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.
The Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovski, formulated the term ostranenie in his 1917 article, “Art as Device.” This term has been variously adopted in the West as defamiliarization or, more popularly, by way of Bertold Brecht, as “the alienation effect.” Quite independent of both, Kafka employs defamiliarization with unrivaled mastery. This process works by making the reader/audience perceive familiar, everyday reality in a new and unsettling way, hence the term “defamiliarization.” The result, the artist hopes, is a newfound sense of appreciation or reconsideration by the perceiver of the norm.
The world is presented in a strange way so that the viewer sees things as if for the first time. Shklovski conceives of the device as operating in an artwork on three levels. First, at the level of language, words, or linguistic rhythms, not normally associated with each other can be brought together to expose new meanings (examples can be found in the poetry of the Dadaists or the work of John Cage). Second, at the level of content, accepted concepts and ideas are distorted to reveal new perspectives on the human condition. Finally, at the level of literary forms, the canon is departed from and subliterary genres (like detective and crime stories) are elevated to high art.
Kafka accomplishes defamiliarization on all three levels with a crime story whose suspect’s reality becomes so distorted as to approach the absurd. The story’s language is precise even at the moment where it is circumventing the key to understanding. As a result the basic concept of law is newly perceived. At the linguistic level, Kafka uses words like “assault,” “guilt,” and “trial” in different contexts but in such a way that the meaning of the term is just as useful (and is interchangeable) with another.
An explicit example of Kafka using everyday understandings to defamiliarize the reader occurs in the form of the tools employed by the Inspector. The Inspector takes great pains to make the announcement of K.’s arrest look official by rearranging a bedroom to look like a court in the way a child arranges furniture to play house. Instead of a gavel and a law book, the Inspector has a random book, a pincushion, and matches. Finally, by simple and almost legalistic attention to wording, Kafka causes a constant air of doubt to cover anything said or thought. Phrases like “could he really rely so little on his own judgment already?” are always double entendres where K. refers both to his slip of the tongue with the Manufacturer as well as the greater judgment he awaits.
Every element of the story is pregnant with allegorical significance. The position of bodies and their size symbolize a person’s value before the Law. The men of the court sit with their heads bent up against the ceiling of an attic because they are so close to heaven. An arrested person, however, hangs their head. A strong and free person stands tall and straight. Furniture exaggerates this body language. K. points out whether there are chairs for him to sit on and how this strips him of power.
K. awakens, like Adam, from sleep to the customary comfort of his bedroom where he waits for Anna. Instead of Anna, he finds himself under arrest by guards from a department which does not seek the guilty-rather, “as the law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out.” After wandering about the room, he returns to his bed and eats an apple-the allegorical fruit from the tree of knowledge-and, thereby, becomes aware of his being on trial. The Apple signifies original sin and eating the apple ends innocence.
One of the keys to Kafka’s success is his consistent employment of atmosphere. He uses a clear prose style at all times. Even when Dr. Huld is imparting the intricacies of law, the sentence structure is not complex. The rooms are fastidiously described in terms of where the air may enter and the risk of soot and dust this entrance holds for the human lung. His use of shadows and obscurity cause both K. and the reader to redouble their efforts to pay attention. Shadows are attributed with intelligence as they seem to intentionally obscure the object of K.’s vision.