“The Legend of the Doorkeeper and Its Significance for Kafka’s Trial,” by Ingeborg Henel: Questions

Last week’s discussion of The Trial primarily revolved around the concepts of ambiguity and diversion and how this connects to an understanding of Josef K.’s paranoiac behaviors. Still keeping these conversations in mind, this week Emily and I wanted to shift the focus a bit and examine the nature of law, power, and guilt in the novel.

The reading I’ve asked you to take a look at covers a lot of ground: Henel discusses the nature of a parable and illuminates the similarities between “The Legend of the Doorkeeper” and Josef K.’s situation, examines the function of “the officials” in the novel, and looks the idea of the “law of the individual,” among other things.

While these concepts are all intertwined, I was especially interested in Henel’s discussion of guilt, responsibility, and “self-justification” in The Trial. Take a look, in particular, at the concept of “motivation” Henel includes from pages 46-48 (explicitly explained on those pages, but it is helpful to read beyond that section to gain a full appreciation for what Henel is getting at).

What do you think Josef K. is guilty of, if anything? What is your understanding of guilt in the novel? What do you make of Josef K.’s statement on page 213 of The Trial (“How can any person in general be guilty?”) as well as the priest’s response? Is this simply a display of Josef K.’s inability to confess his guilt, or is there something more here? After reading the novel as well as Henel’s interpretation, how would you answer the string of questions Henel poses at the beginning of the essay: What kind of reality does Kafka portray in his works?

Lastly, if there was anything else in Henel’s reading that you were particularly drawn to, feel free to address that.

4 Replies to ““The Legend of the Doorkeeper and Its Significance for Kafka’s Trial,” by Ingeborg Henel: Questions”

  1. I think some of the more important evidence that should be remembered is the history of Kafka. By knowing his own personal experiences it helps me better understand why he wrote the law in such a way in his novel. The law comes across as a disorganized mess that when any traction is gained in understanding it, the law multiplies itself with an unending list of officials and procedures that any sane person would lose their mind trying to traverse. Especially someone on trial. K. finds it impossible to even begin to defend himself because of all the proper procedures that need to be followed to even gain access to the court. This access though is arbitrary and fictional. Now by learning that Kafka had similar experiences in his real personal life, its easier to see how he came up with such a concept. Henel writes that Kafka had some terrible employment experiences. “If Kafka was looking for a respite from hard work, his choice of employer was misplaced. The Assicurazioni was one of the ‘most strenuous of commercial offices.’73 The position was demanding, and the employees were watched closely by a harshly authoritarian employer.74 No personal affects could be kept on the desk or in the files, vacations had to be specifically requested, and such time could not exceed two weeks every two years; on top of this requirement, the management itself would decide the exact timing of the vacations based on the work that was required to be done by the company.” This work environment is oppressive. It’s no wonder he wrote the officials in his novel to have all of the power. Kafka must’ve felt as helpless as K.

  2. I’d like to talk a bit about one of the first questions that Henel poses in the introduction of his essay: What kind of reality does Kafka portray in his works? In The Trial I would argue the answer answer skews more toward the subjective—though I think it’d be wrong to say the narrative contains no objective gaze or commentary. At the start of our discussion last week we made some mention of this in analyzing the opening comment that “Someone must have slandered Josef K.” The sense of accusation away from K. can be read as an immediate inflection of his own voice within what might normally be considered a third person limited narrator. Various other events—the flogger in the closet, the unbearably cramped attic Court offices, and K.’s silent killers—are at best distorted with first-person perspective, and at worst hallucinations of a frayed consciousness. Recognizing this requires a kind of interpretive pivot of the reader; namely, the presentation of anything, especially information or persons related to K.’s guilt or innocence, must be taken as more of a reflection on K. than anything else.

