Franz Kafka's possibly unfinished novel, "The Trial," is one of the great mysteries of modernist literature. It was at once an astute, even prescient critique of modern power structures as well as a novel that does not quite make sense from a literary perspective. Left on the shelf by Kafka in 1915, the book was published in 1925 during the tense interwar period, which was, not coincidentally, the heyday of Modernist literature. Like most Modernist writers, Kafka used his art to express his sense of alienation and powerlessness in an increasingly hostile, meaningless, and dehumanized world. Thesis: "The Trial" is a critique of the bureaucratized nature of power in modern society and its effect on the modern individual's will. K.'s attempts to understand the purpose of the power structure persecuting him are frustrated because the power structure has no actual meaning or purpose, existing instead for the sole purpose of following is own rules and internal logic.
1) The court house: Its claustrophobic nature and labyrinthine structure to further clarify the theme of bureaucratic excess.
Kafka's introduces his reader to the power structure of modern society by illustrating the physical structures which represent its power. He describes the first structure that K. encounters, the court house, as being difficult to access as if on purpose. On his first visit, he goes "...over to the stairway to get to the room where the hearing was to take place, but then stood still again as besides these steps he could see three other stairway entrances, and there also seemed to be a small passageway at the end of the yard leading into a second yard." (28). It is clear that the structure is not designed to serve the needs of outsiders such as the general public which it supposedly serves. Indeed, it is doubtful if the structure is designed to serve the needs of humans at all.
The court house, which is built to maintain order, appears rather to make a fetish out of order. This fetish is illustrated by the symmetry of the four stairway entrances that K. encounters when he steps into the building for the first time. The symmetry here is reminiscent of a clever maze because it makes the path to the court house indistinguishable even with specific directions, which are unfortunately only given to people already in trouble and at the mercy of the court.
The air of obfuscation pervading the court house indicates that it, although supposedly a public good, is a highly secretive and nearly inaccessible institution. It is designed to confuse and discourage even the most determined members of society such as K., who "As he reached the fifth floor, he decided to give up the search, took his leave of a friendly, young worker who wanted to lead him on still further and went down the stairs.…" (29).
2) The Flogging of the two guards as an allegorical symbol of the tyranny of the court system.
Kafka addresses the absurdity and brutality of a power structure that exists only to follow its own rules. When K. discovers that his complaints about the two guards assigned to him have caused the two guards to be flogged by a third guard, he is unable to prevent the flogging, even though it was he who initiated the complaint. The conversation between the K., the two guards, and the third guard ordered to flog them illustrates the bureaucratic nature of power and the ultimate powerlessness of individuals within this structure:
"I made no sort of request that you be punished, I was simply acting on principle." "Franz," said Willem, turning to the other policeman, "didn't I tell you that the gentleman didn't say he wanted us to be punished? Now you can hear for yourself, he didn't even know we'd have to be punished." "Don't you let them persuade you, talking like that," said the third man to K., "this punishment is both just and unavoidable." (63).
Although K. seemingly held and exercised some type of authority here through his complaint about the guards' misconduct, he did not get to explain to the judge the relatively minor degree of actual harm arising from the misconduct. Thus, K. had no say regarding the consequences of such misconduct in this power structure, as that issue…