Kafka’s World Without Grace

Review of The Trial, by Franz Kafka


A hundred years ago, a German-speaking Czech insurance salesman—and a secular Jew—wrote three incomplete novels and a handful of short stories and died young. His reputation soared among literati, who speak of this man—Franz Kafka—in the hushed, awed tones reserved for the great and the gods. His name has become an adjective: to be in a Kafkaesque world is to be trapped in the clutches of an irrational, faceless authority, ensnared in the Byzantine absurdity of its machinations. I picked up The Trial to see what the fuss was about.

The Trial follows Joseph K., who is arrested for an unknown crime, never told the charges, never put on trial, and who never meets his accusers, judges, or jury. He talks with nameless officials whose stuffy offices are located in attics everywhere (which reminded me of the hallways in The Matrix (1999) that allow Agents to pop up anywhere, anytime). K.’s life is gradually taken over by his futile quest to maneuver through the opaque system in which he is trapped. He tries a variety of strategies: ignoring the trial, hiring a lawyer, mounting his own defense. Nothing works. He is inexorably pulled down to destruction.

On the surface, the novel is pretty dull. But it is easy to read the faceless, uncaring authorities in The Trial as a metaphor: for social convention, civilization, the state, the Enlightenment, or, naturally, God. The Trial becomes a sort of spiritual fable about man’s hopeless attempt to find meaning or escape mortality. Read this way, the novel is a theological thriller.

Kafka molds the physical environment to mirror K.’s inner crisis: physical illness, slime on the streets, a wailing infant, narrow staircases, humid attics. The generalized feeling of dread and illness that arises from being surrounded and saturated by such a world is far more effective than if Kafka had just written, “K. felt despair.”

K.’s despair is not that the architect of the system does not exist, but, worse, that he does not care, that he is impossible to approach, and that he exhibits a mixture of malice and incompetence. K. is arrested by a couple of thugs who try to steal his underwear and can’t tell him what he is being arrested for. K. is told to report for interrogation on a certain day, but not told what time or even given clear directions. He is told confidently that his guilt or innocence has absolutely no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the trial.

In one of the funniest scenes, K. wanders from door to door searching for the court. He’s too ashamed to ask about the court directly, so he just asks if a friend (entirely fictional) lives there. He stumbles on the court by sheer random luck—when he asks for his invented friend, the secretary says, “Yes. Please come in. We’re expecting you.”

Late in the novel, K. decides to fire his lawyer because he has come to believe that “The lawyer’s methods … amounted to this: that the client finally forgot the whole world and lived only in the hope of toiling along this false path until the end of his case should come in sight. The client ceased to be a client and became the lawyer’s dog.” (193) That’s as good a summary of nihilistic despair as you can ask for in fiction: it is not just that there is no meaning, but that whoever or whatever is out there is actually out to get you. God probably doesn’t exist, but if he does, so much the worse: he probably doesn’t like you. Substitute “priest” for “lawyer” and you have a typical denunciation of organized religion.

Kafka’s is a world without grace. Man is damned by an unnamed, inescapable guilt. He is accountable to an implacable, uncaring God. The universe is a hostile place against which we have no protection. We are naked before the Almighty. The Trial is a close cousin to Moby Dick: Ahab is as good a spokesman for Kafka’s despair as any, and his hopeless hunt for the white whale is similar to Joseph K’s search for a resolution to his trial. Both lead to self-destruction.

What is heart-breaking about Kafka (and Melville, and Nietzsche, and others), is that their view of life is pretty much the only sensible one to have if you’re not a Christian. Solomon agrees that, if this life is all there is, “All is vanity.” Dostoevsky famously said that “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” Nothing matters, nothing is right or wrong, life is short, and we die.

How should a Christian respond to The Trial or, more importantly, to a friend or family member struggling with this kind of despair? The answer is not, I think, a pat reminder of Sunday school truths, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of pain, trial, suffering, and despair even in the Christian life. What K. needs, and Kafka needed, is not only tract or a sermon (though those may be necessary), but love and a story: your story, the story of how God has used suffering in your life for good. It is only when we make sense of suffering by seeing it through God’s eyes that we start to have confidence that the Author of our stories is not some distant, malicious, incompetent bureaucrat, but a loving and tender father. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Christians aren’t people who have no grief; they’re people who use grief to reach for life—not, like K., to succumb to death.

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