the trial & modern sensibilities

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book clubs are interesting things. More so when you’re Christian and the others are not.

The Trial is not a Christian book (by most accounts, Kafka was a mildly deranged ethnic Jew) but has a Christian message nevertheless – to the consternation of my book club. (I don’t mind challenging them out of their comfort zones now and then.)

I started the meeting by completing a thought from last month’s meeting, in which the anti-religionists were being anti-religion. I countered, while agreeing, by saying all religion is man-made and therefore corrupt – while intentionally leaving the conclusion for next time. When next time came I opened The Trial discussion by pointing out that despite such corruption, without religion or what it aspires to life is meaningless.

As far as I can tell, our group is diverse and diverted: a long lapsed Catholic, one or two secular Jews, a budding New Ager, an Agnostic, and one or two militant Atheists. (These are guesses, since religion these dark days is a taboo subject.) One atheist reacted more strongly to my contention – no one likes to hear that your philosophy of life is meaningless – but at the same time he appears better educated in biblical concepts than many and can identify Christian themes more quickly. A smart guy.

Kafka was a smart guy too. His novel, written in shell bursts at the start of World War I and only published posthumously in 1925, is a masterpiece. For years our book club has adopted the tradition of allowing each member to share, round-robin, overall impressions of the book, which allows everyone to speak their mind before any voice dominates.

I termed the book “truly a psychological mystery novel of the highest order.” As we had recently read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I pointed out similarities. Both treat depressing subjects – the former death and denial, the latter the oppressiveness of modernism – with the lightest of touches, the writing so masterly as to marvel.

The Trial was written a generation later, of course, and manages to presage all the totalitarian and murderous impulses that modern society, liberated from fealty to God, manifested in the bloodiest century (so far) in human history.

I mentioned this was my third reading, the first over forty years ago in Reading, England. (I have the U.K. edition to prove it.) And said the third reading was the charm, as I might have finally got a grasp on the book.

It starts almost innocuously. “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Yet the novel descends rapidly into the absurd, as K. (as he is bureaucratically referred to throughout) is put out by his breakfast not being delivered, rings the bell for the boarding lady, only for one of his “warders” to enter. “‘Who are you?’ asked K., half raising himself in bed.” [p.7]

The novel’s brilliance is in filtering the often absurd, sometimes dreamlike experiences through K.’s hyper-rational (and irrational) interior banter. The stream of consciousness – was The Trial one of the progenitors of the literary model? – is surprisingly compelling, as the reader is drawn in, wondering how he would react to similar absurdities.

K., despite being a senior manager at a respectable bank, is continually gobsmacked, trying to wrap his analytical powers around happenings beyond his control. When he determines to inquire after Frau Grubach and his breakfast, he meets an implacable force.

‘You can’t go out, you’re arrested.’ ‘So it seems,’ said K. ‘But what for?’ he added. ‘We are not authorized to tell you that. Go to your room and wait there. Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course.’

K. is gentlemanly by appearance and wishes to understand. “But how can I be under arrest? And particularly in such a ridiculous fashion?” Has some sore of mistake been made? Franz replies:

‘There has been no mistake… Our officials, as far as I know them…never go hunting for crime in the populace, but, as the Law decrees, are drawn towards the guilty and must then send out us warders. That is the Law. How could there be a mistake in that?’ [p.12]

When K. confesses that he doesn’t “know this Law,” Franz continues:

‘See, Willem, he admits that he doesn’t know the Law and yet claims he’s innocent.’ ‘You’re quite right, but you’ll never make a man like that see reason,’ replied the other. K. gave no further answer; ‘Must I,’ he thought, ‘let myself be confused still worse by the gabble of those wretched hirelings?’ [p.13]

The gabble – and fascinating it is – is K.’s, right up until his regrettable but unavoidable execution the day before turning thirty-one.

