As Celine mentioned in her post, we left our conversation last Monday thinking about the nature of law and power in Kafka’s The Trial. While there are many layers to this reading, Glen is aiming to discern the nature of law as it appears in The Trial. His ultimate conclusion is that the “appearance of law in Kafka’s work is a function of the necessity of punishment” (26).

As he unpacks the essence of law in The Trial,  Glen finds that the contents of the law are an “empty norm,” meaning that the law is essentially essence-less. (41). As Glen notes, the law only exists as a relation, “it cannot be defined…It is known only as a verbal construct and is designated to come and go, in relation with a concrete object” (generally people) (41).

Once the law has been reified (making something that is not “real” become more “real”), it has the power to permeate all bodies of authority. We see this in the warders who arrest K. in how they “represent a formalism born of the reification of the legal system.” They don’t question the legitimacy of their orders to watch over K., “but go about their task blindly, keeping him under their eyes for the required ten hours daily and then drawing their pay for the job” (59).

Glen argues that K.’s unwillingness to enter this system of law where he would essentially play the part of the accused is what ultimately leads to his death. His reluctance to submit to the machine is what purges his from the system entirely.

When thinking about the essence of the law in The Trial, can you think of any other particular examples where characters reify the law through their actions? Thinking outside of the text, how do we reify our laws? What are laws even meant to do? What do you think is the difference between laws and justice?

As always, if you see something else in the text that strikes your fancy, bring it up in the comments!


  1. When considering moments of reification of the law through characters’ actions, K.’s conversation with the painter (a self-proclaimed confidant of the court) stands out to me as significant. K. approaches the painter after being sent to him for advice on how to gain access to influential members of the court. The painter explains to K. that there are “three possibilities: actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction” (152). However, despite K.’s declared innocence, the painter assures him that the possibility of actual acquittal is, in fact, essentially impossible. Rather, he accepts that K. is left with two remaining options: either petition the judges for an apparent acquittal only to be arrested again (and again… and again…) in a cyclical manner for the remainder of his life, or prevent a conviction by slowing the trial down so it will last the rest of his life. Neither K. nor the reader is ever granted an explanation of the lack of justice in this society, but it is accepted as out-of-the-question that K.’s innocence should render him an actual acquittal. No one but K. seems to critique the reasons for or implications of such a state. Therefore, the law is reified over and over again throughout the novel when characters of relative influence and/or insider knowledge of the court system accept the law as the ultimate authority. The painter forces K. to begin to come to terms with the futility of resisting the law, protecting the impenetrable nature of the law yet again.

    Beyond the text, I would say that laws are reified in our society in two ways: when they are obeyed, and when a failure to obey them elicits a consequence or punishment. Every time that a citizen modifies his or her intended actions in order to fit into the confines of what the law deems acceptable, the law is validated. Likewise, every time a citizen fails to modify his or her actions in order to fit into the law and is in turn punished for it, the law is validated. Society as a whole reifies laws when it allows them to shape the structure of normalcy in the social order.

  2. I agree with your point on conformity, Elise. We see K. both accepting but also questioning the law thanks to the circumstances that he finds himself in. He is willing to accept his situation with the belief that there has been a simple misunderstanding and that the situation will resolve itself, that the law will go through the traditional channels and processes that will confirm his stance. The rest of society rejects this belief, both officers of the law and people more distanced from the police and judicial system. The priest gives K. advice and insight into the law but then reaffirms that he is the prison chaplain and is still a servant of the law, both as a job and also as a citizen. The law here, like our own world, is inescapable, only in Kafka’s narrative, it is unquestionable and elusive as K. struggles to understand it.

  3. Where is the justice in sending an innocent man to prison?

    In our society, laws are meant to uphold order and provide a series of codes for a group of people to live by. They are supposed to be enforceable, and ideally, they should be just- but laws are not always just. There is a difference between rules and fair rules, and when a law hurts an innocent person, that’s an example of an unfair rule.

    I think, The Trial shows a society where the law is out-of-touch with justice, and the people in it are out-of-touch with the law. Less concerned with the possibility of K.’s innocence, the other members of society are more concerned with following orders and upholding the law. We see this from the opening, when K.’s guards trust in the system to such an extent that they don’t even ask K. for his paperwork. Throughout the book, there is a belief that K. cannot be innocent- that the law cannot be wrong. Furthermore, the law seems to be this all-powerful, and totally unimportant thing. (ie: the court is located in a room in an apartment building, so it doesn’t occupy an important space in the society, but everyone follows the law anyway). No one in the society needs a reason for anything- they all just trust in the system. I think this can be seen when the two guards from the beginning are being beaten in a closet K. opens, or when the court usher’s wife might be sleeping with the judge. In this society, people just let the law happen to him, without wondering if the law is just.

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