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Josef Heller’s and Franz Kafka’s Use of Their Character’s Reactions to Their Setting to Convey an Idea that The State is an Absurd Institution

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The political context of any novel is crucial to understanding relationships between characters, the exploration of significant themes, and the way the reader draws their own meaning from the text. Furthermore, they create a set of conditions with which authors can explore the significance of different societal circumstances on characters and by extension, the human condition. The two novels to be analysed, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Catch 22 by Josef Heller both involve relevant discussions on the injustices present within totalitarian societies – and more specifically, how states govern & control individuals. Through contrasting and comparing the accounts of injustices, where the protagonists in both novels interact with powerful officials as a means to protect themselves, this essay will examine what both authors achieve from their imagined settings. The importance of these texts to readers stem from the cynical truths the novel reveals about totalitarian governance, such as its general ineptitude, inefficacy, or internal contradictions over situations.

Through the comparison of the books, this essay will identify how the present systems of control influence and distort justice and also indoctrinate people, consequently causing a series of terrible events to arise from limitlessly complex, dysfunctional bureacracy. Kafka’s portrayal of the state is vague, generic and inexact to any geographic specificity, although set in the early twentieth century during Kafka’s lifetime, making it arguably reflective of the industrialising Czech Republic. The novel depicts a monolithic authority that instigates paranoia in the populace due to its opaque inner workings. There are many angles from which to interpret the novel. For this investigation the most relevant points of focus will be a legalist view, and political, and sociological interpretations. Though this lens, by comparing it to Catch 22, with similar perspectives on the state, which mirror how real world institutions function.

The protagonist, Josef, experiences the injustice and oppression of this system, from the very early stages in the novel when two officers arrest and prosecute him, with the nature of his crime unrevealed. He gets more desperate when presenting himself amongst many of the courts sordid judges when his many attempts of receiving an official conviction no end, spiraling into the famously oppressive world of the ‘Kafkaesque’. Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22, is a satirical account of the incompetent bureaucracy of war-time US, with the protagonist part of the 256th Squadron of the American Air Forces during World War II. He is fearful because of the amount of near-fatal situations him and his comrades encounter during brutal flight missions, along with the inhumane qualities of character that the commanding officers reward. “This lawyer and his colleagues are only petty lawyers, however; the great lawyers, whom I’ve merely heard of but never seen, stand incomparatively higher in rank above the petty lawyers than those do over the despised shysters. ” This clash creates conflicting situations, as we can see in K’s character, where K’s urgency to find protection against the court results in hiring incompetent and “petty” lawyers, provided for the majority of the population. K’s status as middle class inhibits him from accessing lawyers higher of “rank” and prestige, which could potentially alleviate his situation. This ends in K decrying the “corrupt” and “senseless” proceedings, which come as the backbone of a judicial institution that solely aims to prosecute “criminals”. K meets a businessman who has hired five “petty lawyers” and is negotiating with a sixth, yet, his justification for this is that he “mustn’t neglect anything that might be of use to [him]” which highlights the true gravity of the desperation of the unjustly prosecuted. Throughout the scene, the sympathetic proximity we get to the businessman is the same that K receives. The scene emphasises to the reader the ineffectiveness of hiring low status lawyers, but more importantly, how doing so doesn’t allow any individual to surpass the system’s goal of prosecuting individuals that it deems criminals. Essentially, the reality is that there is an existing self-perpetuating, small scale bureaucracy that stops change and continues to replicate itself. When K approaches the court, it is completely unwilling to change, just as we see with Yossarian, where the war continues to drag on and nothing changes. The reason for this lies in the bureaucracy that underpins the court – When K looks for a lawyer that can navigate through the labyrinthine legal system, they can’t help him because they are incompetent. It seems to K that court is against him and doesn’t want him to appeal at all. Because the legal system is hard to work around, K seeks help, as a rational response to an inscrutable system. In fact, lawyers exist only because the legal system is unintuitive, in that sense the job of confronting the court exists because its difficulty necessitates the interpretation of the system as a profession.

Therefore, they make it hard for him to appeal due to the lower systems inability to stop him from appealing, almost as if the lawyers within the lower bureaucracy are just extensions of the system. The only people within the lower bureaucracy able to make change are powerful, competent lawyers who are really only within the reach of moneyed individuals. This makes it apparent that simply due to the nature of his place within a rigid societal framework, he cannot maneuver the system, however, the fact that powerful rich people can get away from crime doesn’t mean the system changes, it appeals to the wealthy population that has no need to change the system because it already serves their best interest. This is important to identify because not often are the fundamental causes of an issue conspicuous or apparent. It is also clear that all people involved in the issue at the time are rational-minded, which wouldn’t make it fair to condemn the systems malevolence, but rather one that prioritises effectiveness and is consequently amoral. The process of being randomly trialed is similar to Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthys hearings in the 1950s.

