The Trial can be interpreted from various different angles, and literary critics have not agreed on one clear-cut interpretation. Generally, there are five major perspectives:
- Historical-critical: against the background of the social tensions in Austria-Hungary prior to the outbreak of World War I
- Religious: especially regarding Kafka's Jewish descent
- Psychoanalytical: The Trial as a symbol of the awareness and projection of an inner process (in German, the word Prozess can refer to both a trial and a process)
- Political and sociological: as a criticism of an autonomous and inhuman bureaucracy and of a lack of civil rights
Although the diverse interpretations of the novel provide valuable insights, they are often impeded by the critics' eagerness to squeeze these insights into a frame which, ultimately, is beyond the novel's text. Kafka's novel The Castle shows similar tendencies as well. Only later interpretations, e.g. by the German writer Martin Walser, express an increasing demand for a strictly text-based view. Current works, e.g. by the contemporary literary critic Peter-André Alt, go into the same direction.
Relations to other texts by Kafka
The myth of guilt and judgement discussed in The Trial has its cultural roots in the Hasidic tradition, where tales of plaintiff and defendant, heavenly judgement and punishment, unfathomable authorities and obscure charges are not uncommon.
There are many parallels between Kafka's The Trial and his other major novel, The Castle. In both novels, the protagonist wanders through a labyrinth that seems to be designed to make him fail or even seems to have no relation to him at all. Ill, bedridden men explain the system in lengthy terms. Erotically charged female figures turn to the protagonist in a demanding way.
Written around the same time, in October 1914, the short story In the Penal Colony bears close resemblance to The Trial. In both cases, the delinquent does not know what he is charged with. A single person – an officer with a gruesome machine – seems to be accuser, judge and executioner in one.
The idea that a single executioner could be enough to arbitrarily replace the entire court is exactly what Josef K. is frightened of.
Diversity of interpretations
One possible interpretative approach is to read the novel autobiographically. This claim is supported by the similarities in the initials of Fräulein Bürstner and Felice Bauer. In July 1914, shortly before beginning work on The Trial, Kafka had broken his engagement with Bauer. Elias Canetti points out that the intensely detailed description of the court system hints at Kafka's work as an insurance lawyer.
Theodor W. Adorno takes the opposite view. According to him, The Trial does not tell the story of an individual fate but rather contains wide-reaching political and visionary aspects and can be read as a vision predicting the Nazi terror.
German scholar Claus Hebell offers a synthesis of these two positions and demonstrates that the negotiating strategy used by the bureaucratic court system during the process to demoralize Kafka is reminiscent of the deficiencies in the Austro-Hungarian Empire's judicial system.
A few selected aspects of interpretation
Over the course of the novel, it becomes evident that K. and the court do not face each other as distinct separate entities but that they are interweaved. This interweaving between K. and the court system increasingly intensifies throughout the novel. Towards the end of The Trial, K. realizes that everything that is happening stems from his inner self and is the result of feelings of guilt and fantasies of punishment.
It is also worth mentioning the dreamlike component of the events: Like in a dream, K.'s interior and exterior world intermingle. A transition from the fantastic-realistic to the allegorical-psychological level can be made out. Even K.'s working environment is increasingly undermined by the fantastic, dreamlike world. It is, for example, a work order that leads to K.'s encounter with the priest.
The Trial as a humorous story
According to Kafka's friends, he laughed out loud several times while reading from his book. It is thus reasonable to look for humorous aspects in The Trial despite its dark and serious essence.
This phenomenon is also addressed by Kafka biographer Reiner Stach: The Trial "is gruesome in its entirety, but comical in its details." The judges read porn magazines instead of law books and send for women as if they were ordering a splendid meal on a tray. The executioners look like ageing tenors. Due to a hole in the floor of one of the courtrooms, an advocate's leg protrudes into the room below from time to time.