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Kafka’s The Trial As An Emblem of the Present Day Modern Man

By Nabgha Shahid

Critically acclaimed The Trial is a pessimistic, surreal depiction of the modern man’s anxieties and the sense of entrapment they undergo in an age defined by uncertainty. Kafka’s protagonist Joseph K. maneuvers through a maze-like web of systematic procedures that is a bureaucratic parody of the legal system; he keeps doing things that give the impression that he is guilty. After some time, his accusers determine he must be guilty, and he is executed immediately. In the second-last chapter “In the Cathedral," Kafka, states that "the proceedings gradually merge into judgment” (Winterhalter). Eventually, K. internalizes the anxieties represented at large about the sin he has committed eventually becomes his reality and it is in the culmination of this notion that Kafka highlights absurdity and existentialism at their peak. Similar to Metamorphosis, Kafka defies the demarcation of man’s physical boundaries and transcends to a reality where man exists in a vacuum.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, absurdity is the absence of meaning because there is no eternal justification for man's existence, it is nonsensical. The world and himself have no purpose in existing. There is no evidence to support the legitimacy of the values he chooses, even though he selects them and acknowledges them as such. Although Sartre does not dismiss the use of reason, he does highlight the fact that there is only intuitive knowledge and that, rather than being driven by rationalism, our lives are driven by our personal passions but Camus was the one who really stressed how important absurdity is. He concurs that neither the world nor a particular person need to exist because of which, the planet itself is a source of death (Mondal). We can feel the world, but no amount of knowledge on earth can convince one of the eternality of this world. Therefore, absurdity is the only connection between the world and man. This sense of absurdity's defiance by existence. According to Camus, the universe is just unreasonable, and reason pits man against the world rather than determining whether something is rational or irrational. The world lacks the clarity that man requires. This is precisely the circumstance in The Trial by Kafka where the novel commences with his wrongful detention and accusation of a crime he never commits. The reason he was detained is never revealed, and throughout the book, we are presented with a perplexing web of witnesses, judges, and advocates, none of those decisions make sense. It perfectly captures an odd, illogical universe that is reflective of the modern era’s anxieties.

It quickly becomes apparent that the solution was never forthcoming as The Trial continues on its tragic route further into K.'s exclusive, ominous, and sexualized world. Even at the outset, Kafka makes a hint at the narrator's ignorance: "Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested." This particular statement is derivative of the existentialist philosophical arc, the idea that actions on their own are isolated and do not contain any subsequent meaning, thus, it becomes seminal to the reader’s understanding that it is not consequential to fixate on why K. is being arrested, it is important to view the process he undergoes and ultimately accept the lack of closure it brings.  Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, “In spite of the confirmation of more recent times that Kafka’s nightmare of a world was a real possibility whose actuality surpassed even the atrocities he describes, we still experience in reading his novels and stories a very definite feeling of unreality.” According to Arendt, K.'s internalization of a vague guilt sense is what gives off this appearance of unreality. This all-pervasive guilt serves as a safeguard for K.'s involvement in a dishonest legal system. The guilt becomes so deeply enrooted in him that he begins to hold himself accountable eventually: a guilt that stems from merely existing in a dilapidated state.

Albert Camus was influenced by Kafka's dark despair, gallows humor, and austere manner; without Kafka, it would be impossible for Camus to depict crime and punishment in The Stranger. Camus’ The Stranger has striking parallels to that of The Trial. In both works, it is integral to understand that both protagonists undergo a trial; the difference is that while Camus’ Meursault is aware of his crime, Joseph K. is not. The purposeful ambiguity of Kafka is opposed by Camus’ reasoning that despite the true nature of the crime being exposed, the futility of existence does not waver. Meursault’s nonchalance to the admittance of his sin and his callousness is what Inculcates shock within his audience, “I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light.  I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy.  But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace.  And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing (129)”. Although he was aware that he had committed a sin, and that it would be his undoing, he continually acts as if he exists in a vacuum. The lack of reflection on his sin coupled with his lack of admission of faith/religion then insinuates that it is not a sin if he was never a believer. That absurdity then becomes the basis for all existentialists who through anti-heroes like Meursault and Joseph K. portray the age of anxiety aptly. The sense of entrapment, isolation, and alienation is similar to the one that Gregor, the protagonist of Metamorphosis feels after his transition from a man to an insect. The transient nature of life is then highlighted through the elevation of an absurd element that forces the readers or audiences to become aware of the decaying age and era they live in. Sisyphus is the embodiment of absurdity in Camus' eyes since he chooses life above death and wants to live as fully as possible but is prevented from doing so by being forced to perform a futile and repeated activity. Such is the life of the modern man: bound to repeat the same pointless daily rituals every day, working without fulfillment, and doing much of what he does for no apparent reason. This might apply to any of Kafka's protagonists, including Josef K. from The Trial, K. from The Castle, or Gregor Samsa from Metamorphosis.

In a piece for Twentieth Century Literature, literary critic Margaret Church commented on psychological themes present in The Trial, mentioning “the dreamlike quality of time values and the assumption of an interior time” employed throughout the text. Church claims that because of this erratic temporality, most of what occurs in The Trial isn't real. She asserts that it makes just as much sense to believe that "the characters are projections of K.'s thoughts" (Church). This oscillation between reality and unreality also pervades in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett where the existence of Godot is unclear and whether Lucky and Pozzo are just figments of Vladimir and Estragon’s sub-consciousness. The temporal and spatial demarcations then wither away and by creating the lack of aforementioned aspects, existentialist writers like the likes of Beckett, Kafka, and Camus highlight the delusional world man creates for himself.

