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The Trial | Themes


Justice and the Law

The Trial is about receiving justice—a moral good that human society should afford to every person. Yet in the novel, justice is corrupted because it is ruled over by a court system that itself is corrupt and even sinister. In ordinary life, justice is attained through the law. In the novel, justice is unattainable because the law throws up arbitrary, irrational impediments to accessing it. Josef K. is accused, but the law cannot or will not let him discover what he is accused of. When the law, which ideally is supposed to be a clear-cut system of rules of behavior, is so ambiguous and secretive, finding justice through the law is impossible.

The law is designed not only to prevent the accused from attaining justice, its procedures are inscrutable and cannot be navigated. They ensnare the accused in a labyrinth of malign bureaucracy that ensures that the accused is never exonerated. Any action the accused may take to control or make sense of legal proceedings ends up being counterproductive, even comical.

A person cannot receive justice if he is ignorant of the charges against him. The Trial has been variously interpreted as a denunciation of social institutions and bureaucracy, or as a more profound examination of the innate guilt of the individual as judged by a totally remote but judgmental God. The novel may be read to imply that for God all people are guilty because no one is ever truly and fully innocent. In any case and whatever the interpretation, justice is presented as a moral state that can never be realized.

The Absurd

The law in The Trial is irrational, incomprehensible, and therefore, absurd. The more Josef K. tries to pursue his case rationally, the more enmeshed in irrationality he becomes. His rational actions just make his situation worse. The nonsensical aspects of his predicament, and his futile efforts to understand or control them, lend humor to the otherwise grim aspects of the story.

It is worth repeating here Franz Kafka's approach to the absurd: "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." Josef K. tries to prove his innocence, but the harder he tries, the more certain is his guilt. That is absurd. In an absurd system, all logical thoughts and plans are equally pointless and ineffective—if not actually counterproductive.

To make matters worse—or even more absurd—K.'s fate rests with the upper echelons of the court—the highest judges—who are so beyond the mundane world of the accused (and even of the lawyers and lower judges) that no one knows them, has ever seen them, or can exert any influence on them. Nothing a person does can have any impact on the ineffable powers that hold one's fate in their hands. Yet the accused must save his life by scurrying frenziedly around on the ground trying to find a way to salvation. The futility of action in an absurd, irrational universe can be comical, but it is certainly terrifying.

Ambiguity: Guilt and Innocence

The law in The Trial is enigmatic and highly equivocal. It is ambiguous because there is no clear, or even distinguishable, distinction between guilt and innocence—which are states that are normally based on laws. Josef K. never discovers what law he's broken that makes him guilty. The law is so blurry that guilt is assumed and the accused can do nothing to disprove it. Josef K. cannot know where he stands in his case because all documents and other vital information are withheld from him. Their content is ambiguous and has a questionable, indecipherable impact on his case. Their utility, too, is ambiguous. Dr. Huld is supposedly busy preparing K.'s court documents, which he says are at once vital and useless. Facts, also, are malleable. What may be stated as fact in one paragraph or chapter may be clearly refuted in another. Statements and behavior are equally tenuous. The characters in the novel lie, cheat, and manipulate each other for their own ends. The truth, if it exists, is buried under a mountain of ambiguity.

The greatest ambiguity in the novel is presented in the parable, "Before the Law." The law is both open and accessible and at the same time withheld and unattainable. The characters in the parable have several options open to them, but all have uncertain outcomes and most are contradictory. The parable is so ambiguous that the prison chaplain makes equally cogent yet diametrically opposite interpretations of it. By extension, the law itself has the same impenetrable ambiguity.

Guilt and innocence are mentioned throughout the novel. The guilt of the accused is assumed, and there's nothing he can do to reverse that judgment. Because the law is unfathomable, what this guilt consists of is ambiguous. The novel seems to present guilt as an innate part of the human condition. Kafka also treats innocence—which Josef K. loudly and repeatedly proclaims for himself—as something almost alien. If the law cannot be known, then it's easy to break laws you know nothing about. If that is the state of the world, then no one can claim to be innocent. The qualities of guilt and innocence are ambiguous; the line between them (if it exists) is barely discernible.

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