The result of which resulted in a national witch-hunt for anyone associated with the Communist Party. Catch 22 paragraph 1Whilst Catch 22 is a satire of World War 2 bureaucratic idiocy, this is important because the artistic intentions within the book is to expose real-world tragedy as the outcome of bureaucracies. There are certain truths within the author’s constructed reality that cause the reader to question how the characters survive within their society and why the system fails them, on a moral level. Characters in Catch 22 see their government as outright nonsensical, because of increased media coverage and prioritising and devoting every action as a means to winning the war. This larger social motive contrasts to Yossarian’s base individual instinct – avoiding death. This is very different to K’s objective, which is to escape the state apparatus, get back his job and return to a normal life. At the same time, Yossarian questions why the war even happened, because the state provides very little justification or explanation as to what ends the soldiers are really serving for. Without any coherent understanding of the situation, Yossarian takes the violence personally when hostile armed forces “shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air” to bomb them. Furthermore, during a court-martial, the bureaucracy executes the assembly of soldiers with very little incitement and a general lack of consideration for the mindsets of the soldiers.

For instance, when Dunbar claims there’s “no patriotism” and Yossarian shouts back ‘no matriotism either. ’ it makes Yossarian and his comrades seem entirely apathetic about the larger justifications for the war. From the perspective of a reader, the occurrence of most of the tragedies derive from an absurd and inscrutable bureaucratic logic, speaking to more a disillusionment and ridicule of the state’s incompetence rather than fear of the state’s power – although the empowered officials within the state continue to make malevolent decisions that get people killed. The Trial sees an opaque and irrational regime shrouded in a layer of secrecy, and is yet brutally effective and equally as malevolent. In both cases, the law functions as a means to enforce and regulate certain behaviour. It administers what right and wrong actions are through a ‘just’ punitive system as a means to an end, that focuses only a primary goal,like winning the war, without considering secondary goals, like minimizing the casualties of American soldiers. Both novels explore these issues from the perspective of non-beneficiaries of the system. Yossarian’s role in the army’s lowest rank also allows critical insight into the system’s distortion of justice that clashes with his integrity, whilst K’s role as a convicted person explores the grossly unfair and unconventional tactics that are used to trial him. As an investigation, drawing a comparative between these two bureaucracies is important in order to expose the different areas of moral concern within them, with one being a legal bureaucracy and the other a military bureaucracy. Catch 22 illustrates to the reader how interactions are reflective of the unbalanced dynamics of power between characters as a result of an unprincipled system. The core of the nature of K’s tragedy is that the courts hierarchical structure is of endless size but also has opaque and “faceless” leaders, which is at the core of why institutions can unquestionably instigate paranoia in another individuals, without any direct accountability. Chapter 2To what extent is it worth achieving a primary goal at the cost of a great loss?The state has a clear defined purpose of prioritising all that is within its power to win the war. The system is employed as a method of effectiveness as it constricts the actions of an individual to working for the state.

The systems effectiveness comes with employing extreme measures to ensure the states advantage in situations, in the Trial, confidentiality makes it easier to convict people, not only this but it makes it so that the actions of the court can be hidden by secrecy. Furthermore, K’s dignity is stripped by the inefficient paperwork within the bureaucracy that disguises itself as something virtuous but really restricts individuals by keeping them in check, which causes him in court to “raise public discussion of a public wrong,” to which he gets to valuable response, simply becausethe unspoken dangers of speaking against the systems logic can cause you to “cut the ground out from under your own feel and fall”, while the system remains untouched, if not “more resolute. ” Clearly the “law” in the Trial causes a highly irrational system, as the justice within the court is doesn’t enact fairness where it’s due, furthermore, its stagnation makes the damage that this causes everlasting, because officials within the framework are concerned only with completing their duty. Which often we see people in power follow blindly, because the common misconstrued conception is that the individuals are placed in a framework based on talent, experience and expertise, when the reality of the matter is they are selected based on their political astuteness which is judged quantitatively. Similarly in Catch 22, the more “loyalty oaths” a man signed, the more he proved his loyalty to the state.

