Kafka's unfinished novel, collated and published after his death by his friend Max Brod, tells the story of Josef K, who awakes one morning to find himself under arrest. His trial, such as it is, gradually comes to dominate his life, destroying his ability to work and shaking his faith in his lawyer. Josef never finds out the reason for his arrest and neither do we. The story is set in an unnamed country and at an unspecified time. I think I'm right in saying that there isn't even anything that ties it to the 20th century; in fact, for reasons I can't explain, it feels like it's set in the 19th century.
The legal system is mysterious and is designed to be impenetrable to the accused. But is it the official legal system of this country? If so, why are its workings so mysterious to Josef and why does it operate out of cramped attics all over the city? The events of the final chapter seem distinctly unofficial too. There are doubts everywhere, within the book and without. How unfinished is the book? Are the chapters even in the right order? What is Kafka saying?
Since I finished this book I've been looking for answers. For some critics it's a book about religious guilt, for others it's about the human condition. Kafka's life has been ransacked for explanations; perhaps the trial represents an engagement and marriage is the verdict or maybe it's about anti-semitism.
The problem is that the text offers little support for any of those things. I'm not even sure that the novel is about bureaucracy, which is a common theme identified by many critics.
Bureaucracy implies a system bogged down by interminable procedures and functionaries, it suggests a system in which it is hard to get anything done. But it's not the bureaucratic nature of the court system in The Trial that makes it so terrifying, it is it's imperviousness. It is not the case that it's hard to get anything done, it's impossible to get anything done because the system has no interest in representations by the accused.
In that sense it seems that the novel is about totalitarianism. It is the way in which Josef is stripped of his rights, his standing and his liberty that gives the story its power. Indeed, it is as if Josef never had those things in the first place. He assumed he had them because noone had told him otherwise.
The end of the book implies that it is the loss of dignity that is hardest for Josef to take. He has been so broken down by the process that he just doesn't have the strength to claim his dignity any longer.