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The Trial | Context

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The Trial was written in 1914–15 and only published posthumously. In one of the notebooks Franz Kafka kept, he wrote that literature should be "the axe that destroyed the frozen sea within us." His works, especially The Trial, are so compelling and disturbing, so destructive of the ordinary world people experience, that they ruthlessly (but artfully) shatter the inner sense of individual and societal solidity.

World War I

Kafka wrote The Trial as World War I was getting under way. Even at that time, it was already clear that World War I would become a catastrophe that would leave tens of millions dead. It was a war that patriotic young men from many European nations were at first enthusiastic about. Monarchs, politicians, and much of the press used patriotic propaganda to entice young men to enlist in the armed forces to defend their nation's honor. Yet the Great War was not about honor. World War I was ostensibly fought over maintaining "the balance of power on the continent of Europe ... [Britain had a] foreign policy holding to a longstanding principle that no one nation should ever be permitted to dominate the continent." The war was a prolonged and bloody combat to prevent any one imperial power from gaining ground over any other imperial power. The Allied forces (Great Britain, Italy, France, Japan, and Russia, joined by the United States in 1917) battled the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey) to restore this balance.

It was this jockeying for position within Europe that sent millions of young men into battle. Once they reached the front, these patriotic and idealistic soldiers found that the "glories" of war trumpeted by their leaders were a sham. Nearly the entire war was fought by soldiers living, sleeping, and eating in narrow trenches dug into the ground. Conditions were unspeakably awful, with mud and rats and the stench of waste and dead bodies permeating everything. World War I was also the first war in which chemical weapons—mustard gas—was used to kill enemy forces. Death by lethal gas was agonizing. Other soldiers died in the "no-man's land" between their and the enemy's trenches. Soldiers charged "over the top" of their trench onto the open battlefield where many were gunned down. The purpose of these attacks was to gain just a bit more of the enemy's territory, sometimes just a few yards.

More than 8 million soldiers were killed in the war and at least 21 million more were injured. Those who survived carried the scars of war throughout their lives. By war's end, it became clear to most Europeans—and especially those of the younger generation—that their terrible sacrifice had had little real purpose or meaning. The horrific slaughter seemed unrelated to the noble-sounding rationales that instigated the war. For many, there arose a feeling that millions of lives had been sacrificed by bureaucrats and political and military leaders for an ultimately pointless conflict. Among those who survived, the "realization that they [had] fought for [their] nation which gave them no rights" (most nations in the conflict were not democracies) embittered them and led them to question—and often reject—the authority of government, social institutions, and prewar social mores.

The Absurd

Many young people lost faith not only in authority and leaders, they questioned reason itself because deceitful rationales had been used to justify the war. Thus, the whole enterprise was irrational. Some people began to feel that life itself was meaningless and irrational. The literary tradition that grew up around this view was a "literature of the absurd," in which events are without meaning or understandable causes and people are either caught up in the web of irrational events or are totally disengaged from them. They are alienated from the irrational, senseless society in which they live. In his diary entry for August 2, 1914—two days before Great Britain declared war on Germany—Kafka noted, "Germany has declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon." Kafka notes what happened but does not try to find meaning or rationality in it. A declaration of war has the same weight and depth of meaning as going for a swim.

When society's rules and reasons are irrational, life in that society becomes absurd. When an ordinary person living an ordinary life is thrust into an existentially threatening and incomprehensible situation in which he or she is powerless, life is overtaken by the absurd. The Trial explores the absurdity of life controlled by remote, incomprehensible, and irrational authority. The reader should perhaps not seek a logical narrative or rational underpinnings in the tale Kafka tells in The Trial. However, the reader should be aware that Kafka was keenly aware of how funny absurdity and irrationality can be. The reader should be open to the occasionally laugh-out-loud humor found in the more absurd events and dialogues in the novel.

Kafka's contribution to the absurdist movement is best summarized by the common use of the term Kafkaesque to describe inexplicably irrational and absurd events. Many languages—including German, French, Spanish, and Greek—use a form of Kafkaesque to describe absurd situations. One scholar defines Kafkaesque as "when you enter a surreal world in which ... your control patterns, all your plans ... your behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don't give up ... you struggle against this with ... whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance. That's Kafkaesque." That certainly describes Josef K.'s predicament in The Trial. Kafka is the only modern writer to have his name used as an adjective that is "representative of our times."

Allegory

The Trial is often read as an allegory, a story in which characters and events stand for an idea or situation. Some literary critics have viewed The Trial as an allegory for inhuman bureaucracy. In this case, the court and those who work for it are mindless government bureaucrats who carry out directives that make as little sense to them as they do to their victims. The law may be thought of allegorically as any political authority—especially totalitarian or dictatorial—that wrests control and agency from its citizens and demands abject submission that leads to dire, unjust, and unsubstantiated punishment. In either case, the allegory is a critique of authoritarian political order.

The Trial may also be an allegory about the traditional morality of society. If so, then Franz Kafka sometimes uses the humor in the novel to show that the smug certainties of moral leaders and philosophers about what is moral or immoral—or right and wrong—are wholly arbitrary and, thus, meaningless. In the novel, the law and the court represent those who hand down and enforce an "official" morality on society, even though they keep themselves hidden so their rules and judgments cannot be questioned or appealed.

Others see The Trial as a religious allegory. It is particularly in the parable, "Before the Law," that the notion of the human relationship with the divine is most forceful. However, the Law—which is never explained or revealed in the novel—may also represent implacable divine judgment on the individual. Like God, the Law is omniscient. It is drawn to Josef K. because, somehow, it knows of his guilt. Like God, the Law is omnipotent because it has absolute power over Josef K.'s life and death. The Law is godlike in its unknowability. No one, even those who work with the court, knows what the laws are, how the Law works, or how its judgments are reached. Josef K. is not allowed to know what he is accused of, although the Law insists that it knows he is guilty. Only the divine can exert such total and incomprehensible power over people. And, as with God—at least in Kafka's view—there is no recourse and no appeal against the Law's fearsome justice.

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