by Franz Kafka. First published in 1925. Many editions available. Translated and with a preface by Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 276pp. Paper $13.00. ISBN: 9780805209990.

Reviewed by Adelaide H. Villmoare, Department of Political Science, Vassar College. villmoare [at]


Franz Kafka’s THE TRIAL offers a mind bending experience, where the reader is on edge waiting for the trial to start, although it is clear that something has begun with the very first sentence: “Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested” (p.3). The unorthodox, if not outright weird, way in which the case against K proceeds pushes students to examine the suppositions they bring to the study of law and criminal justice and, more generally, to consider their ideas about justice.

The simple outline of the story is that Josef K, a kind of bourgeois everyman working hard to succeed at his bank, is arrested at home one morning. He is permitted to continue on with his “ordinary life” (p.17), encounters a variety of people associated with the court, many, if not all, of whom are corrupt, hires and fires a lawyer, while in a cathedral gets told an indecipherable parable about access to law, and, a year after his arrest is executed. From the first morning to his execution K is inexorably drawn into his case, where he never learns the charges against him. The labyrinthine system entrapping him remains opaque despite its power and presence everywhere he goes. K arrives at court when called and even when not called. He becomes mired in his case, from which he is unwilling and unable to extricate himself. K offers some slight resistance to the forces at work but in the end yields to his execution. With twists, multiple stories, play-like features, there is nothing simple or straightforward about the structure or content of anything in THE TRIAL except K’s death at the end.

I have used THE TRIAL in one translation or another for years as the initial text in my intermediate level “Law, Justice, and Politics” course on US civil litigation and the criminal justice process. The principal reason to begin with Kafka is that readers find it difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate events (even though the end could be seen as inevitable). What one expects to happen does not, and what does happen is unexpected. The scene with the flogger, for example, could not be foreseen. When K. hears groans from a junk room near his office at the bank, he opens the door to find the two guards who had arrested him being whipped -- ostensibly because K had complained about their improper behavior. While the discussion among K, the guards, and the flogger speaks to questions of corruption and justice that have already surfaced, it nonetheless plays out as a very strange and disconcerting episode.

Examining why something is unexpected requires a consideration of what is expected. Students often begin with suppositions about what usually occurs in the criminal justice process. They anticipate that defendants are arrested, [*333] tried or engage in plea bargaining, are convicted or acquitted and that police, courts, and judges all have recognizable trappings. Questioning their assumptions leads to discussion about why they have such expectations and how those expectations affect their understandings. Students articulate what they see as normal, what they see as fair. As they grasp what is occurring in THE TRIAL, they look at themselves and their own perceptions and values in relation to their analysis of criminal justice.

That examination frequently produces the observation that the US criminal justice process is notably different from K’s. K appears to live in a totalitarian country very much at odds with the US. In light of the story this position is reasonable; the courts and their minions are everywhere: in attics, behind apartment doors, in the cathedral. There is no line between those working for or in the know about the legal system and those outside it; it is virtually impossible to distinguish insiders from outsiders (one could say that K alone is on the outside, although by the end he is thoroughly pulled into the system). While they may hire lawyers to represent them, the accused (who are from the upper classes) face grim alternatives. According to the painter, one seemingly authoritative source, the possible outcomes are: an apparent acquittal, protraction, or actual acquittal (but the painter knows of no actual acquittals) (pp.152-153). Given these outcomes and his experiences, I ask my students, why does K think to himself early on that he “lived in a state governed by law, there was universal peace, all statutes were in force”(6)? Was he simply ignorant (despite his high status in society and at his bank)? Are there similarities between K’s criminal justice system and ours, between K’s suppositions and ours?

The disorienting quality of the book provides an excellent starting point to stir students’ minds, to get them to look at their own assumptions about legal process, and to involve them in comparing K’s world with their own. Because the book is fiction it does not bear the burden of having to prove an argument. The story pulls the reader into the frustration, the anger, the lightheadedness (which K experiences when he visits the law offices where the atmosphere is thin, although those working there and their clients have adapted to the lack of oxygen), the oppressiveness, and the inability to predict or control events. Students may sympathize with K’s situation, but they find him unlikable. He is not easy to identify with in part because he is so isolated from other human beings, including his family. The story is about his case, the relentlessness of the legal processes, the corruption of the personnel, and the power and opaqueness of law itself. (represented in one instance as pornographic pictures).

THE TRIAL can be used in courses presenting an overview of criminal justice processes or in more specialized courses. An interdisciplinary course I co-taught with Professor of Humanities and playwright John Henry Davis looked at trials as theater. The term “trial” in this context referred to various ways in which people are tested, judged, and punished not only through formal legal trials but also through Congressional hearings, personal conflicts, lynching, and executions. K is tried in several ways (e.g. his honesty is tested when he offers a bribe to stop the flogging, and his standing at his bank is challenged by his case). The novel, thus, opens up [*334] discussion about various meanings of the word trial and their relationships to one another. In this course we looked at the role of audiences and their responsibilities as witnesses (e.g. to lynchings). Characters in the novel are familiar with K’s case, and people appear as audience (e.g. to his arrest and the walk to his execution). We weighed moral obligations of people witnessing injustices, for example, and made connections between lynchings and K’s execution.

The novel also raises critical questions about gender. Most of the women in K’s society are prostitutes in one form or another. The washer woman he encounters in the courtroom in the suburb slums and the maid who tends to K’s bedridden lawyer are abused by and themselves exploit their connections with the legal system. Women are associated with the corruption and manipulativeness of the law. One could certainly draw on these images to explore ways in which criminal justice has disciplined and used gender and women in particular.

THE TRIAL is a versatile teaching tool, open to various interpretations. Where one person might argue that K could have made greater efforts to resist his fate, another might conclude that this rule bound man was incapable of such action, and, even if he were to resist, the outcome would have been the same. Different translations also invite different interpretations. In an earlier version of Breon Mitchell’s translation the first sentence reads: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything truly wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” The placement of the word “truly” makes K at the outset appear less innocent than he does in the Muir translation (Kafka 1968) and in Mitchell’s current version. Mitchell concluded that his initial translation of this sentence was "too interpretive" and that reader should allow his understanding of K's culpability to develop as he reads the novel (conversation with Dr. Mitchell 1/30/08). Mitchell’s “Translator’s Preface” is a fascinating read that contends that his translation makes clear the futility of resistance (xxiv). While I think that position is contestable, I find his discussion most instructive about possible readings of the novel.

After many years of reading and teaching THE TRIAL I still enjoy the process of discovery that my students engage in when talking about it. The text is dense with images, unsettling situations, and perplexing characters of which I have never tired. Kafka not only hurtles my students into the courses in which I have used it, it revs me up for a course I have taught for more than thirty years. While all the other books in the course on law and justice have changed frequently, THE TRIAL has been the one steady, disquieting text.

Kafka, Franz. 1968. THE TRIAL. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. Revised edition with additional material translated by E. M. Butler. New York: Schocken Books.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Adelaide H. Villmoare.