Sara Smollett
May 8, 1996
Sophomore Seminar

``In the Cathedral,'' A Critical Reading

Although Kafka's novel is titled (at least in the English translation) The Trial, the book doesn't actually contain a trial in the typical sense. In a way the plot (or lack thereof) revolves around Joseph K.'s personal trial as he strives to prepare to prove his innocence. Yet he doesn't really make an effort to understand the Court, the charges brought against him, or himself The only trial that K. seriously concerns himself with is spending time a way from his office. ``Every hour that he spent away from the Bank was a trial to him'' (197). He doesn't take seriously the trial of examining himself, but sees his duty only as doing work at the bank. Ironically, once again he completely misses the point of his mission. Even though he would rather not host the Italian, as he is told to do, he is incapable of acting and deciding not to because he is afraid of the consequences. ``[N]ow that all his energies were needed even to retain his prestige in the Bank, he accepted [the task] reluctantly'' (197). His mode of reasoning seems to be that inaction has no consequences whereas action does. Like Hamlet or the Underground Man, he has a paralysis when it comes to activity. In those rare instances when he does act, he does so badly, firing his lawyer and sleeping with many women. The priest criticizes that he ``cast[s] about too much for outside help'' (211), implying that he should spend more time looking to himself for help and doing something on his own.

He feels that his situation is hopeless, that ``nothing could save him except work well done'' (198), which for him means work at the Bank. K. has no grounds for understanding what will ``save'' him, and yet here he boldly asserts that he needs to do his work well. When he doesn't understand the charges and doesn't want to think about himself he throws himself into his work. He has a high sense of duty which can be compared to the duty of the doorkeeper in the priest's parable. Never does it occur to him that part of his duty involves knowing what the charges brought against him are. He has no way of knowing what he is being charged with, and yet he boldly asserts that he is not guilty. He never examines himself. Socrates believed that ``the unexamined life is not worth living.'' Kafka's statement seems to be that the unexamined life is not living. K. does not live; he does not act in any way or take control of his life.

One reason that Joseph K. seems unwilling to act may be that he doesn't concern himself with what he thinks but with what others will think of them. As the novel progresses he becomes increasingly paranoid about everything, particularly his business in the Bank. He thinks everyone is out to make him look bad and get him fired. He is afraid to refuse any tasks that are assigned to him at the Bank because he doesn't want to look bad. He is unwilling to admit that he is fearful. He doesn't know what is going to happen to him with his job or his real trial, yet he doesn't want others to know that he is uncertain.

Joseph K. is lacking a fundamental basis for understanding. Without understanding himself, he is unable to understand others or communicate with them. A deconstructionist reading of The Trial stresses the language aspect of the text. K. never knows what is going on. He wakes up on his thirtieth birthday to find that he is under arrest, and from then on everything is a blur of confusion. Oddly enough, though, there is only one time when his lack of communication seems to worry him. ``K. was greatly disconcerted to find that he only partly understood what the Italian was saying'' (200). Here K.'s inability to communicate threatens to interfere with his job. Similarly, the only time when K. acknowledges the need to have freedom is when he feels trapped in his chair in the office. K.'s life is not centered on himself, but rather his job. When he needs to do something for his job, something theta he feels is his duty, he does so immediately. In the situation of the Italian visitor he goes to great pains to review enough Italian to understand his guest. Perhaps if he had made as diligent of an effort to understand the Law as he did Italian, he would be able to save himself on trial.

K. does not realize that he is the one who can exercise the greatest freedom in his life, perhaps because he feels so trapped by these confusing events that have occurred. The Italian defers to him for final judgment in his travel plans, saying that ``he would much rather -- of course only if K. agreed, the decision lay with K. alone -- confine himself to inspecting the Cathedral, but to inspect that thoroughly'' (201). There are two key phrases in this statement. First, that the decision lies at the discretion of Joseph K. He does not realize that he can make decisions, that he must make decisions. K.'s problem is that he has yielded his right to free will. Instead, he has merely become a toy for the others. As Leni says, they are goading him; they are the ones performing the action while K. is the passive object of the action. The second important part of the Italian's statement is that he understands the importance of exploring something thoroughly and satisfactorily. He knows that it is better to explore one thing completely than many things superficially. Joseph K., on the other hand, never attempts to explore anything carefully or analyze anything, especially himself.

It is in the cathedral that the reader first sees K. make an attempt to explore something and is disappointed when he cannot see. Just as he is incapable of understanding his life or anything that the Italian says, he is also unable to see the details of the altarpieces in the cathedral. The candle in the cathedral ``actually increase[s] the darkness'' (204). Joseph K. is not ready to see things, and the light merely makes it harder for him to see because it presents such a shadowy contrast. Finally K. goes up to the altarpieces with a light and carefully examines them.

Kafka describes an altarpiece with a knight. ``He [the knight in the picture yet also K.] seemed to be watching attentively some event unfolding itself before his eyes'' (205). It is significant that K. is twice removed from action. He is only looking at a picture in which a knight is looking at something. K., like the knight, is watching an event, not playing any active role in the outcome. Joseph K. has made the first step of examination, but he still is not able to see himself nor act.

A verger motions him repeatedly, but K. is not able to understand him. ``His gestures seemed to have little meaning'' (206). For the third time in this chapter, K. is unable to find meaning. He can't find any meaning in his life, except to work in the Bank. He can't understand his trial or the nature of the Court that he is serving, other people, he can't see the cathedral in its entirety, and he can't understand the gestures of another person who is trying to guide him. Finally, he follows the gestures and is led to a small chapel where a priest appears to be preparing to give a sermon.

Instead of being preached at, however, K. actually interacts with the priest. He asks a question that show his mode of thought: ``how can any man be called guilty? We are all simply men here, one as much as the other'' (210). He states that all men are the same, that they are ``simply'' men. In this statement he seems to be declaring that he has no belief in free will, that no man is different from any other, and in short that existence is meaningless. He is unwilling to assume any responsibility for anything because he doesn't see that he is able to control of affect anything. And perhaps he is unable to, after all, since it seems that there is nothing he can do about the course and outcome of his trial, his life.

The priest tells an eloquent and confusing parable in which a countryman who tries to enter the Law is unaware of the power relations between himself and the Law's doorkeeper. The doorkeeper is ``inferior to the man and does not know it. . . . Now the man from the country is really free, he can go where he likes, it is only the Law that is closed to him'' (218). The countryman, who is most like Joseph K., is superior because he has freedom. Man possesses free will, yet only to the extent that he exercises it. By not acting, K. will always be inferior to the members of the Court.

The Court is an entirely passive body. It seems as if the Court has no say in the outcome of trials; everything lies up to the accused man. The final line of the chapter is perhaps one of the most important lines in the novel. The priest tells K: ``The Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go'' (222). The Court doesn't want anything; it remains unchanged regardless of what is done. The Court and the doorkeeper in the parable do only what they are obliged to do. On his thirtieth birthday, K. is perhaps questioning his life, having something of a mid-life crisis. He demands the Court; he demands a trial; he demands some method of examination and reflection which he is incapable of performing on himself precisely because it never occurs to him that this is what he must do. When he seeks help from the lawyer or the priest, it is immediately granted, but he must make that effort. When he is ready to leave the chapel, the priest dismisses him, and when he is ready to stop living (or non-living rather) near his thirty-first birthday, the Court dismisses him entirely. His life is over without it ever really having begun.