The Trial Review
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Though The Metamorphosis is by and large Kafka’s most famous contribution to literature, The Trial is, in fact, the more important work of fiction. Exploring the human reaction to false accusation and the paranoia that inevitably follows, the book is an absolute masterpiece that shows Kafka at his most ingenious.

Joseph K. awakens one morning to find that his house has been invaded by several men who claim that they’re there to place the humble bank employee under house arrest. He asks the usual questions: what have I done, why am I being arrested, etc., but his captors offer no clues—only that he’s believed to have committed a serious crime, and that he’s under arrest. From there, the novel follows K. as he struggles to find some shred of reason in the confusion that becomes his trial.

K. is no longer able to trust anyone, after several other employees of the bank turn up at one of his questioning periods—which sound like they would offer clues to his crime, but they do little more than add more confusion, as no details are never released to K. about the nature of his trial. The inability to get any answers begins to take its toll on K., and by the midway point of the book he has become so frustrated that he begins, according to his accusers, to damage his chances of an innocent verdict by acting out—though he’s really just trying to get some shred of information, since it becomes obvious that his accusers are corrupt and that his crime probably has more to do with politics than any actual breaking of the law.

The brilliance of this scenario, politically, is that it demonstrates the dangerous potential for corrupt governments to control their populations through the use of secret police, an issue that was, at the time The Trial was written, just becoming a reality in pre-WWII Europe. The realistic reaction of the character, the frightening coldness of the accusers, and the brilliant way the story unfolds—leaving the reader just as confused as Joseph K. about what’s really going on—is the key to understanding the importance of this work of fiction. In fact, one is never even 100% sure that K. is innocent, although the implication is such that the readers’ morality draws them to the conclusion that it is the accusers who are the real nemesis and that K. is probably as innocent as he acts throughout the book. But this is never actually verified.

The other half of the genius is in the fear this text promotes. The “what if” that pops into your head as you read on. What if this actually happened? What would you do? What could you do? You’d be powerless against such a system—and this means living with a sort of constant terror that, at any moment, a squad of brutes might knock down your door and haul you off to prison, without ever having to tell you why. This icy feeling of powerlessness in the face of supreme corruption is even more prevalent in Kafka’s Trial than in other novels with a similar theme, such as Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984—because here it remains a mystery. In the other books, readers are given an explanation of the enemy—one they can disagree with—that points out how the hero is a threat to the system and why there is a conflict. In The Trial, there is no such rational division, only the mystery of why and the guessing that naturally follows.

But there’s something else to consider that perhaps offers the best reason to actually read this book. Ask yourself, “If I were going to write a book about a guy who’s accused of a crime, without ever mentioning any details about what the crime actually was, how would I do it?” It’s one thing to have a good idea like this, but as any writer will tell you, filling the pages can be a huge challenge under limiting circumstances like these. Kafka does the impossible job of making this interesting throughout the entire book, while sticking to the original plan of keeping both the reader and the protagonist in the dark.

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