The Trial

This is a classic story by Franz Kafka, which was fairly slow for the first half. There is a lot of setup and not much action, and feels like one of those literary ‘classics’ that is just not that enjoyable to read. But then the action and interest builds, and there is a great ten-page conversation that reveals the big idea — how people can and should interact with the bigness of the Law, what agency they have, and what choices they can make within those structures. I get why it’s a classic, and would very much recommend it to others.

The story begins with Joseph K waking up and being arrested in his apartment. He is a somewhat important person at a bank, and he’s been arrested for an undisclosed crime. He clearly believes himself innocent, and much of the book is the ridiculousness of the system charging him. He spends weeks on end hearing nothing, and then begins trying to figure out what people can help influence the judges. The formal presentations in court seem irrelevant, and he sees more and more that connecting with people who know the influential people in the court is the path he should pursue. He is imperfect at this, however, and meanders along trying to find his way out of this accusation. He continues working, doing less and less well, until an out-of-town client comes and requests a tour of the Cathedral. K is suggested to give the tour, so he shows up at the Cathedral, ready to give a tour. The guest never shows, but a priest walks up and addresses him. They gather together to talk, and that is when the exploration of Law and people and agency commences.

The story is about a man approaching the Law, represented by a large building, only to find a doorkeeper who will not allow him to enter at the moment. The moment stretches into days and years, and still he is not allowed to enter. Finally, as he lay dying, he asks the doorkeeper why nobody else has approached the door. The doorkeeper responds that it is because the door was meant only for the man, and now the door will be shut. After the priest wraps up the story, there are roughly 12 different interpretations of what the story means; how the guard was kind, how he wasn’t, who had the power, what agency the man had to decide his own fate, who had freedom, and so on. It is a fascinating exploration, and brings a wide range of perspectives and considerations to the short fable. It’s genuinely worth reading the rest of the book to get to this part, and I’m not sure if it would make as much sense without the tedium and absurdity that is set up for 200+ pages prior.

In the final chapter, Joseph K is visited by two men, who escort him to the outskirts of the town. They pass a dagger back and forth above him, Joseph declines to grab it and finish himself, so one of the men stabs him and ends his life. It is a stark end, befitting the novel, and bringing a feeling of a large life meaning. It’s a slow, meandering book for much of the story — and then this story from the priest brings forward the big idea, and he is then subjected to an untimely death. My hunch is that years from now I will recall this story, about the complications of attaining the Law, and how masterful the prose was to reach this point.