The Trial

The Trial Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How is The Trial emblematic of the term "Kafkaesque"?

    The term "Kafkaesque" refers to Franz Kafka's signature narrative sensibility, which often involves a solitary man trying futilely to escape an absurd and nightmarish situation. The Trial evinces Kafka's signature narrative sensibility as the story depicts Josef K.'s pointless attempts to fight an inscrutable court system that accuses him of an unspecified crime. Throughout the novel, K. is overpowered and exhausted by the complex and illogical bureaucratic organization of the court system, which ensures that he only ever comes into contact with low-level officials who carry out the whims of the court but claim to hold no power to influence the outcome of his trial. He tries to understand the system in order to beat it, but there is no possible end to the bureaucratic hierarchy in the world Kafka imagines. Ultimately, despite all his efforts, Joseph K. succumbs to the disorienting and nightmarish reality of his world. Worn down by the futility of his attempts at resistance, K. gives in to being executed for a crime that is never revealed to him.

  2. 2

    Does Josef K. believe himself guilty of a crime?

    In The Trial, Kafka establishes that the court is prosecuting Josef K. for a crime he has supposedly committed. However, the nature of the crime is never revealed to K. or the reader. When K. is informed of his arrest, he refuses to accept any charges laid out against him and questions the authority of this court he has never heard of but which everyone else seems to be familiar with. He decides to fight for his innocence, resolving to shake up the entire bureaucratic court system, pointing out the illogic of its charges. But despite his insistence on his innocence, the court's authority is pervasive, and its reputation for never changing its mind once a person is assumed guilty makes the absence of a specific crime irrelevant; whether or not K. has done anything wrong, he lives his life as a defendant presumed guilty. The effort K. expends in his futile refutation of the charges leads to his spirit of steadily wearing down. Although he doesn't believe himself guilty, as he has never learned what he is accused of, K. patiently goes along with the men sent to administer his execution. Regardless of whether he accepts the situation out of guilt or his inability to fight the system, K. dies with a sense of shame, suggesting that his personal feelings as to his guilt or innocence make no difference when his guilt has been decided by the higher authority of the court.

  3. 3

    In what way is the prison chaplain's parable applicable to K.'s trial?

    When K. meets the prison chaplain in the cathedral toward the end of the book, the chaplain recites a parable (previously published as a standalone story titled "Before the Law") about a man who spends most of his life waiting to enter a gate and gain access "to the Law." The guard tasked with keeping the man from entering reveals at the end of the man's life that the gate was specially made for him; the guard then closes the gate. While the parable invites a multiplicity of interpretations, it most directly parallels K.'s story in its theme of futility. The situational irony at the end of the parable establishes that the man's wait was pointless, just as K.'s efforts to fight the authority of the court are pointless. In both men's cases, any questions about the illogical nature of their predicaments are ignored. Their stories end with their deaths, which bring no additional clarity to their lives.

  4. 4

    In what way could The Trial be considered prescient?

    Literary scholars have cited Franz Kafka's depiction of an oppressive and illogical bureaucracy exercising the power of life and death over the public as predicting the rise of fascist totalitarian governments in the twenty-year period following Kafka's death. While the court system in Kafka's novel differs from totalitarian governments in that, in most cases, fascist governments were democratically elected while the court seems simply to have arisen out of nothing, Kafka's vision of an unassailable and violent system of justice seems to foretell the emergence of fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, and several other European countries. The court's strict demands of compliance and the threat of sudden and arbitrary arrest or violence as punishment for no specified crime have clear parallels with the German Nazi party's violent persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Roma people, disabled people, and political opponents.

  5. 5

    What roles does the concept of futility play in The Trial?

    As one of the novel's major themes, futility plays a central role in The Trial. As the novel progresses, K. is thwarted in his every attempt to influence the outcome of his trial. His inability to achieve any positive results from his efforts is made worse by the repeated assertions of other characters that K. will ultimately be unsuccessful in his attempts to sway the court. The guards who inform him of his arrest have no information about why he was arrested, but they insist K. must accept his fate and not try to fight back. Similarly, Titorelli tells K. he has never heard of a defendant achieving a dismissal, as the court is incredibly difficult to influence. Huld's nurse Leni insists that K. must confess his guilt if he hopes to escape his fate, even though he is ignorant of what he might be guilty of. The theme of futility is also present in the parable "Before the Law," which the prison chaplain discusses with K. The parable is about a man who waits his entire life to gain entry to the Law, only to discover that it was pointless to have waited because the guard had no intention of ever admitting him. Ultimately, it would seem that K. accepts the futility of his own life, as he goes along with the executioners with little protest.