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The Trial

Franz Kafka

Chapter 9

Chapter 8

Chapter 10

Summary

An influential Italian client is coming to town and K. has been charged with escorting the man to the city's cultural points of interest. K. has been assigned, or rather offered, many missions of late that take him away from his work. He wonders whether there might not be a plot afoot to keep him elsewhere and occupied while someone--the Assistant Manager, perhaps--goes through his papers or otherwise looks to damage his standing. He wants to concentrate on his work. It is the only way to solidify his standing at the bank, and he must be doubly on guard for the errors that have begun to creep into his efforts since his case began to tax his energy. Yet he accepts every special commission. Not to do so would be to refuse an honor and possibly to admit weakness or fear.

K. arrives at the office early and exhausted from having studied Italian grammar the night before. The Italian has also arrived early. The Manager, who speaks Italian, makes the introductions and helps K. to understand the visitor's meaning. The Italian has business to attend to and cannot see all of the city's sites. He proposes that K. meet him at the cathedral at 10 o'clock.

K. devotes the intervening hours to studying the Italian verbs he will need in order to be able to say anything intelligent about the cathedral. As he is about to leave the office, Leni calls. He tells her what he is doing, and she replies, "They're goading you." This annoys him, but as he hangs up he can't help but agree with her.

He goes to the cathedral and waits. The Italian is late. K. gives him a half-hour, then more, but the man does not come. It is raining outside, so K. waits longer, walking around the cathedral and leafing through a picture album he has brought with him. A caretaker catches K.'s eye and motions for K. to follow him. K. does for awhile, but soon desists and returns to the nave to sit. He notices a small, unusual pulpit that looks as if it would be an uncomfortable place from which to preach. A preacher climbs up into the pulpit. It is an odd time for a sermon, and apart from K. and the caretaker, there is no audience. K. feels he should return to the office; realizing it would be difficult to leave once the sermon begins, he rises and walks toward the exit. A voice behind him calls out, "Joseph K.!" For a moment K. considers pretending not to hear or understand and continuing on his way. But he turns, and so must engage the priest.

The priest is in fact the prison chaplain, connected with the court. He has had K. summoned to this place. He tells K. that his case is going badly. It may never even get beyond the lower courts. K. believes the chaplain's intentions are good, and hopes that the chaplain might be able to give him some advice that will point a way "not toward some influential manipulation of the case, but toward a circumvention of it...a mode of living completely outside the jurisdiction of the Court." K. asks the chaplain to come down from the pulpit; the chaplain agrees.

The two walk together up and down the aisle. K. tells the chaplain that he trusts him more than anyone else connected with the Court and feels he can speak openly. The other replies that K. is deluded, and describes an allegory that is supposed to be illustrative of this delusion. This brief tale, drawn from the writings about the Law, tells of a man from the country who tries to gain admittance at an entrance to the Law, is always denied by the doorkeeper, and yet learns as he dies that this entrance was meant only for him. The chaplain and K. discuss several possible interpretations of this story--who is deluded, who is subservient to whom. At last the two pace in silence. K. says that he should probably go, but is disappointed when the chaplain simply dismisses him. K. asks why the chaplain was recently so friendly and helpful and now so indifferent. The chaplain reminds K. that he (the chaplain) is connected to the Court, and that "the Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go."

Commentary

Kafka's parable of the entrance to the Law is as luminous as it is opaque. It seems to contain some essence of truth about the relationship between the citizen and the Law, or perhaps the human condition in general, but what--other than tragedy of one man's futile efforts--does it really relate? It is a Kafka story in miniature: a gnomic genesis of interminable commentary and speculation. The chaplain offers K. the outlines of several prominent interpretations, but clearly he is only scratching the surface.

Is the man from the country meant to represent K.? Is the Law truly unreachable? Does the doorkeeper speak the truth? Is the doorkeeper, by way of his connection to the Law, beyond reproach. K. remarks that to consider the doorkeeper unimpeachable is to accept everything he says as the truth despite the fact that at least one of his statements is untrue. Perhaps the chaplain's most salient comment comes in his response: "...it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary." This seems to be the modus operandi of the Law, the dynamo within the great machine of the Court, the divine principle before which the functionaries--and eventually the accused men--prostrate themselves. It is, as K. declares, a "melancholy thought" because it "turns lying into a universal principle." That universal lie of necessity--the mother of detention--keeps the mechanism moving forward and squelches potential challenges to the system. When the Law takes necessity as its model, justice is doomed. The terrible fact of The Trial, and of the parable, is that the men seeking justice eventually accept this warped universal principle and its skewed criteria; they submit to the necessity of their own exclusion or death.

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