The Trial: Themes

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Unexplained Guilt

Even though K. is never charged or convicted of any crime, he feels guilty, of what we never learn. It may just be a free-floating kind of guilt that has no direct cause. It is possible that his sense of guilt is linked to the theological belief in Original Sin. This is part of Jewish and Christian tradition. Adam and Eve sinned, and because of that brought sin into the world. All humans, even children, from that point on are considered guilty of sin even though they may have no remembrance of ever having committed any sin. This becomes a kind of existential sense of guilt that cannot be pinned down to any actions. The Trial can be read as either a factual criminal trial or as the internal struggle of a man excoriating himself with a nameless, inexplicable guilt. 

Did K. unknowingly actually commit a crime?  Or is he merely experiencing severe mental anguish brought about by an overriding sense of guilt?  Indeed, some critics argue that K. is undergoing a mental breakdown. Kafka, however, would have us believe that it doesn’t matter.  Since K. feels guilty, he is doomed. In Kafka's estimation, the courts, whether external or internal, view everyone as guilty. The accused will stand trial, and will be executed.  There is no escape, no hope for acquittal. Thus, guilt or innocence simply do not matter; in this bizarre world that Kafka has constructed, they are not relevant questions. The question of K's actual guilt will never be answered because Kafka does not provide one. 

The Unfairness and Cruelty of Bureaucracy

Joseph K. is a socialized modern man living within the web of an unforgiving, unfair but all-pervasive bureaucracy. At the age of thirty, he is a bona fide member of the banking establishment, Chief Clerk, intent only on his next promotion. He has no family; he works late and has very few social engagements. Continually, he is surrounded by others; he has no privacy: “K. waited a little while, looked from his pillow at the old woman who lived opposite and who was watching him” (1).

 After he is arrested, he becomes enmeshed, and ultimately trapped, within a bureaucratic web of the Law, the Court and the Church and when he looks for help to free himself from this modern insidious system, he becomes even more stuck, like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Instead of relying upon himself and stepping up, as it were, to save his own skin, he mistakenly believes that Huld the lawyer can save him. Ultimately, he finds out that the lawyer is one of the cruel spiders. The artist Titorelli, one would think, could function outside the absurd bureaucratic code of laws and regulations. But, he is also a creature of the court intent only on getting money out of K. Even the priest in the Cathedral, it turns out, is the prison chaplain. 

K. mistakenly believes that by relying on the bureaucracy that condemns him, he can save his life instead of examining his own conscience to determine his own guilt or innocence. He has become so lost that he willingly leads the two lesser minions of the Court to his own death—a victim of a bureaucracy he can neither understand nor oppose.

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