Bank cashier Josef F is minding his own business when he’s rudely apprehended by the police – on his birthday, no less – and informed that he is being prosecuted. Naturally, being a sensible fellow who is quite innocent of any crime, he is quite bemused by what must surely be a mistake. Still, he lives in a well ordered and stable society, so he has trust in the system to throw out the case as soon as he shows up for his first day in court.
Josef K is, of course, being a little naive. If he doesn’t know what he’s charged with, then he can’t convincingly claim to have not done it before he actually finds out, the judge reminds him – if he admits he doesn’t understand the law then he can’t claim to be entirely innocent. That’s the only thing Josef K will admit, but what he initially views as a farcical trial soon turns into a battle against a bureaucratic machine he always had faith in on the outside, so he faces an uphill struggle convincing everyone else still out there of the truth.
Franz Kafka is asking us to think whether we’ve ever watched someone be arrested and convinced ourselves that there had to be a good reason, and if there wasn’t, then the system – being about justice – would right things in the end. He’s also suggesting our answers to that question would probably be as naive as Josef K’s.
The purpose of justice in his world is about victory. It is about giving order to society for the sake of order itself. Without order society has no meaning, and entropy sets in, the drift to chaos. Much more comforting to imagine those people being herded on to trucks in Kafka’s neighbourhood a few years after The Trial was posthumously published had done something to deserve it, and that society was going to bring back order by sorting them out.
Kafka certainly foresaw a lot when he has Josef K learn that society embraces pleasing lies over uncomfortable or awkward truths. That system is never going to let him go, even if nobody knows what he’s guilty of. People don’t have to accept that something is true, just that it is necessary.