According to an aphorism that Kafka once penned, his biggest aspiration was to “get a picture of life in which life would concurrently be recognized no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a faint hovering" (The Diary of Kafka) and this notion is embodied in The Trial where the limitations of time and space are tested. In fact, the trance-like state in which all of the characters are immersed represents the disillusionment and delusion that Kafka strived to depict. “It was not impossible that he might receive some form of decisive and acceptable advice from [the prison chaplain], something that might show him, for example, not how to influence the trial, but how to break out of it, how to get around it, how to live outside the trial” --- this burden of the trial that seemingly hangs over K. without any utterance of the crime he is submerged into creates a profound effect on the readers as it is nothing but a “faint hovering”. Does K. believe that he is guilty because he has been called for trial or has K. internalized the guilt while he was seemingly innocent? These are all interrogatives and questions that the reader never gets the answers to.

The irrationality of the world itself and social communities and hierarchies are both questioned and portrayed through the lens of K. whose desperation to be innocent hinders his dynamic with others. K. straddles the line between solitude and sociality, despite having a strong desire to live in a community. He is faced with competing options. Whatever the case is despite his best efforts, he still commits sin and must punish himself. He appears to be siding with his executioners because he returns to court despite not having been called and is moved to tears by the inspectors who robbed and arrested him. His life and sleep are controlled by this agony. He is both the offender and the jury. This nothingness intensifies his dilemma to exist and even commit to faith. Divine norm no longer exists because God has turned his back on the planet. Like Camus' The Stranger, Joseph K. no longer understands the Law, finds existence ludicrous, and feels completely unnecessary. His arrest, in his opinion, was "ridiculous nothingness” but if his life is based upon that nothingness, then what is left to question? The fundamental beliefs that he has devoted his entire life too then are questioned too and all that is left behind is absurdity and irrationality.

 The Trial and The Stranger both portray the folly of law in a serious way. The achievement of the two opposing existentialist main characters in the novels is their refusal to hold on to any delusions in an effort to save their own lives or to find relief from their anguish and suffering. Their trial and execution served as a mirror for the gloomy, and irrational world that we all live in and cannot escape, as held out by Kafka and Camus. In Joseph K., through the eternal question of navigating through law enforcement agencies and through Meursault’s callousness and lack of sentiment arises a greater existential dilemma: Why is societal hierarchy the norm? In The Stranger, Meursault is subjected to the law because of his disturbing lack of sentiment rather than the actual murder of the Arab. Meanwhile, Joseph K. is executed due to his relentless denial and challenge to the authorities. Couldn’t he just have accepted and rationalized the illogical arrest? The denial, the subsequent follow-up to the court and the need to prove himself in an absurd world where everything lacks meaning supersedes every other notion and that is the crux of existentialist philosophy.

The cathedral K. visits is pitch-black, desolate, and empty. It is now a historical monument that Joseph K. visits; it is no longer a place for meditation. The priest chooses a very odd hour for his sermon when the building is not desecrated by a crowd that just professes superficial faith instead of preaching from the small pulpit rather than the major podium. The dissipating sense of faith coupled with the increasing lack of rationality drives K. to believe that there is no rational explanation for anything in this world. While Nietzsche murders God in his philosophy, Kafka reiterates how, we “sinned when we ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the fruit of the tree of life”, thus, he exists in this excruciating center oscillating between searching for rationality and accepting that life in itself is devoid of meaning. The denial and simultaneous affirmation are a contradiction present in his work as well where K. both wants to isolate yet at the same time wants to embrace the societal norms.

Joseph K. only loosely adheres to predetermined pathways. In reality, he is misunderstood, unhappy with his ludicrous job at the bank, and lives on the edge of society. He also has a faint sense of an enormously complicated and rich world that distresses him. As a result of being ostracized, he begins to internalize that guilt and eventually holds himself accountable. The striking parallels observed between K. and The Unknown Citizen by Auden also establish the fallacy of the judicial system. Outwardly man himself has everything he could have aspired to achieve yet he remains a victim of the system, a voiceless, silent spectator to the irrational and absurd happenings of life that he ironically tries to immortalize but fails.



1.      Church, Margaret. “Time and Reality in Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 2, no. 2, 1956, pp. 62–69. JSTOR,

2.      Mondal, Disha. “The Trial by Kafka :In the Light of Existentialism and Absurdism.” IJELC 6.4 (2018): 80–84. 

3.      Rossi, Louis R. “Albert Camus: The Plague of Absurdity.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 20, no. 3, 1958, pp. 399–422. JSTOR,

4.      The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1925, translated by David Wyllie

5.      The Stranger by Albert Camus, 1942, translated by Stuart Gilbert


About the Writer:

Nabgha Shahid is currently a student of English Literature at Kinnaird College for Women Lahore and an In-House Writer at Erato Magazine. She is a strong advocate for feminism and is an ardent lover of Gothic Literature. Through her writings, she wishes to impart awareness about the plight of women in Pakistan.

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