We had a lively discussion of Kafka’s The Trial (in German, Der Prozess) in our Ex Libris book group. I mention the German, because a “process” is what Josef K. endures, not an conventional trial in the American sense. Is this process a metaphor for bureaucracy, for illness, for death? We reacted strongly to K’s nightmare as he moved from dream-like episode to dream-like episode, experiencing all the varieties of bewilderment and fear.
I would like to take the nightmare as a given and look at the character of Josef K. He is a man under stress, but what is he like when he is not? He seems to be a buttoned-up type who works hard, rations his pleasures and thinks well of himself. His arrest at home, before, breakfast, is a violation of his sense of propriety:
At the bank, for instance, I’m always prepared, nothing like this could ever happen to me there; I have my own assistant, the office phone and and my outside line stand before me on the desk, people are constantly coming in, clients and officers; but even more importantly, I’m always involved in my work, and so I have my wits about me; it would be a positive pleasure to confront a situation like this at my office.
When his uncle visits him, K reflects that although his family background was helpful, he has achieved his position in life on his own. He feels superior to the underlings at the court.
If he stayed home and led his normal life he was infinitely superior to any of these people, and could kick any one of them out of his path.
Imagine that instead of a successful bank officer, K is a lowly clerk or an unemployed idler on the street. We might then feel less horror at his situation, accused of an unstated offense and wandering in the maze of the process. As Aristotle knew, tragedy requires the downfall of the illustrious. K is more pathetic than tragic because, in his own eyes, he is illustrious, yet he never quite convinces us. Right or wrong, high or low, perceptive or deluded, Kafka is saying that it doesn’t matter — the process will get you.