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Guy Yedwab

Free Will And Fate; The End Of The Trial

Even today, in the 21st Century, the debate continues to rage on as to whether human beings are

responsible for their actions. The question which predicates that debate is whether or not human beings

are free to exercise free will, or whether their actions are determined by a larger, more grandiose fate.

Franz Kafka, writing in the 19th Century, was also caught in such a struggle. In his younger days, he

was enraptured by Judaism, from his family's heritage.1 However, as he grew older, he began to

encounter Kierkegaard and other existentialists, who espoused more humanist beliefs.2 In his book The

Trial, which he never truly completed, many critics have disagreed whether the structure of the story

support a fate-driven fatalistic view where there is no opportunity to avoid calamity, or a classical

tragic structure where at each fork in the road, the main character's hubris drives him closer to tragedy. 3

Walter H. Sokel's two essays “The Program Of K.'s Court: Oedipal And Existential Meanings In The

Trial”4 and “The Three Endings Of K. And The Role Of Art” 5, and Richard Lawson's “The Trial”6 each

seek to examine, through different ways, how K. comes to his tragic end, slain as a dog.7 Sokel strikes

the problem overall first by examining the role of the Court, and how that defines K.'s role in “The

Program Of K.'s Court”8, and then by examining the possibilities of death which Kafka originally

compared for K. in “The Three Endings of K.”9 Lawson, in “The Trial,” does not specifically aim to

answer that question (or any question in particular, for that matter), but does bring up many points10

which, when united with Sokel's overall aim, provides significant evidence that K. was not fated to a

1 Franz Kafka. The Trial. (New York: Schocken Books, 1990).

2 Walter H. Sokel. “The Program Of K.'s Court: Oedipal And Existential Meanings of The Trial”. The Myth Of Power And
The Self: Essays On Franz Kafka. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Walter H. Sokel. “The Three Endings Of Josef K. And The Role Of Art In The Trial”. The Myth Of Power And The Self:
Essays On Franz Kafka. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press,2002).
6 Richard H. Lawson. “The Trial”. Franz Kafka. (New York: Ungar, 1987)
7 Kafka. The Trial.
8 Sokel. “The Program Of K.'s Court”.
9 Sokel. “The Three Endings Of Josef K.”
10 Lawson. “The Trial.”
terrible end, but rather drives himself to be slain as a dog because of the poor choices he makes, fueled

by hubris.

The core of Sokel's “The Program Of K.'s Court” is similar to that of Lawson's: that “The action

(ore more frequently inaction) chosen by K. in preference to alternatives is what matters.”11 Sokel

examines K.'s unspecified guilt and proposes that it is “his whole way of life at the time of his arrest.” 12

Sokel compares this to the Everyman story, wherein man is set in circumstances which challenge his

ability to make moral choices. In such a model, each person is an actor at the center of a stage, being

tested morally. In The Trial, the Court would mirror the role of God, constantly guiding K. through his

choices; and K., in his choices, he will either prove himself unfit to continue in society (as in the ending

of a tragedy) or he will discover what about his “whole way of life” is inherently guilty, and reaching

that catharsis will reform his life. Sokel's other major point is that The Trial represents a nexus in

Kafka's life, where he had begun to reject the Oedipal model of his life (that his own life was a tragedy

completely engineered by his domineering hateful father) and into an existential model of his life

(inspired by Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and the idea that a person creates himself through

personal choice whenever he makes a decision). Sokel's thesis, in the end, is that the Lower Courts,

with its bumbling workers and its predetermination of K.'s guilt, is rather like the Oedipal model of

Kafka's life, and that the Higher Court, seemingly out of reach, is the benevolent God observing K.'s

actions and ready to embrace him into the Law as soon as he realizes he can. Sokel's thesis continues

that K., in his arrogance and refusal to examine himself or his surroundings, denies moving to the

Higher Courts in the same way that the man in the parable denies entering the gates to the Law. By

choosing not to pursue the Higher Courts, and continuing to struggle with the Lower Courts, he traps

himself in an Oedipal situation where the power figure continues to antagonize him until at last, robbed

of any dignity, he is executed.13 This is supported by points which Lawson raises about how both the

11 Sokel. “The Program Of K.'s Court”. 234.

12 Ibid. 228
13 Ibid.
Inspector and the Examining Judge attempt to appeal to K. to search himself rather than searching the

superficial aspects of the Court which are presented to him. Whenever K. searches the Court, he is

overcome with a nauseous sea-sick feeling which overpowers him and forces him to be ejected as

quickly as possible.14 Sokel also makes a good point that the warders, before even mentioning K. his

arrest, allow him the opportunity to simply leave. The Priest, in his parable, also relates the same ability

to walk into the Law, where justice presumably is, if one only has the strength of will. The Priest adds

that this is simply an opinion on the text, of course, and K. decides to ignore that possibility of the man.

