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Introduction

Franz Kafka is one of the greatest influences on Western literature in the twentieth century. He has inspired a whole range of artists from the creators of the detective story to writers of the television series Twilight Zone. He began work on The Trial in 1914 after a horrendous encounter with his fiancee, Felice Bauer, her sister, Erna Bauer, and Grete Bloch (a short-term lover). According to Kafka’s friend Max Brod, he never finished the work and gave the manuscript to Brod in 1920. After his death, Brod edited The Trial into what he felt was a coherent novel and had it published, despite the German ban on Jewish literature, in 1925. The manuscript eventually passed from Brod’s heirs to the German national literary archives in the late 1980s for several million dollars. Since then, new editions have been published and some textual integrity restored to the English version of the story.

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Franz Kafka

The first of six children, Franz Kafka was born in 1883. His father, Herman Kafka, was an industrious man; he owned a dry-goods store in the Jewish ghetto in the city of Prague. Herman was ashamed of his Jewish heritage and tried, as much as possible, to appear German. He married into a higher social class when he married Julie Loewy, Franz’s mother.

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Plot Summary

A The Arrest

At the start of The Trial, Joseph K. awakes on the morning of his thirtieth birthday. He is greeted by two warders, Franz and Willem, who tell him he’s under arrest, and introduce him to the Inspector. He refuses to tell K. why he has been arrested. Confused, K. is surprised when they let him go with orders to come back for his trial. After work that evening, K. talks with his landlady, Frau Grubach, who is sympathetic to his plight. K. likes Fraulein Burstner, whose room the Inspector had commandeered. When she returns late at night, K. insists on talking to her about his day, and then makes a grab for her.

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Themes

A Religion

A central element of Judeo-Christian theology is the belief that humans are guilty of original sin. There are various ways to deal with this situation but in many theological doctrines, redemption and entry to heaven depend upon people leading moral lives. For Protestants, salvation is gained when the individual confesses to God. Assistance in this task comes from the Bible as well as through the teachings of those who spend their lives studying the Bible. In Judaism, the book of God is the Torah, and literally speaking, God is the Law.

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Characters

A Uncle Albert

K.’s Uncle Albert rushes into town after hearing from his daughter, Erna, that K. is on trial. He is extremely annoyed that K. is unconcerned with his predicament, “Josef, you’ve undergone a total metamorphosis; you’ve always had such a keen grasp of things, has it deserted you now?” K.’s uncle impresses upon him that the honor of the family is at stake. Albert represents the accomplished man and exposes the collective nature of K.’s actions.

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Construction

A Parable

Parables are familiar teaching devices that reveal moral lessons through short and simple stories. A parable’s simplicity lends it a timeless quality. For this reason, parables thousands of years old hold relevance today. Parables can also be enigmatic sayings or tales, which obviously contain a message though the precise meaning is anyone’s guess. Kafka intentionally set out to write parables, not just novels, about the human condition. The Trial is a parable that includes the smaller parable of the Gatekeeper. There is clearly a relationship between the two but the exact meaning of either parable is left up to the individual reader. K. and the Priest discuss the many possible readings. Both the short parable and their discussion seem to indicate that the reader is much like the man at the gate; there is a meaning in the story for everyone just as there is one gate to the Law for each person.

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Historical Perspective

A Bohemia

The earliest known inhabitants of the mountain-rimmed nucleus of the Czech Republic were the Boii people. Not much remains of them but the name Bohemia, or “home of the Boii.” They integrated completely with a Slavic tribe called Czechs, around the fifth century ad. By the fourteenth century, Bohemia was the most prosperous kingdom in Europe. In the next century, Jan Hus made Bohemia the center of Protestantism.

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Questions

Compare the several editions of The Trial (Brod’s-if possible, Muir’s and Breon Mitchell’s-based on Pasley’s German edition). How do interpretations of single words affect the story? What is the importance of the chapter order?

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