Joseph K wakes up one day in the absence of his breakfast. Instead strange men are waiting in his apartment with the order for his arrest. They eat his breakfast, but they will not tell him the charges against him nor the details of his inexplicable arrest. Despite his arrest he is not incarcerated and he cannot get information on his hearings or court procedures. Instead he is expected to go to his office and carry on with his daily life as he awaits his trial.
At first he is confused, but gradually he becomes more anxious and worried as he attends his first hearing, but still cannot get any information. We follow his journey through the legal proceedings as everyone except him understands the details of the case against him.
Along the way he meets men who have been accused and under legal proceedings for many years. They are the manifestations of the cruelty of the system that Joseph K can only begin to grasp. They are the utter depravity of humanity as they have abandoned all their agency to the hands of their advocates. He is not deterred by what he sees these people sleep in small light-less chambers and wait for days in attics in order to learn of news of their case. They have given up their lives, their families and their business and surrendered to the court system, determined to destroy them.
He also meets and seduces several women in the novel; during a meeting with a very important advocate he ducks out to have sex with his maid for several hours. In book about a trial where the defendant is assumed guilty from the beginning the themes of sexual shame can hardly be ignored. There was an interesting intro to my version of the book talking about Kafka’s failed engagement taking place prior to his writing of “the trail”, and it would be obvious to look at the book as an allegory over the entrapment of love and the meaningless rituals and approvals one must undertake (and that Kafka failed) during the procurement of an engagement. But Kafka was also know to be very sexual, falling in love with many women yet still frequenting prostitutes during his relationships. The women in the trial are mere tools for Joseph K., who despite a demanding trial keeps falling in with women. At one point he even reflects that women are the only ones that help him. The shame and the guilt may very well be what he is on trial for, his own humanity has proven him guilty from the beginning. And he certainly does himself no favours during the book to dissuade the court’s opinion on this matter.
In a sense he is on trial for his humanity and this is why the passionate speech he makes at his first hearing is not helpful. In fact the entire conduct of his case is ruled by passion, stubbornness and selfishness. One of his helpers explains to him that no one can receive an actual acquittal. One may receive apparent acquittal in which case on risks arrest at any time in the future. Or one may work for prolonged hearings, that is dragging the case out until the defendant dies, never free, but never sentenced either. Is that not life for you right there? None of us is innocent, we may only hope to appear so or continually work to keep or demons away.
I was very afraid to read this book, I thought it would be difficult to understand; with intricate philosophical writing, but I found it to be an interesting read. There was a smooth sense of otherworldliness pervading the novel. Joseph K seems utterly detached from the world and we as readers are utterly detached from him so that the reading of the trial becomes a dream within a dream; or perhaps a nightmare.
“The court asks nothing of you. It receives you when you come and it releases you when you go.”