Instead, he blames the gatekeeper of having cheated the man—the same view he takes of the Lower

Court, which plays the role of the gatekeeper. Instead, K., like the country man, dies in sight of his


In “The Three Endings of K.” Sokel discusses at length K.'s seeming need for outward help. As

evidence, one of two unused 'endings' which Kafka intended as possible alternatives for the execution

at the end of The Trial. One, a chapter known as “The House,” which was simply discarded, involves

K. dreaming of searching for something. Titorelli, in the dream, leads K. to the office where the first

denunciation had been issued, and then turns him around to see a bright and glorious light. Sokel points

to K.'s use of Titorelli, the Priest, and Huld as examples of K.'s desire to find salvation in outward

sources. He references Titorelli's three possibilities for the end of the case. The first is real acquittal,

which presumably can only come from K. examining himself and coming to truly believe in his own

innocence—when K. first asks for Titorelli's help, Titorelli finds his help redundant with K.'s

professions of innocence. The second, a false acquittal, involves a continual state of leaving arrest and

returning to arrest.16 In terms of the Court as a theatrum mundi, a false acquittal may fit in with the

Roman Catholic belief in false repentances, which only last until the sinner transgresses again.17 The

third, is an indefinite prolonging of the trial, somewhat like the image of Limbo cast by Dante. The
14 Ibid.
15 Kafka. The Trial.
16 Sokel. “Three Endings Of Josef K.”
17 Sokel. “The Program Of K.'s Court.”
latter two, because they do not truly bring any sort of release from the process of the trial, rely heavily

on outside forces to succeed. Conversely, the true acquittal would require absolute independence. Sokel

in “Three Endings” notes that, in this, K. mirrors the country man in the parable told by the Priest.

Because the man in the parable waits indefinitely to be told he may enter into the Law by the

gatekeeper, he never enters. K., waiting for Titorelli or Huld to bring him into the law, does not truly

seek the true acquittal. Even after discarding Huld, he is unable to form a coherent defense for himself.

Consequently, the trial is not prolonged indefinitely, but rather his guilt finally overtakes him, and he is

slaughtered “like a dog” by the two executioners. The third ending which Sokel examines, is a dream

which K. has which later became the short story “A Dream.” There, K. is also led to a graveyard by two

executioners. However, this time, they merely stand him in front of a grave they have just dug. An artist

comes to carve a name into the headstone, but finds himself unable. K., out of pity for the artist, throws

himself into the grave. The artist is able to complete the grave, and K.'s last image is of his name in

glowing golden letters.18 This ending holds more accurately with the idea of K.'s end being self-

directed. Although the messengers of the Court lead him to the grave, they do not push him in. It is K.'s

own choice which leads him in. This is similar to K.'s insistence on going with the two executioners in

the final version of his death scene—a decision he makes after chasing the Fraulein Burstner look-alike

in the road. The major difference, however, is in final ending, K. is unable even to take his own life

with dignity. Because in the dream K. is complicit in his death, his name is imprinted in the headstone

with dignity and art. In the final version, even that last dignity is robbed of him. Both of these deaths

have the appearance of being fated, but in truth there is a crucial moment of decision which takes them

both to their death.