The book club members correctly pointed out how innovative Kafka was, foreshadowing the major 20th century rat holes of Existentialism and Surrealism. One definition of existential, provided by the discussion’s moderator, is “The sense of dread, disorientation, confusion or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.” (There’s that word “meaningless” again.) Albert Camus himself declared the book “states the problem of the absurd in its entirely.”

We discussed if K. is a hero or an anti-hero, no matter how emasculated and helpless he appears. This was compared naturally to European Jews’ reaction to Germanic Law in the 1930’s.

In my prefatory remarks, I emphasized the novel’s timeliness. Not only is one reminded of the brilliant 2006 German movie “The Lives of Others,” but I had just read an article by Theodore Dalrymple (the British William Carlos Williams) titled “Freedom Betrayed by a Population of Digital Snitches” in which he concludes:

Increasingly we must live as if our lives were evidence in a forthcoming trial by yet unknown accusers.

And Dalrymple makes no reference to Kafka from one century earlier!

But these readings of The Trial, while interesting and good, are conventional. As manager of our small book club cohort, I was able to shoehorn a final question into the distributed list: “Is Kafka likening K.’s trial to a spiritual one?”

The novel’s climax comes in the penultimate chapter “In the Cathedral.” As I related to the group, I had been wondering when Kafka might bring a spiritual light to bear on the proceedings, so the chapter title came as a relief. Yet the chapter itself gives little succor, like looking through a glass darkly. Poor K. is lured by a business engagement into the cathedral, which he finds empty save for the priest (whom we learn, naturally, is also the prison chaplain), only for him to “shriek [at K.] from the pulpit: ‘Can’t you see anything at all?’” [p.233]

No one wanted to touch my final question, so I waited patiently until we were down to our last quarter hour. Members had opined that Kafka looks dimly on both Catholicism (that prison chaplain priest) and Judaism, as the novel reads somewhat ironically as a Midrashic commentary. So I cushioned the blow by agreeing with those comments and then made several observations.

The first was the curious fact that the book does not contain the word “God.” This, I observed, meshes with Nietzsche’s (and most modernist’s) maxim that God is Dead. I then pointed out that “the Law” is a biblical term. While it originates in the Old Testament, and encompasses the Ten Commandments and all of Mosaic Law, it also refers to the Word of God – of the entire bible.

With this in view, I forwarded, the book can be viewed as an immense allegory on Modern Man.

The book club erupted in protest. For a bible-believing Christian such reactions are not uncommon and can be likened to demonic eruptions, par for the course.

I brought them back to the novel’s opening line, in which from K.’s perspective he had “done [no]thing wrong.’ Most of the group had already attested to his innocence. But what if K. is guilty before God’s eyes? K.’s very strange treatment of women in the book – already commented upon amusingly by the group, as K. appears to be a most inappropriate rogue – might to the modern eye appear inconsequential, but does it to God?

When I pointed out that before God’s eyes we are all guilty (from our fallen condition until we make things right with him), this was contested rather strongly by one of the secular Jews. Rather than to suggest he re-read the Torah, I pointed out the New Testament’s clear admonition that we are all guilty until made innocent. That is, until our massive denial is broken and we accept God (Jesus Christ) as our Creator – not unlike Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich.

In my over forty year old paperback edition (old enough to not have been scrubbed clean of any whiff of religiosity) an Epilogue by Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, justifies why he didn’t destroy all unpublished manuscripts, in part, by asserting that Kafka “applied the highest religious standards to all work of his (although he never actually said so)…” [p.252]

Furthermore, the back cover of my ancient British paperback edition likens the book to a “Pilgrim’s Progress of the subconscious.” But K. – unlike Bunyan’s narrator and along with many readers – is unaware of it.

Praise God for smart and struggling men like Franz Kafka, may he teach us needed lessons even if obscurely.

The Trial, Franz Kafka, 1925 (Penguin Modern Classics, Middlesex, England, 1978)

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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit

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