Consciousness, Rationalism, and Frustration in The Castle and The Trial

The true appeal of tragedy is voyeurism. According to tradition, the audience looks to the tragic hero in hope of gleaning some enlightened course of action, learning from his mistakes. Cathartic by the end, the audience leaves relieved that they have been left untouched by so terrible a fate, exiting the theatre with little more than when they arrived. Yet a new breed of tragedy has evolved, still draining pity and fear from the audience, but leaving them to resolve the problems of the hero well after the play has ended, ambiguous and perplexing. Such is the nature of the Kafkaesque hero – his repeated failures intensify our own, unsettling our certainties, compelling us to consciousness, a state of pseudo-transcendence.

In The Castle and The Trial, two especially parallel works, this forced awareness in both heroes is evident. However, this notable connection only serves to heighten the divergence of their quests. The heroes of the two books, Josef K. and K., are character foils, complementing ignorance with wisdom, passivity with action, and submission with unrelenting defiance. While these men share a similar path, observing the same duties, possessing the same tragic flaw, their actual means of achieving consciousness differ immensely, leading them to vastly different states of awareness.

Parallels between the two heroes are undeniable. Both Josef K. and K. embark on quests for the ultimate truth: Kafka’s “meaning of things.” They face innumerable perils and endure many trials and tribulations, appearing to make negligible progress. Both reflect the curse of their author: strong spiritual yearnings in fierce opposition to a sharp, fatally rational and logical mentality. Both are inherently attractive, perhaps because of their direction and drive and sense of a higher existence. Yet, the similarities proceed to exaggerate the differences.

Josef K. is perpetually a victim. For the majority of his life, he has been metaphorically asleep, content in the soothing monotony of his industrial, rational world. Devoid of all things spiritual, he is bereft of “godlike reason,” and thus less than human in his ignorance. His personality, while perhaps outgoing and motivated on the surface, is ultimately unflinchingly passive. He is sought out by his fate, by a higher calling of a mystical nature, rather than vice versa. “Without having done anything wrong he was arrested,” but if, as often is the case the Kafka, his guilt lies in dereliction of a spiritual duty, unconsciousness, he is indeed worthy of this charge (3).

Still unaware of the quest, Josef is at this point entirely incapable of understanding the reason for his guilt: “he realize(s) that (the courts) (a)re speaking to him, but he c(a)n’t understand them;” a complete communication gap severs him from the ideal, the gap between the human and the bestial (78). As the incidents that prolong his awakening persist, this divided causes him great suffering. His communication with the outside world becomes entirely indistinct, his reality revealed for what it is, becoming as blurred and bewildering as it is to young Karl Rossman. The physical becomes drained of its allure, and Josef becomes disgusted by the “bitter,” “aimless,” sexual relationships he used to enjoy, just as Gregor Samsa is repulsed by his once favorite foods (108-9). Thus, Josef’s quest has made him an outcast in this world, and as he becomes “ashamed” of his spiritual failings, he forfeits his previous absorption in the mundane world for an awareness of his guilt (78).

This painstaking process persists for the majority of the book, and the audience observes the slow metamorphosis of the passive, drowsy hero into a man plagued by his guilt and his inability to exist in the suffocating atmosphere that he has newly become aware of. It is thus no longer the bizarre “Court” that reminds him of his plight. Rather, Josef realizes that “the Court wants nothing from (him). It receives (him) when (he) come(s) and it dismisses (him) when (he) go(es),” and chooses to perpetuate its existence with his own discontent and desire (192). As his madness becomes self-induced, Josef K. finally begins to take charge of his life in a meaningful way, steering his path towards the now illuminated truth. He thus becomes irresistible, as the one man among millions possessing such an awareness, where the “accused men are always the most attractive” (112).

