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The Trial

Franz Kafka

Chapter 10

Chapter 9

Study Questions

Summary

On Joseph K.'s thirty-first birthday, two men in coats and top hats come for him. K. finds them to be ridiculous creatures, but goes with them. In the street, they take his arms in an unbreakable hold and the three of them move as one. At a deserted square, K. suddenly decides to resist, to force these warders to drag him. Then he sees Fraulein Burstner, or someone who looks reasonably like Fraulein Burstner, walk across the square. He realizes the futility of resistance, and instead strives to keep his mind clear and analytical until the end.

Once, on their journey, a policeman is on the verge of stopping them. They walk quickly past him, and K. himself leads the trio in running out of range from the officer. They walk out of town to a deserted quarry situated near an urban-looking house. There the two warders strip K. to the waist and awkwardly prop him against a bolder. One of the men removes a butcher's knife from his coat. The warders pass the knife back and forth, and K. realizes that he is meant to grab the knife and do himself in. He does not. In the window of the house, in the distance, he sees a figure with outstretched arms at the window. He wonders feverishly who it could be, what it could represent. K. makes a final gesture, raising his hand and extending his fingers toward the figure in the window. One warder holds K. while the other stabs him in the heart. He sees them watching him, and makes a dying exclamation: "'Like a dog!' he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him."

Commentary

Some novels seem to peter out in a trail of ellipses, most of their good ideas spent or their plots and sub-plots resolved. The Trial ends with a full stop. The emotional and symbolic charge builds up fast through the final pages, culminating in a veritable thunderclap. Yet, more than anywhere else in the book (excepting, perhaps, the end of Chapter Eight), one feels acutely that this is an unfinished novel. What has K. done since his meeting with the chaplain? We want desperately to know. Surely he has struggled, explored new avenues, considered leaving town. Was he already so resigned to this ridiculous fate in Chapter Nine? How is it he comes to expect some sort of official visitor on his birthday? On a different note, the appearance of Fraulein Burstner reminds us of how entirely unresolved that whole affair was left, way back in the first half of the book. The Trial was written during 1914-1915 and then abandoned--for whatever reason, Kafka moved on to other projects. It is not quite whole; yet, as in all of Kafka's best work, The Trial is marked by the contradiction of hermetic clarity, of utterance that has the ring of truth and internal consistency, even if we cannot quite make out the note.

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