Often this makes it inhumane because what judges the righteousness of an individual is the value of quantitative information, which fulfills a singular objective but also pays the price of significant moral considerations at stake. Within the military ranks in Catch 22, the absurdity derived because of the irrationality that accumulates after two rational aims clash, such as Cathcart’s ambition to become a great war general causing him to misuse his power by “rising the number of missions required” to return home, and the squadrons aim for survival and self-worth. Essentially, the system is only bothered by crunching quantitative statistics that don’t concern social issues like instigation of paranoia and suspicion. Hungry Joe is disillusioned by Cathcart’s rule when the “number of missions required before returning home” rises as soon as he reaches the required amount just to reinstate his power and command “brims with pride and joy,” meanwhile Hungry Joe “rewrote his letters home,” revealing the unfairness of the systems inconsistency. Calling into question, ‘Is it worth achieving a primary goal at the cost of an unaccountable loss?’ The oppressed in both cases become alienated after they are cheated by the absurd system, which imposes the challenge of accepting their society for what it is due to its mysterious nature, isolating them in anxiety in fear of being overcome by an inconceivable omnipotent evil. Yet, despite the seemingly malevolent intentions of the state, every member that works for the system is rational minded and turn a blind eye to moral ambiguity in order to maintain a simplicity of duties.

Therefore the system is amoral, simply because the nature of it isn’t complicit in making immoral judgements, but judgements that serve the purpose of the role. This is why in some ways, the state can be characterised as an entity as its far-reaching power is possible because of a framework of characters. This makes Kquestion & confront officials a lot in the novel because there is never a fault to blame except almost everyone – including individuals that try to help him, such as his lawyer. A bureaucracy is programmed to complete a simple task, loss is calculated by things that are quantifiable, lives taken in the war, and criminals prosecuted, but since losses like alienation, paranoia and creation of fear exist, it often results in loss of dignity. Malevolent irrationality This is all-encompassing when considering Heller’s paradox of repeating irrational decision-making, which mostly prioritises safeguarding the prosperous and consolidate power over the masses.

The signature catch 22 within the novel serves as a premise to how the mechanics of the bureaucracy enforce rules that make things compulsory. “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ” The emphasis of rational thought of the fighter pilots whilst they are under the impression that they will submit themselves to life-threatening, dangerous situations, reverberates through most scenarios where Yossarian feels out of control. The malevolent irrationality resides in the unjust law of Kafka’s fictional reality, when K “admits he doesn’t know the law” and at the same time “insists he’s innocent,” during a conversation with the officers that arrest him in his house, the officers attest to the fact that in order to claim innocence, an understanding of the perimeters of what isn’t allowed must be coherently understood, yet, we sympathise with K. as a character, and are faithful that the “crime” he “commited” lacks legitimacy and truth, therefore, there is an absolute law at hand that isn’t justifiable. This is part of the theme of absurdity, in order to understand this, firstly, absurdity is the quality or state of being unreasonable or ridiculous, therefore, in this context the way administrative decisions are carried through in practice in the respective novels is the absurdity. To add to this, both novel’s protagonists and majority of characters are victims of the bureaucracy, because of this the perspective from which the novel is told characterises the state government from the eyes of oppressed individuals, which is key as this not only means the insight is an honest reflection of civilian experience, but additionally, the integrity of the main characters are not predisposed to the corruption and misuse of power.

The bureaucracy is a singular mono-let, with communication coming through letters and notes by its members that think in the same way. It is homogenous because as stated before, members of the ranks aren’t chosen by their competence or efficiency, but rather for how political astute they are. Simultaneously it’s motivations can be understood by the purpose of its existence to serve a means to achieve a goal, therefore, the enemy is never focused upon because it’s not an antagonist. The issue lies in the fact that its not really rational because it doesn’t really care, yet, you can’t ever really know whether it is rational or not, because it lacks human characteristics (absent of motives and incentives). It seems irrational to the observer because the relationship between K and the state becomes dependent on the process of the justice system and whether or not our personal judgement of the court seems irrational or rational. This leads into a subquestion, because it isn’t to say that there is directly someone at fault here for K’s misfortune and the illogical unjust decision making, because it is possible for rational humans to come together and create irrational systems.

