[…] exemplified by The Trial and “schmoop”
Part the First:
We always bring certain “expectations” to a work we read, certain prejudices (‘pre-judgments’), biases, etc., and even if we are aware of some of them—e.g. race/ethnicity/nationality, class, gender/sex, religion …—we cannot know we have uncovered them all, that we have eliminated everything standing between “us” and the “work.” Privilege is, by definition, invisible to those who have it. And even if “we” as readers are distinguished by class, gender, and race (among others), we are all “readers of the early 21st-century.” No matter what our differences, we are still more like each other, perhaps, than we are like readers from fifty years ago, eighty years ago.
On the other hand, why should we even assume that these biases are “infiltrating” the space between us and text, that they are unwanted mediation, that they “corrupt” our readings? Does this not presuppose a definition of what it means to be a reader (or a subject) as an “essence”; does this not presuppose a sharp divide between subject and object? Is it perhaps not instead the case that we are our prejudices and biases, our privileges and check-boxes of attributes. That is: I am not an “I” in a “context”—I am my context, my experiences.
Part the Second:
Some expectations may be better or worse than others, not or not merely in terms of “correctness,” but in terms of how warranted they are, how much they display a proper evaluation of the work in its context and of us in ours. Expectations and assumptions, it is frequently said, often say more about the viewer-reader than they do about the object under consideration.
Certain assumptions and expectations are common to readings of Kafka’s works, The Trial not accepted. Several are revealed in the “study guides” provided at “schmoop“.
When discussing the setting we have, “An unspecified modern city […] Kafka’s The Trial is not situated in a specific city or a specific historical moment […],” which is descriptively accurate enough, but what soon follows is: “With each new setting, the novel defies conventional expectations as to what the function and significance of the setting is. The courts, for example, are usually associated with government authority and power, but in the novel, they are located in a rundown neighborhood […]” If, as in the case of The Trial, little occurs in the places we “expect,” then instead of judging the story/setting against these expectations (as “misplaced” or “displaced”) we could/should instead treat this as a kind of world-building, not a comparison with “traditional” cities but, rather, a positive description of K.’s / Kafka’s city.
Under “The Court as Religious Allegory: Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory” schmoop writes, “Kafka’s The Trial has often been read as a religious allegory, even though the novel itself seems to eschew specific religious references.” If the novel eschews specific religious references, then why should we treat it as (a) religious or (b) an allegory? Just because there is a cathedral and a priest? schmoop then jumps to an allegorical-analogical interpretation of the story: “Like God, the higher officials of the court are inaccessible to ordinary mortals; although no one can confirm whether they exist or not, they have extraordinary powers over individual destinies. Like the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the court has its own sacred texts – court documents and ancient legends about past cases.” While this is descriptively true, it does not in any particular or specific way tie into The Trial. What are the sacred texts of the court presented in the text? Does the court behave enough like a religious authority to warrant the comparison in this instance? If not, is this allegorical reading anything more than a non sequitur?
And under “The Trial Narrator” the site reads: “In Kafka’s novel, we’ve got an omniscient narrator who seems to spend most of his time perched in Josef K.’s head.” Why do they claim the narrator is omniscient? Merely because it is third-person? Limited by narrow narratological terminology, this claim about the narrator says nothing about the novel’s narration. Further sentences provide more but do not back up the starting claim—e.g. “The narrative is so loyal to K.’s point of view that it doesn’t smooth over all of his confusions and distractions”—, as an “omniscient” narrator knows or can know all, but this one seems rarely to venture beyond its narrative subject. Does the narrator “know” things that K. does not know? Does the narrator have answers to K.’s questions? Would we not be better off describing the narrative perspective—external to the subject but tied to it, with at least some access to the subject’s thoughts, uninterested in the particulars of the narrated world—than slapping the term “omniscient” onto it and then noticing how this omniscient narrator does not fulfill the expectations of such a beast?
On another page—”Modernism, Dystopian Literature“—the site states: “Kafka is often considered one of the great Modernist writers, and The Trial falls squarely within typical Modernist concerns such as the shattering of consciousness, the decay of modern society, and complex narrative structures.” Yet K.’s consciousness is hardly ‘shattered’—clearly not in the way of, say, Fräulein Else, Gustav Aschenbach, or Harry Haller—, concrete concerns of modern society seem to be barely addressed, let alone in a way that indicates or describes “decay,” and a narrative consisting of discrete chapters, a single narrative voice/perspective, and no experimentation with the order or experience of time can hardly be labeled “complex.” These top-down expectations of a term—’Modernist’—pass the given work by.
The same page states, “The Trial is also one of the great works of twentieth century dystopian literature with its portrayal of a totalitarian society where an authority, in this case the court system, has unlimited power to persecute, detain, and ultimately to execute individuals.” What is this unlimited power, what is this totalitarian society? We do not have thought police or book burners, factories and pharmaceuticals, “Hunger Games” or “Battles Royale” that explicitly, overtly, and concretely control individuals, citizen or otherwise. Why is this “power” seemingly embodied in but a handful of individuals, who do not in fact execute K. with impunity in public by the light of day for all to see? Would that not better exemplify “unlimited power”?
Part the Third:
This is not to say that all these superficial readings of The Trial are wrong; some may, in fact, be correct (or at least “more correct” than others or more right than wrong), but I remain completely unconvinced by a ‘study guide’ that doesn’t address particulars of plot, story, or character. Or one that is demonstrably incompetent when it comes to terminology.
In discussion I would, indeed, like to address:
- the religious elements of the text / story
- the setting (what constitutes it, how it affects our reading)
- the narrative voice
- modernist concerns about the individual (shattering of consciousness, alienation) and society (power, decay, totalitarianism), etc.
- our own experience as readers with the text