And yet, a final, fatal, frustration cannot be evaded: until curse of rationalism has left him, he cannot in all truth atone for his guilt, he cannot accept mysticism, and thus the court, God, or the higher authority that holds him guilty is not ready to accept him; the prodigal son has not truly accepted his guilt, and has therefore not become truly human. After his ultimate realization that the court “cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living,” Josef K., now empowered by his consciousness of every aspect of his position, must take an alternate route, escaping the madness of the entrancing world by submitting to the court, willing his own demise (189). While Josef K. escapes “bestial oblivion,” he is not capable of real enlightenment, a thus dies a failure, “ ‘like a dog!’ ” and yet “his shame (is) to outlive him,” indicating his awkward halfway position, neither here nor there (231). Thus, Josef K. has his mission forced upon him, where his was peacefully existing in a sub-human state of delusion, and through much trouble, he becomes awake, realizing the futility of the world but failing to attain the object of his quest.

In a contrary position, K. is painfully aware of his circumstances, as focused and directed as the author himself. K. never suffers a transition as Josef K. does for the majority of The Trial. Instead, he arrives at the village in search of the mysterious castle. He has most likely not been summoned by the castle, although he claims the opposite it true. Therefore, he plays an entirely active role in his journey, possessing a defining human ability of initiation. Indeed, K. begins the novel awake, although with the “weary eyes” of a devoted disciple, tired by his preliminary journey and soon to fall into an uncomfortable sleep (3). With the nature of an ascetic, he fasts, with no “need of food” or physical sustenance; his exhaustion is thus from transcending to the spiritual (23).

Quite the reverse of Josef K., K. wastes no time; he has the well-defined goal of entering “the castle” and accomplishing his task, the realization of the spiritual, the acceptance Josef K. was denied. He soon understands that his initial plan of action is not feasible, for all the paths to the castle are blocked. The villagers are utterly unaware, as he quickly understands, and thus very animal in their behavior, passive, inhuman slaves to the whims of the castle, whereas K. “likes to be (his) own master” (9).

His stance on the matter is also very aware; he speaks with great self-confidence and laughs with the audience at the ludicrous antics of the villagers, their false sense of security, and their illogical, dreamlike behavior. K., like Josef K., is thus similarly a wakened man lingering in a land of dreams, the essential difference between him and Josef being that K has been immersed in a lucid dream, and can manipulate every aspect of it to his own ends. Yet, his powers halt here, and his struggle must continue in a cycle of hopelessness because he is still not capable of defeating his own methodical, rational nature.

Nonetheless, K. is a much more honorable character than Josef K., worthy of entry to the castle, always above his society, not guilty of ignorance and yet not innocent, not unknowing of strife, driven by a fervent passion for truth, for God, perhaps. He has come to seek divine acceptance of his own volition, out of love and desire, unlike Josef, who was driven to the same point, but through fear and confusion. While the manuscript is unfinished, Kafka told his chief confidant, Max Brod, that K. was to be formally and finally acknowledged, embraced by the castle on his deathbed, pardoned. Redeemed by his devotion and piety, K. atoned for his guilt, evolving to a truly conscious, utterly human state, achieving transcendence with divine assistance.

Overall, it seems that the aptly titled Trial is about divine justice, punishment for one who ought to be awake, while The Castle concerns divine grace, redeeming the relentless quest of a weary hunter with a final sleep. Josef K. endures suffering without perspective, wandering futilely to his inevitable fate. While he achieves a consciousness, because his incapable of admitting his guilt, he is thwarted on his quest, ignorant of the language of the spiritual. Alternatively, K. maintains that external perspective, which allows him to manage obstacles painlessly, enjoying a superior existence and finally rewarded for maintaining humanity amidst chaos. Both realize their inability to reach the heavens because of their rationalism, but simultaneously understand the failings of their world, awoken from the animal state. Out of place, neither here nor there, Josef K. and K. are true immigrants, lingering between the physical and the spiritual, the only hope is divine pity for our tormented tragic heroes, and for ourselves. Just as the objective explorer leaves the Penal Colony unsettled, his prior notions fundamentally shaken, insecure and discontented, we leave Kafka with a taste of something greater, children, immigrants, lost sheep abruptly awoken from troubled dreams.