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In The Trial, Franz Kafka tells the story of Joseph K., a man under persecution of the law. The novel begins with the arrest of K., which inducts him into a seemingly bizarre legal system. The arrest proves peculiar, as K. is never told what he is accused of and is not detained to a jail. In the following months, the case continues to reveal strange aspects of the bureaucracy that controls K.’s trial. For an entire year, K. is consumed by the trial and makes efforts to fight his case and obtain information about the legal system. Ultimately, the fight is ended through his execution with most questions left unanswered. This leaves one to wonder what Kafka intended The Trial to mean in a larger sense. One interpretation may suggest that Kafka conveys a message of the meaning of life, in that one does not exist. K.’s actions and experiences during the trial illustrate that life is meaningless and to continuously fight this idea and search for a substantial purpose is futile. Despite efforts to fight this conclusion, humans are all inevitably destined to failure. Accordingly, Kafka uses K.’s character to illustrate how one should not live, given this view.
A central aspect of The Trial is K.’s persistence and obsession regarding the case. From the start, K. goes through the trial with a combative attitude, as he tries to fight against the Law and obtain information. Beginning with the arrest, K. assertively questions officials about his charges, and continues to search for answers as the case progresses. By the time the first interrogation is scheduled, K. seems prepared for battle. Prior to this event K. decides that, “The case was getting under way and he must fight it” (32). Upon arrival at the interrogation, K. takes the liberty to bestow a long speech that essentially criticizes the legal system by referring to his experience as “representative of a misguided policy which is being directed against many other people” (42). Before leaving the court however, the examining magistrate in charge of the meetings tells K. he has eliminated the normal advantages that a defendant would be allowed. In this instance, K.’s efforts to fight against the system prove useless.
Following the interrogation K. grows increasingly paranoid. Although he is not detained or required to attend regular hearings, K. seems obsessed with fighting the law. Even during work at the Bank, K. is distracted as “the thought of the case never [leaves] him now” (113). Evidence of his paranoia, he goes so far as to plan a statement that would account for his entire life and serve in his defense. K. suggests feeling as though his whole life is on trial, although he has received no evidence to support such an idea. It becomes apparent he feels consumed by the case and trapped within the legal system. At one point, K. describes his recent pattern of spending time by the window, looking outside. While seemingly insignificant, it may be symbolic of K.’s choice to remain on the “inside” of the system feeling oppressed, while he still has the ability to remain freely on the “outside”. Although K. obsesses over the case, there is no law in place that prevents his freedom to continue with his daily business outside the imaginary confines of the trial. However, K spends time attempting to defend himself, and despite this fixation, makes no progress. Perhaps Kafka means to convey the idea that it is pointless to continuously evaluate and revaluate troublesome aspects of life, as this is a waste of time. K. may serve as an example of how not to live in that his paranoia only led to feelings of entrapment, but ultimately no progress. In the meantime he misses out on life outside of his case.
Another main aspect of The Trial is the peculiar bureaucracy with which K. interacts. For the most part, the legal forces that have power remain inaccessible. The officials, such as the warden in K.’s arrest, talk of their superiors, but whom these people are is never revealed. This faceless system makes it difficult for K. to obtain information that could be helpful. In addition, there are aspects to the legal system that make advancement seem impossible. A fellow defendant, Block, tells K. that it is difficult to see the progress of an ongoing case. In fact, the legal system is revealed to show that defendants have very little control in the outcome of their trials. Although not yet resigned to this conclusion, K. at one point entertains, “only cases predestined from the start to succeed came to a good end, which they would have reached in any event without your help, while every other one of the others was doomed to fail in spite of all your maneuvers” (122). Therefore, despite all efforts, the fate of the trial is out of his hands. Logically, if it is impossible to control the case among an unreachable bureaucracy, all efforts to do so are useless, and time could be better spent. Ultimately, Kafka develops a legal structure that renders K and other defendants powerless. This system may serve to parallel the human inability to control many aspects of life, particularly the ultimate outcome.
In addition to the inaccessible bureaucracy, K.’s interaction with the priest provides further insight into The Trial’s meaning. The priest, who serves the Court as a prison chaplain, tells K. the story of a man who spends his life waiting to gain “admittance to the Law” (213). A doorkeeper stands by, but does not allow the man to enter. The man waits at the door for the rest of his life, but is ultimately never admitted. Although never allowed admittance, the man is told that, “the door was intended for you” (215). Thus, there is no reason for him to be denied entrance, which further emphasizes his lack of control in the situation. As the priest explains, it is important to understand the man is not forced to wait there at any point. The man could simply leave to live the remainder of his life in the country, as he has no control over his inevitable failure, and in turn wastes valuable time.
Similarly, K. voluntarily spends his life focused on the law, but regardless his efforts have no effect on the ultimate outcome. Before leaving the cathedral, K. is confused as to why the priest seems indifferent towards his actions. The priest then explains that he too is part of the court, and the court does not want anything from him. Referring to the court, he tells K. that it “receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go” (222). The legal system is not formed to require his efforts, and on the whole his actions are inconsequential. A possible message conveys that it does not matter what one does in an attempt to change the outcome of life. Just as the court is not built to allow for human interference, all life ends the same regardless, and there is no need to “interfere” in an attempt to change this. Suppose Kafka believes there is no meaning to life. Thus, life is not built to allow for a search to find one. There is no need to spend abundant time, as the efforts will always end in failure, since no purpose exists.
For the year after his arrest, K. continues to fight and contemplate his case. Then, on the night before his birthday, he is killed. Two men enter his room and take him to a quarry where one of them stabs him in the heart, a seemingly painful death. While walking outside, K. does not fight to get away after he realizes, “[the] futilities of resistance” (225). Thus, it is not until this point, after an entire year, that K. finally relinquishes efforts to fight back. Prior to the stabbing, K. sees the figure of a person in the distance. This prompts many questions about who the figure is, if they are to help him, and where the judge has been. K. never finds the answers to any of his questions, nor does he discover what crime he is accused of. The death is significant in that it shows K. is doomed to be killed right from the start. As previously argued, his efforts in the case were ineffective, so there was no way to control the final outcome. The final execution is perhaps most essential to Kafka’s message in that it may highlight how, after a meaningless life, everyone is destined to death. K. never understands the meaning of his trial and even if he had, death was inevitable. Perhaps life has no meaning, and to spend countless hours pondering this topic is a waste of time. Exemplifying resistance in life is also useless as failure is inevitable since everyone is destined to die regardless.
Overall, it is possible to view The Trial as a message to reveal the meaning of life. One may argue Kafka decides there is no meaning, and everyone is destined to failure from the start, as a greater purpose cannot be found. Although K. works on his case to the point of obsession, no progress is made. Upon his death, he has not found answers to any questions regarding the case and was unable to prove his innocence. Kafka may express the idea that failure is inevitable despite efforts of resistance. One cannot fight against the ultimate outcome to life as everyone eventually dies. While Kafka’s personal experiences may have led him to this rather depressing conclusion about life, K. perhaps serves as an example of how a person should not live, given this deduction. Never imprisoned, K. feels compelled to obsess over the case and fight back with every effort possible. It is not until right before his death he realizes the struggle is useless. While it is impossible to control ultimate doom, one may recognize it is important to choose to go about life, without being consumed by an inability to find meaning. Perhaps in The Trial, Kafka communicates his belief that life is empty of meaning, always to end in death and failure to discover a greater purpose. Therefore it is important to do something with life while that is still possible – to spend days actually living is a much better use of time then to feel trapped in the constant burden of the inevitable.
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