titorelli, for instance, is but a variation of the section with Huld. Both scenes rely on a mediator to even get K. in touch with Huld and Titorelli, respectively. This repetitiveness is important, especially if we see the authorities as a reflection of K.'s ruminating consciousness (conscience). Kafka freely admitted that the multiplicity of possible directions was a subject that was close to him personally: "I always had to tackle the radius and then to break it off . . . The center of the imaginary circle is full of beginnings." The broken off "radiuses" of this novel are the many chapter fragments. Frequently, they do not seem to lead anywhere except to ever-new beginnings — to K.'s former girl friend Elsa, to his mother, to the lawyer's regular get-togethers at the pub fragments included at the end of the 1969 Vintage Book edition used here).
Kafka himself was aware of the fragmentary character of his work (about four-fifths, fragments) and also recognized his inability to complete things. This inability lay buried in his overly keen perception of the infinite possibilities following from each kaleidoscopic situation and his uncompromising desire for writing the "true" rather than the "necessary," to use the priest's final comment to K. He was, as he said himself, obsessed with writing and yet doomed as a writer because he could never hope to trace the manifold ramifications of each aspect or nuance. It is important to see that his repeated breaking off of "beginning radiuses" is not a flaw of this particular novel, but the consistent result of his temperament that corresponded to his frustratingly imperfect, and hence fragmentary, world view. Kafka was by temperament and outlook committed to remain uncommitted.
It does not follow from this, however, that there is no unity in the novel. The Court is, as Titorelli says, "everywhere," and it does indeed hold together the diverse radiuses of action. The Court holds them together in the sense that all scenes are pervaded by incomprehensibility which unites all of K.'s flounderings. It is of course true that this statement of cohesion is a negative one: to the extent it exists, it is the result of the absence of direction, commitment, a "way" — one radius traveled to the end.
The Trial has a particular problem because there has been considerable disagreement as to the order of several chapters. It has been argued that, well-rounded though the scenes and the central pieces within this novel are ("Before the Law," for instance), some of the chapters are almost interchangeable as far as their placement goes. This is said to be the direct result of the lack of coherence of the novel — that is, the virtual absence of a plot. Though there is something to this argument, "interchangeability" is probably too harsh a word. It would presuppose that Kafka, the exceedingly conscientious writer, deliberately refrained from an overall pattern for the novel.
Brod's arrangement of the chapters was valid, or at least accepted as such, until a new arrangement was attempted by Herman Uyttersprot in his detailed study, On the Structure of Kafka's "Trial" (Brussels, 1953). His argument is that Brod's arrangement is wrong in several instances, especially as far as the novel's time factor goes. Uyttersprot discovered that the events of the novel cannot be fitted into the time interval between K.'s thirtieth and thirty-first birthdays. How can, he argues, winter (Chapter 7) precede autumn (Chapter 9) in the course of the one year of K.'s trial? He rearranged a few chapters, even included a few fragments that had been added as loose ends by Brod. He places Chapter 4 right after Chapter 1, arguing that the sentences in Chapter 4 referring to Frau Grubach's insults against Fräulein Bürstner in Chapter 1 find a more logical continuation this way. His main argument, however, concerns the crucial Chapter 9.
Whether one adheres to Brod's original arrangement of this chapter in next-to-last position or prefers the new order of Chapter 9 preceding Chapter 7, the parable chapter is the artistic culmination point of the novel. If one accepts the new arrangement, the scene between K. and the priest loses its paramount position as the major pointer to K.'s immediate end. It rather assumes the role of a portentous warning to
K. One can certainly argue that it makes more sense to have the priest reprimand K. in Chapter 7 while there is still time (this presupposes that K. does have alternatives while fighting his case), rather than only before his end. In fact, the frantic involvement with his case begins only after the priest's parable and sub-sequent discussion.
Plausible though the new arrangement is, all we know for a fact is that Kafka did not finish The Trial. Moreover, several possible arrangements are certainly compatible with each other. It may well be that Brod and Uyttersprot give us the original and later arrangement, respectively. What we do know is that these problems result from Brod's inexact notes and rather free way of editing, which, in turn, are partly the consequence of his lifelong and intense friendship with Kafka.