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Kafka's Joseph K. goes through a confusing and bizarre experience over the course of the novel, learning more and more about the legal bureaucracy surrounding him without ever actually learning anything about it. In a sense, Joseph K.'s experience mirrors the human experience in any society, because it demonstrates how the justification for legal and political authority is ultimately an illusion; there is no inherent justification for human political power, but rather it depends either on the consent of the governed or coercive force, and both of these actually serve to isolate the individual (Panichas 86).
In the case of the former, consent of the governed, the individual is isolated due to the fact that he or she must give up some agency and power to the state, and thus lose some small bit of individuality. The individual essentially becomes a constituent element of the state, and thus, like the Underground Man, loses the ability to truly influence anything. This characterizes Joseph K.'s experience through almost the entire novel, because although he attempts to challenge the charges against him and the almost inexorable movement of the trial, he nevertheless acknowledges the authority of the legal system by acquiescing to participate in it. In other words, by even acknowledging that the court might have any authority over him, Joseph K. begins the gradual process of isolation and dehumanization that culminates in him dying "like a dog!" (Kafka 165). However, his death also demonstrates the obverse of the same idea, because in his final moments, he refuses to continue participating in his own isolation and comes face-to-face with the state's only option when individual, internalized subservience is no longer sufficient.
As mentioned above, for most of the novel Joseph K. participates in his own isolation by consenting to the authority of the court, in the same way that any individual somewhat paradoxically isolates him or her self from others by participating in any kind of political organization or power structure. However, by the end of the novel, he seems to have finally realized how the court "works," meaning that he recognizes that it does not, in fact, work, but rather relies upon the acquiescence of the accused. This is why in his final moments he recognizes that "it would be his duty to take the knife as it passed from hand to hand above him and thrust it into himself;" he has finally recognized how political society works, and that its success depends almost entirely on the subservience of the individual (Kafka 165). When he refuses, he learns the other element that supports political organization when self-imposed isolation and disempowerment are not enough: coercive force. The two men stab him in the heart, because the moment that he recognizes the illegitimacy of authority is the moment that he becomes an actual threat to it. By refusing to kill himself, Joseph K. is essentially determining to reconnect himself with humanity, and so the state must kill him "like a dog" in order to ensure that this does not happen.
The four stories discussed above all deal with isolation in slightly different ways, but this does not mean that they necessarily disagree on either the experience of or reasons for isolation, and particularly the isolation felt during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Instead, each story is describing a phenomenon much larger than any single experience, country, or even historical period. The experience of isolation, while multifarious and constantly changing, depending on a number of independent variables, nevertheless stems from some common factors in society that the four stories discussed above consider. Thus, this study has attempted to examine these stories' representations of isolation in order to see what they say about isolation as such, rather than what they might have to say about each other in a comparative sense.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground reveals how isolation stems from living in a society whose political and social institutions are immutable and indifferent, and which make human actions meaningless and ineffectual. Anton Chekhov's "The Man in a Case" and "The Lady with the Lapdog" examine how shame functions as a tool for perpetuating this isolation, because it encourages the individual to internalize what he or she perceives as the dictates of society. Far from decreasing isolation, however, subscribing to these dictates only serves to diminish one's connection to humanity. Finally, Franz Kafka's the Trial demonstrates how isolation is in many ways a constituent element of any political organization, because legal and political authority depends upon isolating the individual from humanity, taking authority to govern from the individual's explicit or implicit consent while diminishing the individual's capacity for connecting with other humans within that organization. Thus, while these four texts discuss different facets of isolation, in the end they may be viewed as contributing to a larger discussion of isolation in general, and how isolation relates to the individual's relationship to society and the state in particular.
Chekhov, Anton. "The Lady with the Lapdog." An Anthology of Russian Literature From
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Chekhov, Anton. "The Man in a Case." Trans. Rosamund Bartlett About Love and Other Stories.
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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. New York: Forgotten Books, 2008. Print.
Kafka, Franz. The Trial. New York: Dover, 2009.
Panichas, George a. "Kafkas Afflicted Vision: A Literary-Theological Critique." Humanitas
17.1 (2004): 83-107.
Rosenshield, Gary. "The Fate of Dostoevskij's Underground Man: The Case for an Open
Ending." Slavic and East European Journal 28.3 (1984): 324-339.…[continue]
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