Vintage Edition Summary
Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.
The Trial is a discomfiting, surreal story about a man, Josef K., who finds himself accused of an unspecified crime by a court he has never heard of; where the authority of the court comes from and who is in charge is never explained, but their power seems absolute. It’s a chilling commentary on the opaqueness of the law and a character’s inability to understand it (even an intelligent, privileged character who finds himself with access to a lawyer and other comments), while being completely subjected to it.
The brilliance of the story is that there is always just enough information provided to keep the reader reading (and the protagonist to keep trying to figure out the basics of his case). The very premise of the book is that the court is unknowable—it’s in the summary and that’s no spoiler—but enough tidbits are dropped throughout the telling of the story that the reader can’t help but hope eventually they’re going to figure it out. Or even if they don’t understand the big picture, perhaps they’ll figure something out. The book should be maddening, and in some ways it is, but it’s also incredibly compelling and keeps the reader dangling by a thread.
I also enjoyed that Josef K. is, in many ways, unlikable, and there’s no particular reason I or any reader should really be interested in his case…and yet we are. He’s an average man, completely unremarkable until he’s informed he’s been accused of a crime and will need to eventually stand trial—a bachelor with a middling position at a bank (though with a possibly bright future) who lives alone at a boarding house and seems to generically go about his life. Reading further, we see he’s willing to use women, he’s often condescending towards people he thinks beneath him, and he’s not really willing to stick his neck out to help others—even if he would like them to stick their necks out for him. I would not be friends or even acquaintances with such a man in real life, but I feel sympathy for him in the story over his complete uncertainty about his crime and the case. After all, if he’s innocent, he deserves justice, even if he’s a bit of a jerk.
The whole book is something like a dreamlike puzzle. One can never fully understand what’s happening or whether any of it makes sense, but there’s just enough forward momentum and confused “explanations” of processes of the court by people who claim to be (only a little, only about parts) “in the know” that reads want to find something to grasp onto and declare, “Yes, at least that makes sense! I can do something with that!” Overall, a brilliant reading experience and not quite like anything else I’ve read.