The Trial: Essay Questions
1. In chapter eight, K. meets the sniveling businessman, Block. Discuss this character’s contribution to the novel.
Block provides a trajectory of the direction K.’s life will take if he remains with the lawyer Huld and fails to assume responsibility for his own case. A ruined businessman, Block is another of Huld’s clients. K. first encounters him in a compromising position with Leni, Huld’s young nurse. Huld uses Leni to subjugate Block. She watches him in the prison-like maid’s room, reports his behavior back to Huld, instructs him to placate Huld by kissing his hand, and praises him when he performs his tasks well—like a dog.
K. follows in Block’s footsteps. At the beginning of the novel he is physically healthy and confident in his position at the bank. However, by the time he meets Block K. is ill and is in danger of losing his job. He has come under Leni’s sexual spell too and handed responsibility for his case over to Huld who does absolutely nothing for him. In time, K. will begin to grovel and become increasingly helpless, like Block, “a pitiful character” (82). Indeed, at the end of the novel, K. will die “like a dog,” like Block.
2. Throughout The Trial, K. is continually surrounded by women. Discuss these characters’ role in the novel as a whole.
Before his arrest, the prostitute Elsa seems to be the only woman in K.’s life. After his arrest, K. seeks out women who will be able to help him. On the evening of his arrest, he waits to find comfort with Miss Burstner. Soon after, he seeks maternal comfort from Mrs. Grubach, his landlady. After that, he seeks out the Washerwoman, the attractive wife of the Court Usher, who can help plead his case. In fact, as he realizes after meeting the Lawyer’s nurse, Leni, he recruits women helpers. These women remain a powerful presence in the novel acting as watchers and informers who also provide insights into K.’s personality.
Although he boasts that he is Mrs. Grubach’s favorite tenant, K. is cruel to her. Since she owes him money, he expects far more than the average boarder and he cuts her off without a word after she criticizes Miss Burstner. Only when he needs additional information does he admit her back into his room. Tearfully, she tells him “I've suffered the last few days!” She gives him information about Miss Burstner.
From the beginning, Miss Burstner is attractive to K. and becomes even more so when she informs him that she will start work at a law office. Although he looks down upon the washerwoman as being socially inferior, he feels gratified by her sexual advances and continues to see her merely so she can help him get a judge to read his paperwork. Similarly, he is attracted to young Leni for her proximity to his powerful lawyer Huld and also to various court judges who might help him win his case.
In short, these female characters cast K. in a negative light and suggest that perhaps he isn’t as innocent as he professes himself to be.
3. How do Kafka’s settings contribute to the novel?
Kafka’s dark, gloomy airless settings in The Trial contribute to the overall idea that K. is stuck and cannot escape. In chapter one, we learn that K.’s bedroom has two doors, one adjoining Mrs. Grubach’s living room and the other, Miss Burstner’s bedroom. Also, a window faces the street which allows passersby to peer in at him. Simply, from the beginning it is clear—K. is surrounded. This theme of enclosure is enhanced through various settings as the novel moves forward.
In chapter three, K. finds himself in the dark, gloomy courtroom attic. Here, the otherwise healthy K. begins to feel ill as he realizes he is in a virtual prison: “there was no direct source of light . . . instead of solid walls [it] had just wooden bars reaching up to the ceiling (31).” In addition, the setting in chapter seven emphasizes K.’s ever increasing sense of enclosure. One morning in his office, “for no particular reason, just to avoiding returning to his desk for a while, he opened the window. It was difficult to open and he had to turn the handle with both his hands. Then, through the whole height and breadth of the window, the mixture of fog and smoke was drawn into the room, filling it with a slight smell of burning” (65). Clearly, K. cannot escape. He is beginning to get smothered.
Soon after, at Titorelli’s, when the temperature soars, K. asks "could we not open the window?" but the artist tells him "it's only a fixed pane of glass, it can't be opened" (76). In other words, by this point, there is no escape for him, which the settings of the novel have suggested all along.
.4. How does existentialism function in The Trial?
As a philosophy, existentialism decrees that individuals are responsible for what they do and for how they live in the world. The burden of life, this philosophy argues, cannot be shifted to others, or for that matter, even to God. Existentialism emphasizes the isolation of the individual in a hostile world, deems the world to be absurd and, overall, stresses, that although people are free to act, there are consequences for their every action.
No doubt The Trial is the ultimate existentialist novel. Literally surrounded by hostile others, as a modern man, Joseph K. is cut off and isolated from his fellow humans and is unable to forge satisfying human relationships. His major mistake is not taking responsibility for his own case. A firmly entrenched member of the bureaucratic establishment that causes his problems, instead of taking responsibility he turns to “them,” for solutions: the court, the lawyer, the church. Consequently, his failure to act ensures his death at the hands of absurd clowns.
5. From the final line of The Trial, “the shame of it should outlive him,” readers assume that K. died a shameful death (111). However, some critics claim that K. dies a heroic death and that his death isn’t shameful at all. Agree, or disagree.
It would seem that by the end of the novel, K. has succumbed to the Court and become “like a dog,” a pathetic creature like the weakling Block. However, Block is still alive five years after his arrest and it would seem, according to the conversation he has with his lawyer, that he will remain alive for many years to come; as long as he continues follows Huld’s instructions. Block has chosen to follow the inane procedures laid out by the court, bowing to their every whim, even going so far to kiss their hands, so to speak.
However, K. is put to death one year after he is arrested—indeed, precisely on the anniversary of his arrest, which coincides with his birthday. This suggests that K. has not become a creature of the Court like Block and that he has chosen instead not to put up with the inanity of the merciless system that has come to dictate every facet of his life.
In addition, although it would seem from the end of the novel that K. finally does give in to the Court when he fails to put up a fight for his life, the matter is not quite that simple. K. considers resisting the two men who come to lead him away to kill him but then he follows them meekly. But it is K. who leads them to the quarry where they remove his jacket and proceed to stab him to death. However, when the killers attempt to compel K. to take his own life, he refuses. This demonstrates that the Court is not in full control and that by making the men do the dirty work, he defeats the Court in the end by retaining a modicum of self-control.