Der Process; The Trial

Der Process; The Trial (written 1914-15; publ. 1925)

In this novel, Josef K., a banker, is arrested, examined and finally sentenced to death by the officers of a mysterious court. The first sentence of the novel is not an objective statement of fact, however. It is a form of free indirect speech, and the idea that someone ‘must have’ slandered Josef K. is the conjecture of Josef K. himself [on this point, see Ronald Speirs and Beatrice Sandberg, Franz Kafka, Basingstoke, 1997, p. 67].

The fact that Josef K. is not aware of having done anything wrong does not necessarily mean that he is innocent. Certainly the officers of the court are sadistic and the final punishment disproportionate. And yet the more Josef K. protests that he is innocent, the more we as readers suspect that he is guilty. He is indeed guilty: guilty of being human; guilty of being arrogant and manipulative; guilty of lacking the strength and maturity to face up to his own faults. He expends his energy in denial rather than in self-analysis which a conscience requires [on this point, see Ritchie Robertson, Kafka: Judaism, Politics and Literature, Oxford, 1985, pp. 110-12].

The novel contains one of Kafka's most famous stories, the short parable ‘Vor dem Gesetz’; ‘Before the Law’.

Towards the end of the novel, Josef K. goes to see his lawyer, who is sitting up in bed. The lawyer tells him that Leni is attracted to the accused. According to the lawyer and Leni, it seems that being subjected to a trial makes a person especially beautiful. If the lawyer and Leni are correct, then that is perhaps a small consolation.

Further Reading

Stefan Andriopoulos, Possessed: Hypnotic Crimes, Corporate Fiction, and the Invention of Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), Chapter 5 on The Castle and The Trial

Elizabeth Boa, ‘The Double Taboo: Male Bodies in Kafka’s Der Proceß’, in Taboos in German Literature, ed. by David Jackson (Providence, RI and Oxford: Berghahn, 1996), pp. 97-118

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Losing the Plot? Kleist, Kafka, and Disappearing Grand Narratives’, German Life and Letters 70:2 (2017), 137-54

Stanley Corngold, Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), Chapters 2 and 3

Stephen D. Dowden, Sympathy for the Abyss: A Study in the Novel of German Modernism: Kafka, Broch, Musil, and Thomas Mann (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986), Chapter 4 on Der Prozeß

Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Kafka, Der Proceß’, in Landmarks in the German Novel I, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 135-50

W. J. Dodd, Kafka. Der Prozeß (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1991)

Graham Fallowes, ‘Power and Performativity: “Doing Things With Words” in Kafka's Proceß’, Oxford German Studies 44:2 (2015), 199-225

Eric L. Marson, Kafka’s ‘Trial’: The Case Against Josef K. (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975)

Barbara McKenzie, Colour and Light, Illness and Death: A New Interpretation of Kafka's ‘Der Proceß’ (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012)

Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Reading the Clues: Kafka, Der Process’, in The German Novel in the Twentieth Century: Beyond Realism, ed. by David Midgley (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp.59-79

James Rolleston (ed.), Twentieth-Century Interpretations of ‘The Trial’. A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976)

Rebecca Schuman, ‘“Unerschütterlich”: Kafka’s Proceß, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and the Law of Logic’, German Quarterly 85:2 (2012), 156-72

J. P. Stern, ‘The Law of The Trial’, in On Kafka. Semi-Centenary Perspectives, ed. by Franz Kuna (London: Elek, 1976)

Nina Pelikan Straus, ‘Grand Theory on Trial: Kafka, Derrida and the Will to Power’, Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007), 378-93

Theodore Ziolkowski, Dimensions of the Modern Novel: German Texts and European Contexts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), Chapter 2 on The Trial, pp. 37-67

Theodor Ziolkowski, The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)