The fundamental absurdity of Josef K.’s world is a consequence of its inscrutability: there is no decisive way to make sense of Josef’s situation. Because there is no unequivocal truth in The Trial’s universe, every fact can be recast in conflicting ways. Moreover, the facts themselves are often dubious or altogether inaccessible. This theme is evident from the very first words of the book: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.” This vague and unsatisfying conjecture is the closest the text ever comes to explaining Josef’s arrest. As Josef navigates (or fails to navigate) the judicial system, crucial information is withheld at every step. Court documents, legal proceedings, and even the text of the Law that determines his fate are all forbidden to Josef, and oftentimes to the officials or court functionaries that control and dominate him as well. Like the doorkeeper in the prison chaplain’s parable, each functionary simply fulfills a role without regard for the purpose of that role or the logic of the larger system that contains it.
Indeed, the chaplain’s allegory, which serves as a preface to the Law itself, illustrates the many possible interpretations of The Trial’s world. The parable is so ambiguous that the chaplain can make equally compelling arguments for two opposing interpretations. Just as the chaplain’s story lacks a definite interpretation, so does the Law itself. This obscurity is what disturbs Josef so deeply. At the close of the book, Josef voices a series of unresolved, and likely unresolvable, questions. Even in his last moments of life, Josef is unable to ascertain a definitive meaning to his story. Similarly, The Trial itself resists unequivocal readings. Is the novel meant as an idealistic indictment of oppressive governance, or a pessimistic characterization of humankind in general? Does Kafka aim to make a political point, an existential one, or both? It is very possible that the text deliberately frustrates these questions, so that The Trial’s overall ambiguity complements Josef’s vexing experience with the Law.
The Unknowable and Interpretation ThemeTracker
The Unknowable and Interpretation Quotes in The Trial
Someone must have been telling tales about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.
What kind of people were they? What were they talking about? Which department did they belong to? After all, K. had rights, the country was at peace, the laws had not been suspended—who, then, had the audacity to descend on him in the privacy of his own home?
He was annoyed that he hadn’t been told precisely where the room was, the manner in which he was being treated was strangely negligent or offhand, a point he intended to make loudly and clearly. Finally he went up the first staircase after all, with the memory of something the guard Willem had said going through his mind, namely that the court was attracted by guilt, so that logically the hearing should be held in a room on the staircase K. happened to choose.
He felt as if he were seasick, as if he were on a ship in a heavy sea. It was as if the water were crashing against the wooden walls, as if a rushing sound came from the far end of the corridor, like water pouring over, as if the corridor were rocking to and fro and as if the people sitting on either side were going up and down. It made the calm of the young woman and the man who were helping him to the exit all the more incomprehensible.
He felt anguish at having been unable to prevent the thrashing, but it wasn’t his fault. If Franz hadn’t screamed—true, it must have hurt a lot, but a man should be able to control himself at decisive moments—if Franz hadn’t screamed then K. would, at least very probably, have found some means of winning the thrasher over.
It was very important, because the first impression the defence made often determined the whole course of the trial. Unfortunately he [Herr Huld] had to point out to K. that it sometimes happened that first submissions to the court were not read at all. They were simply filed, and the officials declared that hearing and observing the accused was more important than any written material. If the petitioner was insistent they would add that, once all the material had been gathered and before a decision was reached, all the files, including the first submission, would naturally be reviewed as a whole. Unfortunately, he said, that too was mostly incorrect, the first submission was usually mislaid or completely lost, and even if it was kept right to the end it was hardly read, though he, the lawyer, had only heard rumours to that effect.
The essential thing was not to attract attention, to stay calm, however much it went against the grain, to try to understand that this great legal organism remained eternally in balance, so to speak.
‘Yes,’ said the painter, ‘it was in the commission that I had to paint her like that, it’s actually Justice and the Goddess of Victory at the same time.’ ‘That’s not a good combination,’ said K. with a smile, ‘Justice has to be in repose, otherwise the scales will wobble and a just verdict will not be possible.’ ‘I’m following my client’s wishes,’ the painter said. ‘Yes, of course,’ said K., who had not intended to offend anyone with his remark. ‘You’ll have painted the figure as it is on the chair.’ ‘No,’ said the painter, ‘I’ve never seen either the figure or the chair, but I was told what I was to paint.’
I don’t know who the great lawyers are, and I presume you can’t get to them. I know of no case where it can be said for certain that they took part. They defend some people, but you can’t get them to do that through your own efforts, they only defend the ones they want to defend. But I assume a case they take on must have progressed beyond the lower court. It’s better not to think of them at all, otherwise you’ll find the consultations with the other lawyers, their advice and their assistance, extremely disgusting and useless. I’ve been through that myself, you feel like throwing everything up, taking to your bed, and ignoring everything.
Then the priest shouted down at K., ‘Can’t you see even two steps in front of you?’ It was shouted angrily, but at the same time as if by a person who can see someone falling and shouts out automatically, throwing caution to the winds because he is horrified himself.
I am only accepting this so you will not think there is something you have omitted to do.
No one else could be granted entry here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. I shall now go and shut it.
The court does not want anything from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.
Then Fräulein Bürstner appeared in the square, coming up a small set of steps from a lower street. It wasn’t quite certain that it was her, though the similarity was great. But K. wasn’t bothered whether it was definitely Fräulein Bürstner or not, it was just that he immediately became aware of the futility of his resistance. There was nothing heroic about his resistance, about making things difficult for the two men, about trying to enjoy the last semblance of life as he defended himself.
I’m grateful that I’ve been given these two half-mute, uncomprehending men to accompany me on my way and it’s been left to me to tell myself everything that is needful.
His eye fell on the top storey of the house beside the quarry. Like a flash of light, the two casements of a window parted and a human figure, faint and thin from the distance and height, leant far out in one swift movement then stretched its arms out even farther. Who was it? A friend? A kind person? Someone who felt for him? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one? Or all of them? Was help still possible? Were there still objections he’d forgotten? Of course there were. Logic may be unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached?
‘Like a dog!’ he said. It seemed as if his shame would live on after him.