Lawson's assertion, which is one of the main points of his essay, that K.'s failure to understand

the Court is not what leads him to his execution; rather, it is K.'s failure to give himself an honest and

thorough examination. The Court, through the Inspector, the Examining Magistrate, and the Priest,

18 Sokel. “The Three Endings Of Josef K.”

offer three times to K. the opportunity to search himself and begin a process of self-examination that

might afford him an opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of the trial. Lawson points out, correctly,

that the Court is offering this advice genuinely. The Court is not, as may be inferred from the warders,

determined to force K. to be guilty. It is merely there to pass sentence on K.'s life as it stands. By

rejecting the authority of the Court, K. has rejected his own chances of reform.19 And in keeping with

this rejection, he laughs in the face of the judge and cries, “'You can have all your

interrogations.'”20 Before that, Lawson also draws attention to Frau Grubach's words to K. that she feels

as though his arrest is “something scholarly that I don't understand, but that I don't need to understand

either.”21 Lawson says,

“Were his mind and attitude of a less-rigid, less-self-justifying cast, K. would have

understood and adopted Frau Grubach's profoundly simple advice to quit trying

intellectually to understand the Law that ordered his arrest—and, inferentially, to begin

trying to understand himself, to get in touch with himself.”22

Clearly, Lawson understands that K.'s salvation lies not in an examination of the Court, but rather in an

examination of himself, which his hubris has locked him away from. A less rigid man, in the same

circumstances, might reach an alternative ending, but as Lawson continues, “The rest of the novel

depends on [K.'s] persistent his false tack.”23 Lawson's essay, however, makes many

side-bars and diversions which are not entirely related to this topic, as his essay does not truly reflect

any one single topic. He does, however, frame rather accurately the purpose of The Trial early on into

his essay. “The reader does well not to be as concerned as K. is about the nature of the Law that hounds

19 Lawson. “The Trial.”

20 Kafka. The Trial. 53.
21 Ibid. 23.
22 Lawson. “The Trial.” 21.
23 Ibid. 60.
him, but rather to focus on K. himself and his evidently flawed responses to the Law.” 24 In that

sentence, however, Lawson seems to avoid the question as to whether his responses are chosen or are

merely reactionary. However, if his choices are inevitable reactions to the Court, then the Court would

have to be the guiding hand of fate, pushing K. toward his grave. In that case, the more dynamic

character to watch would be the character of the court, and its choices. By drawing attention to K.'s

responses, Lawson seems to affirm that the reader is hoping that K. will choose his way out of a dire

sentence, despite the overwhelming obstacles in his way.25 If K. is given free choice, then it is the Court

which is fixed, and K. whose reactions revolve around it. Lawson, continues along those lines by citing

one of the warder's first loose descriptions of the Court's operation: “Our department... doesn't seek out

guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt...” 26 K.'s response is to

say, “'I don't know that law... it probably exists only in your heads.'” 27 The warders hold the view that

the actions of the Court are inevitable responses to guilt in the accused, and the actions of the accused

are immaterial. K.'s response clearly defines the opposite view: K. believes in a more conventional (and

more familiar to the reader) view of justice, wherein the Court must prove that K. is guilty and K. must

prove his innocence. Thus both the Court's actions and his own are able to move freely, without

interference. The warders continue to disagree with him: “The guard merely said dismissively: 'You'll

feel it eventually.'”28 Their actions continue to support Lawson's implied point that the actions of the

Court are not the point of focus of the book; consequently, the warders do not go at length to explain

themselves and their beliefs to the reader.29 It is K. who finds himself closely scrutinized by the reader.

K. is not an everyman. K. is a self-important braggart who uses women and behaves

irresponsibly. But K., like every person, appears that way through no specific description by Kafka, no

inherent quality, but rather through the reader's perception of his actions. These actions, like Oedipus or

24 Ibid. 56.
25 Ibid.
26 Kafka. The Trial. 9.
27 Ibid. 9.
28 Ibid. 9.
29 Lawson. “The Trial.”
Macbeth, lead him inexorably down into a death without hope. The Court, as an organ of the Law, does

not force him along—it has no need to. The reader waits from the beginning, hoping for a cathartic

moment to come before it is too late. The ending as it currently stands in The Trial is exceptionally

frustrating because there is no catharsis, even after his death has finally become inevitable. This differs

from “A Dream,” where K. reaches catharsis in the moment of death, or “A House,” where K. reaches

catharsis and escapes death entirely, returning to the beginning of the process and freeing himself. 30

Sokel especially grasps these points and helps elucidate them through his body of work, although “The

Three Endings Of Josef K.” provides much evidence and very little analysis, and paints a far more

simplified opinion on K.'s fate. Lawson, though on the threshhold, does not make any final leap or

decisions. The Trial thus stands as a lesson to the reader that if one does not stand empowered for

oneself, and responsible for one's own fate, then one's fate will be in extremely dire straits.

30 Sokel. “The Three Endings Of Josef K.”

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