Kafka’s The Trial: Is the Search for Meaning Possible?
Note to my readers: This essay is a follow-up to my rereading of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, more personal essay than review. I hope to follow my musing on Kafka with another brief essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses —even in the face of the seeming impossibility of doing that with the tome of a novel. I’ll culminate this series with a discussion of how these three seminal modernist novelists examine and articulate the issues of moral ambiguity and will divide that final essay into sections for ease of access.
I do not pretend to be either critic or philosopher, but rather an author in search of meaning through narrative. This essay is the second in the series. Admittedly, I would have been wiser—or it would have made scholarly sense—to place the Kafka essay first. But my choice has not been a scholarly one, but rather the way in which these re-readings have come off my bookshelf.
On rereading Franz Kafka’s The Trial I am struck by this question: Is the search for meaning possible, let alone worthwhile?
In this essay, I refer to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work had an early and considerable impact on my thinking. MacIntyre in After Virtue* examines the history of philosophy and the importance of the Aristotelian virtues. He makes this powerful assertion:
“If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices likewise as qualities likewise which tend to failure.”
MacIntyre’s reference here is to the Aristotelian virtues and to his view that “the Aristotelian tradition can be restated in a way that restores intelligibility and rationality to our moral and social attitudes and commitments.”
In other words, MacIntyre believes, as I do, if you allow my oversimplification, that the search for meaning in life matters. With Joseph K.’s trial, Kafka addresses the question of whether the search matters and answers, at best, with uncertainty.
Kafka encourages the reading of Joseph K.’s trial as a search for meaning through his details on the nature of the trial. First K. is arrested but not detained. He is told,
“You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life.”
One must conclude this is no ordinary arrest as that term is usually understood. In fact, K. is not detained until his execution. It appears to be simply fortuitous that K. even appears for the interrogation, the only seemingly formal event related to his arrest that occurs in the novel.
No visible trial occurs before that execution.
Perhaps K. explains this best when he addresses those present, who, he finally concludes, are all officials:
“You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such.”
Here it seems the reader is being asked to consider whether K. should indeed take the trial seriously. But if K. at age thirty is being given the chance to evaluate his own life, he must do so in the face of increasing uncertainty about the value of the search.
By chapter seven “Lawyer ° Manufacturer ° Painter,” the thought of his case is always on his mind and he considers giving the Court
“a short account of his life, and when he came to an event of any importance explain for what reasons he had acted as he did ... .”
But the narrator tells us that legal assistance in this court is essential while he also tells us, “Nothing was of any real value but respectable personal connections with the higher officials … .”
A lawyer is needed, but both lawyers and the system are corrupt. K.’s dismissal of the lawyer Huld would then seem to be his one act of courage. He understands that, when the accused relied on a lawyer, “the client ceased to be a client and became the lawyer’s dog.”
But K. who has gone to his execution without a lawyer has ended up in just that position, as he says before he dies, “Like a dog!”
Kafka may be saying that the search, the evaluation of one’s life, must be undertaken in the face of absurdity, and I would agree, but then one must conclude that this is K’s failure—the failure to recognize this fundamental truth.
Frau Grubach, his landlady, hints at this view in describing her sense of the arrest in chapter one “The Arrest ° Conversation with Frau Grubach ° Then Fräulein Bürstner”:
“It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something learned which I don’t understand, but which there is no need to understand.”
And certainly the priest in chapter nine, “In the Cathedral,” leads us in this direction when he advises K.: “You cast about for too much help ... .”
But Kafka provides very little substantiation for K.’s failure. He has dismissed the lawyer in the face of disaster. He has begun to take the trial more seriously. He has some sort of realization before his death:
“The only thing I can do now ... the only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and analytical to the end. I always snatched at the world with twenty hands, and not for a very laudable motive, either. That was wrong, and am I to show now that not even a year’s trial has taught me anything?”
If Fraulein Bürstner represents the hope of love in the face of this absurdity—she appears, or seems to, at just this moment—K. is now able to do without her.
Can one conclude that Kafka is saying that rational thought is the answer? Certainly not in the face of what has transpired in the novel. For nowhere has K. actually examined his life in a rational way.
Does this mean that K. has failed? I am left with a profound sense of uncertainty on all counts.
Is K. guilty?
Does the search matter?
Is, indeed, a search for meaning possible?
If the search matters, life must be viewed as a journey that each of us must evaluate with intense introspection in the face of death. And what would seem to follow is that each life must be seen, in some way, as a meaningful narrative.
I ask, why write anything, make anything, care about another human being, fall in love if nothing is nothing is nothing?
That is the dilemma that Kafka presents powerfully, poetically and, indeed, purposeful in its elliptical episodic representation of events in this novel that include the absurd legal system and K.’s minimal change in character.
Kafka presents us with the absurd and with little sense of hope in the face of the chaotic, meaningless world we are all thrust into.
Herein lies the articulation of moral ambiguity that this novel so eloquently presents and that I hope to explore with you in essays to come. A discussion of the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses is next up. Hope to see you back here.
* Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, second edition, 1984, pp. 144 and 259.
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