The central conflict of The Trial is Josef K.’s struggle against The Law. He stands accused of an unknown crime, and his trial is supposedly required for justice to be served. However, there seems to be little justice in the treatment Josef receives. By most standards, he is denied anything resembling a fair trial: he is never informed of how he has broken the Law, he is forbidden from learning essential details of his case, and he is eventually executed without any deeper understanding of how his conviction was reached or what he could have done to oppose it. More than anything, the actions carried out against Josef seem to epitomize injustice.
Ironically, then, the very Law designed to ensure justice is what generates the greatest injustice. This is the opposition nested at the core of Kafka’s judiciary. The lofty, unattainable goal of absolute justice is muddled by worldly attempts to enforce it: the human impulse to institutionalize the concept of justice has created a corrupt and actively counterproductive judiciary, a judiciary that perpetrates injustice. In The Trial, this uncompassionate bureaucracy is so pervasive that individuals have begun to mistake the system of justice for the ideal of justice. Josef is repeatedly given the paradoxical assurance that whatever treatment he receives from the system will be the just treatment; the system has become the arbiter of what is just, completely separate from any ideal of justice. The system conceives of itself as that arbiter, and therefore considers anything it does to be naturally just. This pernicious feedback loop moves human understanding continually further from the true apprehension and attainment of justice.
Justice vs. The Law ThemeTracker
Justice vs. The Law 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 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.
Please don’t ask me for names, but stop making this mistake, stop being intransigent, no one can resist this court, you just have to confess. Confess at the next opportunity. It’s only then there’s a possibility of escaping, only then, though even that’s not possible without outside help. But you needn’t worry about that, I’ll provide the help myself.
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.’
Whenever I had the opportunity to go to the court myself, I always availed myself of it, I’ve listened to countless trials at important stages and followed them as long as they were held in open court, and, I have to admit, I have never come across a single genuine acquittal.
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.
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.
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.
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?