Summary and Analysis
The significance of this chapter, like that of Chapter 1, lies in its chronological explicity. Not only do the two black-frocked men pick up K., also dressed in black, at 9 A.M. — the warders arrested K. (also both in black) before 9 A.M. — but this chapter also deals with the evening preceding K.'s thirty-first birthday. Exactly a year has elapsed between the two chapters. It is at the end of this chapter that the only occurrence of the whole story eluding all speculation takes place: K.'s death.
Death has been a possibility throughout, though always covered up by K.'s counter-measure and pleas of innocence. In fact, at one point in the opening chapter, when K. is left alone by the warders for a moment, he muses over the possibility of suicide only to dismiss it right away as a "senseless act."
It is now more obvious than ever that the Court does not intend to do anything against K.'s will. As the priest put it in the previous chapter, suggesting that the Court is apt to recede before K.'s thrusts: "The Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go." The reason for the Court's compliance is of course that K. is at its complete mercy anyway. The executioners who appear as he has expected them to are even more polite than the warders were. They can afford to be because their grip on K. is total, symbolized by the way they lock him between themselves "in a unity which would have brought all three down together had one of them been knocked over." This description brings back one of the warders' reminder in the opening chapter that he and his colleague "stand closer to you (K.) than any other people in the world." These two sentences have been made the basis for an interpretation of the warders and executioners as parts of K.'s personality, even his superego.
At any rate, the three make their way across the bridge, and K. turns toward the rails — a motion toward suicide reminiscent of "The Judgment" (1913), where Georg Bendemann's end also brings his relief. K. does not have the strength to carry out his plan, however. He has another chance to kill himself at the very end when preparations for his execution at the quarry are made: "K. now knew exactly that it would have been his duty to grab the knife passing back and forth over his head and plunge it into his own breast." Again he cannot summon enough willpower. He also cannot accept the responsibility which "rested with whoever had not granted him not enough strength to commit the deed."
Fräulein Bürstner's appearance (perhaps only in his mind?) also supplies a link to the opening chapter. It occurs exactly at the moment when K. considers a last attempt at resisting. This is consistent with the portrait we have of her because she was the only one who admonished him to rely on himself and, consequently, refused to listen to him after their first meeting. Her appearance triggers the realization in
K. that he has failed to follow her advice and that resistance to his impending end is senseless now: "I always wanted to attack the world with twenty hands and, also, for a purpose not to be approved. That was wrong. Shall I now demonstrate that not even this one-year-old trial could teach me? Shall I leave this world without common sense? Shall people say after I am gone that at the outset of my case I wanted to carry it to an end and that at the end of it I wanted to start over again? I don't want them to say that." This proves that K. is not interested in showing his innocence any longer. On the other hand, it is hardly possible to construct his guilt out of this admission that he "wanted to attack the world with twenty hands." The sole issue now is the most proper form of his death. If he has not been able to prove his innocence, at least he wants to go down with "common sense" and not as a coward. He has resigned himself to the necessity of his pronouncement as "guilty." We should not forget that the connection between guilt and punishment is not the explicit subject of the novel, although it is K. himself who is eager at the outset to attain a juridically clear interpretation of this connection. This, he believes then, would eventually have to lead to his acquittal.
The last sentence, "'Like a dog!' It was as if the shame of it must outlive him," reads as if Kafka had wished K.'s unsatisfactory and sad death. In light of a diary entry, according to which Kafka regarded K.'s execution as a direct reference to the humiliations at the hands of his father, this becomes even more plausible. Yet we should at least consider the possibility of K.'s death as a liberation. After all, in the parable mentioned previously, the man from the country experiences the Law's "radiance" precisely at the moment he dies: the moment of death coincides with his awareness of his actual situation. In the context of the novel, this means that the more K. "sees through" the world of the Court and his situation, the closer he gets to his death. From this realization it is but a short step to his desire to die.
Without for a moment trying to overrate the autobiographical element, we should still mention that several entries in Kafka's diary suggest that K.'s eventual and positive assessment of his death may well be a reflection of Kafka's repeated desire to commit suicide as a way out of his problems. (The most prominent diary entry is that of November 2, 1911.)
Another indication of Kafka's relativization of K.'s death and his remarkable distance toward it is the hero's almost comical question to his executioners, "What theater are you playing at?" The answer comes in the form of consternation and silence, suggesting that every possible objection to K.'s execution has already been raised.
The intensity of the last scene is enhanced by the image of a human being flashing across the horizon over the quarry. The questions K. may feel emerging now freeze into one prolonged scream. They have become meaningless and show the complete breakdown of his whole argumentation along the lines of logic. All his life he has chosen this legal-logical approach rather than recognize the actual forces of life, which are not those of legality and logic. "Logic is doubtless unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living." The will to life mentioned here is already undermined in Chapter 1, and his inability to commit suicide now is only its final, perverted manifestation. His helpless floundering reflects the utter hopelessness of his fate. The correspondence of this hopelessness with his floundering frenzy is one of the elementary appeals of all of Kafka's writings. The almost complete absence of verbal expression, much less metaphysical speculation, increases this appeal. As Kafka once put it, "I have to write like one who can only help himself by wildly throwing around his arms."