Cathcart, an ambitious army officer, is a key example of a man that has blindly succumbed to obeying the framework of the bureaucratic ranks and doing all that is necessary to achieve a single goal in mind. Because of Cathcart having perverse incentives in willingly and eagerly sending his men to war, this conveys the bureaucratic mindset in a bad light, although Cathcart’s actions in his own head are backed by just reason and logic. In chapter 8, we see the two colonels in a scene where they have a discussion with Yossarian about his dismissal from military duty. In one scenario, they simply can’t send him home because of his unwillingness to fly more missions as it would seem like a reward and going against his obligation of service. On the other hand, the Korn and Cathcart would put their own careers as colonels in danger if they allowed Yossarian to stay part of the squadron, allowing him to influence other members of the squad to follow hisrebellious example. Yossarian must either accept a deal that he is offered, or he will be court-martialed to determine whether or not he is guilty. Suspicion and alienationIn the trial, what creates the suspicion of the state can be narrowed down to something as simple as the senselessness of how the system functions.

During K’s pretrial, he gets a phone call in the morning and is asked to report to the courts, without being told the time and room number in which to report to. This develops the early idea that in order to win the case, he needs to prove his innocence, which in turn means he needs to adhere to the states regulations and orderly rules. This is unfair because state controls the rules in the first place, even if K gained any amount of ground in his case, it is the court’s decision to prolong the case or manipulate the circumstances of the situation in favour of the state. Essentially, by hiring a petty lawyer, he buys into the system and has already made a minor loss in investing in something pointless. Even if K was wealthy, as seen in the example of the wealthy businessman, he wasn’t given access to the “great lawyers,” which are a category of prestigious lawyers that are never revealed to K. When K decides that his lawyer’s incapability to advance his case makes him a senseless investment, he realises that every action he takes to try to defend himself digs him into a deeper hole, where he discovers the meaninglessness of his life. The course of decisions that K chose are noble and rational, remaining dignified and refusing to become submissive and complacent to what the unchangeable bureaucracy asks for, K’s demise arguably ends as a heroic one.

The second last chapter in Catch 22 narrates an important pivotal moment in Yossarians life as he watches his comrade bleed to death from a shrapnel piece. It teaches Yossarian the importance of self-worth as he concludes that by staying in the system, we are already as stagnant as we would be during death. More importantly, his values change when he explicitly states that all “man [is] matter, that was Snowden’s secret,” inferring that Snowden was dead before he died because when his “spirit” of was gone, he became as valuable as “other kinds of garbage,” alike products of the state that are of little value. Which mostly comments that our human condition to want to be dignified is something of ultimate importance to our autonomy. Size and PowerOne system has an inescapable power, whilst the other is seemingly endless and everywhere. This has to do with the choices of both protagonists. In The Trial, the notion is that there is an unreachable authority which K is trying to reach. His efforts to solicit information from the state allows Kafka to portray the potential size & suppression of the state. Yossarian merely tries to survive the catastrophes of the war, which in turn cause his character to be a less confrontational kind, as compared to K, a man who seeks legitimacy, truth and a restoration of normalism.


Both texts reveal different aspects of bureaucracies but they present synthesised ideas about bureaucracies, additionally, power within systems of bureaucracies are self perpetuating and ruthless. This is shown through the interactions of the state and its characters but also the characters with each other. For example, Cathcart and the Court officials in The Trial. The difficulty of the court system causes K to endeavour in finding a way around the dense and difficult legal system. As the courts system is so immensely difficult and impossible, the legal bureaucracy has caused a lower level bureaucracy charged with dealing with the higher bureaucracy (the court), making it self perpetuating. However, also that they are so irrational and immensely complex that no one is in control, causing confusion and the suffering of people that don’t deserve to be. This is the modern condition, power is no longer forceful or visible, because it hides behind bureaucratic machinery, not out to inflict harm, but totally indifferent to it at the same time. They reflect aspects of bureaucracies that include commonalities such as senselessness, distorted justice, the corruption of power and the coincides of rational thinking that causes a definite irrational outcome. Sympathising with these characters has utmost importance because in our modern societies, we fill the shoes of these people, arguably making it our moral obligation to enact fairness where its due, and advocate individual autonomy.

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Josef Heller’s And Franz Kafka’s Use Of Their Character’s Reactions To Their Setting To Convey An Idea That The State Is An Absurd Institution. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 6, 2022, from
“Josef Heller’s And Franz Kafka’s Use Of Their Character’s Reactions To Their Setting To Convey An Idea That The State Is An Absurd Institution.” GradesFixer, 13 Sept. 2019,
Josef Heller’s And Franz Kafka’s Use Of Their Character’s Reactions To Their Setting To Convey An Idea That The State Is An Absurd Institution. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Aug. 2022].
Josef Heller’s And Franz Kafka’s Use Of Their Character’s Reactions To Their Setting To Convey An Idea That The State Is An Absurd Institution [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Sept 13 [cited 2022 Aug 6]. Available from:
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