    The resulting analysis, on Henel’s part, sees the world of The Trial as a kind of mirror used to decipher the true nature of K.’s guilt and freedom. Using the parable given by the priest as a parallel of K.’s situation, Henel argues that K.—like the man from the country—is imprisoned by his own freedom, and made guilty by his insistence of innocence (I know: I can’t believe I just wrote that either, but I do think it’s a pithy expression of what’s going on here). It is an objective fact that the man from the country can enter the law, but overpowering this is the fact of his nature which dictates a total inability to self-actualize, and therefore makes it a subjective “fact” that he cannot enter. In K.’s world, one that’s already been argued for as mostly subjective, the very fact that he is free means that the Court cannot actually dictate his actions; so, he remains imprisoned by his own refusal to act as his own agent. Of course, this attitude also leads to his diffusing responsibility for his lack of freedom to other agents: i.e., the Court. In the case of guilt or innocence the same kind of paradoxical logic applies. It is only K.’s insistence on his innocence that leaves him with the painter’s three options that will merely result in an interminable Trial (one of which isn’t even an option) and an ever-looming guilt. An acceptance of guilt would lead to consequence, but also an end to the Trial. The trouble here, of course, is that if K. is really innocent it’s a gross injustice to accept guilt—but justice is not the same thing as the law…

  3. Upon first reaching the conclusion of this novel, I initially would not have guessed that there is even the chance of K. being guilty of a crime. After all, I don’t remember reading any specific scenes that definitively prove his guilt. To me, at least, he did not come across as somebody who would break any sort of law. However, after looking at what Henel had to offer, I believe an argument can definitely be made for this case.

    I think the possibility of a confession of guilt is very interesting. Like with previous texts we’ve examined, we might question the credibility of the narrator. From what I understand, we are never given a reason not to trust K. as a narrator; however, that does not mean such a situation is impossible. If he is indeed guilty of something, he never reveals it to the audience by word. Therefore, we are left to interpret the situations that he is placed in (his experiences at work at the bank, his visit to the cathedral, ect.). Henel’s view on the subject can relate to this because it reveals the hopelessness of fighting for K.’s freedom. The priest tells K. of the impossibility of escaping the court, as nobody had ever successfully been acquitted before. The priest’s story reveals K.’s naivety: “In the parable the first error is symbolized in the pleading and attempts at bribery of the man from the country; the second, more dangerous, error in the fact that the man does not accept responsibility for his actions” (Hesel 43). This implies that no matter what the defendant has or hasn’t done, they are wrong to question their guilt and to shift the blame to higher authorities.

    As we discussed in class, the “court” of Kafka’s world is seen as an overarching force that either blatantly or covertly commands all corners of society—politics, law enforcement, art, religion, and more. K.’s conversations with various characters has proven that escape is not possible, and that to challenge the authority of the court is frivolous. When speaking to the priest, K. points out that “We’re all human after all, each and every one of us,” and the priest responds by saying “but that’s how guilty people always talk” (Kafka 213). I imagine if this is the case, then anybody in this world could be suspect to the same trials that K. endures; his story is not unique. If the court deems somebody guilty, then that is what they are.

  4. I found Henel’s observation that the man from the country and Josef K. dedicating their lives to the mystery of the Law and how it involves them, and how they are trying to fight and abide by it at the same time, takes away what freedoms that they do have. I would say that I believe that Josef K. is probably innocent of any crime, even if the Priest keeps bringing up facts of his actions and protestations being what guilty people would do and say. I just can’t definitively mark him as guilty, without knowing the nature of the crime that he was accused of, even if he does some questionable things throughout the novel (such as when he was covering for the noise of the flogger in the closet). He does, however, let the supposed crime and his trial take over his life. As Henel pointed out, he has the freedom to traverse his world as he pleases, when he was arrested he wasn’t stripped of his rights or made to stay in a prison, he was free to go about his life normally. Although I do believe that K. is innocent, the accusations, the “slander” has become so ingrained within himself, that he feels the need to defend the guilt of this crime that he may not have committed. I believe that guilt in both this novel and our lives works in this weird way in which we can feel guilty of anything, even things that we have not done. My interpretation of it is that maybe the crime he is accused of has to do with his inaction. Josef K. may not have performed the act of the crime, but he could have been witness to it in some way, and not done anything to prevent and report it, which could be why he feels all of this guilty, and the need to proclaim his innocence to anybody willing to listen. This could be the guilt the Josef K. is unable to confess to.

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