Benjamin's Reviews > The Trial

The Trial by Franz Kafka
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** spoiler alert ** My lasting impression of The Trial is that it is almost as inaccessible as the bureaucracy it depicts. This is in no small part due to the paragraphing; The Trial is written in great blocks of uninterrupted text that go on for pages, with even new lines of dialogue denied their customary breathing space. The result is a claustrophobic reading experience during which one must frequently revisit previous lines or even whole passages so as not to miss out on an important detail.

The reader therefore struggles to penetrate the text in much the same way that its protagonist, Josef K., struggles to penetrate the legal system at whose mercy he finds himself. The difference is that the reader ultimately succeeds. How the story will end quickly becomes clear to the reader; K., however, maintains his optimistic outlook to the end.

K. is delightfully unlikable. He is rude, haughty and entitled, and grows little throughout the story. The exception is his tacit acceptance of his fate in the final passage, though this is still tempered by his arrogance; he continues to feel vindicated, believing that the distant figure in the otherwise empty quarry is cheering him on as his executioners argue over who holds his shoulders and who holds the knife.

That K. is a contemptible figure only serves to make the story that much more chilling. The distant, unknown authority that persecutes him throughout does so without regard to his character; indeed, it would do so if he were flawless, and with, we are led to believe, much the same result. K. thus shows himself to be uncharacteristically wise in his lack of regret for his actions, as he knows that the way he conducted himself during his year-long trial had no bearing on his fate.

The priest's parable, Before the Law, provides a pleasing examination of the themes presented in the story before it finally draws to a close. The notion of successive gatekeepers, each an order of magnitude more powerful than the last and so awesome as to be unknowable to those below their immediate predecessor, calls to mind a religious institution that has situated itself countless stations above its followers. Similarly, the authority depicted in The Trial is completely removed from the people upon whom it casts its inscrutable judgement, separated by innumerable layers of bureaucracy, such that the only people who claim to K. to know anything at all about the system have an at best cursory understanding of only its lowest echelons.

The reader's resignation comes early in the book, and the dramatic irony inherent in its protagonist's inability to accept what we have known for up to three hundred pages drives the story forward. That the book's mechanical execution mirrors its conceptual execution does not change the fact that it is an occasionally difficult read (at times it seems as though Kafka is almost deliberately trying to deprive the reader of a reason to continue besides stubbornness or vanity), but these moments are rare, and part of an experience that ultimately ties together in a very satisfying way.
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